The Significance of Recognizing the Armenian Genocide Now

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

By: Jeff Todashi

            April 24th is the recognized world anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.  The Armenian Genocide was the systematic mass murder and ethnic cleansing of around 1.5 million ethnic Armenians from Asia Minor and adjoining regions by the Ottoman Empire during World War I.  The Ottoman Empire became modern Turkey after the war.  Numerous U.S. presidential candidates have promised on the campaign trail to recognize the Armenian Genocide.  Once elected, our previous Presidents failed to follow through because of Turkey’s importance as a NATO ally and its geo-strategic location on the southern border of Russia and astride the Asia Minor crossroads.  We needed Turkey more than Turkey needed us.

It took President Joe Biden more than three months in office to call Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That alone was a sign of the fall in status of a country that was once one of America’s closest strategic allies.  Biden’s first call to Turkey informed Erdogan that the United States was recognizing the Genocide.   There is more at play than Biden simply being aware that for the first time in many years, that Erdogan needs the United States perhaps more than Washington needs him.  Erdogan is perceived to be out of options that would help accommodate the Biden administration. With his disapproval rate sinking at home, Erdogan is unlikely to agree to relax his autocratic control of Turkish society, lest the already vigilant opposition surges and votes him out. Biden is also hoping to correct some of Erdogan’s behavior, including his anti-democratic actions and close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  With Biden, there are always domestic politics in play.  Biden faces pressure from the politically engaged American Armenian community and others which he hopes to shore up as he continues to push jobs, climate, infrastructure, and care packages costing in the trillions. It will also be more difficult for Republicans, who are traditionally hawks, to criticize Biden for pulling out of Afghanistan or accusing him of being weak towards Russia, China, Iran, or Syria. There is a bigger prize beyond this recognition.

The crux of the recognition issue now isn’t that Biden is mad at Erdogan, but rather that almost the entire U.S. government is.  Many inside and outside the administration see Erdogan as an autocrat who poses a threat to U.S. interests regionally.  Where Turkey was once a beacon of democracy among Muslim-majority nations, Erdogan’s clampdown on fair elections, freedom of speech and judicial independence have repulsed Americans. Where Turkey was once a pillar of hope for an open and modern Muslim-majority society, Erdogan’s social conservatism and nativist-populist tactics have shifted the country toward intolerance and societal polarization.  Where Turkey was once so strategically aligned with the West that it became the easternmost member of NATO, under Erdogan it has routinely sparred with the alliance and even thwarted it on occasion. Where Turkey was once close friends with important Middle East players like Israel, Erdogan’s reorientation toward political Islamist groups such as Hamas have burned important regional bridges.

In the past, the U.S. Department of Defense indeed considered Turkey a precious ally who frequently served as the key building block of the U.S. government’s containment and modulation of Russia.  This importance propelled Pentagon leaders to make a compelling case that ties with Ankara superseded campaign promises about the Armenian Genocide. Not anymore. Today the Pentagon, which is angry at Ankara for a bevy of issues, most notably Turkey’s 2017 purchase of a Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, lack of support to Kurdish militias fighting ISIS, is no longer interested in carrying Ankara’s water in Washington.

The overall sentiment inside the U.S. government currently is that Erdogan responds better to Putin-style toughness than to a warm embrace.  Other than April 24th being the global anniversary for the Armenian Genocide, U.S. recognition on the heels of our latest tensions with Russia is simply too coincidental.  U.S. recognition has more to do with Russia than it does with Turkey.  We are pushing Erdogan to make him choose between Russia and the west, believing that Erdogan will choose the west and remove Putin’s leverage into NATO. 

Erdogan is simply in too deep with Putin to get out on his own.  If Erdogan were to return the S-400s to Russia, Putin could immediately impose trade and tourism sanctions, targeting Turkey’s ailing economy and further eroding Erdogan’s support base. On the military front, Putin can greenlight an attack by close ally Bashar al-Assad on Idlib, the last rebel-held territory in Syria, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border to Turkey.  Ankara already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees. With Turkey’s economy slowing down and anti-refugee sentiment rising, even Erdogan wouldn’t be able to withstand the social and political forces unleashed by a vast and sudden increase in refugees.  Putin can also spoil tenuous cease fire deals between his allies and Turkey and its allies in Libya and the South Caucasus, further undermining Ankara’s interests, as well as creating troubles for Erdogan personally — since he thrives on his global strongman image domestically. Many U.S. government experts have thought that when stuck between Biden and Putin, Erdogan would pick Putin. With U.S. recognition of the Genocide, point of reckoning might be around the corner.

Erdogan is in a weak position to push back against the Genocide designation, which is also part of why Biden has chosen this moment to act. Erdogan faces a brittle Turkish economy. If his relations with Washington are in freefall, that can cause the Turkish economy to tank. Erdogan now needs to reverse this dynamic by creating a narrative that he is getting along just fine with Biden. Accordingly, he has been patient even as Biden has ignored him and then drastically shifted American policy on the Genocide. Erdogan can be very pragmatic, but also quite Machiavellian. Whichever disconsolate and evasive words he chooses in his response to Biden’s Genocide recognition, he will be looking for future opportunities to get back at the U.S. President — once the Turkish economy bounces back.