Turkey rejects Biden recognition of Armenian genocide

US recognition of genocide follows a cooling in relations between Washington and Ankara

The waving of  Armenian and US flags in front of the US embassy in Yerevan, Armenia,  on Saturday after  President Biden recognised the 1915 killings of Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide. Photograph:  Karen Minasyan/AFP via Getty Images

The waving of Armenian and US flags in front of the US embassy in Yerevan, Armenia, on Saturday after President Biden recognised the 1915 killings of Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide. Photograph: Karen Minasyan/AFP via Getty Images

 

Turkey has rejected Joe Biden’s recognition of the first World War-era massacres of Armenians as genocide, warning him the statement has “opened a wound” in relations between the two Nato allies.

The US president on Saturday described the killing and deportation of as many as 1.5 million Armenians beginning in 1915 as a genocide, breaking with decades of carefully-crafted presidential statements that had avoided the term, in line with Turkey’s arguments that the killings did not amount to a state-orchestrated campaign.

The change in language, while largely symbolic, comes during a low point in relations between Ankara and Washington, and senior Turkish officials have accused Mr Biden of trying to score political points against Turkey.

David Satterfield, the US ambassador, was summoned to the Turkish foreign ministry late on Saturday, where the deputy foreign minister, Sedat Onal, informed him that Turkey “fully rejected and condemned in the strongest possible way” Mr Biden’s statement.

“The statement lacks a legal basis in terms of international law, has deeply injured the Turkish people and has opened a wound in our relationship that will be difficult to repair,” the ministry said in a statement.

Discussing the announcement, which was released by the White House to mark Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, a senior US administration official said the recognition was intended to “honour the victims” and not “assign blame”.

Mr Biden’s recognition follows a markedly cooler period for relations between Washington and Ankara following disputes over Turkey’s purchase of an advanced Russian anti-aircraft system designed to shoot down Nato jets, and over US federal prosecutors’ indictment of the Turkish state lender Halkbank for allegedly violating sanctions against Iran.

Two leaders

Mr Biden called Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday to inform him of the impending announcement, an administration official said. A Biden administration official said the call between the two leaders was “very professional”.

The official added that there was “a very large number of issues” that Washington and Ankara could work closely on, along with “a number of well-known differences...that need to be addressed”.

Mr Erdogan has said he wanted to “turn a new page” with the US and Europe, two of Turkey’s biggest trade partners, as the country seeks to attract investment in its $717 billion (€593bn) economy and rein in soaring inflation and unemployment.

Most historians and some 30 countries judge the killing as a genocide. Turkey claims that Muslims and Christians alike died during the chaos of the first World War and the ensuing collapse of the Ottoman empire.

Fearful they would side with arch-enemy Russia, Armenian Christians were rounded up and either killed or marched from their ancient homeland in parts of present-day Turkey to the Syrian desert where they starved to death. The campaign, as well as those against ethnic Greeks and Syriac Christians, helped to forge a more homogenous nation when the Turkish republic was established in 1923 out of the ashes of the multicultural Ottoman Empire.

Previous US presidents have shied away from the genocide label, cognisant of the risks it would pose to the strategic relationship with Turkey, where the US operates an air base.

The US embassy said in an email that consular services at its missions in four Turkish cities would be halted on Monday and Tuesday “as a precautionary measure” in the event of anti-US demonstrations, and urged Americans in Turkey to “exercise heightened caution”.

Critical Nato ally

A Biden official said the US still recognised Turkey as “a critical Nato ally”. Yet Mr Biden has said he would pursue a values-based foreign policy, and promised during his presidential campaign to recognise the genocide as part of a commitment to upholding “universal rights”. Both chambers of Congress passed resolutions in 2019 categorising the killings as genocide, and last month almost 40 senators from both parties called on Biden to do the same.

For the majority of Turks, acknowledging the genocide would impugn their nation’s founding myths and leaders, and is tantamount to admitting a historical lie. While Mr Erdogan has in recent years expressed his condolences to Armenians over the loss of life, he has also hit out at foreign governments that describe the massacre as genocide, recalling ambassadors and cancelling trade agreements.

Today fewer than 60,000 ethnic Armenians remain in Turkey, mainly in Istanbul, and are sporadically the targets of hate crimes, such as vandalism of churches. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021