Biden chips away at ties with Turkey

People lineup at the monument to Ottoman Turks, Yerevan, Armenia, April 24, 2021. Armenia is praising US’ recognition of deaths of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as “genocide”.

If there is a Nobel Prize for the US president who first recognised the 1915 ‘Armenian Genocide’, that could have gone to Ronald Reagan. But he didn’t make waves. Although  in terms of US law, acts of “genocide” provided basis for lawsuits to be filed, Reagan administration stepped in and blocked that pathway.

That was because the US couldn’t afford to alienate Turkey under President Kenan Evren, the general who led the military coup in September 1980. Jimmy Carter had promised a deal to Evren whereby as quid pro quo for US support for the de facto military rule in Turkey, Ankara would acquiesce with Greece’s return to the military wing of NATO. And Reagan saw the criticality of that deal.

So, what is the deal here in President Joe Biden’s remembrance of the “Armenian Genocide”? True, Armenian Christian population in America (around 8-10 lakhs) makes a “swing” vote. They are concentrated on the west coast in California and apparently helped Vice President Kamala Harris to defeat Loretta Sanchez in the 2016 Senate election. 

They are largely a prosperous community too, flaunting celebrities like singer-actor Cher and socialite-model Kim Kardashian. Be that as it may, if starting from Bill Clinton, all presidential candidates promised to recognise “Armenian Genocide” but retracted after entering the Oval Office, it was because Turkey, a powerful NATO ally, was considered indispensable to the western alliance system. 

Biden is playing hard ball. In the very first sentence of his White House statement Saturday, he highlighted that his remembrance is of “the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide.” That subtle distinction must be noted. Also, Biden had a call with President Erdogan Friday. We do not know what transpired. 

Therefore, what matters today is how Biden’s move would affect the Turkish-American relations and Turkish foreign policies, especially, the ties with Russia. The short answer is that nothing much will change. The anti-American feeling in Turkey is so widespread and deeply entrenched.

Erdogan himself was in some ways a protege of the West and rode to power with western support. Those were halcyon days when the West regarded Islamism as the most effective antidote to Kemalism. But Erdogan revolted when he began suspecting that the US regarded him only as a stopgap arrangement. 

His estrangement from Fetullah Gulen living in exile in Pennsylvania followed. The US-backed coup attempt by Gulenists to overthrow Erdogan in 2016 only reinforced his suspicions. In sum, a genuine meeting of minds between Washington and Ankara is difficult so long as Erdogan remains in power. 

Biden himself blurted out last year his sinister plans to cause internal dissension within Turkey as the way to get rid of Erdogan than staging coups. See the video clip by Turkey’s state-owned TRT World titled What’s behind the US’ Armenia decision? 

The point is, what Biden has just done to Erdogan bears comparison with what he is doing to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Namely, Biden hopes to inflict wounds on their reputation. The intention is to weaken them and make them bend before destroying them. 

This is quintessential Biden. He tried the same trick on Russian President Vladimir Putin by his “killer” remark and on Chinese leader Xi Jinping (“This is a guy who is a thug.”) There is a notion among American politicians that unlike them — raucous street fighters used to sleaze and abuse as their daily fare — authoritarian leaders are not thick-skinned. 

But what distinguishes MBS or Erdogan is that they are vulnerable to blackmail. MBS needs Washington’s neutrality in his succession bid; Erdogan has a highly damaging case pending against him in the US federal court in New York that can potentially destroy his political career and family. 

Evidently, the Turkish reaction to Biden’s genocide statement is carefully calibrated. In his first remarks on the subject after a cabinet meeting late Monday, Erdogan sounded conciliatory: “I believe we will discuss all these matters face to face with President Biden of the US during our meeting in June and open the doors to a new era. I would like to remind Mr. Biden that we were not strangers. We had distinct relations. He even showed the courtesy of visiting me at my home during my illness.

“All we want is for our country not to be subjected to unjust, unfair and double-standard practices, behaviours and decisions, taken under the influence of marginal groups. We stand ready to talk, reach an agreement and cooperate with everyone on every ground as long as our stance as a country which values its freedom and future above all else is respected.” 

Erdogan has taken a page out of MBS’ diary. Like the Saudi prince, he shows aversion toward a bruising confrontation and prefers to quietly work toward a new relationship with Biden. Biden’s fame as pragmatists and deal maker precedes his presidency. However, Erdogan is also a hard nut to crack. 

In fact, he made it clear what he’d expect: “We, with our counterpart should set aside the matters poisoning our bilateral relations, and evaluate what kinds of steps we will take for the future. Otherwise, we will have no choice but to put into effect the practices required by the new level our relations descended to following the April 24 statement.” 

The bottom line is that the shifts in the Turkish policies since 2016 were far from impulsive; on the contrary, they stemmed out of objective realities: 

  • Barack Obama’s backtracking on the “red lines” for Syria; 
  • US-backed coup attempt by Gulenists in 2016; 
  • US’ refusal to extradite Gulen; 
  • US rejection of out-of-court settlement of the Halk Bank case; 
  • Pentagon’s alliance in Syria with Kurdish groups linked to PKK; 
  • US backing for the Cyprus-Greece-Israel axis in East Mediterranean (which now includes the UAE as well); 
  • US’ rejection of Turkish intervention in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh); and, 
  • US’ demands on Turkey’s growing ties with Russia, especially its procurement of S-400 ABM system.                

It is sheer naïveté to imagine Erdogan would simply cave in, go back to the cold-war era partnership to play a subaltern role within the NATO. Turkey’s ambitions as a leading Muslim power and its “Neo-Ottomanism” signify that it is carving out a life beyond the NATO system. 

The American strategists have a bee in their bonnet when it comes to Turkey-Russia ties. However, it is in Turkey’s interests to manoeuvre between Washington and Moscow. Moscow accepts this reality and has no illusions that Turkey can be an ally; even a partnership has to be very selective and is often difficult to manage. But then, Turkey is not alone in exploring the potentials of multipolarity. 

Conversely, what is it that Biden or the European Union can offer to Turkey? The EU membership might have helped. But will France, Germany, Austria, Netherlands, etc. countenance Turkey’s membership of the Christian club? 

Suffice to say, Turks will only view Biden’s unwarranted provocation as yet another template of the US’ containment strategy. The Turkish Foreign Ministry’s warning should be taken seriously — that Biden’s move undermines Turkish-American relations, and he should, therefore, “correct this serious mistake.”