Joe Biden is no rookie when it comes to international affairs.
Eight years as Vice-President under Barack Obama with important global responsibilities, and two terms as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a Delaware Senator, the 46th President of the United States of America knew exactly what he was doing when he broke from his predecessors and recognized the Armenian Genocide last Saturday.
Biden knew that using the term "genocide" to describe the catastrophe that befell upon the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire during World War I would risk poisoning relations with Ankara, and it could lead to Turkish non-cooperation in military and diplomatic affairs.
President Biden knows that Turkey is a member of NATO, a former Cold War bulwark against Communist expansion, a partner in the War on Terror, a line of defense against threats emanating from a hostile region and a country home to important military bases used by NATO.
Yet, Biden kept his campaign pledge and recognized the Armenian Genocide within three months of his presidency and during a non-election year – not that Armenian-American political support is a deciding factor, perhaps except for a few districts in California.
But more than recognizing that the Ottoman deportation of millions of Armenians during World War I, which involved forced marches into the central Anatolian wastelands leading to mass death by either starvation or by marauding Ottoman soldiers, amounted to genocide, it was a recognition that Turkey is no longer considered by Washington a strategic partner.
Indeed, over the past 10 to 15 years Ankara’s policies have consistently undermined U.S. interests.
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Take U.S. efforts to isolate Iran and prevent the regime from acquiring nuclear weapons. In 2010, Turkey utilized its temporary membership of the UN Security Council to offer (with Brazil) a pro-Iranian solution to the nuclear stand-off between the West and Iran, which left Washington seething, as it was seeking to pass through the Security Council stronger sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Then, once the U.S. managed to introduce tougher embargoes, Turkey helped Iran circumvent them through a multibillion-dollar oil for gold scheme using the state owned Halk Bank, allegedly at the request of Turkey’s highest political levels.
While the world was shocked by the rise of ISIS and its capture of significant tracts of territory in Iraq and Syria from 2013 onwards and horrified by the gruesome reports and images of its activities, Turkish authorities turned a blind eye to the tens of thousands of foreign fighters and weaponry crossing its border into Syria and onto ISIS, the so-called Jihadi Highway.
When Turkey did finally join the anti-ISIS coalition and take control of its border, it did so reluctantly, and rather than prioritising the defeat of ISIS, focused on capturing territory from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) through a series of military interventions between 2016 and 2020.
Ankara considers the YPG Kurdish militia and the PKK, designated as a terrorist group by both Washington and Ankara, as one and the same; however, the YPG Kurdish separatists are not a security threat to the West ,and were pivotal in the fight against ISIS. In other words, Turkey was hindering the U.S.-led coalition’s effort to defeat ISIS.
U.S. relations with Turkey reached their lowest ebb in 2018 after Ankara jailed U.S. citizen pastor Andrew Brunson, under the flimsy charge of membership of the Gulen Movement.
This was an attempt to exert pressure on the US to extradite Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic preacher and U.S. Green Card holder, to stand trial for his alleged part in the 2016 attempted coup in what some called "hostage diplomacy." Eventually, facing Washington’s full wrath and potential sanctions by the then U.S. President Donald Trump, Ankara released Brunson.
Since 2015, Turkey has sought closer ties with Russia. This was despite Moscow’s threatening posture towards the U.S. and its Western allies with activities such as invading Crimea, cyber-attacks against U.S. targets and its alleged interference in U.S. elections.
Yet, Turkey expanded commercial ties with Russia, continued with the TurkStream gas project, and purchased, despite repeated warnings from the US, Russia’s S400 missile defense system. Incompatible with NATO hardware, Washington fears that if Turkey were to operate the S400s, it would allow Moscow access to sensitive material about US and NATO hardware.
Turkey’s S400 purchase led to U.S. sanctions in December 2020 on Turkey’s defense industry through the Countering America’s Enemies Through Sanctions Act. Turkey was also ousted from the F-35 stealth fighter programme, a move which was confirmed by the Pentagon just days before the Biden Administration recognized the Genocide.
Then there is Ankara’s disrespectful behaviour towards the U.S. In May 2017, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was visiting the US, his bodyguards beat up peaceful protesters outside of the Turkish ambassador’s residence. Meanwhile, Turkey’s media, which follows the government line after years of bullying and intimidation, is rife with anti-American messages, and school textbooks are full of anti-U.S. narratives and blame the U.S. for much of Turkey’s troubles.
No wonder when faced with the choice of keeping a campaign promise or incurring the wrath of President Erdogan who has spent over a decade actively working against American interests, President Biden chose the former.
The U.S. president calculated that regardless of whether he recognized the Armenian Genocide or not, and despite Ankara’s attempt to end its isolation with outreach and nicer tones to Israel, Egypt, Europe and the U.S., it was unlikely that any real support from Ankara in meeting U.S. international interests in the future would be forthcoming anyway.
Dr Simon A. Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting lecturer at King's College London. He is the co-author of "The New Turkey and Its Discontents" (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1