Apr 28, 2021 - World

Biden's Armenian Genocide recognition reveals Erdoğan's weak hand

Biden and Erdogan in 2016. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Ankara — President Biden's willingness to risk tensions with Turkey by recognizing the Armenian Genocide is a sign of Turkey's dwindling support in the White House, Congress, and the U.S security establishment.

Why it matters: The declaration seems to indicate that the new U.S. administration has downgraded its strategic relationship with Turkey, and comes at a time when relations were already in a downward trend.

  • The U.S. sanctioned Turkey last year for purchasing the S-400 Russian air defense system, and last week formally notified Ankara that it was excluded from the new F-35 stealth fighter program over the S-400 deal.
  • It took Biden more than three months to call Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and that call only came as Biden was preparing to officially recognized the genocide.
  • The declaration came at a time when Turkey, both diplomatically and economically, can't afford the luxury of engaging in new fights.

What they're saying: Turkey categorically denied the designation of genocide and claimed that radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups were behind it.

  • "We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement of the President of the U.S. regarding the events of 1915 made under the pressure of radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups on April 24," Turkey's foreign ministry said in a statement Saturday, calling on Biden to "correct this grave mistake."
  • The response was actually relatively mild compared to past cases, and Turkey didn't recall its diplomats from Washington.
  • Worth noting: Referring to a "genocide" against Armenians — carried out under the Ottoman Empire in 1915 — is considered an "insult to the Turkish nation" and can trigger criminal charges in Turkey.

Between the lines: Biden likely wanted to signal to Erdoğan that there will be costs to Turkey's deteriorating human rights record and his insistence on keeping the S-400 system.

  • Soner Cagaptay a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote that Biden is aware that "for the first time in many years, Erdoğan needs the U.S. more than Washington needs him."

What to watch: Considering Turkey's economic troubles, Erdoğan is not expected to meaningfully retaliate against the U.S. at the current time. 

  • His top priority right now is to consolidate his base of support and not let the Turkish lira free-fall against the dollar due to sudden crises.

What's next: Biden and Erdoğan will hold their first bilateral meeting in June.

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