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.
Ankara summoned the US ambassador and warned that the statement has ‘opened a wound’.
The US president on Saturday described the killing and deportation of as many as 1.5m 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 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” 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”.
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.
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”.
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. When other countries have designated the massacres as genocide, Erdogan has recalled ambassadors and cancelled trade agreements.
Biden was likely to have considered the retaliatory steps Turkey could take and “apparently concluded that he could live with it. This indicates that Turkey’s strategic importance has diminished considerably,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey programme in Washington. “It’s a sea change in the relationship.”
Erdogan has not yet commented publicly on the statement, which “shows he understands he doesn’t have leverage when there are other big issues to deal with”, she said.
Erdogan has said he wants 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 $717bn economy and rein in soaring inflation and unemployment.
Most historians and about 30 countries judge the killings 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 many 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.
A Biden official said the US still recognised Turkey as “a critical Nato ally”. Yet 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.
“I think Biden genuinely believes this is the moral thing to do at a time when the US is trying to reconcile with its own past and systemic racism,” said Tol. “What makes this decision easier now are its low expectations from Turkey.”
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.
Erdogan has in recent years expressed his condolences each April 24 to the 60,000 or fewer ethnic Armenians who remain in Turkey, but has warned foreign governments against “politicising” a century-old tragedy.
Erdogan’s senior adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, on Sunday said Biden had disregarded Turkey’s calls for a historical committee to investigate the massacres. “It is a pity [that Biden] has ignored, among others, this simple fact and taken an irresponsible and unprincipled position,” he said on Twitter.
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.