Explained: US prepares to recognise Armenian genocide. Why it’s important

US President Joe Biden is preparing to formally acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, the systematic killing and deportation of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire that occurred more than a century ago. Why is this important?

US President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/File)

US President Joe Biden is preparing to formally acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, the systematic killing and deportation of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire that occurred more than a century ago, US government officials told The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. According to an Associated Press report, lawmakers and Armenian-American activists have been lobbying Biden to make the announcement on or before Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which will be marked on April 24.

The move could deteriorate the US’s relations with Turkey and government officials told the AP that there was a possibility that Biden may just change his mind over the course of the next two days.

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What happened during the Armenian Genocide?

While Turkey disagrees, the consensus among historians is that during the Armenian Genocide, between 1915 to 1922, in the First World War, thousands of Armenians perished due to killings, starvation and disease, when they were deported by Ottoman Turks from eastern Anatolia. It is difficult to estimate the total number of Armenians who died during the genocide, but the Armenian diaspora says that approximately 1.5 million died.

Turkey rejects that number and claims that some 300,000 Armenians may have perished. The International Association of Genocide Scholars estimates that more than 1 million Armenians may have died.

Why is the acknowledgement significant?

Researchers say that the acknowledgement by the US government would have little legal impact on Turkey, other than becoming a cause for embarrassment for the country and perhaps giving other countries the impetus to also acknowledge the genocide.

Some researchers have asserted and drawn comparisons between the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide and this acknowledgement or wider acknowledgement of it in the international community may be unwelcome and unpalatable for Turkey.

Countries including India, that have not formally recognised the Armenian Genocide have primarily adopted this stance in the interests of their wider foreign policy decisions and because of their geo-political interests in the region. According to the Armenian National Institute, an American non-profit organisation, 30 countries officially recognise the Armenian Genocide.

What does this indicate about Joe Biden’s stance?

The US’s move indicates that the White House has chosen to focus on one of Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign promises, which was officially recognising the Armenian Genocide.

In a 2019 letter to the Armenian National Committee of America, during the campaign for the US elections, Biden had stated: “The United States must reaffirm, once and for all, our record on the Armenian Genocide… If we do not fully acknowledge, commemorate, and teach our children about genocide, the words ‘never again’ lose their meaning. The facts must be as clear and as powerful for future generations as for those whose memories are seared by tragedy. Failing to remember or acknowledge the fact of a genocide only paves the way for future mass atrocities.”

At that time, Biden had specifically omitted mentioning Turkey or the Ottoman Empire by name in his letter. Some critics had pointed out that while Biden had expressed support for recognising the Armenian Genocide as a senator, as Vice President in the Obama administration, he had not opposed Obama’s refusal to recognise the genocide or the use of the term ‘Meds Yeghern’, meaning ‘Great Crime’ for the Armenian Genocide. There was also criticism that Biden had not specifically given a timeline that would explain the implementation of his plans.

There is more at play here: it isn’t as though Biden’s proposal has come as a surprise for observers. Turkey too has been anticipating such developments after Biden made promises on the campaign trail and then doubled down by making human rights a part of his foreign policy after becoming president.

There is some indication that many in the Armenian diaspora have not forgotten Obama’s failure to deliver on his 2008 campaign pledge to recognise the Armenian genocide and are hoping that Biden won’t follow in the former president’s footsteps.

Internally, within the Obama administration, there had been disappointment when he failed to recognise the genocide, with Samantha Power, who had served as United Nations ambassador under Obama and and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes both publicly expressing their unhappiness with the president’s decision.

At that time, observers had speculated that Obama’s failure to deliver on his campaign pledge had been rooted in concerns about straining the US’s relationship with Turkey, whose cooperation it had required on Washington D.C.’s military and diplomatic interests in the Middle East, specifically in Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.

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How has Turkey responded?

In an interview earlier this week, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkish broadcasting network Haberturk that such moves would only set back the already strained relationship between Washington D.C. and Ankara, both of whom are North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.

“Statements that have no legal binding will have no benefit, but they will harm ties,” Cavusoglu had said in the Haberturk interview. “If the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs.”

While Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had shared a relatively friendly relationship with former US president Donald Trump, ties between the US and Turkey have been strained over a range of issues that include Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defence systems, foreign policy differences with regard to Syria, human rights and other intersecting legal issues. Although Turkey had been sanctioned by the US government under the Trump administration for its purchase of the Russian defence systems, the former US president had not questioned Erdoğan’s human rights records, which had helped reduce conflict between the two leaders.

In retaliation for recognising the Armenian Genocide, a New York Times report suggests that Turkey might to try to “stymie or delay specific policies to aggravate the Biden administration, particularly in Syria, where Turkey’s tenuous cease-fire with Russia has allowed for already-narrowing humanitarian access, and in the Black Sea, to which American warships must first pass through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles on support missions to Ukraine.”

More specifically, according to the New York Times report, Turkey could also slow non-NATO operations at Incirlik Air Base, located in Adana, that American forces use as a base and a station for equipment in the region. The report indicates that Turkey could engage in provocation that would result in new sanctions against the country or the reimposition of the ones that had been suspended. For instance, Turkey could initiate military action against Kurdish fighters allied with US forces in northeast Syria.

Also, more than three months into his presidency, Biden is yet to speak to Erdoğan. Observers say that it is not clear when relations between the two leaders will improve. Last year during the campaigning for the 2020 US elections, in an interview with The New York Times, Biden had called Erdoğan an “autocrat”, which had drawn criticism from Turkey.

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What is likely to happen?

While the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the US would be symbolic, it would mean much for the Armenian diaspora. But there may be little that Turkey can really do in retaliation without jeopardizing its own interests.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Gonul Tol, director of the Turkish programme at the Middle East Institute in Washington, pointed to how Erdoğan ’s leverage has diminished. Turkey’s economy has also been suffering and a combination of these factors could result in a muted response from Erdoğan. She also pointed to Biden’s failure to actually implement plans.

“Biden has been vocal about human rights abuses in countries across the world, including in Turkey, but it hasn’t gone very far beyond his rhetoric,” Tol told the AP. “This is a chance for him to stand up on human rights with lower stakes.”

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