ANALYSIS - How to interpret Biden's statements on 1915 incidents?

Pressure by Armenian diaspora, officials within administration influenced recent letter by US president on 1915 events

Yildiz Deveci Bozkus   | 27.04.2021
ANALYSIS - How to interpret Biden's statements on 1915 incidents?

The author is a faculty member at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University, Department of Caucasus Studies


A new era has begun in Turkey-US relations since President Joe Biden took office on Jan. 20. It is known that the two sides have their differences on many issues, such as the exclusion of Turkey from the F-35 project between the two countries, the US' Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions, the S-400 issue, joint military exercises by the US and Greece, the events in Karabakh, the defense agreement between Israel and Greece, authorization in the US of arms sales to the Greek Cypriot administration, US support to terrorist organizations in Syria, the issue of Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), and developments in northern Iraq and Libya.

However, it was not expected until the very last moment that Biden would add a new issue to those already at hand and take relations to a point beyond repair. On April 24, Biden used the expression "genocide" in a message he published to commemorate the events of 1915.

Though it was not anticipated that Biden would make such a historic mistake, the fact that he had especially not contacted Turkey, a strategic NATO ally, for a long time after taking office was already an indication that frigid winds were blowing between the sides. After Biden's April 24 message was published, US Ambassador to Ankara David Satterfield was summoned to Turkey's Foreign Ministry, and Turkey voiced its justified response. The Foreign Ministry also issued a statement that Turkey would not accept and condemned the expressions in Biden's statement which described the 1915 incidents as a "genocide."

What led to April 24 decision?

Multiple factors played a role in Biden becoming the first US president since Ronal Reagan in 1981 to call the 1915 events a genocide. Yet the most significant factor here was that with this statement, the incidents of 1915 were sacrificed to domestic and foreign political interests, taking a road of no return. The US' April 24 decision will have a severe impact on Turkey-US and Turkish-Armenian relations in the coming days. So, what changed in the US that the incidents marked each year as "Meds Yeghern" (Great Calamity) were described as "genocide" on April 24, 2021?

First, it is necessary to draw attention to the persistent attitude of House of Representatives Speaker Democrat Nancy Pelosi and the influence of Vice President Kamala Harris. The effectiveness of the Armenian diaspora in the US and all over the world for years on both the 1915 incidents and many other issues is common knowledge. It also should not be forgotten that the Armenian diaspora commands economic power, as well as domestic and external political clout. It is apparent that the pressure of the Armenian diaspora on the Biden administration, Harris and Pelosi in domestic politics, and the economic power of the diaspora had a significant impact on Biden's use of this expression.

Motions recognizing the events of 1915 as genocide were already passed in Congress and its upper wing, the Senate, as well as in 49 of the 50 US states. However, that Biden made pledges to the Armenian diaspora during his election campaign also had a great impact on these decisions in the context of domestic politics. While the US press presented this step as an indication of the importance Biden attaches to human rights issues, it is obvious that in essence, domestic political interests had an important influence on this statement. From this point of view, such a decision by the US against Turkey, a NATO ally, caused the already-poor relations to suffer irreparable damage. Another case of delirium was the US press saying that relations with Turkey were being tested.

Another important factor in the decision was the developments that took place during the war in Karabakh. As is known, the US, despite being on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, had taken no initiative for the resolution of the Karabakh issue for 30 years and no progress had been made toward a solution. The US also did not involve itself much in the course of the Karabakh War, which was met with discomfort by the Armenian diaspora. Though the US claimed that it adopted a policy of neutrality under the pretext of its presidential election process, it was observed that it was actually left out due to Russia's policies. Hence, it can be stated that the US, which could not provide Armenia the support it sought during the war, paid its "blood money" to Armenia through this statement.

What do expressions in letter mean?

It would be beneficial to take a look at the meaning of the expressions that Biden used in his letter. Though the explicit emphasis on the "Ottoman" state is portrayed to exempt the Republic of Turkey, the denotation that they "recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring," lays a contradictory attitude.

Furthermore, although some groups have interpreted the reference to "Constantinople" and the date of 1915 as an indication that Turkey's sensitivities are being observed, this has nothing to do with reality. What matters in this letter is that the word genocide was used. Also, let us not forget that much of the staff that took charge in the establishment of the Republic of Turkey consisted of Turkish intellectuals active in the late periods of the Ottoman Empire.

Therefore, it would not be correct to perceive the letter as indicating that "the US blames the Ottomans, not Turkey." This attitude is the most obvious example of the extent of shrewd diplomacy that the US sought to pursue in writing the letter. While the US implied that it does not blame the Republic of Turkey, this attitude does not reflect reality because the Republic of Turkey is the successor of the Ottoman Empire both historically and legally. The use of the name Constantinople instead of Istanbul is also a problematic issue in this context.

How to interpret Turkish Armenian's viewpoints?

The uneasiness felt by Armenians in Turkey, chiefly Hrant Dink, on the use of the events of 1915 as a political instrument is well-known. The statement by the 85th Armenian Patriarch of Turkey Sahak Mashalian is of the utmost importance. Significant in this context is his words: "It saddens us to see that the suffering of our people and the holy memory of our ancestors are being instrumentalized by some countries for everyday political purposes."

Mashalian's remarks in his statement that "the tensions created by this issue being carried to the agendas of parliaments for decades does not serve to bring the two peoples closer. On the contrary, it postpones by provoking hostile feelings," shows once again that normalization with Armenia is essential in resolving this issue.

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