Tensions Between Turkey and the US Increase as Biden Labels 1915 Armenian Massacre ‘Genocide’

April 26, 2021James R. Webb
armenian genocide

Armenian deportees in Erzurum, Turkey. Of the 40,000 Armenians deported from Erzurum, fewer than 200 reached Deir ez-Zor in Syria. Right, Dept. of Defense photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/released.

On Saturday President Joe Biden became the first US president to officially recognize the massacre of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire as genocide, further complicating relations with Turkey — a NATO ally. 

“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” Biden said in a statement released by the White House.

Biden Turkey Genocide
An aerial photograph of the Armenian Genocide memorial complex located on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd in Yerevan, Armenia. Each year on April 24 thousands of Armenians gather at the memorial to commemorate the start of the genocide. Photo by Aleksey Chalabyan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

While the overall death toll of the massacre, which began in 1915, is disputed, the impact on Turkey’s Armenian population was devastating. According to CNN, the number of Armenians living in Turkey dropped from 2 million in 1914 to under 400,000 by 1922. Death totals calculated by Ottoman officials at the time estimated the total number of deaths around 800,000 people — but some estimates range as high as 1.5 million dead.

“Beginning on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination,” Biden said in the White House statement.

While previous administrations faced similar pressure from groups to use the term “genocide” when describing the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, both the Obama and the Trump administrations stopped short of using the term. According to CNN, the Obama administration was wary of alienating Turkey, a NATO ally and key partner in the fight against ISIS.

turkey us genocide
US and Turkish tactical vehicles take a defensive posture during rehearsals at Gaziantep, Turkey, as part of Operation Inherent Resolve in October 2018. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster, courtesy of DVIDS.

The Trump administration also stopped short of labeling the mass killing of Armenians as genocide. According to CNN, after the House and Senate passed a resolution in 2019 recognizing the 1915 mass killings as a genocide, the Trump administration intervened. Citing that such a declaration would undercut negotiations with Turkey on issues such as sales of the F-35 stealth fighter, the Trump administration asked Republican senators to block the measure.

Officials in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, responded swiftly to Biden’s statement, summoning US Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield to express their dissatisfaction with the move.

“Turkey’s strong reaction was conveyed to David Satterfield, who was accepted by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal, according to diplomatic sources,” the Anadolu news agency reported. “Satterfield was told that Turkey finds the statement unacceptable, totally rejects and strongly condemns it.”

The Turkish Foreign Ministry also called Biden’s statement a “vulgar distortion of history.”

“We call on the US President to correct this grave mistake, which serves no purpose other than to satisfy certain political circles and to support the efforts aiming to establish a practice of peaceful coexistence in the region, especially among the Turkish and Armenian nations, instead of serving the agenda of those circles that try to foment enmity from history,” Ankara released in a statement.

biden turkey genocide
Two F-35 Lightning IIs bank after receiving fuel over the Midwest Sept. 19, 2019. NATO ally Turkey was previously a key manufacturer of the F-35 but has since been removed from the program. US Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Ben Mota, courtesy of DVIDS.

Biden’s recent statement comes amid a time of mounting diplomatic tensions between Washington and Ankara. In 2017, Moscow and Ankara agreed on an arms deal that sent the S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system to Turkey. According to CNBC, Turkish President Recep Erdogan brokered the $2.5 billion deal with Moscow instead of purchasing the Patriot missile system from Washington.

Despite pressure from Washington to walk back its deal with Moscow, Ankara ultimately opted to purchase the Russian anti-aircraft weapons. Washington placed sanctions on Ankara in December 2020. Additionally, Washington removed Turkey from participation in the F-35 program in 2019.

According to Defense News, Ankara was slated to purchase 100 F-35s and was responsible for significant manufacturing aspects of the F-35’s engine. 

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James R. Webb
James R. Webb

James Webb served as a US Marine infantryman from 2005 to 2010, completing a combat tour in Iraq. He’s worked as a freelance writer and photojournalist covering US troops in Afghanistan, and Webb spent more than two years in the US Senate as a military legislative assistant and as the personal representative of a member on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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