Istanbul — Turkey and the U.S. have once again found each other at odds after President Joeof the Ottoman atrocities committed against ethnic Armenians more than 100 years ago as genocide. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called Mr. Biden’s statement “baseless, unfair and untrue.”
Erdogan said the American leader’s “wrong step” would hinder bilateral relations, and he hinted strongly at hypocrisy, urging the U.S. to “look in the mirror.”
Breaking with previous administrations, Mr. Biden described the deadly forced deportation of well over a million Armenians from the Ottoman Empire — modern-day Turkey — at the beginning of World War I as “a genocide.”
“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,” Mr. Biden said in a statement on April 24, widely recognized as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
His use of the word brought immediate, sharp condemnation from Turkish officials. The country’s foreign ministry said the words would not change history, and it summoned the U.S. Ambassador in Ankara to deliver a formal complaint.
Even political rivals inside Turkey closed ranks over Mr. Biden’s statement. Turkey’s leading opposition Republican People’s Party echoed the government’s criticism and called the statement “a serious mistake.”
What happened in 2015, and since?
Historians say that in the summer and autumn of 1915, Armenian civilians were forced from their homes and marched through the valleys and mountains of Eastern Anatolia (Turkey) towards the Syrian desert. Armenian leaders say 1.5 million civilians died of starvation and disease as about 90% of the ethnic group in Anatolia were driven from their homes.
Turkey’s government says Armenian armed gangs posed a national security threat as they were colluding with Western-allied Russia to enable the occupation of eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey admits that Armenians were deported, but it disputes the numbers, putting the death toll at a few hundred thousand and insisting there was no intention of eliminating a race of people. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, modern-day Turkey’s state policy has been to reject any description of the treatment of the Armenians at the time as genocide.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first Turkish leader to offer condolences for the Armenian deaths when, in 2014, he acknowledged that the events of 1915 had “inhumane consequences,” and expressed hope that those who had died were at peace.
Historian Umit Kurt is skeptical of the defense offered by Turkish officials of the deportations. He told CBS News that officials who deny the charge of genocide should explain why Armenian properties were seized and then sold off by the state. The homes were distributed among local Ottoman elites and Muslim refugees quickly after the Armenians were forced out, virtually erasing the ethnic group’s longtime presence in the region.
“The seizure of properties shows the Ottoman rulers never expected Armenians to return.” Kurt told CBS News.
The decision by the U.S. leader to use the highly-charged word was “political,” Faruk Logoglu, a former Turkish Ambassador to the United States, told CBS News. “Biden’s decision is likely to stir the hornet’s nest, and it will have medium and long-term consequences for Turkey-U.S. ties.”
For sure, Mr. Biden’s remark couldn’t have come at a more delicate time for the two NATO allies.
The relationship has been strained for years over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems. The Russian missiles are considered a threat to NATO’s own defense systems in the region, and it all comes at a time when Russia is locked in a standoff with the West over its actions in eastern Ukraine — the sharp edge of Russia’s geographic sphere of influence.
The U.S. sanctioned Turkey specifically over the purchase of the Russian missile systems andwith NATO partners to develop the advanced F-35 fighter jet.
The rift between Turkey and the U.S. has also deepened in recent years over America’s support for Kurdish rebels in Syria. The U.S. has relied for a decade on the Syrian Kurds as an affective ally in the fight against ISIS extremists, butwith links to the PKK, an armed separatist group fighting for greater autonomy in southern Turkey.
In a 2020 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Biden said he’d “spent a lot of time” with Erdogan, and he called him an “autocrat.”
On Monday night, Turkey’s government said Mr. Biden would meet his Turkish counterpart on the sidelines of a NATO summit in June. The genocide remark will be just the latest issue adding to the tension in the room.
Armenian voices today
Survivors and descendants — including a vocal Armenian diaspora in the United States — have campaigned for decades to get other governments across the world to recognize the killings as an act of genocide. About 30 countries have now characterized the events that way.
Recent history has also been marked by trauma for the roughly 60,000 ethnic Armenians who still live inside Turkey. The assassination of a prominent Armenian journalist, Hirant Dink, by a Turkish ultra-nationalist in 2007 showed that the small community could still be targeted.
A recent survey conducted by a foundation set up by Dink’s family found that Armenians are still the most-maligned minority group by Turkish media outlets.
“Most of the Armenians in Turkey have to hide their identities in public life,” Rober Koptas, the former editor of Armenian newspaper Agos, told CBS News. “They often have two names — one Turkish, one Armenian. They have these dual identities. It is a bit schizophrenic to be an Armenian in Turkey and the reason for that is fear.”
Koptas said that while genocide is only a word, it means a lot for Armenians.
“The word genocide is politically important because of Turkey’s denial,” he said. “If the Turkish stance was different, maybe Armenians would not be hung up on the terminology so much.”
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