Opinion: Biden's recognition of Armenian genocide reflects dispensability of Turkey

Written By: Achal Malhotra
New Delhi Published: May 01, 2021, 10:43 PM(IST)

(File photo) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Photograph:( Reuters )

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Turkey’s response has been on the predicted lines. President Erdogan accused President Biden of yielding to political pressure from “radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups” and asked him  to “reverse this wrong step immediately”

President Joe Biden will be remembered by the global Armenian community as the first  US  President who formally described the large-scale massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War as “genocide” . He did so through a Presidential statement on April 24, 2021. The  day is commemorated by Armenians all over the world as “Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day” 

Ten million Armenians including an estimated seven million Armenian diaspora spread all over the world have been demanding the recognition of Armenian Genocide by the Turkish Ottoman regime during and after the World War 1. 

There is a broad consensus amongst international scholars that the Christian Armenian minority in Muslim-majority Turkey under Ottoman rule was subjected to blatant discrimination. During the First World War, the Turks suspected that the loyalty of the Christian Armenians of Turkey was with the Christian Russians. Many of them were residing in Eastern Anatolia, bordering with Imperialist Russia. 

Enraged by a heavy defeat at the hands of the Russian forces in the Battle of Saikamish (December 1914 to January 1915), the Ottoman Turks began destroying Ottoman Armenian villages during their retreat. The Ottoman War Minister Anwar Pasha publically accused the Armenians of treachery and what followed was the arrest of a large number of Armenians from different walks of life in Constantinople (now Istanbul) on April 24, 1915, and subsequent deportations en masse to the Syrian desert and elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were massacred or died from starvation or disease. A large number of Armenian women are alleged to have been molested/raped.  

The Armenians put the total figure of those who died in the process at 1.5 million.  Turkey admits that there were indeed casualties but insists the numbers were no more than three hundred thousand and denies any systematic or premeditated plan for ethnic cleansing. Relations between Armenia and Turkey remain overshadowed by this burden of history as the two neighbouring countries do not have diplomatic relations and their borders remain closed for each other.

Continuous influx of Armenians into the United States since the 17th century has created a vibrant, active, and diverse Armenian American Diaspora, estimated to be 1.6 million and the second-largest worldwide. The high concentration of Armenian Americans in certain electoral districts, particularly in California, allows them to influence the electoral outcome of elections in those districts.

The primary objectives of the Armenian lobby in the USA, spearheaded by the domestic organisations such as Armenian National Committee of America and Armenian Assembly of America revolve around improving the US relations with Armenia, securing US aid and assistance for Armenia, blocking US aid to Turkey and Azerbaijan and above all the recognition of Armenian genocide.

The Armenian lobby had so far succeeded in enlisting the support of as many as 49 US states in describing the Armenians massacre as genocide. Further in 2019 the US House of Representatives and the Senate had adopted separate but identical Resolutions the thrust of which inter-alia was that “It is the policy of the United States to commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance” and “to reject efforts to enlist, engage or otherwise associate the United States Government with denial of the Armenian Genocide or other genocides”.

The US State Department however said that  despite the resolutions the US Government’s official position did not change.

The successive US Presidents had so far refrained from any official reference to Armenian Genocide; they did so in deference to the sensitivities of Turkey- an important strategic NATO ally of the USA. In April 2020, the then US President Trump did pay tributes to the victims of “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century” but stopped short of describing it as genocide. Even the Democratic President Barak Obama is accused of having reneged on the election campaign promises of recognising the Armenian genocide. 

Joe Biden’s decision is bound to please the Armenians who were somewhat disappointed over the US’s failure under President Trump to make any effective and substantive intervention during the 44-days armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. The conflict ended in a humiliating military defeat for Armenia and also resulted, besides the loss of lives and territories, in a widespread agitation in Armenia against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

He ultimately resigned on 25th April 2021 to pave the way for mid-term elections in June 2021; as a matter of coincidence he resigned just a day after the release of Joe Biden’s Presidential Statement. Prima-facie there is no link between the US Presidential Statement and Armenian PM’s resignation.

What prompted Joe Biden to accord official recognition to Armenian genocide- an act from which his predecessors both Democrats as well as Republicans had refrained from? For sure, this could not just be to appease and please the Armenians, considering in particular that the next elections are four years away,  whereas the announcement could have an immediate adverse impact on the US-Turkey relations which are already on the downslide for some time for a variety of reasons. Turkey’s response has been on the predicted lines. President Erdogan accused President Biden of yielding to political pressure from “radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups” and asked him  to “reverse this wrong step immediately” 

So, does the US President’s recognition of Armenian genocide reflect the diminishing importance of Turkey for the USA as an ally, particularly in the backdrop of the US drawing down its military commitments to hotspots in the Middle East? 

By recognising the Armenian genocide, does the Biden Administration wish to convey its strong commitments to human rights? If so, the questions are being asked as to whether one can expect a similar approach for the  Bengalis of Eastern Pakistan (now Bangladesh) who were butchered by the Pakistani Army in 1971 or for the Rohingya Muslims being currently persecuted by the Buddhist majority and the military junta in Myanmar? Perhaps not as neither Rohingyas nor Bengalis have any lobbying power in USA. Moreover, Pakistan still has some nuisance value for the USA in the context of Afghanistan.

Is the Biden Administration trying to convey a message that the USA will not differentiate between friends, allies, or foes on matters which it considers as matters of principles and can go to any extent to prove the point. Remember, only recently (7th April) the US Navy had not only trespassed India’s Exclusive Economic Zone in its territorial waters but also had the audacity of making a public statement that it had done so without informing India or obtaining India’s prior’s consent and that it had done so to assert the Freedom of Navigation and to challenge India’s “excessive maritime claims”. 

Reverting to the issue of Armenian genocide, the Armenians have so far met with partial but reasonable success in securing global recognition. The recognition has come mainly from the Western States and organisations. 

While India has not recognised the Armenian Genocide all these years, the high-level dignitaries on official visits to  Armenia do visit the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan to pay tribute to the victims of Armenian genocide. 

On last such occasion, the then Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari, had visited the Memorial on 25th April, 2017, laid a wreath and observed: “This is a tragedy, indescribable things done to humans by humans.” Earlier in 2005 the then  Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat had also visited the Memorial in Yerevan and planted a tree besides laying a wreath.

In nutshell, the US President’s recognition of the Armenian genocide is a shot in  the  arm for Armenians  for their global campaign 

The full impact of the recognition on US relations with Turkey remains to be seen. Other than verbal rhetoric there are no firm indications at this point of time of any retaliatory measure which Turkey may be contemplating to counter the “insult and injury”.  

It is clear however that Turkey is now a dispensable ally for the USA. Turkey has been making unacceptable un-palatable statements from time to time on Kashmir in disregard to India’s sensitivities. India can and should therefore use the Armenian genocide issue as a diplomatic weapon to dissuade Turkey from its unwarranted interference in India’s internal affairs, including those pertaining to Muslims in India in general and Kashmir in particular. If Turkey refuses to behave, India may reconsider its position on the issue of Armenian genocide, though that may require a well-articulated policy on the issue of genocide in general.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

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