Turkey slams Joe Biden's 'betrayal' in recognising Armenian genocide

US president's move adds more strain to ties between Washington and Ankara

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a press conference following his meeting with Greek Foreign Minister, in Ankara on April 15, 2021.  / AFP / Adem ALTAN

Turkey called US President Joe Biden's use of the word "genocide" for the killings of Armenians during the First World War the "greatest betrayal to peace and justice" on Saturday.

Turkey has lobbied for decades against US presidential recognition of genocide when marking the massacres that killed hundreds of thousands of Armenian Ottomans as they were deported from Anatolia to the Syrian desert in 1915 and 1916.

Although symbolic, Mr Biden’s remarks threaten to worsen already tense relations with Ankara.

“Words cannot change or rewrite history,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted moments after the release of Mr Biden’s statement.

“We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past. Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice. We entirely reject this statement based solely on populism.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, condemned the Biden statement as “null and void”.

“It is very clear that this statement in support of the unfounded slander of the Armenian diaspora stems from the internal political calculations of the United States,” he said.

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We do not accept and strongly condemn US President Biden's statement on the events in the Ottoman Empire in 1915

“This initiative … will not help Armenians get out of the difficult situation they are in and will not serve the interests of the United States. It is truly unfortunate for Turkey-US relations that the Biden administration chose to present history incorrectly for domestic political purposes.”

A foreign ministry statement said Mr Biden’s words would “open a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship.” His comments served only to “satisfy certain political circles” and those trying “to foment enmity from history”, it added.

Omer Celik, spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said: “We do not accept and strongly condemn US President Biden’s statement on the events in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, which lacks historical and legal basis and is based on unfounded allegations.”

In a statement on the anniversary of arrests in Istanbul that foreshadowed the massacres, Mr Biden said: “The American people honour all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today.”

His comments came a year after he pledged to recognise the genocide, arguing that “silence is complicity”. The president has promised to make human rights a central theme of his foreign policy.

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Opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) spokesman Faik Oztrak said the US statement would “go down in history as a great mistake”. It would cause “irreparable wounds” to Turkey-US relations, and was a missed chance to improve ties between Turkey and Armenia, he said.

“The Armenian genocide took place in these lands and justice can only be achieved in these lands,” said Garo Paylan, an ethnic Armenian MP for the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

“Turkish society can heal the wounds of the Armenian people. I respectfully commemorate the victims of the Armenian genocide who have been waiting for justice for 106 years.”

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said both the HDP and Turkey’s Human Rights Association, were “united in their opposition to the nation and history”.

Mr Biden spoke to Mr Erdogan on Friday evening – their first conversation since the US president took office in January – and reportedly warned him that he planned to refer to the atrocities as genocide.

Turkey seeks to divert attention to its own victims

Prior to Mr Biden’s statement, the Turkish foreign ministry posted the names of 31 Turkish diplomats killed by Armenian militants in the 1970s and 1980s.

On Saturday, Turkey organised a number of events focusing on the issue, including an exhibition on the victims of Armenian militants in Los Angeles, the heart of the Armenian community in the US.

Mustafa Sentop, speaker of the Turkish parliament, said that Turkey could also comment on dark episodes in American history. “One of the countries with the dirtiest history in this regard is the USA,” he said during a visit to a memorial to the slain diplomats in Ankara.

The US Senate passed a non-binding resolution in 2019 recognising the genocide, deeply angering Turkey at the time. Early this week, more than 100 members of Congress sent a letter to Mr Biden urging him to “right decades of wrongs” and call the killings a genocide.

Turkey accepts that some 300,000 Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed as Russia threatened the empire’s eastern borders during First World War but argues that Muslim civilians were also massacred by Armenian irregulars.

There is also dispute as to whether the killings were deliberately orchestrated by the Ottoman state and over the number of Armenians who died.

Historians say between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians died during the deportations and in Syrian camps. Some 2 million lived in Anatolia before the war. By 1922, less than 400,000 Armenians remained.

On April 24, 1915 around 300 Armenian politicians and intellectuals were rounded up in Istanbul and deported to central Anatolia. The following month, mass deportations from Anatolia began and by the summer of 2016 the region was emptied of most of its Armenian population.

The forced displacement was marked on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day on Saturday.

Mr Biden's statement will add to tensions between the Nato allies over a wide range of issues including Ankara's purchase of Russian missiles; America's support for Kurdish fighters in Syria who Turkey deems terrorists; US criticism of Turkey's human rights record; and the presence in the US of the alleged mastermind of a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

More than 20 governments and parliaments have so far recognised the killings as the first genocide of the 20th century, including France, Canada, Germany and Russia.

The United Nations’ Genocide Convention, which has been ratified by Turkey, defines genocide as acts intended to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. These actions include killing, causing serious harm or inflicting conditions calculated to destroy the group.

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