Infuriated by Biden's Armenian genocide recognition, Ankara summons US envoy

The Turkish Foreign Ministry on April 24 said it summoned the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara over President Joe Biden's recognition of the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide, adding it had conveyed Turkey's "strong reaction." Biden's move infuriated the Turkish government, with condemnation messages being released by numerous officials.

A person holds a placard as members of the Armenian diaspora in the U.S. rally to mark the anniversary of the 1915 genocide, in Los Angeles, California, U.S. April 24, 2021.

Duvar English - Reuters

The Turkish government was infuriated by U.S. President Joe Biden's recognition of the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide, as Turkey summoned the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara to convey its "strong reaction." 

Biden said on April 24 said that the 1915 killings constituted genocide, a historic declaration that infuriated Turkey and further strained frayed ties between the two NATO allies.

The largely symbolic move, breaking away from decades of carefully calibrated language from the White House, was welcomed by the Armenian diaspora in the United States, but comes at a time when Ankara and Washington grapple with deep policy disagreements over a host of issues.

Turkey's government and most of the opposition showed rare unity in their rejection of Biden's statement. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Turkey "entirely rejects" the U.S. decision which he said was based "solely on populism," while the opposition denounced it as a "major mistake."

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said deputy foreign minister Sedat Önal had told U.S. Ambassador David Satterfield that the statement had no legal basis and that Ankara "rejected it, found it unacceptable and condemned in the strongest terms." It said the statement had caused a "wound in ties that will be hard to repair." 

The U.S. Embassy in Turkey said its missions in the country would be closed on April 26 and 27 for visa services due to the possibility of protests.

"We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement of the President of the U.S. regarding the events of 1915 ... It is clear that the said statement does not have a scholarly and legal basis, nor is it supported by any evidence," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. 

"This statement ...will open a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship. We call on the U.S. President to correct this grave mistake"

Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın said that the U.S. should look at its own past in response to Biden's move. 

"We strongly condemn and reject the U.S. President's remarks which only repeat the accusations of those whose sole agenda is enmity towards our country," Kalın said on Twitter. "We advise the U.S. President to look at [his country's] own past and present."

He also said that "politicizing history is never a rational and moral act." 

The deputy leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Numan Kurtulmuş, said that "Turkey's glorious history doesn't include Armenian genocide." 

"We remind those who slander Turkey to curry favor with Armenian lobbies that they massacred the Native Americans that are the true owners of the land they're living on and how the United States was founded after a genocide," Kurtulmuş said. 

Faik Öztrak, the spokesperson of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), said that they also condemn Biden's recognition, while also slamming the AKP for its "shortsighted foreign policy." 

Right-wing Good Party (İYİ) leader Meral Akşener made similar remarks, saying that she condemns both Biden's statement and the government for its "failure to manage the attacks against Turkey." 

The government's far-right ally Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli said that Turkey and the U.S. have reached a crossroads. 

The only opposition party that recognizes the Armenian genocide is the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which became under fire over calling the killings a genocide. It also called on Turkey to face its history and provide justice. 

Garo Paylan, an Armenian deputy from the HDP, said that the Armenian people are waiting for justice.

"When Turkey confronts the Armenian genocide, it will no longer matter what other countries or parliaments have to say ... We need to bring the pain of the Armenian people, to the land where it belongs, to Turkey. We have to face the pain of the Armenian people and we must relieve this pain through justice. The Armenian people are waiting for justice," he said. 

Biden's message was met with "great enthusiasm" by the people of Armenia and Armenians worldwide, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan wrote in a letter to the U.S. president.

In his statement, Biden said the American people honor "all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today."

"Over the decades Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they have never forgotten the tragic history," Biden said. "We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated."

In comments that sought to soften the blow, a senior administration official told reporters that Washington continued to see Turkey as a critical NATO ally and was encouraging Armenia and Turkey to pursue reconciliation.

For decades, measures recognizing the Armenian genocide stalled in the U.S. Congress and most U.S. presidents have refrained from calling it that, stymied by concerns about relations with Turkey and intense lobbying by Ankara. Ronald Reagan, the former U.S. president from California, a hub for the Armenian diaspora in the United States, had been the only U.S. president to publicly call the killings genocide.

People take part in a torchlight procession commemorating victims of the 1915 mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in Yerevan, Armenia April 23, 2021.

Turkey accepts that many Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but contests the figures and denies the killings were systematically orchestrated and constitute a genocide.

In Montebello, California, a city in Los Angeles County that is home to many Armenian-Americans, members of the community held a small and somber ceremony during which they placed a cross made of flowers at a monument to the victims. Some attendees wore pins reading "genocide denied genocide repeated."

Raffi Hamparian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America, said in a statement that Biden's "principled stand ... pivots America toward the justice deserved and the security required for the future of the Armenian nation."

'Relations already in shambles' 

A year ago, while still a presidential candidate, Biden commemorated the 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children who lost their lives in the final years of the Ottoman Empire and said he would back efforts to recognize those killings as a genocide.

Ties between Ankara and Washington have been strained over issues ranging from Turkey's purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems - over which it was the target of U.S. sanctions - to policy differences in Syria, human rights and a court case targeting Turkey's majority state-owned Halkbank.

Biden's declaration follows a non-binding resolution by the U.S. Senate adopted unanimously in 2019 recognizing the killings as genocide.

Previous U.S. presidents have abandoned campaign promises to recognize the Armenian genocide for fear of damaging U.S.-Turkish relations, said Nicholas Danforth, non-resident fellow for The Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.

"With relations already in shambles, there was nothing to stop Biden from following through," said Danforth. "Ankara has no allies left in the U.S. government to lobby against this and Washington isn't worried whether it angers Turkey anymore."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had established a close bond with former U.S. President Donald Trump, but since Biden took over, Washington has grown more vocal about Turkey's human rights track record. It has also stood firm on its demand that Ankara gets rid of the Russian defense systems.

Biden had also delayed having a telephone conversation with Erdoğan until April 23 -- seen largely as a cold shoulder to the Turkish president -- when he informed him of his decision to recognize the massacres as genocide.

Despite the tense relations, Erdoğan and Biden are due to meet in June on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels.