Instead of İncirlik, he closed the country down

On the weekend of April 24, a long-held national fear came to fruition. Probably because U.S. President Joe Biden's recognition of the Armenian genocide came at a time when Turkish people have bigger and real problems about surviving today, there has not been a groundbreaking pushback from the society. Even President Erdoğan himself did not seem as much bothered as pundits predicted he would be. If Turkey-U.S. relations survived this year's April 24, perhaps they survive anything!

The two weeks have been quite action-packed for us. As citizens of Turkey, who has been thrust into an ungracious loneliness thanks to poorly gifted policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), we increasingly feel the heat at home. As if our daily predicaments are not enough to make us fall into pieces, then there are also historical transgressions which do linger over our conscience. At times like this when the bitterness of the past and the uncertainty about the future are all crushing down upon us simultaneously, it is hard to focus. However, we astonishingly, recover pretty quickly. Constant drama keeps nations accustomed to normalizing intense difficulties, I guess. 

On the weekend of April 24, a long-held national fear came to fruition. A wound, which the Armenian diaspora and the Turkish state have infected together over the years. Probably because U.S. President Joe Biden's recognition of the Armenian genocide came at a time when Turkish people have bigger and real problems about surviving today, there has not been a groundbreaking pushback from the society. People, who have a flurry of other concerns like whether they will have access to COVID-19 vaccines before the year ends or whether they will be lucky enough to keep their jobs during lockdowns or they will be able to avoid bankruptcy   or even whether they will simply be able provide milk for their babies, naturally could not give much of attention to Biden's April 24 announcement. 

Even President Erdoğan himself did not seem as much bothered as pundits predicted he would be. Biden’s statement on the 106th anniversary of the April 24 which said, “Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide…”, was not countered by Erdoğan's usual angry expressions which he likes using to demonize foreign leaders. 

Apparently we understood how Erdoğan was prepared to take Biden down a peg one day before April 24. When much awaited phone call between two leaders finally took place on April 23, it became evident that Biden had picked up the phone to inform Erdoğan about his decision to use the word “genocide” in his April 24 statement, a designation that Ankara has been trying to prevent for 50 years. American diplomacy has a habit of breaking the bad news in advance to their valued partners. Thus, Biden calling Erdoğan to give him the bad news himself was not outrageous. One might even say that at least Biden has shown courtesy by doing that because he could have easily issued that statement without any prior notification.

What was extraordinary was that Biden had avoided calling Erdoğan entirely until this point. The call came three months after Biden took office, and only to say, “I’m going to call it a genocide.” During the Ukraine crisis, Biden even called Russian President Putin, whom he has publicly referred to as a “killer.” Yet, Biden seemed unwilling to call the head of a NATO ally whose Black Sea coast line is of increasing importance.

Nevertheless, on the evening of April 23, the presidential palace in Ankara, Beştepe released a written statement regarding the Erdoğan-Biden conversation, which was similar to that of the White House. There was consensus regarding the importance of working together to expand areas of cooperation. The two leaders also agreed to meet face-to-face on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June. I guess this is as good as it gets. At this rate, if the two leaders go into business with Assad in Damascus in the near future, no one should be surprised.

After glazing over April 23 and 24 with written statements, Erdoğan took the stage on April 26, after a cabinet meeting. At that point, the attention of the Turkish public had shifted toward the to-be-announced measures to fight the recent wave of COVID-19 cases. It has been 13.5 months since the first case was identified in Turkey, and Erdoğan only now declared a ‘full lockdown.’ The situation could be perfectly summarized by saying ‘Too little, too late.’

Erdoğan started the speech by voicing his reproach to his old friend Biden who back in 2011 visited him at his home in Istanbul and drank tea while wearing Turkish style slippers just like his host. That is why President Erdoğan was deeply saddened by Biden's "use of unfounded statements about incidents that took place a century ago." However, instead of resorting to harsher criticism, Erdoğan chose to stick to a constructive approach and stated that he believed his meeting with Biden in June would open the door to a new era of relations. 

Minutes later, I got a message from a well-informed friend of mine who closely monitors Turkey- U.S relations. The message included a screenshot of a tweet from user @sonersnr0. The tweet said, “Instead of İncirlik, he closed the country down.”

Twitter user @sonersnr0  was right on spot for using the İncirlik metaphor. For years, Turkish officials pointed to a possible restriction to the use of İncirlik Base (in the south of Turkey near Adana province) by the U.S. army in the case that a U.S. president recognized the Armenian genocide.

While the Erdoğan government has long since dulled our ability to be surprised, it still stood out that Erdoğan kept an unexpectedly cool head with regard to Biden's genocide move. 

Two days after Erdoğan’s remarks, the state-run Anadolu Agency (AA) released a report. Ministry of Defense sources were quoted saying, “İncirlik is one of our air force bases belonging to the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). It is a Turkish base, and its ownership, along with all the facilities on it, belongs to the Republic of Turkey. The use of certain facilities at the base was carried out in line with the Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement (DECA) signed between Turkey and the United States on March 29, 1980.”

If the purpose of AA releasing this kind of story was to send a message to Washington that “we can suspend the deal if we want to,” it did so quietly enough that we can’t be sure anyone even noticed.

From speaking with my contacts in Washington, I gathered that up until a couple of days before April 24 the Turkish Embassy in Washington surmised that there was no chance Biden would take this step. With this kind of lack of foresight, how they expect to manage such a turbulent shift in relations is a big question mark.

Biden’s close aides are reportedly still advising him to make no concessions to Erdoğan on critical issues such as the S-400s. It seems the Blinken-Sullivan team continue to advise Biden that the Putin tactic, not the Trump one, works best on Erdoğan.

As there has been no substantive reaction from Ankara to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the Biden administration, those pundits, who argue that Turkey and the United States always find a way to work together even in most dire conditions, may be proved right. 

Expectedly, too many fervent opinions were published in Turkey reflecting the usual denialism about the genocide after Joe Biden's April 24 statement.

There were a few outliers, too.

In his column published in Gazete Pencere on April 28, retired Turkish Ambassador Kaya Türkmen wrote: “It is impossible to ignore the scale of the disaster inflicted on Armenians in 1915 who have been residents in Anatolia for a thousand years and to compare it with other tragedies that occurred under the conditions of the First World War. Because what is in question here is the treatment a state has deemed proper for its own citizens.”

He continued saying, “We have struggled to date also to avoid being ‘branded as perpetrators of genocide.’ However, it has not been heard that crimes against humanity are attributed to an entire nation. Only the perpetrators of that genocide are held responsible for a crime like a genocide. The Turkish nation is not the responsible party. And no one is accusing us as a nation.”

For a diplomat who devoted two-thirds of his life to representing Turkish Republic, it is important to note that he is rejecting the treatment of the Armenian people by those who ruled the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and that he is critical of the “denial to the end” instruction given to Turkish Foreign Ministry personnel for decades. Even more so it is important that is sharing this view via a public newspaper article, not within a closed circle of friends.

Whoever has such courage deserves to be commended. We shall hope that one day the majority in Turkey would have the courage to echo similar sentiments without fear.