Turkey needs to clean its social conscience starting from 1915

No matter how 1915 is remembered, the “consensus of the state and the nation” of massacres, looting, exiles, and murders has been internalized. It is Turkey’s curse. Erdoğan government’s style of politics persistently blinds social conscience in a way that leaves no space for reviewing, examining, or confronting. This situation has become a traumatic load in foreign affairs over the years.

Joe Biden became the second U.S. President after Ronald Reagan to recognize the Armenian genocide. Until now, the Americans’ beloved expression of “Turkey’s property value” and respect for the strategic partnership U.S. presidents have used the term ‘Great Disaster.’

The base of the strategic partnership has worn off and accordingly, the cost of disregarding Ankara’s sensitivities has decreased. Along with these political realities, Biden’s personality, career, and personal choices have determined his approach to the 1915 incident and his recognition of those events as a genocide, as he promised his constituency. Turkey, represented by President Erdoğan, has had its arm twisted twice before this declaration due to errors in foreign policy and its hubristic attitude toward avoiding acknowledgement of history.

The solution for Turkey would be to not write a distorted history denying the crimes of our ancestors. Denial comes from the weaknesses of humankind and the system. The Armenian genocide will continue to be used by foreign powers to obtain concessions from Turkey as long as Turkey’s position doesn’t change.

Ankara has been using its diplomatic capacity and lobbing leverage for years to prevent this word from being officially used. As a result, this shift feeds the determination of the opposition. Turkish diplomacy experiences high tension every year on April 24 and Turkey must find a logical way to end this vicious cycle.

The former U.S. President Obama also promised his constituency to use the word genocide, but ultimately refrained. The determinant in that case was the start of the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. President Erdoğan was given the role of co-chairman of the Greater Middle East Project during the George W. Bush presidency. Accordingly, President Obama presented Turkey as the “model partner” to the Islamic world. Turkish foreign policy since the Arab Spring has poisoned itself to such a degree that the Arab world began to see Turkey as “the new threat” and Turkey became a “so-called partner” in NATO. Resulting in a huge loss of trust.

The word genocide was uttered at a time when President Erdoğan is already struggling to develop the country’s relations with the EU, NATO, and the Arab axis. President Biden’s long awaited telephone call came three months late and informed his Turkish counterpart that, “he is to describe the 1915 incidents as genocide.” In short, Mr. Biden said, “You will also react but don’t do anything too harsh. Let’s settle it.” Erdoğan couldn’t say ‘no’ to this theatrical play because of that struggle. The White House’s announcement about this telephone meeting centered around, “President Biden has declared his constructive interest in the effective management of disagreements and in the further development of cooperation areas.” Unlike in the past, the expression, “strategic partnership” wasn’t used in this announcement. Erdoğan is always very keen to have a relationship with American presidents; So, Mr. Biden offered him bilateral talks on bilateral and regional matters during the NATO summit in June. They agreed. That’s the hush money!

Some of the selected words and phrases in the text reflect the choice to not lose Turkey. The emphasis that the genocide took place during the Ottoman era and use of “Constantinople” instead of Istanbul, revealed a subtext that reads, “We are holding Turkey exempt from this.” This choice to not hurt Turkey and to not give rise to legal consequences, is a blow to Erdoğan’s political codes that see the Ottoman era as a history to be revived, and use historical references masterfully to manipulate the masses. If there were a subtext that covered the initial years of the Turkish republic as well, Erdoğan wouldn’t be hurt as much.

Consequently, pragmatism here is double-sided. Erdoğan remained silent for 24 hours even though he knew what Biden was going to do on April 24. Both parties assumed that they had left April 24 behind and began to draw the details of cooperation. Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, immediately spoke with his counterpart, Anthony Blinken, while Erdoğan's spokesperson, İbrahim Kalın, spoke with the National Security Advisor of the White House, Jake Sullivan.

We can assume that the black books will be opened before the meeting in June 2021. The game of, “We’re on bad terms with the U.S., let’s knock on Russia’s door” will not work anymore and all parties involved are sick and tired of it. This game stopped being a win-win situation and produced a helplessness that opens doors for compromise. Erdoğan’s presidency enables him to be the sole decision maker and this fact has resulted in a decline in coordination with institutions. The Foreign Ministry has failed its mission of absorbing tensions in this system. It has become the execution office of Erdoğan’s temper tantrums. Diplomacy has been denigrated and devalued. In the Trump era, the chemical harmony between the two authoritarian leaders was marketed as a gain for the presidential system and managed to avoid crisis. Such harmony is not present with Biden. Thus, we have hit a wall.

The emphasis on “strategic cooperation,” which the White House neglected to mention entered the statement of the “White Palace” deliberately. The term “strategic” denotes the partnership’s value for the American side. In this manner, pressures to make Turkey return to its factory settings will continue after Anthony Blinken has dubbed Turkey “the so-called partner.” That phone call, which took so long to come, was psychological preparation for this.  

We should check whether Turkey has any upper hand to reverse this American approach.

Washington’s global priorities have pulled down Turkey’s geostrategic position’s value. This trend did not start with Joe Biden. The plan to shift the from the Middle East toward Asia began during the Obama era. It is now accelerating after the “Arab Spring” parenthesis. Nobody can deny Turkey’s importance in NATO’s Black Sea strategy against Russia. This was the reason for Erdoğan siding with Ukraine and opening up the Montreux Convention (1936) to discussion.

Turkey keeps putting the İncirlik card on the table in times of disharmony. But this approach backlashed; the U.S. shifted its focus towards Greece to show that there is an alternative to İncirlik. They have thus strengthened Athens’ position against Ankara.

The U.S. keeps 320,000 troops in 200 bases in 172 countries. Some 100,000 of the troops are positioned in the Pacific, 70,000 in Europe, and 60,000 in the Middle East. The number of American soldiers in Turkey is approximately 1,760. This means many countries can play the same card as Turkey, but they don’t use it for bargaining.

The U.S. was uncomfortable with Turkey’s attempt to reach a solution with brute force in the eastern Mediterranean and preferred the Greek-Greek Cypriot axis. The Americans would like to have Turkey included in the Eastern Mediterranean Forum if and only if Turkey gives up the Blue Motherland doctrine. In the meantime, Ankara evaluated the Israel-Greece rapprochement and its impact on American policies as the dimension of natural gas fights and disregarded another factor. In the past, Athens distanced itself from Israel in order to gain Arab support for the Greek Cypriot issue. The Arab-Israel normalization that started with the U.S. initiative and the Turkish-Arab tension have both worked to Athens’ benefit. As a result, Greece is not concerned with developing relations with Israel with the fear of an Arab backlash. On the contrary, it now represents an extension of the east Mediterranean of the Arab-Israel-U.S. axis.

Ankara has two other points to leverage that it uses as a counter-pressure device. It tells the U.S. that it “can no longer support the terrorist organization PKK” and that it cannot accommodate the “putschist FETÖ.” (FETÖ is the term used for the Gülen community.) Apparently, American institutions consider the Gülen group functional in the long run. No change is expected to the U.S. stance on this matter.

U.S. support of the Kurds in Syria, on the other hand, is a thorny issue. Biden now represents the pressure that forced Trump to take a step back. It was Trump who had told Erdoğan, “Syria is yours; we are withdrawing.” Biden could be the most Kurdish-friendly president ever if we consider the reactions of Kurds. The pressure to “Stop supporting the YPG in Syria and cooperate with us” will likely be met with a suggestion to “solve the Kurdish problem in Turkey and you will arrive at our line in Syria.” The two issues where the negotiations will be difficult are the S-400 and the Halkbank case. Since the S-400s are subject to sanctions under CAATSA, it will be difficult for Biden to act otherwise. Even Trump delayed the sanctions for a while. Biden does not have the flexibility his predecessor had. Since the S-400 is seen directly as an issue related to NATO’s security, it is treated with dogma-level reaction in congress. No one expects Biden to have any negotiation regarding the S-400s other than their burial. It is also too late for a return to the F-35 program.

However, the tendency to keep Turkey close by downgrading relations to a security-oriented partnership on a NATO basis rather than on the political platform is gaining strength. The offer to meet at the NATO summit in June marks the goal of anchoring relations at the Trans-Atlantic port.

Relations with the U.S. have reached the point to “make concessions and be freed.” Turkey has been dragged into this position by politicians who have been politically engaged the most in the discourse of national sovereignty and independence. Turkey's weight has been wasted.

Back to the beginning, Turkey’s main problem is normalization domestically and internationally. No matter how 1915 is remembered, it is the starting point of the anomaly in Turkey’s political and social order. This “consensus of the state and the nation” where massacres, looting, exiles, and murders are internalized, is Turkey’s curse. This consensus sees the Kurdish issue from the same viewpoint. This style of politics persistently blinds social conscience in a way that leaves no space for reviewing, examining, or confronting. This situation has become a traumatic load in foreign relations over the years.