Red Lines in US-Turkey Relations


Recently, the relationship between two NATO allies, Washington and Ankara, has started deteriorating noticeably despite the fact that after the 2nd World War, Turkey was viewed as USA’s “right-hand man” in the region for many years.

During the previous century, the United States grew accustomed to treating Turks as junior partners who were expected to follow the US lead in various situations, typically in the interests of Washington. Any minor problems that, from time to time, plagued the ties between the two nations were dealt with by USA’s firm “hand”. As a result, there were no serious disagreements between these “allies”.

In recent years, strategic plans of the two countries have increasingly diverged although Turkey continues to depend on the United States and NATO for its economic, political and military needs. Once the Arab Spring began in the early 2010s, ambitions of Turkish leadership began to grow. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saw an opportunity amid the chaos to pursue a more Islamist and nationalist foreign policy that was more independent from Washington. Such attempts were perceived quite negatively in Washington, and this had a detrimental effect on the relationship between the two countries.

The US-Turkey relations began to deteriorate particularly noticeably in 2016 after the failed coup d’état attempt carried out by a faction within the Turkish armed forces. The Turkish leadership alleged that a Turk living in the United States was behind it and accused Washington of harboring him. As a result, any talks between the USA and Turkey became less constructive, and as the conflict between the two nations grew worse with each incident, Ankara began turning into Washington’s rival versus ally.

Turkey appeared to cross yet another red-line in US leadership’s eyes when it purchased S-400 missile systems from Russia. Afterwards, the White House applied even more pressure on Ankara. Once the United States removed Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter program, the US leadership began to look for Ankara’s other pressure points in order to use them to bring Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “back to his senses”.

Initially, the Turkish leadership hoped that under the new US administration headed by President Joe Biden the relations between the two nations would improve.  But a number of political observers were convinced that the current US foreign policy would not change with new leadership. With the aid of media outlets having close ties with Washington, the Turkish government was fairly quickly alerted to the fact that the new US leader was willing to take a harder line when it came to Ankara’s human rights record, which Turkey’s Western allies take issue with.

Hence, Joe Biden’s recent formal recognition of the Armenian genocide did not come as a surprise. Besides, on April 24, Biden had a telephone conversation with Erdoğan, in which he clearly threatened Turkey. He also did it through the press he controls which issued another warning to the Turkish leader attempting to escape Washington’s supremacy.

The US press reported that President Joe Biden was to become the first US leader to formally declare that the 1915 massacre of Armenians was a genocide, which could, in turn, undermine the cooperation between the US and Turkey “in regional military conflicts or diplomatic efforts.” It also said that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the current US President “had a somewhat testy relationship in the past, in contrast to the generally warm treatment” the Turkish leader had received from Donald J. Trump.

As of 2019, 49 out of 50 US states recognized the Armenian Genocide during World War I. Back in October 2019, when Donald Trump was still President, the US House of Representatives voted in favor of recognizing the mass killing of Armenians during World War I as a genocide. But to become official policy, the resolution needed to be approved by the Senate and then be signed by the President. Soon afterwards, the US Senate voted unanimously in favor of the resolution acknowledging the massacre as an act of genocide. And recently, Joe Biden made the policy official.

According to numerous experts, Mr. Biden’s declaration would not carry any “tangible penalties beyond humiliating Turkey and tainting its history with an inevitable comparison to the Holocaust.” Still, the move clearly crossed Turkey’s red-line since Joe Biden’s administration and recent US foreign policies in general have been perceived quite negatively in Ankara. And reactions towards the official declaration that have already emerged among not only Turkish leadership and elite members of Turkey’s society lend proof to the aforementioned statement.

In the opinion of a number of experts, tensions between Ankara and Washington could rise on account of Joe Biden’s recent move to officially recognize the mass killing of Armenians as a genocide. For instance, former ambassador to Turkey James F. Jeffrey said that, in response, President Erdogan “could easily try to stymie or delay specific policies to aggravate the Biden administration, particularly in Syria”, and in the Black Sea, as American warships would first need to “pass through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles on support missions to Ukraine.”

In addition, some believe that Turkey is likely to choose to reassess its role within NATO. After US President Joe Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide, Chairman of Turkey’s Patriotic Party Doğu Perinçek stated that the country’s leadership needed to “immediately establish full control over Incirlik Air Base and return” US troops stationed there to the United States within 15 days.

For Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who has recently tried to “promote and develop strategic relations with brotherly Ukraine”, the statement, made by the latter’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov, that his country also needed to recognize the Armenian genocide was an eye-opener.

Quite predictably, one of the first leaders to react with enthusiasm towards the US President’s decision was Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The latter’s letter addressed to Joe Biden stated that the move was “an inspiring example for all who” wanted to “build a just and tolerant international society together.” Once the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks is recognized as genocide globally, it will not come as a surprise if Armenians in different parts of the world choose to hold Turkey accountable for it. Possible consequences of such developments vary and may include the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which ended with the signing of the 2020 ceasefire agreement by Presidents of Azerbaijan and Russia and the Prime Minister of Armenia with the involvement of Turkey, which is interested in normalizing ties with Armenia. The relationship between Yerevan and Ankara was expected to improve in the nearest future but the Turkish leadership appeared to hesitate as they awaited the move by the Biden administration meant to happen on April 24, the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, judging by threatening statements made by Joe Biden and previously, Barack Obama about recognizing the killings as an act of genocide. And if Ankara were to show its willingness to begin dialogue with Yerevan now, in Turkey, such a move would be viewed as stemming from Joe Biden’s decision. Henceforth, it is unlikely that the Turkish leadership would take this step in the nearest future.

It is quite clear that because of US President’s formal recognition of the Armenian genocide, Turkey will seek broader support from Russia and China, and will stop definitely relying on the United States in the future.

As the influence of the US, a super power, continues to rapidly wane on global stage, the decision to officially call the mass killing of Armenians a genocide could be indicative of the direction USA’s foreign policy may take in the future. After all, the move was aimed to teach not only Ankara but other “rebellious” nations a lesson, i.e. the importance of knowing one’s place in the grand scheme of US policies. Hence, any form of disobedience or desire to act more independently is to be appropriately punished by the United States. In other words, there is only room for hyenas in the inner circle of the rightful lord of the jungle, Shere Khan.

However, one ought to keep in mind that these “hyenas”, by their very nature, are not truly loyal. As soon as a new leader emerges, they readily abandon the previous one. And with every passing day, the end to US hegemony approaches.

Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.


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