Biden Speaks to Erdogan as Armenian Genocide Question Looms

WASHINGTON—President Joe Biden spoke with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday as Biden prepared to move forward with a campaign pledge to formally recognize that atrocities committed against the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire more than a century ago were genocide.

The U.S. and Turkish governments, in separate statements on the call, made no mention of the looming decision on the Armenian genocide recognition. But the White House said Biden told Erdogan he wants to improve the two countries’ relationship and find “effective management of disagreements.” The two also agreed to hold a bilateral meeting at the NATO summit in Brussels in June.

Biden pledged as a candidate to recognize the World War I-era killings and deportations of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in modern-day Turkey.

Friday’s call between the two leaders was the first since Biden took office more than three months ago. The delay had become a worrying sign in Ankara; Erdogan had a good rapport with former President Donald Trump and had been hoping for a reset despite past friction with Biden.

Turkey Marks The 103rd Anniversary of Armenian Genocide
Commemoration of the 1915 Armenian mass killings was held in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 24, 2018. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens during the opening session of the virtual global Leaders Summit on Climate, as he sits in his office in Ankara, Turkey, on April 22, 2021. (Mustafa Kamaci/Turkish Presidency via AP)

Erdogan on Friday reiterated his long-running claims that the United States is supporting Kurdish fighters in Syria who are affiliated with the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. In recent years, Turkey has launched military operations against PKK enclaves in northern Iraq and against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters. The State Department has designated the PKK as a terrorist organization but has argued with Turkey over the group’s ties to the Syrian Kurds.

Erdogan also raised concerns about the presence in the United States of cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup attempt, according to the Turkish government statement. Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s, denies involvement in the coup.

Biden, during the campaign, drew ire from Turkish officials after an interview with The New York Times in which he spoke about supporting Turkey’s opposition against “autocrat” Erdogan. In 2019, Biden accused Trump of betraying U.S. allies, following Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, which paved the way for a Turkish military offensive against the Syrian Kurdish group. In 2014, when he was vice president, Biden apologized to Erdogan after suggesting in a speech that Turkey helped facilitate the rise of the terrorist group Islamic State by allowing foreign fighters to cross Turkey’s border with Syria.

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks to the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House in Washington, on April 23, 2021. (Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

Lawmakers and Armenian American activists have been lobbying Biden to make the genocide announcement on or before the Armenian remembrance day that presidents typically mark with a proclamation.

Salpi Ghazarian, director of the University of Southern California’s Institute of Armenian Studies, said the recognition of genocide would resonate beyond Armenia as Biden insists that respect for human rights will be a central principle in his foreign policy.

“Within the United States and outside the United States, the American commitment to basic human values has been questioned now for decades,” she said. “It is very important for people in the world to continue to have the hope and the faith that America’s aspirational values are still relevant, and that we can in fact to do several things at once. We can in fact carry on trade and other relations with countries while also calling out the fact that a government cannot get away with murdering its own citizens.”

Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had warned the Biden administration earlier this week that recognition would “harm” U.S.-Turkey ties.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment Friday on Biden’s deliberations on the issue.

By Aamer Madhani, Matthew Lee and Zeynep Bilginsoy

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