By Arab News
By Dania Koleilat Khatib*
US President Joe Biden is this weekend expected to formally recognize the massacres conducted against the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War as “genocide.” He is likely to make the announcement on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which falls on Saturday. This recognition was one of his campaign promises.
Biden already has a chilly relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and this move is likely to increase the tensions between the two NATO allies. However, the recognition should not be looked at from a political angle but rather a human one. It should not be used to score points against Turkey, but as a framework to achieve a much-needed Turkish-Armenian reconciliation.
The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has warned that the recognition would sour the already-tense US-Turkish ties. Biden started his term on the wrong foot with Turkey. In an interview with the New York Times that was published in January, he stated he was willing to support the opposition to Erdogan, which the Turkish president did not take lightly. Erdogan considered it to be interference in Turkish domestic affairs. To add to that, Biden has appointed Brett McGurk as a key official when it comes to Middle East policy. McGurk is seen very negatively by the Turks, who accuse him of empowering Kurdish terrorism.
The US needs Turkey to stabilize Syria and Iraq and does not need another point of contention with its NATO ally. In light of the competition between Russia and the US, the last thing America needs is for Ankara to side with Moscow. If Turkey ever decides to leave NATO, it would be the end of the alliance, which has been the backbone of Western military integration for more than 70 years.
Despite also cozying up to Greece, the US needs Turkey to roll up its policies across the region. However, their relations have been getting more complex and more strained by the day. Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide might be the trigger that pushes Turkey to switch camps. On the other hand, it is a campaign promise to which Biden is bound. Other presidents have alluded to Armenian suffering but refrained from mentioning the genocide. However, official recognition has matured to become a public opinion issue in the US and more than 100 lawmakers have been pushing for it.
Biden should try to find a middle ground between fulfilling his promise, catering to public demand and not turning off an essential ally. However, the Biden administration places human rights at the heart of its policymaking agenda and will have difficulty ignoring the demands for recognition of the genocide.
Such a move would be of great importance to Armenian people all over the world. The 19th-century French historian Ernest Renan, when he tried to analyze the construction of a nation, found that the memories of collective suffering shaped the national identity. You will never find this to be more relevant than in the case of the Armenian people. The suffering inflicted on them 100 years ago has transcended generations and shaped their sense of peoplehood. Hence, it should be addressed and cannot be ignored. However, it is important for the matter not to be politicized.
The Turkish government insists that the Armenians were killed during the war and that there was no systematic elimination or ethnic cleansing that could amount to genocide. The narrative of the government is the generally accepted view of the Turkish people all across the political spectrum. It is difficult to convince a Turkish citizen that their ancestors committed genocide. However, it is important to reconcile with one’s past to have a better future.
We don’t know what Biden is going to say, but it is important that he frames this recognition as part of a general framework for reconciliation. Before he tackles Ottoman history, he should start with his own history and explain the crimes committed by the European settlers against the Native Americans. It is important that he explains how the US reconciled with its past, which is stained with genocide and slavery, how it embraced it, how it accepted its faults and worked for a better future. He should point out that recognition is not aimed at punishing the Turks, because one cannot punish people for crimes committed by their ancestors a century ago. However, the more a nation is self-confident, the more it has the courage to admit its past mistakes.
The US recognition should be coupled by a call for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, which is a much-needed process, especially since Ankara last year sided with Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia. Biden should point out that we cannot live in anger, hatred and insecurity forever; that there comes a time when we need to reconcile. To do that, we should accept each other, recognize our past mistakes and be willing to forgive and move on. He should point out that the recognition is not politically motivated and is not meant to punish Turkey, but is meant to bring Turkey and Armenia together. He should mention that the recognition is not a trial but a healing process.
If it is presented in this framework, it will benefit everyone. The Armenians will get the moral and symbolic recognition they long for; Turkey will not feel aggrieved or abused by its NATO ally; and the US will be fulfilling the role it should play as an agent for peace, stability and conflict resolution.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.