The storm of April 24 that hit Turkey after the US President Joe Biden pronounced “Armenian genocide”, after 1915 wartime massacres under the Ottoman Rule calmed quickly. Preventing the US presidents from using the “G-word” has been named as one of the few basic aims of Turkish foreign policy for years.
President Tayyip Erdoğan was expected to react harshly if Biden said “genocide” in English, legalizing possible cases against Turkey at the US courts. According to comments, he would retaliate, for example by closing the İncirlik base to the US, just like the late prime minister (and president) Süleyman Demirel did in 1975 in reaction to the arms embargo by Washington. Some claimed Erdoğan could even stop operations of the “Missile Shield” radar base in Malatya-Kürecik, eastern Turkey, as one of the new strategic assets. Erdoğan could retaliate in any case.
However, the first reaction from Erdoğan came two days later and in a rather soft “Mr. Biden” tone. Turkey was “upset,” His words even did not include a previous threat by his spokesperson and security and foreign policies advisor İbrahim Kalın, who said Turkey would deliver its response in the upcoming weeks or months. On the contrary, he hoped relations with the US would take a new course at the meeting with Biden on the sidelines of the NATO summit to be held in June.
Reaction hid into of Covid-19 lockdown
Erdoğan’s reaction was “squeezed” in a statement on the Covid-19 lockdown announcement – a propaganda success by his Communications Director Fahrettin Altun. News headlines –naturally– focused on the new measures against the pandemic and the lockdown. Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli, Erdoğan’s election partner, also reacted to Biden but with words that did not go beyond clichés during a parliament speech to his fellow lawmakers. Amid an agenda filled by the lockdown, and a ban on alcohol sales during its practice, the issue of the “Armenian genocide”, which had been introduced to the Turkish citizens as a foreign policy basis for years, vanished in the blinking of an eye. Had Erdoğan made a sudden turn in foreign policy from being a hawk to a pigeon all of a sudden? Or were there some other dimensions of the matter?
Please do not rush to comment that “the Halkbank case about violating the US sanctions on Iran is soon and witness Reza Zerrab –an Iranian-Turkish businessman held in the US– might confess about his relations with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)” The matter is even more complicated.
The sources I contacted to understand how the AKP government and its ally MHP overcame Biden’s recognition of the “Armenian genocide” so rapidly, refused to give their names, and even did not accept indirect references. So I would kindly ask you to interpret the following as my “strong impressions.”
Here is the backstage story.
Turkish public opinion was prepared
The US media started reporting months ago that Biden would keep his election promise and “acknowledge the Armenian genocide on April 24.”
These reports prepared public opinion in Turkey for such a move. The debate focused not on whether Biden would say the “G-word”, but on how Erdoğan would react.
The citizens know that Erdoğan’s relation with Biden is nothing like his relationship with Donald Trump. Biden had even not responded to Erdoğan’s congratulatory call yet at that time. In addition, the US had ousted Turkey from the F35 fighter jet program and seized the planes that Ankara had already paid for because of its purchase of S400 missiles from Russia. Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher behind the 15 July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, was continuing his activities in the US And there was this state-lender Halkbank case. The US military had relations with the PYD/YPG, the Syrian branch of the outlawed PKK.
Thus the Turkish public started to think that Erdoğan could not hold Biden back from recognizing the “genocide” if the US leader had this in mind.
Biden sugarcoated it for Erdoğan
First, the US proposed Turkey as the host for Afghanistan peace talks, a move that showed his intention not to cut ties with Turkey despite the S400 issue. This eased Erdoğan’s hand a little because it indicated that the Biden acknowledged the US need for Turkey in also in issues outside NATO. Then, he withdrew from sending two warships to the Black Sea, easing Turkey’s position against Russia amid the Ukrainian crisis at a time when the Montreux Convention debate.
Before called Erdoğan on April 23, his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called İbrahim Kalın. April 24 announcement was certainly coming but Erdoğan could be sure that Turkey would not be the target. The US administration had already spotted that Turkey’s main concern about the issue was legal cases. Washington would not like to see Ankara wrestling with compensation lawsuits, possibly to be placed by the heirs of people who fled to the US in1915 or after. This Kalın-Sullivan contact was reported in the Turkish media as a “consensus on avoiding the use of word ‘Turkey’ in Biden’s statement.” It would be the Ottoman period to be blamed.
Then Biden called Erdoğan, starting with saying that he wants to meet the Turkish leader, and the NATO Summit in June could be a good time.
This key sentence had already halved Erdoğan’s possible reaction. As the opposition İYİ Party (Good Party) leader Meral Akşener put it, options such as “hanging up on Biden” or “refusing the offer for the June meeting” were off the table in a second. Erdoğan also wanted to meet.
Immediately after that, the third call came from Washington to Ankara. This time, State Secretary Antony Blinken called his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. The US cared for preventing Turkey from giving a harsh reaction.
The Biden administration made three top-level calls to Ankara within two hours on April 23, allowing the April 24 G-word storm to pass quickly.
Was Turkey ready for another currency shock?
Still, it is understood that, apart from this softening operation, Biden saw chances from retaliation by Erdoğan were low, as he would avoid a further deterioration of relations with Washington.
In other words, yes, Biden prevented a retaliation by Erdoğan by saying that he wants to meet him, but on the other hand, he was confident yet for another reason.
The American finance experts had told the White House that Turkey ran out of foreign currencies in its state banks and the Central Bank was also facing a foreign exchange shortage. If Erdoğan had given a concrete military or political response (other than strong statements or diplomatic protests), then the money markets would have reacted to that. The reserves held by the Central Bank might have not been sufficient enough to prevent yet another rally of the US dollar and Erdoğan knew it.
The opposition in Turkey has been asking the government about the whereabouts of the $128 billion spent from the reserves in 2018-2020 to unsuccessfully stop the greenback’s climb, but it seems that the US banking experts have a better idea about the answer to the question.
In addition, after Trump dragged the country into a currency crisis with a Twitter post in 2018, and he told Erdoğan “don’t be a fool, don’t be a tough guy” in a 2019 letter, and Erdoğan’s response was nothing further than “returning the letter” to Trump during a visit.
The US experts also verified their theory two days after the April 24 remarks by Biden. The Turkish lira’s fluctuation against the US dollar reached 5 percent in the 40 hours starting 20 hours before Biden’s statement, although Erdoğan did not react sharply.
In short, it was not only Biden’s promise to meet with Erdoğan but also the weakness that the Central Bank has been pushed into playing a role in the Turkish president’s slide over the April 24 remarks of the US leader.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m not asking why there was no April 24 storm dragging Turkey into another financial crisis upon Biden’s use of the G-word. Every financial crisis brings more economic difficulties to ordinary Turkish citizens and political pressure. But I wanted to share a backstage story about the realities behind chauvinistic statements which have not delivered anything good for people so far.