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President Biden officially recognizes "Armenian Genocide"

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President Biden broke from his predecessors today by officially recognizing the 1915 mass killing of roughly 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as "genocide." Turkish officials quickly responded, denouncing Mr. Biden's statement. Doctor Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies with a focus on U.S.-Turkish relations. He joined CBSN to discuss what the president's stance means for the relationship between the two NATO allies.

Video Transcript

- President Biden officially recognized the 1915 killing of over a million and a half Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide. Mr. Biden made the announcement on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. The designation has been a sore spot among Turkish leaders for decades. Turkey is in the heart of the former Ottoman Empire, and every president since Ronald Reagan has avoided the designation as they tried to keep the NATO ally happy.

In a statement, President Biden said, "each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide, and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring." He went on to say, "the American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today." Turkish officials denounced President Biden's acknowledgment moments after his statement was released. Joining me now is Dr. Bulent Aliriza. He is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, with a focus on US and Turkish relations. Professor Aliriza, thank you so much for being here. So what is the significance of President Biden using the word genocide, and why have previous presidents really shied away?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, as you explained, all presidents since President Reagan have avoided the use of the word, and have come up with different ways to describe the events of 1915. Most recently, President Obama used the word [ARMENIAN], the Armenian equivalent. And then President Trump picked up the same term and used it for four years. So it's very significant that President Biden has gone against the precedent established by his predecessors, and after having called President Erdogan the day before, used the term genocide, which clearly is something that the current Turkish government, as well as the previous Turkish governments, and indeed the Turkish state, has opposed.

- Well, relations between the US and Turkey, which is your specialty, they've been hurting for years. So what is the significance of President Biden's timing right now?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, I think we have to focus on President Biden himself. Having been part of the Obama administration as vice president, and having made clear during the past year during the campaign, as recently as a year ago, on the same day he pledged that he would go ahead with it, he's obviously saying to the Turkish government that he wishes to continue the relationship, but at the same time, he believes that this was genocide. And even though this is going to cause offense at-- on the Turkish side, that he hopes, as the statement that he issued after talking to President Erdogan, that they can actually deal with the many problems on the US-Turkish agenda, including Turkish purchase, most notably, of the Russian S-400 missile system, which is, I think, the most important issue in the relationship between the two countries.

- Absolutely. And I want to ask you about that because Turkey is obviously an important NATO ally, but as you mentioned, they have been cooperating with Moscow, recently buying that Russian missile defense system. Obviously, there are other areas where the two countries are at odds, like Syria. But does the Biden administration and the US more broadly worry about increased Turkish-Russian alignment?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, they must have taken that into account, or President Biden himself must have taken that into account before he proceeded to use the word genocide. Now, it's worth noting that, in fact, the Russians, the Russian government has acknowledged the events in 1915 as genocide. Nonetheless, the Turkish-Russian relationship has continued, and as you say, they have cooperated on a number of fronts. Turkey has been a NATO ally since 1952. It entered the alliance with the help of the United States, which really wanted the Turkish geostrategic factor on its side in the confrontation with the Soviet Union.

For many decades, the two countries have been allies. But since the end of the Cold War, there has been a divergence between the two countries. And that divergence has got wider, certainly during the past decade. Nonetheless, both countries have decided that, in spite of their differences, they wished to continue the relationship. I still think that that is the case. But obviously, the relationship is going to be somewhat different to how it was during the Trump era, when President Trump certainly did not mind Turkey's relationship with Russia as much as, I think, the Biden administration is going to mind. I don't think that there is a danger that Turkey is actually going to bolt the Western alliance, leave NATO or terminate its relationship with the US. But certainly after this declaration, it is more likely to pursue an independent course compared to before.

- Are you saying that you think that the Biden administration's declaration will push Turkey closer in alignment with Russia, or that it isn't necessarily-- that those considerations have to do with other factors than just the issue of the label of genocide?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, I think the relationship with Russia, between Turkey and Russia would have continued anyway. They may draw closer, but I think that, because of this statement, that Turkey is going to be more aligned with Russia. It stills remains a member of NATO, still remains in the Western alliance, it still is dependent on Western capital for its economic development. And Russia is in no position to assume that burden from the West. I just don't think that Turkey is going to be more motivated to work with Russia. But it is certainly going to be more strident in its own interests vis-a-vis the United States. And if that means cooperating with Russia or with other countries, I think it will try to choose that course.

- Dr. Aliriza, Turkey denies the mass killings were, in fact, a genocide. This was more than 100 years ago, before the Turkish state was even established. So why is this still such a political landmine?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Very complicated question. Because Turkey from its very inception has taken the position that the designation of these events as genocide-- and let's remember that the technical term for genocide was not established through the convention, international convention in 1948-- would stain the current Turkish government. And even though the Biden statement refers to the Ottoman era as when these events took place and does not mention Turkey at all, nonetheless, the Turkish government, as it made clear to previous administrations, regards this as unacceptable from its point of view. It will undoubtedly respond because of its position. But obviously, President Biden believes that this is something that he had to do. And he believes that the US-Turkish relationship is going to survive. And we will see how much damage there will be to the relationship as a result of the statement.

- All right. Professor Bulent Aliriza, thank you.