Turkey’s genocide blackmail: Threats to work closer with Iran and Russia

The Biden administration has called Turkey’s bluff: that it might leave NATO because it is angry to hear the word “genocide” – and that Ankara should never be offended, but can do what it wants.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia March 5, 2020. (photo credit: PAVEL GOLOVKIN/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia March 5, 2020.
The US decision to finally recognize the Armenian genocide comes after decades in which Turkey and its lobbyists in Washington threatened the US. Their narrative was that if Washington would just use the term “genocide” – for a crime committed 106 years ago by a former government in what is now Turkey – then Ankara would rapidly move to sanction the US, close its bases, threaten its citizens and ally with Iran, China and Russia, or other US enemies.
This bizarre, mafia-like threat is the same one that Tehran used regarding the Iran deal. It is because non-Western countries learned that the way to deal with Western countries was to prey on their fears. For instance, today Pakistan is threatening to expel France’s ambassador because far-right religious extremists in Pakistan claim to be offended by cartoons published years ago in a French magazine.
Ankara’s attempt to hold countries hostage regarding the Armenian genocide worked well for many years. It prevented many countries, including Israel, from “offending” Ankara by mentioning the genocide. It’s unclear if this same blackmail would have worked had Germany in 1946 also told countries that they can’t mention the Holocaust or Germany would be “offended,” so that Western countries would have denied the Shoah the way some continue to deny the Armenian genocide.  
Turkey was coddled for many years because it sold itself as a key to helping the West confront the Soviets. When the Soviets were gone in 1989, Turkey shifted its pattern of denial to claims that it wanted to be part of the European Union, was somehow a bridge between the West and Asia, and that if it was offended it might aid Islamist extremism or something.
That claim has now grown to arguments in Turkey that openly bash the West, calling Western countries and Israel “Nazi” and then asserting that Ankara will position itself with Russia, China and Iran against Western democracies.
THE TURKEY that is running to embrace Russia and Iran is the same one that still talks about the myth of joining the European Union. It’s unclear how a Turkey that has an authoritarian regime and where there are almost not critical journalists allowed and where people are put in prison for decades for tweets, could ever join an EU that is ostensibly democratic.
NATO was also supposed to be about values and democracy, and yet it has empowered Ankara for years to become more authoritarian, including excusing Ankara’s invasion of Kurdish Afrin in 2018 and the ethnic cleansing of Kurds.  
Now the crescendo of threats has risen again. Those who opposed genocide recognition argued that Turkey would drift away from NATO – which it was already doing. They argued that it will work with Russia – a country it already buys S-400s from. They argue it would work with China – a country Turkey already openly works with and to which it plans more overland truck and rail links via Russia, Central Asia and Iran.
The argument against America recognizing the genocide was that the US must think “geopolitically” and not use a “stunt” to hurt Turkey’s feelings. This is the same Ankara that openly opposes NATO countries like Greece and France and which often slanders various countries in the West. It was unclear why Turkey wasn’t held to the same standard: If Ankara wanted the West to refrain from just mentioning “genocide,” why Turkey wasn’t required to also do what Western countries want and also be polite in international relations. Instead, the argument went that Ankara should never be offended, but that it can do whatever it wanted.  
THE BIDEN administration has called Turkey’s bluff. The idea that just recognizing a genocide from 106 years ago would somehow lead Turkey to close US bases and rapidly work with Russia, Iran and China seems strange considering the fact that Ankara must think “geopolitically” as well. The argument was always that the West needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the US and the West. This seems to turn “geopolitics” on its head. If “geopolitics” requires appeasement and always begging a country and isn’t a two-way street based on respect and strength, then it’s unclear what the US ever achieved over the last decades by placating Turkey.
The theory is that Turkey might leave NATO because it is angry it heard the word “genocide.” If it was just mentioning genocide that causes it to leave, then it means the NATO alliance wasn’t worth more than one word: not worth the training, the German tanks, the intelligence sharing and everything else. Turkey would bury itself because it was offended about being asked about what happened in 1915?
Never in history has a country left a massive military alliance worth billions of dollars because someone used one word to refer to something that happened 106 years ago. Only Turkey used this blackmail to prevent any mention of the fact that the modern day country is largely built on hundreds of thousands of homes of Greeks and Armenians and other minorities who were expelled and murdered, sold into slavery and and suffered genocide between 1915 and 1955.
The modern Turkish AKP Party, which is rooted in Islamist thinking, could have blamed the atrocities on previous Turkish governments.  
ANKARA'S SUPPORTERS sometimes argue that Turkey could recognize the US genocide of Native-Americans. But unlike Turkey, it's not very controversial in the US to say that Native Americans suffered genocide. Turkey has already accused other countries of genocide, including claiming Israel is like the Nazis and has committed genocide. So if Turkey was so afraid of the word “genocide” why does it accuse Israel of “genocide”?
Turkey’s policy was to pretend it was above history, above ever being held to account or even critiqued. Many US diplomats went along with this; for years they appeared almost more pro-Turkey than Turkey’s own diplomats. Ankara cast a kind of spell over Western policymakers, usually through quiet or open threats. The ability of Turkey to spread real-world threats has also grown. Last year it engineered a crisis with France over cartoons published years ago, and its rhetoric likely led to at least one terror attack in France.
Turkey will continue to try to leverage Islamist extremism in Europe to its own ends. It has already threatened at various times to use refugees against Europe unless the EU pays it more money. Meanwhile, it radicalizes the refugees and uses them as mercenaries. Turkey played a key role as a conduit for ISIS members from Europe, including providing a base for radicalization.
It is entirely possible that Turkey could end up doing for the next Al-Qaeda what Pakistan and Afghanistan did for the Al Qaeda of the 1990s: providing a base and conduit for extremism. That trajectory is one that Turkey will ride regardless of whether the US recognizes the genocide.
Supporting extremism comes with its own negatives though, because extremist countries usually suffer economic decline. Turkey’s confrontation with the US over the term “genocide” will be weighed against its desire to have economic power, which underpinned its claims in the past to being of “geopolitical” importance. If it cares about “geopolitics,” as Western analysts claim it does, then it will have more to lose from confrontation. The trend in Ankara was to work with Iran, China and Russia anyway.
Whether the Biden administration finally standing up to Ankara will lead it to work with authoritarians more is a question Ankara has to weigh against its own claims of wanting “reconciliation” with countries it has attacked in the last few years. There is no evidence that denying the genocide helped keep Ankara more liberal, tolerant, democratic and open minded and more close to the West.