Turkey’s overtures to Armenia can help heal US rift
At a time when Turkey and Armenia have taken steps toward a rapprochement in their problematic relationship, there are also positive signs from Ankara regarding a normalization of relations with Israel. What impact can a potential improvement in Turkey’s ties with Armenia and Israel, two countries that have close relations with the US and influential lobbies in Washington, have on the Ankara-Washington connection?
In an apparent breakthrough in the long-standing deadlock between Ankara and Yerevan, the two neighbors pledged to appoint special envoys to pave the way for the normalization of relations after nearly three decades of enmity. Turkey appointed former Washington ambassador Serdar Kilic as a special representative, while Armenia appointed Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Ruben Rubinyan as its envoy.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the steps, saying the US strongly supports statements made by both countries’ ministries of foreign affairs. Recently Bloomberg, citing a senior Turkish official, reported that Turkey’s surprise approach to Armenia was in line with a request by US President Joe Biden, who urged his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during an October meeting in Rome to open the country’s border with its landlocked neighbor.
Since Biden took office, Ankara has been looking for ways to build a consensus with Washington. Relations between the two NATO members have suffered in the past decade over a number of issues. Biden, on several occasions, has put the Turkey-Armenia relationship on the agenda and expressed his interest in the subject. In April, he became the first US president to describe the events in Armenia in 1915 as “genocide,” a move that was immediately denounced by Ankara, which claims both sides suffered casualties in what it claims was a tragic conflict.
The Turkish leader said that Biden’s statement opened a “deep wound” in bilateral relations between the NATO allies. Biden’s comments, which broke away from decades of carefully calibrated language from the White House, came at a time when Ankara and Washington were experiencing deep policy differences in several areas.
It is important to recall that Israel is one of the US allies that has not recognized the 1915 events as “genocide” and also supported Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia last year over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
According to the Bloomberg report, Turkey’s overtures to Armenia will help Ankara improve its strained relations with Washington over its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. However, the issue is too complicated to be settled by Turkey’s shifting regional policies, and Armenia is unlikely to be a significant game-changer in this area. Nevertheless, the new impetus between Ankara and Yerevan is still highly significant considering Turkey’s weakened position within NATO and its tensions with the US. Overall, Ankara’s move toward a diplomatic engagement with Armenia is a plus for Turkey’s foreign policy and a positive development that should not be underestimated.
Ankara’s diplomatic overtures could be read as part of a new Turkish regional policy based on de-escalation with former rivals, including Egypt and the UAE. Ankara is also sending positive signs to Israel following the change in leadership in Tel Aviv. Erdogan highlighted improving ties between Turkey and Israel during a meeting with members of the Jewish community in Turkey and the Alliance of Rabbis in the Islamic States at the presidential complex in Ankara recently. In early December, the Turkish leader said Ankara could mend its relations with Israel if Tel Aviv respects Turkish concerns about Palestine, Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
An end to the split between Turkey and Israel, Washington’s closest partner in the Middle East, is of great importance to the US, especially at a time when it plans to gradually withdraw from the region. Ankara considers the strong pro-Israel lobby in Washington as a valuable asset whose support could be even more important in the future. In the past, it was not only Turkey’s alliance with the US that prevented American presidents from designating the 1915 events as a “genocide,” but also the pro-Israel lobby, which backed Turkey on this subject.
When it comes to lobbies in Washington, and diasporas in the world, it is safe to argue that the most important diaspora after the Jewish is the Armenian. The pro-Israel lobby had been a long-standing political partner of Turkey in Washington. However, with the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations, the support of the lobby also has declined. It is important to recall that Israel is one of the US allies that has not recognized the 1915 events as “genocide” and also supported Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia last year over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The changing geopolitical landscape — a new US administration, a new Israeli government, a new regional focus in Ankara, post-pandemic recovery challenges and the deteriorating economic situation in some countries — provides a window of opportunity for Turkey in its normalization of relations not only with regional countries and former foes, but also with the US.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.