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Turkey's president slams Biden's acknowledgment of Armenian genocide

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is calling on President Biden to reverse his decision to publicly acknowledge that the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I was an act of genocide. Scott Lucas of EA WorldView spoke with CBSN's Tanya Rivero to offer analysis of what the recognition means for the region.

Video Transcript

TANYA RIVERO: Turkey's president is criticizing President Biden for officially recognizing the Armenian Genocide. At a cabinet meeting Monday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the US should look in the mirror. He said the president took the wrong step and urged the two countries to look toward the future.

Erdogan and Mr. Biden spoke on Friday. Reports say the call was tense. Turkey's foreign ministry even summoned the US ambassador to the country to declare the president's statement was false. Mr. Biden is the first US President to acknowledge the mass killing by the Ottoman Empire was an act of ethnic cleansing. Historians estimate the massacre, which occurred during the height of World War I, led to the death of between 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians. Turkey denies the killings were a genocide.

Hundreds came out in Beverly Hills to honor those victims during Armenian Remembrance Day this Saturday. The Los Angeles area is home to the largest population of ethnic Armenians outside of that country. In Yerevan, Armenia's capital, many cheered President Biden's decision. The leader of an Armenian political party said it was a promise fulfilled after more than a century.

HAKOB TER-KHACHATURYAN: We have had many promises in the past when they were candidates, but those promises were broken once the person became the president of the United States. We are thankful that Joe Biden in his first year of the presidency has already acknowledged the genocide, used the correct term, shared our sorrow, and also made an appeal to the world that such hate crimes, such crimes against humanity shouldn't be forgotten.

TANYA RIVERO: Hundreds came out in Beverly Hills to honor those victims during Armenian Remembrance Day this Saturday. The Los Angeles area is home to the largest population of ethnic Armenians outside of that country.

I want to bring in Scott Lucas now. He's an editor of EA WorldView, which covers US foreign policy and the Middle East. He's also a professor emeritus at the University of Birmingham and an associate professor at University College Dublin's Clinton Institute.

Scott joins me now from Birmingham, England. Professor, welcome. It's great to have you with us. So what is the Turkish government's official stance on the genocide? And why 100 years later, do they feel it necessary to come out so forcefully against President Biden's recent recognition?

SCOTT LUCAS: The official stance, Tanya, not only of this government, but of almost all Turkish governments, has been that there were deaths on both sides when this happened in World War I that this was a tragedy that lives were lost. They would go further and say that it wasn't just the Ottoman Empire who killed Armenians.

The Armenians killed Turks, for example. And they'll quite often supplement that by saying there were a series of killings of Turkish civilians and diplomats by Armenian activists in the '70s and the '80s. In other words, the Armenians are not the only victims here.

In terms of where they are right now with an issue, I think, first of all, for any one to be labeled as being responsible for genocide, that's a stain on your reputation. And no government wants that. Certainly, President Erdogan doesn't want that.

And right now, you have to realize that while we're talking about the international dimensions of this, there is a domestic dimension in Turkey. President Erdogan is facing severe economic issues. He's facing a fairly complicated position regarding the opposition, including trying to crack down on some of them and put some of them in jail.

He wants to try to create as much support in Turkey despite this economic crisis. So he wants to play the nationalist card. It's not us who killed these Armenians or at least call it the genocide. It's the international community that's ganging up on us to make us the excuse for crimes that might have been committed by others.

TANYA RIVERO: So you bring up the situation within Turkey right now and the many challenges that the Erdogan administration is facing. Is there opposition within Turkey in terms of how the country should recognize its role in the massacre? And where do other nations stand on its acknowledgment?

SCOTT LUCAS: Oh, it's absolutely great that you bring up that Turkey's not just one country regarding this issue. So in the last 48 hours, the Erdogan government has moved very harshly at least with rhetoric against a party called the HDP.

Now, the HDP is a party that's linked to Turkey's Kurdish groups and other minority groups. And they do recognize the Armenian Genocide. And they came out with a statement reinforcing that this week. And Erdogan's government came out and said effectively, you're part of the problem here.

Why is that part of a bigger issue? Because several leaders of this party, the Pro-Kurdish HDP are in prison or under threat of being in prison because Erdogan is trying effectively to suppress them despite the fact that they do have members in parliament.

TANYA RIVERO: Very, very interesting. Now, of course, we have seen the US relationship with Turkey fray in recent years. And we have seen Turkey turn to Russia in a variety of instances. So how does that dynamic, that triangle play into this?

SCOTT LUCAS: Well, from the standpoint of the Turkish government with the economic issues it has with the attempt to the Erdogan government to be a big player not only in the Middle East, but in the Islamic world, they've tried to balance in a sense Washington and Russia for some time.

This goes back before the Biden administration, before the Trump administration and to the Obama administration. But while they're balancing, that doesn't mean they can go and swing towards Moscow if they feel upset with Biden over this recognition of Armenia, because at the end of the day, Turkey has essential ties in its economic system with the US, with Western Europe. And, of course, Turkey is a member of NATO.

So I think the key thing that you said from Erdogan's statement there was not actually the criticism of the United States, but we look forward to better relations, which to me is a signal that, in fact, Ankara is not going to come in too harshly with action against the United States.

It won't expel diplomats. I doubt it will have any other punitive measure against Washington. Instead, there will be a bit of rhetoric. And then let's see where we can work together on other issues and no one talk about Armenia for the near future.

TANYA RIVERO: Right, very, very good point. So what does President Biden's designation of the massacre as a genocide, though, tell you about how his administration, in particular, is approaching foreign policy, especially in that region of the world?

SCOTT LUCAS: It tells me that the Biden administration is crossing lines that other administrations wouldn't, because other administrations will say, well, pragmatically, do we want to call it a genocide? That might jeopardize relations with the Turks. It might unsettle them.

Here, you have the Biden administration as it will calling this out and saying let's see what the consequences are. We've seen this, by the way, with Russia where they have not only, of course, expanded sanctions on Russia but called out Russian actions. We've seen it with China in the fact that despite they want, I think, to coexist with China, they are calling out issues like the human rights issue in Northwest China in Shenzhen. Whether we see it with Saudi Arabia calling out the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been found culpable of the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. We'll see.

But I think what you can say is, is that the Biden administration's looking back on the Obama administration. And many of those officials came from there and said we were too cautious. We were too cautious on Syria where we didn't protect civilians. We were too cautious on statements about our media. We were too cautious even with Russia and China. And we are not looking for confrontation. But we're also going to sort of establish the rules of the game and how we proceed next.

TANYA RIVERO: That's interesting. So you see this administration as in some ways learning from the mistakes or the half actions, perhaps, of the Obama administration.

SCOTT LUCAS: Oh, absolutely. Let's take the Armenia case, for example. There was a former Obama administration in 2017 speaking to an Armenian-American activist who said we got it wrong. We were on the wrong side of the issue.

That American official was Anthony Blinken who's now the secretary of State. To take another case. Anthony Blinken said in 2019, we didn't get it right on Syria. We didn't protect the civilians when hundreds of thousands were killed-- more than 90% of them by the Assad regime. We should have done more to protect them. And we're paying the price of it.

It doesn't mean that they can go back and undo what has happened in Syria. They can't undo certainly what has happened in Armenia. But I think it is an administration that's trying to look for a way forward where you prevent the next mistake. You don't walk into mass killings either because of inaction or ill-judged action.

TANYA RIVERO: And this administration is certainly not losing any time on moving forward on those-- you know, on those issues. Well, Professor Scott Lucas, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate your insight.

SCOTT LUCAS: Thank you, Tanya.