United States President Joe Biden has broken with decades of policy by declaring that the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide.
Biden’s recognition of the deaths of 1.5 million Armenian children, women and men during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire as genocide came as part of annual commemorations for the victims held around the world on 24 April.
While the move is largely symbolic, it is a significant departure from long-carefully calibrated language from the White House.
Founded by Turkish tribes in Anatolia, the Ottoman Empire existed from 1299 to 1922. At its peak of power, it controlled much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa with Constantinople (today called Istanbul) as its primary capital.
Modern-day Turkey accepts that many Armenians were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but resolutely disputes the number of victims or that their deaths were part of a systematically orchestrated campaign that amounted to genocide.
The United States is the latest of 32 world governments and parliaments to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide. The Israeli Knesset did so in 2016.
Similar measures have stalled in the US Congress for decades amid intense lobbying from Ankara. Until now, Ronald Reagan – whose home state of California is a main population center for the Armenian diaspora in the United States – was the only President to publicly call the killings genocide.
In his statement, Biden said the American people honor “all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today.”
“Of those who survived, most were forced to find new homes and new lives around the world, including in the United States. With strength and resilience, the Armenian people survived and rebuilt their community. Over the decades Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they have never forgotten the tragic history that brought so many of their ancestors to our shores,” Biden said. “We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
Biden’s recognition was realization of a campaign pledge. In a 24 April 2020 post on Twitter he wrote: If elected, I pledge to support a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide and will make universal human rights a top priority.”
Biden’s message was met with “great enthusiasm” by the people of Armenia and Armenians worldwide, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan wrote in a letter to the US President.
Armenian National Committee of America Chairman Raffi Hamparian said in a statement that Biden’s “principled stand … pivots America toward the justice deserved and the security required for the future of the Armenian nation.”
Many Armenian-Americans gathered in Montebello, California to hold a small and somber ceremony during which they placed a cross made of flowers at a monument to the victims. Some attendees wore pins reading “genocide denied genocide repeated.”
IDF Captain (res) Shadi Khalloul, who is the founder of the Christian Aramaic Israeli movement in the Galilee (ICAA), congratulated the Armenian people and other native Christian Aramaic communities in Middle East including Syriac Maronites on the US decision.
“This is a very precious recognition and extremely important for defending our rights to exist as people in our forefathers lands here in Middle East,” Capt. Khalloul told TV7 in a written statement.
“It is the lands where our forefathers lived, prospered and left for us a world heritage and civilization to preserve for future generations. We at ICAA, an Israeli Christian Aramaic NGO, thank USA administration for this recognition,” he said, going on to ask for Washington’s recognition of the “Genocide against our Syriac Aramaic Maronite and Syriac Orthodox people in Mount Lebanon and North East Syria.” He closed by saying, “May God Bless the United States of America.”
The In Defense of Christians (IDC) leading US advocacy organization for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and Africa also commended President Biden for “This historic recognition is a positive first step toward rectifying a historic injustice committed against the Christian faithful at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.”
IDC President Toufic Baaklini said the group is looking forward to working with the Biden administration “to bring greater awareness to the ongoing persecution of Christian genocide survivors, and descendants, by an increasingly rogue Turkey, even in the present day.”
The IDC also stated that it is “proud to work for years alongside the Armenian National Committee of America in advocating for genocide recognition;” specifically hailing Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat, New Jersey), Senator John Cornyn (Republican, Texas), Rep. Adam Schiff (Democratic, California), Rep. Gus Bilirakis (Republican, Florida) “for their strong and tireless advocacy toward this milestone genocide recognition.”
As expected, the historic US declaration that infuriated Turkey and further strained already frayed ties between the two NATO allies. Turkey’s government and most of the opposition showed rare unity in their rejection of Biden’s statement.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s spokesman and advisor İbrahim Kalın denounced the US move, saying “To reduce all that to one word and try to implicate that Turks were involved, our Ottoman ancestors were involved in genocidal acts, is simply outrageous.”
Just one day prior to Biden’s statement, Erdoğan used his first telephone conversation with the US president to warn him not to proceed, saying it would be a “colossal mistake.”
“There will be a reaction of different forms and kinds and degrees in coming days and months,” Kalın told Reuters. Kalın stopped short of specifying what retaliatory measures might be taken, but many analysts believe they include restricted US access to the İncirlik air base in southern Turkey that has been used to support the international coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Erdoğan is set to address the issue after a cabinet meeting today.
Other Turkish leaders issued immediate condemnations. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Turkey “entirely rejects” the US decision which he said was based “solely on populism,” while the opposition denounced it as a “major mistake.”
Washington imposed sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia; while Ankara has been infuriated over the US arming of Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria and refusal to extradite a cleric Erdoğan has accused of orchestrating a 2016 coup attempt against him.
Navigating those disputes will now be even harder, Kalın said, stressing that, “Everything that we conduct with the United States will be under the spell of this very unfortunate statement.”
Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, the Director of the German Marshall Fund research group in Ankara, told Reuters that in addition to limiting access to İncirlik, Turkey could also reduce military coordination with the US in northern Syria and Iraq, or scale down diplomatic efforts to support the peace process in Afghanistan.
— By Erin Viner