Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a campaign of forced marches and mass killings born out of Ottoman concerns that the Christian Armenian population would align with Russia during World War I, abetting an arch-nemesis of the Ottoman Turks.
Turkey has acknowledged that many Armenians were killed in fighting with Ottoman forces in 1915 but disputes the larger casualty counts, denies that the events constituted genocide and considers such claims a slander against its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The move comes amid worsening relations between the United States and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over Turkey’s purchases of Russian military equipment, human rights abuses and interventions in Syria and Libya.
Biden called Erdogan on Friday, but a White House readout of the conversation did not mention the 1915 massacres. Biden conveyed his interest in a “constructive bilateral relationship with expanded areas of cooperation and effective management of disagreements,” the statement said.
The Turkish readout of the call said Erdogan raised his objections about U.S. support for Kurdish forces in Syria, whom Turkey considers terrorists, and the case of Fethullah Gulen, a religious leader who lives in exile in the United States. It also did not mention the massacre of Armenians.
Biden’s recognition comes on April 24, the date Ottomans seized Armenian dignitaries in Istanbul in 1915 in what many scholars view as the opening phase of the first genocide of the 20th century. Armenian American groups hailed the long sought move.
“President Biden’s affirmation of the Armenian Genocide marks a critically important moment in the arc of history in defense of human rights,” said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America. “By standing firmly against a century of denial, President Biden has charted a new course.”
President Reagan referred to the massacre as a genocide early in his first term, but his successors had not out of concern for alienating Turkey, a NATO ally that was for years considered a strategically valuable member of the military alliance.
Several U.S. presidents, even those who had promised on the campaign trail to issue a declaration, remained mindful of this sensitivity and instead called the killings a “massacre” or “horrific tragedy.”
Besides Biden’s avowed commitment to human rights, analysts say the president had a freer hand than other U.S. presidents because of the continued drift in the U.S.-Turkish relationship under Erdogan’s leadership.
In past years, the Defense Department and the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs would advise presidents against labeling the atrocity a genocide. But U.S. officials, particularly at the Pentagon, have been furious with Erdogan over his purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, which they say is incompatible with NATO’s military equipment and a threat to the alliance’s security.
“The Defense Department was Turkey’s biggest fan,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey scholar at the Washington Institute, who also noted strong disagreement over Turkey’s actions in Iraq and Syria. “Now the opposite is true.”
Lawmakers in Congress, including those with large Armenian American constituencies, hailed the decision.
“I commend President Biden’s decision to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Calling this atrocity what it was — genocide — is long overdue. We must recognize the horrors of the past if we hope to avoid repeating them in the future.”
In Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, people laid flowers and gathered at a hilltop memorial with an eternal flame to the victims of the massacres and deportations by the Ottomans.
Armenia’s deputy foreign minister, Avet Adonts, said at the memorial Saturday that Biden’s declaration was an “important step.”
“It will also serve as an example for the rest of the civilized world,” he said, the Associated Press reported.