President Joe Biden on Saturday described the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire over a century ago as a genocide, a recognition that drew applause from Armenian groups but could worsen relations with U.S. ally Turkey, which rejects the genocide label.
Biden used the word “genocide” in a statement marking Armenian Remembrance Day, bucking decades of precedent by U.S. presidents who have avoided using the word to describe the Ottoman Empire’s deportation and killing of rougly 1.5 million Armenians in what is now Turkey.
The president had referred to it as a genocide on the campaign trail last year, and he vowed to do so if he was elected, a move backed by dozens of members of Congress from both parties.
Biden reportedly warned Turkey about the move earlier this week in a call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has denied the genocide label and even suggested the deportation of Armenians was “reasonable.”
“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” Biden wrote Saturday.
The Armenian National Committee of America applauded Biden’s decision in a press release, saying the move “pivots America toward the justice deserved and the security required for the future of the Armenian nation.”
In 1915, amid World War I, the soon-to-collapse Ottoman Empire forcibly deported Armenians from eastern Anatolia, where it was feared they could aid Russian forces, to Syria. Most scholars have concluded it was a deliberate ethnic cleansing attempt fueled by nationalism, but Turkey has rejected this interpretation, insisting the deaths were not deliberate and the deportations were security-related.
Many other countries have formally designated the atrocities as a genocide, but the United States has shied away from the label to avoid angering Turkey, a member of NATO and a longtime U.S. security partner. However, U.S.-Turkey relations have gradually frayed in recent years as the two countries’ interests clash and Turkey partners more closely with Russia, possibly making Biden’s symbolic move less costly.
Turkey warned earlier this week that, if Biden uses the word “genocide,” he relations between the two countries could deteriorate. “If the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
Statement by President Joe Biden on Armenian Remembrance Day (White House)
The Armenian massacre: This is what happened in 1915 (Washington Post)