US President Biden calls 1915 massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Empire a ‘genocide’
US President Joe Biden on Saturday recognised the Armenian genocide, a landmark step in defiance of Turkey, which strongly rejects the label for the 1915-1917 killings by the Ottoman Empire. Washington tried nevertheless to calm tensions by not "casting blame" on Ankara.
"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 said in a statement, becoming the first US president to use the term in an annual message.
The largely symbolic move, breaking away from decades of carefully calibrated language from the White House, will likely to be celebrated by the Armenian diaspora in the United States, but comes at a time when Ankara and Washington have deep policy disagreements over a host of issues. Seeking to limit the furor from the NATO ally, Biden informed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of his decision to use the word genocide a day before.
"The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today," Biden said in a statement. "Over the decades Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they have never forgotten the tragic history. We honour 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," he said
The statement is a massive victory for Armenia and its extensive diaspora. Starting with Uruguay in 1965, nations including France, Germany, Canada and Russia have recognized the genocide but a US statement has been a paramount goal that proved elusive under other presidents until Biden.
Erdogan says the debate ‘should be held by historians’
In a statement to the Armenian patriarch in Istanbul moments after, Erdogan said that debates "should be held by historians" and not "politicized by third parties."
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara Turkey "entirely rejects" Washington’s move, minutes after Biden's declaration. "We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past. Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice," Cavusoglu said on Twitter. "We entirely reject this statement based solely on populism."
Explaining Biden’s move, an US official insisted that the intention was not to place blame on modern Turkey, which the official called a "critical NATO ally", but respected the Democratic president's vows to put a new priority on human rights and highlighted his outspokenness on systemic racism in the United States.
"It is very much the intention of the statement - very much the intention of the President - to be doing this in a very principled way focused on the merits of human rights, and not for any reason beyond that including placing blame," the official told reporters.
For decades, measures recognizing the Armenian genocide stalled in the US Congress and US presidents have refrained from calling it that, stymied by concerns about relations with Turkey and intense lobbying by Ankara.
Turkey accepts that many Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War I, but contests the figures and denies the killings were systematically orchestrated and constitute a genocide.
Yerevan thanks Biden for ‘powerful step towards justice’
As many as 1.5 million Armenians are estimated to have been killed from 1915 to 1917 during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, which suspected the Christian minority of conspiring with adversary Russia in World War I.
Armenian populations were rounded up and deported into the desert of Syria on death marches in which many were shot, poisoned or fell victim to disease, according to accounts at the time by foreign diplomats.
Turkey, which emerged as a secular republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, acknowledges that 300,000 Armenians may have died but strongly rejects that it was genocide, saying they perished in strife and famine in which many Turks also died.
Recognition has been a top priority for the Armenia and Armenian-Americans, with calls for compensation and property restoration over what they call Meds Yeghern - the Great Crime - and appeals for more support against Turkish-backed neighbor Azerbaijan.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan thanked Biden for his "powerful step towards justice and invaluable support to the heirs of the Armenian genocide victims."
Biden, whose call to Erdogan to inform him of the genocide recognition was their first conversation since the US leader took office three months ago, signaled he hoped to contain the fallout.
Biden and Erdogan agreed in their call to meet in June on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels, officials said.
Beyond statements, Turkey did not immediately announce any retaliatory steps - in contrast to angry measures taken over previous Western moves to recognize the genocide.
'Relations already in shambles'
Tensions have risen sharply with Turkey in recent years over its purchase of a major air defense system from Russia - the chief adversary of NATO - and its incursions against pro-US Kurdish fighters in Syria.
Biden has kept Erdogan at arm's length - a contrast with his predecessor Donald Trump, whom the Turkish leader reportedly found so amenable that he would call Trump directly on his phone on the golf course.
The US Congress in 2019 had already voted overwhelmingly to recognize the Armenian genocide but the Trump administration made clear that the official US line had not changed. The congressional move "had no discernible impact" on US-Turkish relations - and paved the way for Biden to go ahead, Samantha Power, a top aide to Obama who unsuccessfully lobbied Obama to recognize the genocide, said.
Previous US presidents have abandoned campaign promises to recognize the Armenian genocide for fear of damaging relations, said Nicholas Danforth, non-resident fellow for The Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.
"With relations already in shambles, there was nothing to stop Biden from following through," said Danforth. "Ankara has no allies left in the US government to lobby against this and Washington isn't worried whether it angers Turkey anymore."