Biden Poised to Recognize Massacres of Armenians as Genocide, Officials Say

President said during his campaign he would acknowledge killings as genocide, a move that would upset U.S. ally Turkey

April 21, 2021
Source: The Wall Street Journal

By William Mauldin

WASHINGTON—President Biden is poised to formally declare that the massacres of Armenians in the early 20th century constituted genocide, U.S. officials said, a rare step that would further inflame ties with Turkey.

Mr. Biden is expected to describe as genocide the deportation, starvation and massacres of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks beginning in 1915, the officials said.

The language would come as part of an annual statement coinciding with a day of remembrance on Saturday. Officials added no final decisions or briefings have taken place and that Mr. Biden could opt to issue the symbolic statement without describing the killings as genocide, as have other presidents.

Turkey denies the killings constituted genocide, saying that Armenians rose up against the government. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Haberturk television on Tuesday that a declaration by Mr. Biden would only harm ties. A spokesman for the Turkish embassy in Washington had no immediate comment.

Most historians recognize the Ottoman Empire’s treatment of Armenians and members of other ethnic and religious minorities from 1915 to 1923 as a genocide.

Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign said the month before the November election that he would “recognize the Armenian genocide and make universal human rights a top priority for his administration so that such a tragedy can never again occur.”

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday the administration will have more to say Saturday on the issue, but said she wouldn’t provide details at this point in time.

In recent years, ties between the U.S. and Turkey, a fellow member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have deteriorated over Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 air-defense system, as well as over human and civil rights issues under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and over Turkey’s role in several regional conflicts.

Under pressure from Congress, the Trump administration imposed sanctions against Turkish government entities over the acquisition of the S-400, which Pentagon officials said could be used to collect intelligence on the F-35 stealth jet fighters Turkey was due to buy, and removed Ankara from participation in the U.S.-led F-35 stealth jet fighter program.

Congress in 2019 overwhelmingly passed nonbinding resolutions in the House and Senate calling the 1915 actions a genocide. A presidential statement long has been a priority of the sizable Armenian-American community, which has countered Turkey’s lobbying efforts with its own.

If Mr. Biden formally uses the “genocide” term, analysts said Ankara could respond by calling attention to the treatment of Native Americans by European settlers; mounting a diplomatic protest; or, though more unlikely, barring the U.S. from the use of the country’s Incirlik air base.

Turkey also could create informal barriers to imports from the U.S., said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of Edam, a think tank in Istanbul. The response would likely take into account that many Turkish citizens share the government’s view of history, said Mr. Ulgen.

“The Turkish population views this page of history as one where tragedies struck not only Armenians but also Turks who faced ethnic cleansing in the Balkans,” said Mr. Ulgen.

The debate over language stems from the World War I-era effort to deport some 2 million Armenians from Turkey during the empire’s Young Turk era. About 1.5 million Armenians are estimated to have died, while half a million left their homes. Present-day Armenia, a former Soviet state, occupies only a part of the traditional Armenian homeland in the Caucasus Mountains bordering Turkey.

Previously, President Ronald Reagan, who started his political career among a large Armenian-American population in California, referred to the massacres as a genocide in comments about the Holocaust and other atrocities. Other presidents, however, have stopped short of using that terminology during their time in office.

Former President Donald Trump called the actions of 1915 “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century,” in a statement on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. A Trump White House spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnany, once mentioned an “Armenian genocide memorial” during a press briefing.

Armenian ambassador to the U.S., Varuzhan Nersesyan, told The Wall Street Journal that he hoped the Biden White House would follow through with the genocide declaration.

Armenian Assembly of America Executive Director Bryan Ardouny said that a “U.S. affirmation of the Armenian genocide not only enhances America’s credibility on human rights issues, but also helps prevent future genocides.”

Aram Suren Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, called on Mr. Biden to increase U.S. support for Armenia, which he described as “a landlocked, blockaded, genocide-survivor state facing ongoing attempts by Ankara and Baku to complete this crime.”

Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the U.S., Elin Suleymanov, said a genocide proclamation from Washington “doesn’t help the normalization between Armenia and Turkey,” including opening the closed border between Turkey and Armenia. “It’s not going to be helpful in the region,” he said.