Joe Biden has become the first sitting American president to refer to the mass murder of Armenians a century ago in what is now Turkey as a genocide, in an announcement likely to cause further friction between Washington and Ankara.
Discussing the announcement, which was released by the White House to mark Armenian Remembrance Day, a senior administration official said the recognition was intended to “honour the victims” and not to “assign blame”.
Biden called Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday to inform him of the announcement ahead of time, an administration official said. A White House readout of the call between Biden and Erdogan, which was their first official contact, did not mention that portion of the conversation, but said the two leaders would hold a bilateral meeting on the margins of the Nato summit in June.
Biden’s recognition follows a markedly cooler period for relations between Washington and Ankara following disputes over Turkey’s purchase of an advanced Russian anti-aircraft system designed to shoot down Nato jets, and over US federal prosecutors’ indictment of the Turkish state lender Halkbank for allegedly violating sanctions against Iran.
A Biden administration official said the call between the two leaders was “very professional”.
“The two leaders have a long track record, they worked together very closely during the Obama-Biden administration,” the official said, adding that there are “a very large number of issues” that Washington and Ankara could work closely on, along with “a number of well-known differences . . . that need to be addressed”.
Erdogan has said he wanted to “turn a new page” with the US and Europe, two of Turkey’s biggest trade partners, as the country sought to attract investment in its $717bn economy and rein in soaring inflation and unemployment.
Most historians and almost 30 countries judge the killing of as many as 1.5m Christian Armenians beginning in 1915 as a state-orchestrated genocide. Turkey’s claims that Muslims and Christians alike died during the chaos of the first world war and the ensuing collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Fearful they would side with arch enemy Russia, Armenian Christians were rounded up and either killed or marched from their ancient homeland in parts of present-day Turkey to the Syrian desert where they starved to death. The campaign, as well as those against ethnic Greeks and Syriac Christians, helped to forge a more homogenous nation when the Turkish republic was established in 1923 out of the ashes of the multicultural Ottoman Empire.
Previous US presidents have shied away from the genocide label, cognisant of the risks it would pose to the strategic relationship with Turkey, where the US operates an air base. A Biden official said the US still recognised Turkey as “a critical Nato ally”.
Yet Biden has said he would pursue a values-based foreign policy and promised during his presidential campaign to recognise the genocide as part of a commitment to upholding “universal rights”. Both chambers of Congress passed resolutions in 2019 categorising the killings as genocide, and last month almost 40 senators from both parties called on Biden to do the same.
For the majority of Turks, acknowledging the genocide would impugn their nation’s founding myths and leaders and is tantamount to admitting a historical lie. While Erdogan has in recent years expressed his condolences to Armenians over the loss of life, he has also hit out at foreign governments that call the massacre genocide, recalling ambassadors and cancelling trade agreements.
Today fewer than 60,000 ethnic Armenians remain in Turkey, mainly in Istanbul, and are sporadically the targets of hate crimes, such as vandalism of churches. In 2007 Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor, was gunned down outside of his office after he called for reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.
Turkey’s robust support for Azerbaijan in last year’s war with Armenia underscored how historical divisions continue to shape Ankara’s policy in the region. Ankara supplied weapons and, according to the UN, Syrian mercenaries to help its close ally Azerbaijan recapture much of the disputed territory Armenia had won in a war in the 1990s.
Erdogan has since mooted restoring relations with landlocked, impoverished Armenia, with which Turkey has no diplomatic ties after sealing the border in 1993 over the conflict with Azerbaijan. News reports have said Turkey might now retaliate against the Biden administration’s recognition of the genocide by punishing Armenia and shelving any rapprochement.