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Over the weekend, President Biden did what none of his predecessors had. He issued a statement marking the massacres of ethnic Armenians living within the Ottoman Empire more than a century ago as a “genocide.” The decision followed years of lobbying by the Armenian American community and pressure from sympathetic lawmakers in Washington. But it triggered an angry backlash in Turkey, where authorities, buttressed by broader public opinion, have long opposed outside attempts to cast judgment on the bloody events of that time.
“We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past,” tweeted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice.” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador in Ankara to protest Biden’s statement. Most of the country’s main political parties, including opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s right-wing nationalist government, denounced the U.S. decision.
The move reflects the new U.S. administration’s desire to more overtly — and consistently — champion human rights on the world stage. Biden also framed it as an affirmation of the trauma carried by generations of Armenian immigrants to the United States. “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,” he said in his Saturday statement, which was carefully crafted to avoid casting blame on the modern Turkish republic. He pointed to the “campaign of extermination” unleashed by Ottoman authorities, where “one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths.”
For decades, successive U.S. administrations resisted making this determination, wary of jeopardizing ties with a long-standing Cold War ally and fellow NATO member. Many Turkish officials and some historians prefer to see the killings and deportations of Armenians in the broader context of the upheavals that surrounded the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. An estimated 5 million Ottoman citizens died between 1914 and 1922, a hideous period that saw huge populations of Turks, Greeks and other ethnic groups displaced. On its website, the Turkish Foreign Ministry says there is no “meaningful relation” between the Holocaust and “the Ottoman Armenian experience.”
“The Armenian Genocide is too close to Turkey’s moment of conception and too intimately linked to the foundation of the Republic,” tweeted Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University. “Accepting it would require a fundamental rethinking of the narrative of creation at Turkish nationalism’s core.”
But it’s impossible to ignore the specific experience of the Armenians. “In 1913, there were up to 2 million [ethnic Armenians] in the Ottoman Empire. When World War I broke out, the Ottoman government ordered their mass deportation. A few years later, there was barely one-tenth that number in Turkey, the rest having been exiled or killed,” British author and journalist Thomas de Waal wrote in his book, “Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide.”
Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish jurist who coined the term “genocide,” shaped his thinking on what constituted such a crime against humanity in part based on his understanding of what happened to Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. For Lemkin, “genocide” involved “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”
Contemporary American accounts of the massacres made clear the “coordinated” nature of the ravaging of Armenian communities, which influential figures in the Ottoman leadership considered a potentially treacherous fifth column within the empire as it clashed with Russia during World War I. (Turkish officials, meanwhile, want to see similar international condemnation of Russia’s killing of ethnic Turks, Kurds and other Muslims at that time.)
“Reports from widely scattered districts indicate systematic attempts to uproot peaceful Armenian populations and through arbitrary arrests, terrible tortures, wholesale expulsions and deportations from one end of the Empire to the other accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage, and murder, turning into massacre, to bring destruction and destitution on them,” Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, wrote in a 1915 cable. “These measures are not in response to popular or fanatical demand but are purely arbitrary and directed from Constantinople in the name of military necessity, often in districts where no military operations are likely to take place.”
Jesse Jackson, U.S. consul in Aleppo (now in Syria), documented in 1916 what he saw as ethnic Armenians forced on long marches from Anatolia died in vast numbers on a plain outside the city. “Information obtained on the spot permits me to state that nearly 60,000 Armenians are buried there, carried off by hunger, by privations of all sorts, by intestinal diseases and typhus which is the result,” he wrote. “As far as the eye can reach mounds are seen containing 200 to 300 corpses buried in the ground … women, children and old people belonging to different families.”
So why recognize this now? Only 30 countries have made this formal recognition, with many others conspicuously silent. Turkish sensitivities probably halted former president Barack Obama from following through on his own campaign trail vow to make the determination of “genocide.” But more than a decade later, the U.S.-Turkish relationship is far more toxic. The Washington foreign policy establishment and lawmakers in Congress have hardened their view of Erdogan as a dangerous would-be autocrat and see Turkey as NATO’s black sheep, after decades of it being a stalwart member.
“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,” my colleagues reported. “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.”
U.S. officials also believe Erdogan has less leverage than in the past. “The overall sentiment inside the U.S. government is that Erdogan responds better to Putin-style toughness than to a warm embrace,” wrote Soner Cagaptay, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “At the same time, Erdogan is out of options that would help accommodate the Biden administration. With his disapproval rate sinking at home Erdogan is unlikely to agree to relax his autocratic control of Turkish society, lest the already vigilant opposition surges and votes him out.”
Ultimately, the political price for Biden was not that high. “The deterioration of the U.S.-Turkish alliance in recent years helped facilitate President Biden’s decision to recognize the genocide, in that it removed a political obstacle to the recognition,” Merve Tahiroglu, a Turkey scholar at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Today’s WorldView. “The very deliberate wording of Biden’s statement shows that the president took care not to weaponize this history against Turkey, in spite of the widespread contempt for Erdogan in Washington.”