Biden Defies Turkish Pressure to Recognize Armenian Genocide

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In a landmark move on Saturday, US President Joe Biden recognized the Armenian genocide of 1915, becoming the first US president to use the term 'genocide' to describe the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians massacred by the Ottoman Turks during the World War I.

Biden Speaks to Erdogan

Before making the big step, Biden spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been fiercely resisting any attempt anywhere in the world to term the massacre of 2015 as a genocide.

Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden Twitter

The momentous decision comes nearly a year and a half after the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to recognize the mass killing of Armenians in 1915 as genocide. The House voted 405-11 in favor of the resolution in October 2019, as it finally resisted the long and painstaking Turkish lobbying against calling the killing of 1.5 million people by the Ottoman empire as genocide.

The Congress move came years after several US states had decided to term the mass killing as genocide. The Congress had been soft-pedalling the issue as it did not want to rub the Nato ally the wrong way.

Consequences for US-Turkish Ties

Now, Biden's decision will have far-reaching consequences for the US-Turkish ties, which have been hit in recent years by other developments such as the Turkish role in Syrian war and Ankara's decision to purchase S-400 Russian missile defense system.

In a historic statement Biden said: "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 ... And we remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms."

A Pledge to Stop Massacres

Major world powers like France, Germany, Canada and Russia have already recognized the Armenian genocide.

Biden's decision followed 'very principled' deliberations and it highlighted the administration's focus on human rights everywhere in the world, an official said, according to AFP. Biden also said his aim was not to place blame on anyone but to make sure such massacres do not happen anymore.

What is Armenian genocide?

Armenian genocide
Soldiers playing with the skulls of Armenian victims of the Armenian Genocide Wikimedia Commons

As per the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), "more than a million" Armenians died under the persecution of the Ottoman empire, which is modern day Turkey, during 1915-16. The Armenians were driven en masse from eastern Anatolia to the Syrian desert by the Turks. Thousands of them were killed while more perished due to starvation and diseases.

Armenian genocide
Map of the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Each size shows a massacre. There are three types of massacre: in a control centre (red dot), in a station (pink dot), in a concentration and annihilation center (black dot). The size of the dot shows the relative number of killed Armenians. Each pair of swords shows an area of Armenian resistance: greater resistance (red swords) or lesser resistance (black swords). The different size of swords is to save space into the map, it means nothing. Dots in Black Sea representing Armenians (mainly women and children) drowned into the sea (see Armenian Genocide for references). Semhur/ Wikimedia Commons/Sourced with the help of NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission

While historians around the world say the mass murder was carried out in order to annihilate the Christian Armenian people, Turkey has held the view that there was no systematic plan of ethnic cleansing.

The Ottoman Empire had turned paranoid in its waning days and suspected the Armenian Christian minority was conspiring Ankara's adversaries like Russia during the heyday of the World War I.

Turkey officially admits that more than 300,000 Armenians died in the crackdown on the minority but steadfastly refuses to accept that it was a genocide. Throughout his presidency, Erdogan has asked Turkish people to defend the country against those who spread the 'genocide lie'.

Turkish Reaction

Armenian genocide
Armenian victims of the Armenian Genocide with decapitated bodies besides the stakes with heads pinned. Wikimedia Commons

The Turkish government, which has been spending top dollar to stop governments from recognizing the Armenian massacre as genocide, rejected Biden's move. Turkey 'entirely rejects' the US decision, said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. He said on Twitter than the US decision was based 'solely on populism'. "We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past. Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice," Cavusoglu said.

What Obama Did Not Do

In recognizing the Armenian genocide, Biden also did something his former boss, Barack Obama, refused to do. Though Obama had made campaign promise to recognize the genocide he did not come around to calling it so on the historic occasion of the 100th anniversary of the mass killing in 2015. President Donald Trump too resisted pressure to recognize the genocide as his so-called personal friendship with Erdogan came in the way of taking the decision that would rock the relationship between the allies.

Backdrop of Armenia-Azerbaijan War

Significantly, the Biden administration's decision comes in the backdrop of the war between Armenia and Turkey-backed Azerbaijan in 2020. In the weeks-long war, Armenia lost territories it controlled as Baku was firmly supported by Ankara. Turkey was accused of providing money, military equipment and even mercenaries to Azerbaijan. At the same time, Armenia did not get the international support - mainly from the US Russia -- which it had expected.

The US administrations have always been under pressure from the influential Armenian diaspora in the country to offer more support to the motherland.

At the peak of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war last year, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had warned that a Turkish-supported genocide was waiting to happen in Nagorno-Karabakh. "For them [Azerbaijan] the only solution is through ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh, to be fully cleaned of Armenians and will fall completely under Azerbaijani control. This is a threat of genocide," Pashinyan had told the Euronews.

This article was first published on April 25, 2021