Biden to recognize atrocities against Armenians as genocide

President Joe Biden on Saturday plans to follow through on a campaign pledge to formally recognize that atrocities committed against the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire more than a century ago in modern-day Turkey were genocide, according to U.S. officials.

A presidential proclamation to mark Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day is expected to use the term genocide to describe the killings and deportations of hundreds of thousands of Armenians. U.S. presidents for decades have acknowledged Remembrance Day to mark the events of 1915 to 1923 but have avoided using the term "genocide" to sidestep alienating Turkey.

During a telephone call Friday, Biden informed Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of his plan to issue the statement, said a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to publicly discuss the private conversation and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Separate statements afterward by the two governments made no mention of Biden’s plan. The White House said Biden told Erdogan he wants to improve ties and find "effective management of disagreements." The two also agreed to a bilateral meeting at the NATO summit in Brussels in June.

Biden, who pledged as a candidate to recognize the massacre as genocide, arguing that "silence is complicity," wanted to speak with Erdogan before making the formal recognition, according to officials familiar with Biden’s deliberations and plans. The officials were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter before Biden issued the proclamation and they spoke on condition of anonymity.

In a tweet Saturday, Turkey’s foreign ministry said: "Lies do not just twist history, they also take innocent lives." The ministry posted the names of 31 Turkish diplomats and their relatives killed by Armenian militant groups in the 1970s and 1980s. Turkey says both Armenians and Turks were killed during World War I.

Friday’s call was the first between the presidents since Biden took office more than three months ago. The delay had become a worrying sign in Turkey. Erdogan had good rapport with President Donald Trump and had been hoping for a reset despite past friction with Biden.

Erdogan reiterated his long-running claims that the U.S. is supporting Kurdish fighters in Syria who are affiliated with the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. The PKK has led an insurgency against Turkey for more than three decades. In recent years, Turkey has launched military operations against PKK enclaves in Turkey and in northern Iraq and against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters. The State Department has designated the PKK a terrorist organization but has argued with Turkey over the group’s ties to the Syrian Kurds.

According to the Turkish government statement after the call, Erdogan also raised concerns about the presence in the United States of cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Turkey of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup attempt. Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s, denies involvement in the coup.

Biden, during the 2020 campaign, drew ire from Turkish officials after an interview with The New York Times in which he spoke about supporting Turkey’s opposition against "autocrat" Erdogan. In 2019, Biden accused Trump of betraying U.S. allies after Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, which paved the way for a Turkish military offensive against the Syrian Kurdish group.

In 2014, when he was vice president, Biden apologized to Erdogan after suggesting in a speech that Turkey helped facilitate the rise of the Islamic State group by allowing foreign fighters to cross Turkey’s border with Syria.

Lawmakers and Armenian American activists have lobbied Biden to make the genocide announcement on or before Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which presidents typically mark with a proclamation.

Salpi Ghazarian, director of the University of Southern California’s Institute of Armenian Studies, said the recognition of genocide would resonate beyond Armenia as Biden insists that respect for human rights will be a central principle in his foreign policy.

"Within the United States and outside the United States, the American commitment to basic human values has been questioned now for decades," she said. "It is very important for people in the world to continue to have the hope and the faith that America’s aspirational values are still relevant, and that we can in fact do several things at once. We can in fact carry on trade and other relations with countries while also calling out the fact that a government cannot get away with murdering its own citizens."

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned the Biden administration this past week that recognition would "harm" U.S.-Turkey ties.