WASHINGTON/ISTANBUL -- U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday described the massacre of Armenians, which began in 1915 under the Ottoman Empire, in present-day Turkey, as "genocide."
Turkey, a long-standing U.S. ally, has vehemently opposed that characterization. Biden's statement appears likely to shake up diplomacy for powers active in the region, including Russia and China.
As the Ottoman Empire neared its end, Christian Armenians in Turkey faced growing persecution. On April 24, 1915, Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested, accused of spying for Imperial Russia, which was Turkey's enemy in World War I. Many Armenians living in what today is eastern Turkey were forcibly relocated from an area near the Russian border to Syria and subjected to harsh treatment.
Armenians say about 1.5 million of their kindred were killed by around 2017, but Turkey has refused to acknowledge the deaths as a systematic genocide of a specific ethnic group, arguing there were victims on both sides as a result of fighting between Turks and Armenians.
In Saturday's statement, on the anniversary of the massacre, Biden said: "One and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination." Previous U.S. presidents have released annual statements commemorating the victims, but Saturday's statement was the first in four decades to use the word "genocide" in reference to those events. Ronald Reagan also used "genocide" in the first year of his tenure.
It seems unlikely that the U.S. will take overtly hostile action, such as sanctions as the massacre took place more than a century ago. But Turkey has objected vociferously, with the Foreign Ministry saying in a statement, "We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement."
A key factor in Biden's decision to release the statement, over the objections of its NATO ally Turkey, was a push by members of his administration to place greater emphasis on human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Soner Cagaptay, of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said officials in the Defense Department sought to dissuade Biden from making the statement, in view of U.S. strategic relations with Turkey, but Soner believes their influence has waned.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to recognize the massacre of Armenians as genocide during the 2008 presidential campaign, but shelved the issue throughout his eight-year tenure. Biden made the same pledge in his campaign in 2020 and has honored it early in his administration.
Human rights are a pillar of Democrat Biden's foreign policy. In February, U.S. intelligence officials concluded that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the killing of a Saudi journalist, reversing the policy of the Donald Trump administration, which sought to give Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt. That report, and the statement on the Armenian massacre, reflects the growing influence of liberals in the Democratic Party, who are strongly advocating for a sharper focus on human rights.
On the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden has decided to resume funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which the Trump administration had suspended. Israel is opposed and U.S.-Israel ties, which were warm under Trump, have cooled greatly.
The increased distance between the U.S. and its traditional allies in the Middle East highlights the decline of U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern affairs.
The Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey has been used by the U.S. forces to stage attacks on the Islamic State group, but Turkey's strategic importance may be fading for U.S. after Islamic State's demise. The U.S. is believed to have nuclear weapons deployed in Turkey, assuming their potential use against Iran, but the Biden administration is engaged in dialogue with Iran.
The U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide may push Turkey into Russia's arms. Turkey bought Russian-made S400 surface-to-air missiles in 2019 and is proceeding additional purchases. Washington is strongly opposed to Turkey's moves to strengthen military cooperation with Russia, which NATO treats as a potential adversary. If Turkey completes deployment of the missiles, further sanctions against it may follow.
In March, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi toured six Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, demonstrating Beijing's desire to deepen ties with the region. China appears interested in taking advantage of the U.S. pullback from the Middle East.
Biden last Friday had his first online meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The U.S. president is believed to have notified his counterpart in advance about his intention to recognize the atrocity against Armenians as genocide and to have explained his reasoning, a move that suggests he was trying to tamp down Turkish objections. The two leaders have agreed to meet in Brussels in June, when a NATO summit meeting is scheduled.