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Biden's Armenian genocide recognition ramps up US-Turkey tensions

President Biden's decision to recognize the Armenian genocide is being welcomed by the community and its supporters as a long-overdue step in standing up for human rights, though the move carries with it risks to the U.S. relationship with Turkey.

Biden's announcement follows through on a campaign promise to use the Oval Office to formally acknowledge the systematic deportation and killing in the early 20th century of almost 2 million Armenians and other minorities at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, which is present-day Turkey.

The recognition marks a significant break from previous presidents and administrations, which held off declaring the atrocities committed against Armenians as genocide over concerns that such a move would fracture relations between Washington and Ankara.

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Turkey is a NATO ally and a partner with the U.S. in efforts to combat terrorism, resolve the conflict in Syria and prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State.

But the relationship has become increasingly antagonistic, with Turkey defying allies by purchasing a Russian missile defense system, taking provocative action against Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, and getting involved in regional conflicts with Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The Turkish government is firmly against the U.S. labeling the mass killing of Armenians as genocide, and Biden reportedly indicated in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Friday that he planned to formally recognize the atrocities.

The timing of the call signaled the importance for Biden to maintain the U.S. and Turkish relationship.

“I think there’s one thing that foreign leaders dislike more than sharp words from Washington, and that is to be ignored,” said John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a more than three-decade veteran of the State Department.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry issued a lengthy statement Saturday condemning Biden's statement, calling for a retraction and warning that recognizing the genocide “will open a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship.” 

Turkey has long disputed the genocide label when discussing the displacement and death of Armenians between 1915 and 1923, saying that both Turks and Armenians were victimized amid the fighting and downfall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. 

The term genocide only came into being in 1944 in an effort to describe the atrocities of the Holocaust and was determined an internationally recognized crime in 1948 with the agreement by the United Nations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

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But the atrocities against Armenians in the early 20th century are widely viewed as having informed the definition and legal implications of genocide that were implemented after the Holocaust.

And advocates say it is about delivering justice for victims of the deportations, tortures and killings while also safeguarding the survival of present-day Armenia.

The president’s roughly 300-word statement on Saturday marking Armenian Remembrance Day mentioned “genocide” twice.

“Each year on this day, 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 the statement.

“The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today,” he added.

Armenia’s ambassador to the U.S., Varuzhan Nersesyan, said in an interview with The Hill, "By recognizing the genocide the U.S. proves that it stands on the side of justice and right cause.” 

“On the other hand, genocide recognition sends a message that the U.S. has moral leadership in these matters,” he added. 

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, which advocates for genocide recognition, praised the move. 

“Armenian Genocide recognition holds great meaning in terms of remembrance, but it is – at its heart – about the justice deserved and the security required for the survival of the Armenian nation – a landlocked, blockaded, genocide-survivor state,” Hamparian said in a statement.

More than 30 international governments have passed laws or resolutions or made statements recognizing the Armenian genocide, which is marked on April 24 each year. 

In December 2019, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed resolutions acknowledging the Armenian genocide, though the move was largely motivated as a rebuke of Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria after former President TrumpDonald TrumpWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Poll: 30 percent of GOP voters believe Trump will 'likely' be reinstated this year Black Secret Service agent told Trump it was offensive to hold rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth: report MORE announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who authored the resolution, choked back tears at the resolution’s passing, saying it marked a long-overdue step of recognition for the last living genocide survivors. 

“I’m thankful that this resolution has passed at a time in which there are still survivors of the genocide who will be able to see that the Senate acknowledges what they went through,” he said at the time. 

The Trump administration distanced itself from the resolution, and Trump was largely silent on criticism of the Turkish government in general.

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Critics of Erdoğan and Turkey’s policies were hopeful that Biden would take a tougher stance toward Ankara.

In particular, they point to Biden’s statement as the Democratic nominee condemning Turkey’s involvement with Azerbaijan in the fighting against Armenia over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh that broke out in September 2020.

"Recognition [of the Armenian genocide] by President Biden sends a message to Turkey and to all others that they should stop their destabilizing and aggressive activities and acts of aggression against other nations, reconcile themselves with their past and live in peace with their neighbors," Nersesyan said.

But Biden administration officials have made pains to stress the importance of maintaining U.S. and Turkish relations.

“Turkey is a valued and long-standing NATO ally, and we obviously have shared interests, and those shared interests include, of course, counterterrorism, ending the conflict in Syria as well as deterring any malign influence in the region,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter said in a briefing with reporters on Friday. 

“At the same time, we’ll always uphold our values, which includes human rights and rule of law and protecting the interests of those while keeping Turkey as well aligned with the transatlantic alliance on all of these critical issues,” she added. 

Herbst, of the Atlantic Council, said previous administrations have been reluctant to recognize the Armenian genocide over the risk of antagonizing Turkey. 

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“Literally for decades, various Turkish governments have made it sound like this was an absolutely impossible thing for them to accept,” he said.

“I suspect at the end of the day that will not prove to be the case. But it is possible that the sharp reaction that Ankara will issue may complicate the bilateral relationship between the United States and Turkey for at least for some period of time,” he added.

Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, said Ankara is likely to issue an immediate vocal reaction, mostly as an effort to distract from domestic tensions, but is unlikely to maintain a hard stance against the U.S. 

“The Erdoğan government will see this as an opportunity to fuel anti-American sentiment within Turkey. ... But following his initial reaction, the Turkish president is likely to return to business as usual with his American counterparts, as he has done so in the past with other governments,” Erdemir said.

“In the long run, this development may even lead to a positive outcome in bilateral relations since once the Armenian genocide controversy is behind, Ankara can begin to invest its diplomatic resources in more productive areas in an attempt to resolve the mounting list of problems with the United States,” Erdemir added.

Updated: 2 p.m.