U.S. President Joe Biden said on Saturday that the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide, a historic declaration that infuriated Turkey and further strained frayed ties between the two NATO allies.
The largely symbolic move, breaking away from decades of carefully calibrated language from the White House, was welcomed by the Armenian diaspora in the United States, but comes at a time when Ankara and Washington grapple with deep policy disagreements over a host of issues.
Turkey’s dictator government and most of the opposition showed rare unity in their rejection of Biden’s statement. Desperate for attention, foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey “entirely rejects” the U.S. decision which he said was based “solely on populism”, while the opposition denounced it as a “major mistake”.
Biden’s message was met with “great enthusiasm” by the people of Armenia and Armenians worldwide, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan wrote in a letter to the U.S. president.
In his statement, Biden said the American people honor “all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today.”
“Over the decades Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they have never forgotten the tragic history,” Biden said. “We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
In comments that sought to soften the blow, a senior administration official told reporters that Washington continued to see Turkey as critical NATO ally and was encouraging Armenia and Turkey to pursue reconciliation.
For decades, measures recognizing the Armenian genocide stalled in the U.S. Congress and most U.S. presidents have refrained from calling it that, stymied by concerns about relations with Turkey and intense lobbying by Ankara. Ronald Reagan, the former U.S. president from California, a hub for the Armenian diaspora in the United States, had been the only U.S. president to publicly call the killings genocide.
Turkey accepts that many Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but contests the figures and denies the killings were systematically orchestrated and constitute a genocide.
In Montebello, California, a city in Los Angeles County that is home to many Armenian-Americans, members of the community held a small and somber ceremony during which they placed a cross made of flowers at a monument to the victims. Some attendees wore pins reading “genocide denied genocide repeated.”
Raffi Hamparian, chairman of Armenian National Committee of America, said in a statement that Biden’s “principled stand … pivots America toward the justice deserved and the security required for the future of the Armenian nation.”