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Biden recognizes Armenian genocide, defying Turkey in watershed

US President Joe Biden on Saturday recognized the 1915 killings of Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide, a watershed moment for descendants of the hundreds of thousands of dead as he defied decades of pressure by Turkey. 

Biden became the first US president to use the word genocide in a statement on the anniversary, a day after informing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the decision and seeking to limit the furor from the NATO ally.

"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," Biden said.

"We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated."

The statement is a massive victory for Armenia and its extensive diaspora. Starting with Uruguay in 1965, nations including France, Germany, Canada and Russia have recognized the genocide but a US statement has been a paramount goal that proved elusive under other presidents until Biden.

Erdogan, in a statement to the Armenian patriarch in Istanbul, said that debates "should be held by historians" and not "politicized by third parties."

"Words cannot change or rewrite history," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted moments after Biden's statement. "We will not take lessons from anyone on our history."

Explaining Biden's thinking, an administration official pointed to the Democratic president's vows to put a new priority on human rights and highlighted his outspokenness on systemic racism in the United States. 

Across the world, "people are beginning to acknowledge and address and grapple with the painful historical facts in their own countries. It's certainly something that we are doing here in the United States," the official said.

A century of waiting 

As many as 1.5 million Armenians are estimated to have been killed from 1915 to 1917 during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, which suspected the Christian minority of conspiring with adversary Russia in World War I.

Armenian populations were rounded up and deported into the desert of Syria on death marches in which many were shot, poisoned or fell victim to disease, according to accounts at the time by foreign diplomats.

Turkey, which emerged as a secular republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, acknowledges that 300,000 Armenians may have died but strongly rejects that it was genocide, saying they perished in strife and famine in which many Turks also died.

Recognition has been a top priority for the Armenia and Armenian-Americans, with calls for compensation and property restoration over what they call Meds Yeghern -- the Great Crime -- and appeals for more support against Turkish-backed neighbor Azerbaijan. 

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan thanked Biden for his "powerful step towards justice and invaluable support to the heirs of the Armenian genocide victims."

Biden, whose call to Erdogan to inform him of the genocide recognition was their first conversation since the US leader took office three months ago, signaled he hoped to contain the fallout.

Biden and Erdogan agreed in their call to meet in June on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels, officials said.

Beyond statements, Turkey did not immediately announce any retaliatory steps -- in contrast to angry measures taken over previous Western moves to recognize the genocide.

Tensions have risen sharply with Turkey in recent years over its purchase of a major air defense system from Russia -- the chief adversary of NATO -- and its incursions against pro-US Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Biden has kept Erdogan at arm's length -- a contrast with his predecessor Donald Trump, whom the Turkish leader reportedly found so amenable that he would call Trump directly on his phone on the golf course.

Turbulent alliance

The US Congress in 2019 voted overwhelmingly to recognize the Armenian genocide but the Trump administration made clear that the official US line had not changed.

Former president Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president, danced around the issue by referencing pre-election statements he made recognizing the genocide.

Samantha Power, a top aide to Obama who unsuccessfully lobbied Obama to recognize the genocide, said that past US "euphemisms" about the killings had only encouraged Erdogan, whom Biden has described as an autocrat.

"President Erdogan's success in blackmailing and bullying the US (and other countries) not to recognize the Armenian genocide likely emboldened him as he grew more repressive," Power wrote on Twitter.

Alan Makovsky, an expert on Turkey at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said that the 2019 congressional resolution had "no discernible impact" on US-Turkey relations -- and paved the way for Biden to go ahead.

"We've seen through experience that concern about Turkey's reaction was always overblown," he said.

"Turkey will raise a rhetorical fuss for a few days and perhaps delay acting on some routine requests from the US military."

Topics: Joe Biden , Armenia , genocide , Mevlut Cavusoglu , Tayyip Erdogan
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