April 24 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday formally recognized the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War One as an act of genocide, a move celebrated by the Armenian-American community in the United States but which infuriated NATO ally Turkey.
The move is symbolic and does not trigger any penalties. But it breaks with decades of carefully calibrated White House statements referring to the atrocities by the Armenian term “Metz Yeghern” (the great evil).
Turkey accepts that many Christian Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but it contests the figures and denies that the killings were systematically orchestrated or constitute a genocide. It also says many Muslim Turks perished at the time.
ISTANBUL, April 24 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden said on Saturday that the 1915 massacres and forced deportation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide, a move that infuriated Turkey and further strained frayed ties between the two NATO allies.
Here is some background to the issue.
WHAT HAPPENED IN 1915?
In the late 19th century the Ottoman Empire’s roughly two million Armenians began to assert nationalist aspirations.
Repression by Ottoman irregulars, mainly Kurds, led to the massacre of tens of thousands of Armenians in 1894-1896 in eastern Anatolia, now eastern Turkey. Several thousand more were killed in Constantinople, now Istanbul, in August 1896 after Armenian militants seized the Ottoman Bank.
As the Ottomans fought Russian forces in eastern Anatolia in World War One, many Armenians formed partisan groups to assist the invading Russian armies.
On April 24, 1915, the Ottoman Empire arrested and ultimately killed hundreds of the Armenian intelligentsia.
In May 1915, Ottoman commanders began mass deportation of Armenians from eastern Anatolia. Thousands were marched south towards Syria and Mesopotamia. Armenians say some 1.5 million died in massacres or of starvation and exhaustion in the desert.
WHAT DOES TURKEY SAY?
The Turkish republic, established in 1923 after the Ottoman empire collapsed, has always denied there was a systematic campaign to annihilate Armenians.
It says that thousands of Turks and Armenians died in inter-ethnic violence as the empire started to fall apart and fought a Russian invasion of its eastern provinces during World War One.
HOW ARE TURKISH-ARMENIAN RELATIONS NOW?
Seeking to bury a century of hostility, the two countries signed a peace accord in 2009 which called for the creation of a commission of international experts to study the 1915 killings, which Armenia insisted should be declared a genocide.
They agreed to establish diplomatic ties and open their border, subject to parliamentary approval of the deal. But Yerevan and Ankara accused each other of trying to re-write the texts, and within six months the ratification was suspended.
Armenia formally scrapped the deal in 2018.
Last year, Turkey strongly supported Azerbaijan in its six-week conflict with Armenia over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, when Azeri forces recaptured territory from Armenian troops.
WHAT DO OTHER COUNTRIES SAY?
The 1915 killings have been recognised as genocide in dozens of countries.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s lower house of parliament officially declared in 2019 that the events constituted genocide. Macron decreed that April 24 should be a day of annual commemoration.
In the same year, both chambers of the U.S. Congress passed resolutions saying the United States should commemorate the killings as genocide.
The Armenian issue in the United States
* There are an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million Americans with Armenian heritage and many grew up hearing horrific stories of the massacres. Nowhere is Armenian influence more visible than in Glendale, California, a city of 200,000 near Los Angeles where 40% of the population is Armenian.
* Ronald Reagan, a Californian, was the only U.S. president to publicly call the killings of Armenians genocide. Other presidents have avoided the term out of concern for Turkey’s sensitivities.
* In December 2019, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution recognizing as a genocide the mass killings of Armenians a century ago. The Democratic-led House of Representatives had passed the resolution by an overwhelming majority two months previously.
* Vice President Kamala Harris co-sponsored the 2019 resolution when she was a U.S. senator for California, a hub for the Armenian diaspora in the United States.
* Biden has bipartisan support on the issue. Earlier this week, more than 100 lawmakers from the Republican and his own Democratic Party sent a letter to Biden urging him to officially recognize the mass killings as genocide.
* For decades, measures recognizing the Armenian genocide had stalled in the U.S. Congress, thwarted by Turkish lobbying efforts. But sentiment towards Ankara in the U.S. legislative branch has soured in recent years, over issues including Turkey’s military incursions into Syria and purchase of Russian air defense systems. (
Compiled by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Tattersall, Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Daren Butler and Nick Tattersall