President Joe Biden told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday that he intends to recognize the early-20th century massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Empire forces as a genocide, according to people familiar with a call between the leaders.
Biden is expected to use the word “genocide” in a statement Saturday recognizing Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, making good on a promise from his presidential campaign. He would be the first U.S. president in 40 years to publicly recognize the 1915 mass killings as a genocide.
The White House did not mention the issue in a statement about Biden’s call with Erdogan, the first of his presidency, saying only that Biden told the Turkish leader that he’s interested in a “constructive bilateral relationship with expanded areas of cooperation and effective management of disagreements.”
They agreed to meet during a NATO summit in Brussels in June, the White House said.
The lira extended losses on news of the call, dropping as much as 0.9% against the dollar. It was trading 0.8% lower at 8.3903 as of 9:46 p.m. in Istanbul.
A subsequent statement from Erdogan’s office said the Turkish leader raised grievances of his own. Erdogan discussed the U.S. refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan accuses of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup. He also raised U.S. support for Kurdish forces in Syria, saying both matters “were important to advancing Turkey-U.S. relations,” according to Erdogan’s office.
Ronald Reagan was the last U.S. president to call the atrocities committed against the Armenians a “genocide,” in 1981, but he soon backtracked under pressure from Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire.
Erdogan has rebuked other countries that have labeled the executions, deportations and organized massacres of Armenians a genocide, and Biden’s declaration will likely strain relations with the NATO ally.
The Armenian diaspora has long lobbied the U.S. government to officially recognize the more than 100-year-old series of atrocities as a genocide.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the news site Haberturk this week that Biden’s words had no legal effect and would only harm U.S.-Turkey relations. “If the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs,” he said.
Relations between the countries are already strained over Turkey’s decision to purchase an air defense system from Russia, which led Donald Trump’s administration to impose unprecedented sanctions against a member of NATO.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Biden promised to “recognize the Armenian Genocide and make universal human rights a top priority.”
Still, it was not a foregone conclusion Biden would use the word in an official statement. President Barack Obama made a similar promise in 2008. But in eight years in office, he issued only watered-down statements calling the events of 1915 “a tragedy” a “mass atrocity” and a “horror” — but not a genocide.
In 2019, both houses of Congress adopted a resolution recognizing the genocide. That vote occurred amid the dispute over the anti-aircraft missiles and after Turkey began a military campaign in northern Syria, following Trump’s decision to abruptly withdraw U.S. troops from the Kurdish-held region.
Earlier that year, Erdogan had blamed Armenians for the events of 1915, saying in a Twitter post that “the relocation of the Armenian gangs and their supporters, who massacred the Muslim people, including women and children, in eastern Anatolia, was the most reasonable action that could be taken in such a period.”
— With assistance by Selcan Hacaoglu
(Updates with Turkey statement in sixth paragraph.)