U.S. President Joe Biden told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday that he intends to recognize the 1915 massacres of Armenians as a genocide, according to people familiar with a call between the leaders, a move that will likely strain already tense U.S.-Turkish relations.
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 state that the mass killings during the final years of the Ottoman Empire were 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. But ties between Washington and Ankara have deteriorated over Turkey’s decision to purchase an air defense system from Russia, which led Donald Trump’s administration to impose unprecedented sanctions against a NATO member.
In 2018, Erdogan’s military campaign in northern Syria against Kurdish-held areas irked congressional leaders.
Turkey, which joined the alliance in 1952, has been a key U.S. strategic partner in the region, providing a bridge to the Islamic world and countering Russian ambitions. Yet increasing friction on a number of issues — including Erdogan’s increasingly heavy hand against the media and political opponents — has led him to seek a closer relationship with Russia.
Moscow seems keen to take advantage of the rift. Tass, the Russian state news agency, reported this week that the Biden administration “is making it clear that it actually does not view Erdogan as a partner and a politician worth betting on, and will build relations with him from the position of force.”
The lira extended losses on news of the Biden-Erdogan call, dropping as much as 1% against the dollar. That took this week’s losses to 3.9%, the worst performance among emerging market currencies tracked by Bloomberg after the Peruvian sol.
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, which collapsed after the end of World War I.
Erdogan has rebuked other countries that have labeled the executions, deportations and organized massacres of Armenians a genocide.
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.
Erdogan himself on Wednesday said that his administration would “continue to defend the truths in the face of the lie of ‘genocide of Armenians’ and those who are backing this slander with political calculations,” according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.
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 the Syrian military operation, 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.”
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