Biden set to become first US president to recognise Armenian genocide

US leader's anticipated recognition of the 1915 killings of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces threatens to antagonise Turkey

(FILES) In this file photo taken on April 24, 2020 Catholicos Garegin II, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, attends a ceremony commemorating the 105th anniversary of the massacre of 1.5 million of Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915, at the Tsitsernakaberd memorial in Yerevan. US President Joe Biden is preparing to recognize the World War I-era killings of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide, US media said on April 21, 2021. / AFP / KAREN MINASYAN

Joe Biden is set to become the first US president to recognise the mass atrocities perpetrated against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide, coinciding with the 106th commemoration of the killings this Saturday.

A US official speaking on condition on anonymity told The National that Mr Biden will recognise the Armenian genocide in a statement on the anniversary of the massacres.

The New York Times was the first to report on Mr Biden's decision.

While former president Ronald Reagan made reference to the Armenian genocide in a statement on the Holocaust in 1981, none of Mr Biden's predecessors designated the atrocities – in which it is estimated about 1.5 million Armenian civilians were killed – as genocide.

Former US presidents have used terms such as “mass killings” or “atrocities” to ascribe the systematic death of Armenians during the First World War.

Mr Biden’s statement would for the first time the executive and legislative branches of the US government are aligned on the issue.

Congress overwhelmingly recognised the genocide in December 2019. Since then, members from both US parties have urged the White House to follow suit.

Last month, a group of 38 high-ranking senators called on Mr Biden to recognise the genocide. On Wednesday, 107 House members issued a letter asking Mr Biden to “clearly and directly recognise the Armenian Genocide in your April 24 statement".

Sources familiar with the decision process told The National that the State Department and the Pentagon were more reluctant than the White House in advocating it.

Fears of antagonising Turkey even further and risking US withdrawal plans from Afghanistan as well as trade relations were taken into account.

Mr Biden has not yet called his Turkish counterpart and tension continues to rise over Ankara's acquisition of the S-400 Russian missile system. This week, the US notified Turkey of its removal from the new F-35 multinational agreement.

The Biden administration, however, is leaning on Turkey to help in the Afghanistan troop withdrawal set for September 11 and in peace talks with the Taliban. Turkey will host an international peace conference for Afghanistan in mid May.

Ankara has long warned the US about the repercussions of any genocide recognition. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this week that official recognition would “worsen ties”.

"If the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs," Mr Cavusoglu told the news site Haberturk.

However, 29 countries have already recognised the mass killings of Armenians as genocide, including Germany, Russia, Italy, Argentina, France and Canada.

For the White House, the decision was about Mr Biden’s commitment to human rights as an integral part of his foreign policy platform, support from Congress and a campaign pledge he made last April.

“If elected, I pledge to support a resolution recognising the Armenian genocide and will make universal human rights a top priority,” Mr Biden tweeted during the presidential race.

But the administration is also bracing for backlash from Turkey, which could come in the form of a symbolic statement recognising the killings of Native Americans as genocide. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made that threat in 2019.

"The acknowledgement by a US president is long overdue and would be clearly consistent with the recognition of the genocide by both Houses of the US Congress in 2019," Ann Karagozian, director of The Promise Armenian Institute at the University of California - Los Angeles, told The National.

“It sends a clear message to the world about America’s enduring values: an acknowledgement of this organised attempt by a country to destroy its indigenous population, an acknowledgement of the wounds that are left festering even several generations after they took place and the message that human rights and historical truth trump political and, yes, even strategic considerations,” said Ms Karagozian, whose four grandparents emigrated to US to escape the killings.

Asked about the effect on US-Turkey relations, the expert saw a split between the leadership and many in the public.

“This recognition sends a message to the Turkish people, a substantial fraction of whom know about the genocide from their grandparents and other family members but are afraid to speak about it openly because it is illegal to do so in the Republic of Turkey.”

As for the leadership, the recognition would put Ankara “on notice that the world is watching,” she said.

Armenian groups such as the Armenian National Committee of America welcomed reports on Mr Biden's recognition and called it a "watershed for US policy, a tipping point for America towards the justice owed the Armenian nation, the security required of Armenia's future".

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