On April 24, in the annual White House statement commemorating the deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenian Christians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I, President Joe Biden used the word that other presidents have long avoided: “genocide.” Among historians, the word is not controversial. The Ottoman government's ethnic cleansing campaign against Armenians from 1915–23 has long been seen as the prototypical genocide—an attempt “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who drafted that definition of genocide for an international treaty on the subject, had the Armenian Genocide specifically in mind.
But American presidents have been more reticent. Candidates of both parties routinely promise to recognize the Armenian Genocide while campaigning but change their minds once in office. For decades, the Turkish government has threatened reprisals for any official acknowledgement of what happened to Armenians a century ago; for most American presidents, Turkey has seemed too important to upset. So presidents have temporized, issuing yearly proclamations that speak only vaguely of the “Meds Yeghern”—Armenian for the “Great Catastrophe.” Not since Ronald Reagan has a president spoken forthrightly of the events of 1915–23. Why did Biden do so now? And what does his statement mean for present-day Armenia, a country founded in part by refugees from the genocide?
The historical facts are well known. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Armenians and other Christians, particularly Syriac and Greek Orthodox, comprised a significant portion of the population of the Ottoman Empire’s eastern provinces. When Christians asserted their rights under Ottoman law, it caused a backlash from the larger Muslim population. Some Christians formed paramilitary groups to protect themselves. Resistance led to brutal state repression, particularly the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s, during which hundreds of thousands of Christians died.
When World War I began, the Young Turk government worried that Christians, especially Armenians, would prove disloyal. So the government decided to deport the entire Armenian population to Syria—through the desert, without adequate food, water, or shelter. Turkish and Kurdish irregulars attacked refugees along the way, typically with the collaboration of the officials who were supposed to guard the victims. Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenian Christians perished in death marches and slaughters.
Biden’s decision to call the campaign against Armenians by its proper name no doubt reflects his personal convictions. But it also reflects a new American frustration with Turkey. For the past several years, under President Recep Erdoğan, Turkey has engaged in a pattern of provocative conduct that has worn out its goodwill in Washington.
For example, although Turkey portrays itself as the West’s staunch ally against Russia, in recent years the country purchased and activated a Russian-made missile defense system that poses a risk to America and NATO. Following America’s sudden withdrawal from Syria in 2019, Turkey invaded the country and conducted an ethnic cleansing campaign against America’s former allies, the Kurds, in the Afrin District. Those were the same Kurds who had helped the United States defeat ISIS only a short time before.
In addition, Turkey has menaced other countries in the region. Erdoğan has referred to Israel as a “Nazi” country. Last fall, he implied in a speech to the Turkish parliament that Jerusalem rightfully belonged to Turks. “Jerusalem is our city, a city from us,” he told the lawmakers, a city “we had to leave in tears.” Turkey has made territorial claims and threatened war against Greece; it has also threatened Egypt. Last fall, Turkey goaded Azerbaijan to attack Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh, a historically Armenian region within present-day Azerbaijan that has sought independence for decades. Turkey provided Azerbaijan with hundreds of millions of dollars in military equipment, as well as advisers and Syrian Islamist mercenaries, that allowed Azerbaijan to achieve most of its military aims, though the Karabakh issue has not ultimately been settled.
Biden’s genocide statement is best understood, then, as one of several recent measures the U.S. government has taken to signal its displeasure with Turkish adventurism. The Trump Administration, which initially took a pro-Turkish stance, changed course and expelled Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, citing security issues. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new U.S. naval presence in Crete. And in 2019, for the first time, overwhelming majorities of the House and Senate passed resolutions condemning the Armenian Genocide. The Trump Administration publicly opposed the measure, but quietly let it be known that passage would not be unwelcome.
Recognition of the Armenian Genocide, suddenly, has become one of the few things on which Democrats and Republicans agree. It would be good if the new willingness to speak forthrightly about history translated into practical help for Armenians facing ethnic cleansing today. That, unfortunately, seems a different story. Shortly after his statement on the genocide, President Biden made another decision that indicates that, when it comes to present-day aggression against Armenia, the United States is prepared to look the other way.
In the aftermath of last fall's war, Turkey and Azerbaijan continue to menace Armenia. Azerbaijan routinely makes territorial threats against Armenia, asserting, absurdly, that Armenians are latecomers to the Caucasus and that Armenia, properly, belongs to Azerbaijan. It prevents Armenian pilgrims from using ancient Armenian churches in Azeri territory and does its best to eliminate any trace of Armenian culture within its control. It holds hundreds of Armenian POWs and refuses to release them. And it recently opened a “trophy park” in Baku that dehumanizes Armenians in crude ways. The park, which is wildly popular with the Azeri public, is typical of the Aliyev government, a dictatorial regime that maintains power by scapegoating Armenians and instilling hatred for them through unrelenting propaganda.
Turkey and Azerbaijan would like very much, in Erdoğan’s words last year, to “fulfill the mission of our grandfathers in the Caucasus”—to remove the obstacle that Christian Armenians place in the way of a unified, pan-Turkish mega-state stretching from Istanbul to Central Asia. American leverage could make Turkey and Azerbaijan think twice about pursuing this strategy. But America’s foreign policy establishment continues to see Armenia as a Russian proxy and therefore undeserving of much assistance. Indeed, neoconservatives have cheered Azerbaijan’s aggression against Armenia as a way to contain Russia and, secondarily, Iran.
This assessment of the situation is wrong and unfair. Surrounded by enemies who would like to make it disappear, Armenia has little choice but to make alliances where it can. Besides, the theory that helping Azerbaijan would weaken Russia has proven spectacularly wrong. As a result of the war, Russia now has military bases both in Armenia and Azerbaijan and wields more influence in the Caucasus than it did before. As for Iran, it voiced its support for Azerbaijan during the war and now hopes to receive Azeri contracts to help with the rebuilding.
Helping Armenia would not mean military assistance—but it would mean refraining from arming countries that undertake new ethnic cleansing campaigns against Armenians. About a week after Biden’s statement on the Armenian Genocide, his administration waived “Section 907,” a congressional ban on military assistance to Azerbaijan, thus effectively rewarding the country for its aggression last fall and now. In light of President Biden’s forthright recognition of the Armenian Genocide, his decision to allow military aid to Azerbaijan was ironic—and shameful: One step forward, two steps back.
Mark L. Movsesian co-directs the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion.
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Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons. Image cropped.