US President Joe Biden's reported plan to formally recognise as genocide the World War I-era killings of 1.5 million Christian Armenians by the Muslim Ottoman Empire risks plunging relations with Turkey into deep crisis.
The White House has not commented on the reports, but top lawmakers in Biden's Democratic Party voiced strong support for the move expected on Saturday, the annual day of remembrance for the victims of the 1915 massacre. Despite decades of pressure from the US Armenian community, successive US presidents have skirted the genocide controversy due to worries about a rupture with NATO ally Turkey, which has steadfastly rejected the assertion.
But Biden pledged last year during his presidential campaign to recognise the Armenian genocide.
"We must never forget or remain silent about this horrific and systematic campaign of extermination," he said in a statement on April 24, 2020. "If we do not fully acknowledge, commemorate, and teach our children about genocide, the words 'never again' lose their meaning. "
Erdogan: 'Defend the truth'
Branding the massacre genocide would carry no legal consequences, but could potentially add support to reparations claims. More immediately, it would infuriate Ankara, which insists that the numbers of Armenians killed is greatly exaggerated and that more Muslims were killed during the period.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Thursday told advisors "to defend the truth against those who back the so-called 'Armenian genocide' lie," his office said without referring directly to Biden's reported plans.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu warned in an interview that Biden's move would sour bilateral relations.
"If the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs," he said.
Democrats in Congress though applauded the expected move.
"I am so relieved, grateful and moved that we can finally commemorate the anniversary with the knowledge that the government of the United States... has recognized the truth of the Armenian genocide at last," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
At the US State Department, spokesman Ned Price did not confirm any coming announcement, but stressed that the two countries can still work on issues of mutual interest despite disagreements.
"We have shared interests with Ankara, and that includes countering terrorism and includes ending the conflict in Syria," he said. "As friends, as allies, when we have disagreements we raise those... and there's no papering over them."
'Present day threat'
The Ottoman empire was centered on modern-day Turkey, and millions of Armenians lived under its rule, mostly in what is now the eastern part of the country. The massacre was set off after Ottoman leader Mehmed Talaat ordered the mass deportation of Armenians as World War I raged and the Ottoman Empire was battling Tsarist Russia.
The Armenian community claims 1.5 million were killed, while some other estimates are lower. Hundreds of thousands also fled into exile, many to Europe and the United States.
Around 30 countries, as well as the European Union, have branded the event genocide. In 2019 both houses of the US Congress voted to use the genocide label in a symbolic resolution.
But then-US president Donald Trump, seeking to maintain close relations with Erdoğan, avoided using that term, while calling it "one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century."
Adam Schiff, the Democratic congressman who sponsored the original genocide legislation, said Biden's move was important to underscore a "real present day threat of genocide," citing China's treatment of Muslim Uyghurs.
"If we're not going to recognise the genocide that happened a century ago, what does that say about our willingness to stand up and confront genocide happening today?" he told Fox 11 television in Los Angeles.
How leaders grapple with Armenian genocide
Turkey furiously rejects the mass killings of Armenians between 1915 and 1917 as genocide, although it does acknowledge many were massacred.
It is estimated that as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed during World War I by Ottoman troops or irregulars.
Turkey – which emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1920 – admits that 300,000 Armenians may have died in civil war and famine. But it denies there was genocide.
Large numbers of Armenians had already been massacred between 1894 and 1896 under Sultan Abdul Hamid II, with some saying as many as 300,000 died. Turkey says the Armenians collaborated with the Russian enemy during World War I, and that tens of thousands of Turks were killed at their hands.
On April 24, 1915 thousands of Armenians suspected of being hostile to Ottoman rule were rounded up. The Armenian population of Anatolia and Cilicia was then deported into the Mesopotamian desert "for reasons of internal security." A large number died on the way or in detention camps. Many were shot, burned alive, drowned, poisoned or fell victim to disease, according to foreign diplomats and intelligence services at the time.
Turkey's defeat in the war led to the creation of a short-lived independent Armenian state in 1918.
Armenians have long sought international recognition of the events as genocide, defined in a 1948 UN convention as acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."
In 1965 Uruguay became the first country to do so. The European Parliament recognised the killings as genocide in 1987 and France was the first major European country to apply the term in 2001.
Parliaments in nearly 30 countries have since passed laws, resolutions or motions recognising genocide. In some cases, however, only one chamber has passed a vote or it has been defined as non-binding, allowing the government to keep some distance. These include Russia, Germany, Brazil, Sweden, Argentina, Austria, Lebanon and The Netherlands.
Some countries go even further and punish genocide denial, such as Cyprus, Slovakia and Switzerland. However, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2015 that Switzerland's 2007 conviction of a Turkish politician for calling the genocide a "great international lie" was an infringement of the right to free speech.
On the 100th anniversary of the killings in 2015, Pope Francis described them as "the first genocide of the 20th century." He was the first pontiff to speak out so clearly on the issue.
Germany's lower house recognised the killings as genocide a year later, although the government said the vote was not legally binding. In February 2021 the Dutch parliament passed a motion urging the government to recognise the killings as genocide.
In 2019 the US Congress recognised the killings as genocide in a symbolic vote. Former president Barack Obama had promised recognition but never did for fear of alienating Turkey, NATO's second largest military power after the United States. Shortly after his arrival in the White House, more than 100 Congress members pressed Joe Biden to make good on a campaign promise to formally recognise the genocide.