President Joe Biden is reportedly preparing to formally recognize the early 20th century massacres of Armenians as genocide, a designation he pledged to make during his campaign but one that could further strain the U.S. alliance with Turkey.
Biden is expected to make the announcement on Saturday, which is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, according to The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, citing U.S. officials. Both newspapers noted that the president could still reverse course.
The Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923, as it’s recognized by 29 countries, saw the systematic mass murder and deportation of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from modern-day Turkey. Those atrocities are widely viewed as a genocide among most scholars and historians. Turkey denies it constituted genocide, claiming it was a response to an Armenian uprising.
In his remembrance day statement last year, Biden said that “silence is complicity” and vowed to “recognize the Armenian Genocide and make universal human rights a top priority for his administration so that such a tragedy can never again occur.”
Biden has faced widespread calls to adopt the terminology that past presidents have sidestepped. Should he move forward with the announcement, it would make him the first U.S. president to formally do so. Previously, presidents have avoided that language, though Ronald Reagan had made a passing reference to it during a 1981 statement about the Holocaust.
A bipartisan group of more than 100 House lawmakers led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) signed a letter to Biden on Wednesday pressuring him to clearly and directly recognize the Armenian Genocide in his remembrance day statement.
“The shameful silence of the United States Government on the historic fact of the Armenian Genocide has gone on for too long, and it must end. We urge you to follow through on your commitments and speak the truth,” the letter said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not comment on the issue Wednesday but said the president would have more to say on the subject on Saturday.
Strained ties between Turkey and the U.S., both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, deteriorated further in December, when the Trump administration imposed sanctions against Ankara over its acquisition of a Russian missile defense system. The move added to tensions already inflamed by human rights issues and regional conflicts overseen by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom then-U.S. President Donald Trump shared a close relationship.
Biden’s decision Saturday will serve as an early indicator of his administration’s approach to Erdogan, whom he has previously described as an “autocrat.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a Turkish broadcaster this week that a genocide declaration from Biden would further “harm ties.”