WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Saturday recognized the mass killings of Armenians more than a century ago as genocide, signaling a willingness to test an increasingly frayed relationship with Turkey, long a key regional ally and an important partner within NATO.
“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” Biden said in a statement issued on the 106th anniversary of the beginning of a brutal campaign by the former Ottoman Empire that killed 1.5 million people. “And we remember so that we remain ever vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms.”
The declaration by Biden reflected his administration’s commitment to human rights, a pillar of its foreign policy. It is also a break from Biden’s predecessors, who were reluctant to anger a country of strategic importance and were wary of driving its leadership toward U.S. adversaries like Russia or Iran.
The Turkish government, as well as human rights activists and ethnic Armenians, gave a muted response to the news, which was leaked days in advance, describing the move as largely symbolic.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has repeatedly denied that the killings amounted to genocide, had lobbied hard to prevent the announcement, mounting a conference and media campaigns before the anniversary Saturday.
But when Biden spoke with Erdogan Friday, the pair had agreed only to an “effective management of disagreements,” according to a summary of the conversation provided by the White House. A statement from the Turkish presidency said both leaders agreed on the “importance of working together.” The two are scheduled to meet at a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in June.
During their call, Biden told Erdogan directly that he would be declaring the massacre an act of genocide, according to a person familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose details of the conversation.
“We affirm the history,” Biden said in his statement Saturday. “We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
Since taking office, Biden has kept Erdogan at a distance, calling other world leaders — and leaving his Turkish counterpart, who enjoyed a friendly relationship with President Donald Trump, waiting for months.
After news broke Thursday of the impending announcement, Erdogan said in a statement that Turkey would “defend the truth against the lie of the so-called ‘Armenian genocide.’”
Erdogan is widely expected to use the designation to whip up support at home, where he has increasingly adopted a nationalist-Islamist stance to retain his voter base. But political analysts said he was likely to tread carefully with the United States.
Relations between the countries have reached their lowest point in decades, as Erdogan has turned increasingly combative in his dealings with Washington, particularly after a failed coup in 2016. Erdogan has blamed the bid to oust him from power on a Turkish cleric living in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania, and by extension on the United States.
Tensions escalated with Turkey’s deal to buy a missile system from Russia in 2017, which prompted the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Turkey in December. Syria, too, has been a flash point. Erdogan has bitterly criticized the United States military’s support of Kurdish forces in Syria that are affiliated with a group that has waged a decadeslong insurgency against Turkey, and his own operations there have further tested the Atlantic alliance.
Erdogan sees Turkey, a country of 80 million and a member of the Group of 20, as a regional power that deserves greater respect on the world stage. That view has fueled a greater geopolitical assertiveness demonstrated in military interventions in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Azerbaijan and in exploration for energy in contested waters in the eastern Mediterranean last year.
European leaders and members of the Biden administration advocate continued engagement with Erdogan’s government because Turkey houses millions of Syrian refugees who might otherwise head to Europe. They also point to Turkey’s support for Ukraine and Afghanistan, where it will maintain a small force to train Afghan army and police personnel as the United States and other coalition troops withdraw by Sept. 11.
The White House’s sustained silence toward Erdogan had been seen as a sign that Biden did not view Turkey as a priority and intended to manage the relationship at lower levels of the administration.
“They don’t want to have a conflict with him, but they don’t want to be too cozy with him either,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Erdogan also would not seek to further damage relations over the genocide designation, said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. By one count, at least 29 other countries have taken similar steps.
“In the past, Turkey used to issue all types of threats, but lately the policy toward genocide recognition from allies has been to shrug it off,” she said. “They will issue denouncements, but not go so far as to create a crisis.”
Unluhisarcikli, like other analysts and human rights defenders, questioned the timing and purpose of the announcement.
The Turkish public will see it as evidence of American double standards, and anti-Western forces within Turkey will use it to incite fury, he said.
Both opposition and pro-government leaders attacked the expected designation.
“This is an improper, unfair stance,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party.
Dogu Perincek, the leader of the ultranationalist Patriotic Party, in an open letter to Biden, questioned his authority to issue such a declaration. “As is known, the genocide against the Jews was adjudicated at an authorized court,” he wrote, “but regarding the 1915 incidents, there is no judicial ruling.”
The killings of Armenians occurred at the end of World War I during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey. Worried that the Christian Armenian population would align with Russia, a primary enemy of the Ottoman Turks, officials ordered mass deportations in what many historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century: Nearly 1.5 million Armenians were killed, some in massacres by soldiers and the police, others in forced exoduses to the Syrian desert that left them starved to death.
Turkey has acknowledged that widespread atrocities occurred during that period, but its leaders have adamantly denied that the killings were genocide.
In the days leading up to Biden’s announcement, Armenians and human rights activists in Turkey expressed caution, partly because of years of political seesawing over the issue.
“Personally, it is not going to make me excited,” Yetvart Danzikyan, editor-in-chief of Agos, an Armenian-Turkish weekly newspaper in Istanbul, said, pointing to a statement President Ronald Reagan issued in 1981 about the Holocaust that mentioned the “genocide of the Armenians” in passing.
Murat Celikkan, a journalist and longtime human rights activist, said the declaration would be good for American-Armenian citizens, but he did not expect it to change attitudes in Turkey or encourage reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.
“It did not change with more than 20 countries officially recognizing it, including Germany,” he said.
In the United States, some Armenian activists welcomed the declaration as a step forward.
“The denial of the genocide has been such a painful chapter,” said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America. “This is a really critical moment in the arc of history, in defense of human rights.”
“The president is standing firmly against basically a century of denial and is charting a new course,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.