WASHINGTON — For decades, Anthony Barsamian of Wellesley Hills and other Armenian-American activists held memorials, collected research, and forged relationships in Congress to push the US government to formally recognize the tragedy that struck their families and ancestors: the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkey’s Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s.
Those efforts had always stalled amid heavy opposition from Turkey and pushback by Democratic and Republican presidents worried about angering the key NATO ally. But President Trump’s recent decision to pull US troops out of northern Syria — opening the door for the Turkish military to launch an attack there against the Kurds — provided the momentum finally needed for the House to overwhelmingly approve a resolution Tuesday officially recognizing the atrocity.
The 405-11 vote, cheered by the large Armenian communities in Watertown and Worcester, was a rare show of bipartisan agreement in Washington.
“Every American can be a little more proud of the United States today,” said Barsamian, a lawyer who serves as cochairman of the Armenian Assembly of America, a national nonprofit advocacy group. “It reminds the world that we will not allow human atrocities.”
Democrats and Republicans have been concerned that the power vacuum caused by the US troop withdrawal allowed Turkey to attack Kurdish forces crucial to the fight against the Islamic State, and some have warned it could open the door to another atrocity in that region. After approving the genocide resolution, the House voted 403-16 Tuesday to place sanctions on Turkey for its invasion of Syria in a rebuke to Trump for lifting administration-imposed sanctions last week.
The House passed resolutions marking the Armenian genocide in 1975 and 1984. But activists and congressional leaders said this latest resolution is more detailed in stating the facts of the atrocity and for the first time clearly labels the Ottoman Empire as the perpetrator.
The measure now heads to the Senate, where it has increasingly gained support, though its passage could exacerbate tensions between Congress and the White House and between the United States and Turkey. Even if the resolution passes the Senate, Trump is not likely to sign it.
A White House spokesman declined to comment Tuesday. Multiple requests to the Turkish Embassy for comment went unanswered.
All nine House members from Massachusetts voted for the resolution. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey are sponsors of a similar bipartisan Senate resolution.
Representative Jim McGovern, who played a pivotal role in its passage as chairman of the House Rules Committee, said that passing the resolution was “the right thing to do.”
“I don’t give a damn if it makes Donald Trump uncomfortable,” said McGovern, whose district is home to one of the nation’s oldest Armenian-American communities, in Worcester. “I think we need to be on the side of truth, and on the side of historical accuracy.”
He has sought formal US acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide since his early days in Congress and remembers at least 60 survivors filled the front pew at a memorial service at the Armenian Church of Our Savior in Worcester in the late 1970s. The last survivor in his district died in 2015, he said.
The resolution calls for the United States to “commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance,” reject efforts to deny it, and encourage public understanding of the atrocity as well as the US role in providing humanitarian relief.
Scholars have determined that the Ottoman Empire, which included present-day Turkey, systematically killed some 1.5 million Armenians between approximately 1915 and 1923. But Turkey has steadfastly opposed any US efforts that would designate the massacre a genocide.
Ronald Reagan was the last president to refer to the mass slaughter as a “genocide of the Armenians” in a 1981 speech remembering the victims of the Holocaust. Presidents since have been reluctant to anger the US ally.
George W. Bush pushed back on a proposed 2007 resolution marking the Armenian genocide at a time when Turkey was pivotal to US interests in Iraq. While campaigning for president in 2008, Barack Obama promised to recognize the genocide if he became president but failed to do so during his two terms in office — instead referring to the killings throughout his tenure as a “mass atrocity” and “tragedy.”
Aram Arkun, the assistant editor of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator newspaper in Watertown, said he was disturbed by the failure of recent presidents and legislators to refer to the events as a genocide. The ambiguity, he said, is “very painful” because it encourages politically motivated denial of the events.
A direct descendant of survivors of the genocide, Arkun remembered childhood stories about the children who disappeared, about women taking their own lives to avoid being raped. He said he hoped the resolution would set a precedent that prevents a “whitewash” by governments of mass atrocities in the future.
“It might seem odd to some people that this issue is still around,” Arkun said. “It’s been over 100 years, but the ramifications, the reverberations of such an event don’t go away. They’re very powerful, and they affect generation to generation.”
Others saw the resolution’s passage as a powerful message against Turkey and a long overdue acknowledgment of the role that US organizations played in rescuing survivors of the genocide.
“This is not about anything other than recognizing the American response to this genocide,” said Noubar Afeyan, the chief executive of the Cambridge-based venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering and cofounder of the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, awarded on behalf of the survivors of the genocide. “It has been a little odd for those of us who want to express gratitude to this country that we can’t acknowledge the role the US played in saving tens of thousands of orphans.”
The push for the latest resolution, which was sponsored by Representative Adam Schiff of California, was led by Representative Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California and the only Armenian-Assyrian member of Congress.
Eshoo, whose parents fled the genocide, said she asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to take up the resolution after she heard about Trump’s plans to remove some 1,000 troops from Syria that have been acting as default peacemakers between Turkish and Kurdish forces.
“There is a historic parallel,” she said, wiping away tears after testifying in support of the resolution at House Rules Committee hearing Monday. “Today, I believe there is an echo of a repeat of history.”