Joe Biden has spoken by phone with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan amid speculation that the U.S president will recognize the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I as genocide — a largely symbolic move that would likely infuriate Ankara and step up already high tensions between the two NATO allies.
The White House and the Turkish presidency accounts of the April 23 call, the first direct communication between the two leaders since Biden’s inauguration in January, made no mention of the issue.
But Reuters quoted sources familiar with the conversation as saying that Biden told Erdogan that he intended to recognize the mass killing and forced deportations of Armenians as genocide in a statement on April 24.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter told reporters: “When it comes to the Armenian genocide, you can expect an announcement tomorrow.” She declined to reveal details.
Earlier this week, media reports said Biden would likely use the word “genocide” as part of a statement on April 24 when Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day annual commemorations are held around the world.
However, sources warned that given the importance of bilateral ties with Turkey, a key NATO member, the U.S. president may still choose to drop the “genocide” term at the last minute.
As a presidential candidate, Biden pledged that if elected he would recognize the Armenian genocide, saying “silence is complicity.” But he has not given a timeline for delivering on the promise.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has warned that such a move would “harm” bilateral relations.
During and immediately after World War I, Ottoman Turks killed or deported as many as 1.5 million Armenians — a Christian minority in the predominately Muslim empire. Many historians and some other nations consider the killings genocide.
Turkey objects to the use of the word genocide to describe the killings. Ankara claims the deaths were a result of civil strife rather than a planned Ottoman government effort to annihilate Armenians. Turkey also claims fewer Armenians died than has been reported.
Moves to recognize the killings as genocide have stalled in the U.S. Congress for decades, and U.S. presidents have refrained from formally using the term amid intense lobbying by Ankara.
During his April 23 call with Erdogan, Biden called for “a constructive bilateral relationship with expanded areas of cooperation and effective management of disagreements,” the White House said in a statement.
It said the two leaders agreed to meet one-on-one on the sidelines of a NATO summit in June to discuss their two countries’ relations.
Erdogan’s office said that “both leaders agreed on the strategic character of the bilateral relationship and the importance of working together to build greater cooperation on issues of mutual interest.”