Friday marks Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, on which the early 20th-century killing of more than 1.5 million Armenians is remembered worldwide.
The genocide, which occurred in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, is a contentious topic, still denied by Turkey— the Ottoman successor state. Official recognition of the massacre as a genocide doubles as an affront to the Turkish government, meaning many nations—including the U.S.—still refuse to do so.
In December, a diplomatic spat between the U.S. and Turkey gave lawmakers the cover to pass a non-binding resolution recognizing the incident as a genocide. Both the House and the Senate voted in favor, but the White House refused to take up either resolution, in line with long-established U.S. practice.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry issued a statement Friday condemning the “heinous crime, committed with the intent to destroy in whole the Armenian people and deprive them of their homeland.” The ministry said the massacre was “the first genocide of the 20th century.
The killing of Ottoman Armenians stretched from roughly 1915 to 1923. The number of those killed is disputed—Armenian groups say the toll was as high as 1.5 million, while Turkey puts the number in the hundreds of thousands. Turkey maintains that those who died did so while fighting against Ottoman forces.
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Huge numbers of Armenians were forcibly relocated from their homes to inhospitable lands such as the deserts of Syria and elsewhere during this period. Most of the victims died from starvation and exhaustion. Turkey maintains this does not constitute a genocide, but the collapsing Ottoman government executed several top officials for their role in the massacres.
The House and Senate broke with traditional U.S. policy in recognizing the persecution of the Armenians as a genocide in December. The votes came soon after NATO ally Turkey launched an invasion of northeastern Syria to attack Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) troops—led by Kurdish militias that Turkey considers terrorist groups—and attempting to clear them from a stretch of the Turkish border.
The SDF bore the brunt of the Western offensive against Islamic State militants in Syria, fighting to squash the so-called caliphate with U.S. and coalition support, taking some 12,000 casualties in the process.
President Donald Trump ordered U.S. forces to withdraw from northeastern Syria just before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his offensive, prompting criticism that Trump effectively gave the operation a green light.
Relations between the U.S. and Turkey were already strained, partially due to Ankara’s purchase of a Russian anti-aircraft system despite protests from Washington. Turkey went ahead with the purchase, and, in response, the U.S. kicked the country out of the F-35 stealth jet program.
Regardless, the White House did not take up the House or Senate resolution recognizing the Armenian massacres as a genocide. At the time, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez—a sponsor of the bill that passed the Senate unanimously—told Newsweek the atrocity was a “horrifying factual reality that should never be denied.”
Menendez said he was “deeply disappointed that both President Trump and Secretary [Mike] Pompeo have yet to find their moral compass on this issue, and that they insist on allowing Turkey to have a veto on our own domestic decision.”
Turkey condemned both the House and Senate resolutions. The Foreign Ministry condemned the House vote as a “shameful” and “meaningless political step” designed to appeal to the “Armenian lobby and anti-Turkey groups.”
When the Senate unanimously approved its bill, Turkish Communication Director Fahrettin Altun said the development threatened “the future of our bilateral relationship.”
In December, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the Trump administration’s position on genocide recognition “has not changed.”
She directed journalists towards a statement made by Trump on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day 2019, in which he honored “the memory of those who suffered in one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.” Trump’s statement did not use the word “genocide.”
A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that the administration’s position on the matter has not changed. “As President Trump’s official statement earlier today makes clear, the U.S. government acknowledges and mourns the one and a half million Armenians who were deported, massacred, and marched to their deaths at the end of the Ottoman Empire,” the spokesperson explained.
Trump’s statement read, “On this day of remembrance, we pay respect to those who suffered and lost their lives, while also renewing our commitment to fostering a more humane and peaceful world.”
The president added, “We welcome efforts by the Armenians and Turks to acknowledge and reckon with their painful history. On this day, we believe it is our obligation to remember those who suffered and perished and reaffirm our commitment to protecting vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities around the world.”
This article has been updated to include comment from the State Department.