By Lindsay Wise
Updated Oct. 25, 2019
The House is poised to vote next week on a resolution to commemorate the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire, a move that supporters say is driven in part by fears of potential Turkish atrocities against the Kurds in northern Syria.
The issue of whether the U.S. should recognize what happened to the Armenians from 1915 to 1923 as genocide—as most historians do—has been the subject of a yearslong lobbying and diplomatic battle.
Congress has considered moving a similar resolution a handful of times over the last several decades, only to pull back in some cases under pressure from Turkey and from successive presidential administrations concerned about alienating a NATO ally.
Barack Obama pledged to recognize the genocide when he first ran for president, but he never did so in office. He came close in 2016, calling it the “first mass atrocity of the 20th century” and a “massacre.”
The Turkish Embassy warned in a statement this week against any attempt by the House “to pass judgment on the events of 1915.”
“Allegations with regard to the events of 1915 do not rest on legal and historical facts,” the embassy said. “Turkey opposes all legislative steps and other official acts that try to render judgment on its history. This issue should be left to the historians.”
The embassy added that the resolution would undermine reconciliation efforts between Turks and Armenians, “and as such will not serve the interests of these two nations, and also of the United States.”
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the House’s planned vote.
Commenting on the planned resolution, a State Department spokeswoman refrained from the word genocide.
“While the State Department does not generally comment on pending legislation, our policy on this issue is clear: The United States recognizes the Meds Yeghern was one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century,” the spokeswoman said, using an Armenian phrase that means “great calamity.”
“We mourn the horrific events of 1915 and grieve for the lives lost and the many who suffered. We welcome efforts of Armenians and Turks to acknowledge and reckon with their painful history.”
Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said the State Department’s statement “represents a meaningful departure” from its usual stance because it could be interpreted as neutral on the resolution.
“It could serve as a signal to the president’s allies on the Hill,” he added.
Leading the push for the vote was Rep. Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.), a close friend of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and the only Armenian-Assyrian member of Congress. Ms. Eshoo said in an interview that “it was like a historical bell that rang in my mind” when she learned about President Trump’s plans to withdraw U.S. forces from the Turkey-Syria border following a phone call earlier this month with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In the call, Mr. Erdogan informed Mr. Trump that he intended to launch a cross-border military operation in northeastern Syria against the Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey considers terrorists. The Syrian Kurds, who served as U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic State, say the Turkish offensive is an excuse for ethnic cleansing.
Ms. Eshoo said that after she learned of the call, she went directly to Mrs. Pelosi and House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.,) and asked them to bring up the resolution. She also spoke to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D, N.Y.), Armenian Caucus co-chairman Frank Pallone (D., N.J.) and the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.).
Her personal appeal carried weight because she lost family members in the massacre and her parents fled persecution in the region, but she said the support was already there.
“Each leader that I spoke to agreed that they thought it should be brought up, so there wasn’t any hesitation on anyone’s part,” Ms. Eshoo said.
Turkey strongly opposes the designation of the killings as genocide, and has deployed several lobbying firms in Washington to fight it for years. In 2007 and 2010, Turkey pulled its ambassador from the U.S. after similar resolutions labeling the 1915 killings a genocide made it through committees. They never got as far as the House floor, however.
“America needs to signal to Erdogan in a language he understands that we are not going to whitewash his crimes any more,” said Mr. Hamparian.
“This is a message that will impress on [Mr. Erdogan] the depth of American concern,” he said. “He’ll get it.”
In 1975 and 1984, the House passed commemorative resolutions using the word genocide and marking April 24 as a day of commemoration for the slaughter of the Armenians, Mr. Hamparian said. And in 1981, President Reagan used the term. But those acts of recognition didn’t translate into policy, Mr. Hamparian said.
The resolution the House is expected to vote on next week wouldn’t just mark a day, but establish a proactive policy of recognizing Armenian genocide and challenge Turkey’s denials of the crime, he said. The resolution would recognize and memorialize genocide by the Ottomans against Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Aramaeans, Maronites and other Christians.
Mr. Hamparian said his group met recently with Sen. Jim Risch (R., Idaho), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to ask him to support the same resolution. “He heard us out, but he hasn’t indicated one way or the other,” Mr. Hamparian said.
The Foreign Relations Committee didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Eshoo said she would be thinking of her parents and grandparents during the vote next week. Her father was 8 or 9 when his family fled the massacres, but “he had a perfect recollection of what it was like,” she said.
“They probably would cry and they would be grateful,” Ms. Eshoo said.
—Courtney McBride contributed to this article.
Write to Lindsay Wise at firstname.lastname@example.org