US House recognizes Armenian genocide: 5 things to know about World War I mass killings by Ottomans

The Democrats, who dominate the House, also called on President Trump to impose sanctions on Turkey over its recent Syria offensive.

                            US House recognizes Armenian genocide: 5 things to know about World War I mass killings by Ottomans
(Getty Images)

On Tuesday, October 29, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of recognizing the mass murder of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I (1914-18) as “genocide”. The resolution was passed by a vote of 405-11. The Democrats who dominate the House also called on President Donald Trump to impose sanctions on Turkey and some of its officials over Ankara’s recent military offensive in northern Syria targeting the Kurds after Washington decided to pull its troops out. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Chairman of the House’s Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff and former vice president and Democratic hopeful for next year’s presidential elections Joe Biden welcomed the House’s move. 

But what is the Armenian genocide all about?

On April 24, 1915, Ottoman authorities in Constantinople (Istanbul now) rounded up over 200 members of the Armenian ethnic community, many of whom were its leaders. Most of them were killed later and this marked the beginning of massive killing project. When the mass extermination project concluded some years later, the number of casualties went up to 1 to 1.5 million -- the dead were all ethnic Armenians. Turkey has vigorously resisted any effort to label the gruesome episode in history as genocide and it even pressured its old ally US all these years till Tuesday when the House took its defining step.

Annie Karakaian, 101, a survivor of mass killings of Armenians in what was then the Ottoman Empire in 1915, attends a rally in Times Square marking the 90th anniversary April 24, 2005 in New York City. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed 90 years ago in Ottoman Turkey. Armenians around the world have been lobbying to gain recognition of the massacre and to have the world recognize it as genocide. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Ottoman Empire, which had joined the Central Powers during the war, sought to annihilate its Armenian population systematically in 1915 once the conflict started. The ethnic Armenians were at the time a sizeable minority, numbering an estimated 2 million. After the mass killings, their numbers plummeted to less than half a million. Turkey has refused to acknowledge it as a systematic extermination and said the casualties were just results of the war, it was known to be a genocide or ‘Meds Yeghern’ (“great catastrophe” in Armenian). 

Why the Ottoman Empire targeted Armenians?

Fighting Russia, a regional foe then, the Ottomans were afraid that the Armenians -- who were largely Christians -- would be Russia’s friends and open another war front inside the empire itself. The government hence ordered that all Armenians be deported to a dry zone which forms part of today's Syria. They had even told the US, who later joined the Allied Powers, that the Armenians would be confined to unfavorable territories. Subsequently, the Ottoman government resorted to deportations and mass murder. While the men were slaughtered by Turkish security forces and ruthless Kurdish tribesmen, women and children suffered unbearable hardships. One account says that women were rounded up, left in underwear and butchered with axes. 

Americans knew about genocide; diplomats had informed Washington about it

It is not that the mass killings went unnoticed. Henry Morganthau Senior, an early 20th-century American ambassador to Turkey, had warned that "a campaign of race extermination is in progress." He also wrote to Washington that the detentions and deportations were accompanied by rape, pillage and murder. Another Aleppo-based American diplomat Jesse Jackson had written in a cable that as far as the eyes could see, only mounds of corpses of men, women and children and elderly people could be seen. 

Why modern-day Turkey buried Ottoman past?

The Armenians were less fortunate than the Jews who were targeted by Adolf Hitler a few decades later. But why wasn’t their plight ever addressed, even by subsequent authorities in Turkey?

One reason could be that the Ottoman Empire had ceased to exist after World War I ended. The modern state of Turkey came up in its place and many of the officers who were involved in the genocide earlier now became heroes of the modern state. As Turkish historian Taner Akcam told the New York Times, it is never easy for a new nation to call its founding fathers “murderers” as that would make its foundations brittle.

As it became a matter of national pride, the Turkish discourse started labeling the Armenians as “traitors” instead and with the growing regional clout, it started to exert influence in foreign affairs too if any side tried to remind it of the horrific past. For example, Turkey recalled the ambassador to the Vatican in 2015 -- the 100th year of the genocide -- after Pope Francis called the killings genocide. However, Turkey has shown a softer stand on the issue recently by allowing public discussion of the genocide and also offering condolences to the descendants of the Armenians who were killed.

Roses are seen on the portraits of victims during a memorial to commemorate the 1915 Armenian mass killings on April 24, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. People gathered to mark the 103rd anniversary of the slaughter of up to 1.5million Armenians by the Ottoman government in an event many view as genocide. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The international take on genocide

As said earlier, Turkey is a nation with significant political, geostrategic and commercial clout and that makes a lot of countries value their ties with Ankara. A number of Turkey’s allies have resisted from acknowledging what has happened in the past. The US and UK have taken a less-than-clear stand all these years while Russia, which is now close to Turkey, acknowledged the genocide in 1995. 

Yet, the pressure is growing on Turkey to recognize the mass-murder episode in recent years, thanks to an influential Armenian lobbying. A sizeable Armenian diaspora in the US and anti-genocide forums have made succeeded in putting more pressure on Ankara over the issue.

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