A first! US House recognizes Armenian genocide

US lawmakers deliver two-punch rebuke to Turkey on its national day, with genocide measure passing alongside bill that imposes sanctions over Ankara's assault on Kurdish-controlled territory in northeastern Syria.

WASHINGTON - The US House of Representatives passed a resolution Tuesday officially recognizing the "Armenian genocide," a symbolic but unprecedented move that angered Turkey amid already heightened tensions with Washington.

Cheers and applause erupted when the chamber voted 405 to 11 in support of the measure "affirming the United States record on the Armenian Genocide," a first for the US Congress, where similar measures with such direct language have been introduced for decades but never passed.

US lawmakers delivered a two-punch rebuke to Turkey on its national day, with the genocide measure passing alongside a bill that imposes sanctions over Ankara's assault on Kurdish-controlled territory in northeastern Syria that was made possible by the withdrawal of American troops.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was honoured to join her colleagues "in solemn remembrance of one of the great atrocities of the 20th century: the systematic murder of more than 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children by the Ottoman Empire."

The Armenians say the mass killings of their people from 1915 to 1917 amounted to genocide, a claim recognized by some 30 countries.

Turkey strongly denies the accusation of genocide and says that both Armenians and Turks died as a result of the First World War. It puts the death toll in the hundreds of thousands.

Ankara reacted swiftly, rejecting the House's recognition as a "meaningless political step" and warning it risks harming ties "at an extremely fragile time" for international and regional security.

"We believe that American friends of Turkey who support the continuation of the alliance and friendly relations will question this grave mistake and those who are responsible will be judged by the conscience of the American people," Turkey's foreign ministry said in a statement.

Turkish government ministers and officials said the timing of the vote, after weeks of international criticism of Ankara's military incursion against Syrian Kurdish forces, showed it was politically motivated.

The Foreign Ministry said US Ambassador David Satterfield had been summoned on Wednesday.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who is due to meet US President Donald Trump at the White House in two weeks, said he had not decided yet whether the trip was going ahead.

Asked whether he would make the visit after recent developments, Erdogan said the issue remained "a question mark".

Speaking to lawmakers from his AK Party, Erdogan said the resolution won support because of the fallout in the United States over Ankara's operation in northeast Syria against the Kurdish YPG militia, which was the main US partner in the battle against Islamic State in Syria.

"These efforts... were passed by the House of Representatives, using a negative air that has formed against our country among the American public," Erdogan said. "In a sense, they were being opportunistic."

Erdogan said an Armenian militant group killed more than 40 diplomats in attacks on Turkish missions in 21 countries in the 1970s and 1980s.

"We reject... unilateral judgments on events more than a century ago, that don't even mention Turkey's losses," he said.

Erdogan's communications director called Tuesday's vote deeply troubling. "Those who voted for this resolution will be responsible for the deterioration of a critical strategic relationship in a turbulent region," Fahrettin Altun said.

Altun repeated a call by Erdogan to form a historical commission to investigate the events.

Turkey accepts that many Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but contests the figures and denies that the killings were systematically orchestrated and constitute a genocide.

'Never again'

Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan hailed the House move, tweeting that it was a "bold step towards serving truth and historical #justice that also offers comfort to millions of descendants of the Armenian Genocide survivors."

Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan also thanked the US Congress for the decision.

"Massive message against #denialism. Deep gratitude to each of 405 votes. Empowered to work anew for prevention of mass atrocities anywhere in the world," he posted on Twitter.

In 2017, newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump criticized the killings as "one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century," but in keeping with longstanding US practice, he stopped short of using the word genocide.

Before being elected in 2008, Trump's predecessor Barack Obama had pledged to recognize the genocide, but ultimately did not do so during his two terms in office.

But Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, delivered bold remarks to the House on Tuesday, saying the truth of the "staggering crime" has been denied too often.

"Today, let us clearly state the facts on the floor of this House to be etched forever into the Congressional Record: The barbarism committed against the Armenian people was a genocide."

The House also passed a bipartisan measure that imposes sanctions on senior Turkish officials involved in the decision to launch the country's invasion of Syria as well as a Turkish bank with ties to Erdogan, and requires the Trump administration to penalize Turkey's procurement of a Russian-made missile-defense system.

A similar sanctions bill was introduced in the Senate, but no vote has been taken.

Turkey's foreign ministry said the House decision to approve sanctions did "not bode well with the spirit of relations" as NATO allies, and also went against the deal reached with the United States over Syria.

Ankara had reached separate agreements with Moscow and Washington to remove YPG fighters from its border. The agreement had led to Trump lifting more modest sanctions on Ankara that had been imposed in reaction to the Turkish invasion.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the two resolutions were passed because Turkey had "thwarted the game" in Syria by reaching agreements with Russia and the US.

"They are trying to avenge this, there is no other explanation," he told reporters.

Turkey's parliament also condemned the resolutions. In a statement, parliamentary speaker Mustafa Sentop said the move was "the last straw" and that it fueled enmity between the allies rather than contribute to friendship.

Ties between Washington and Ankara have been under pressure over issues including Ankara's purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems and Washington's refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for a failed 2016 military coup. 

Former vice president Joe Biden, a 2020 Democratic White House hopeful, praised the Armenia vote, tweeting that "by acknowledging this genocide we honor the memory of its victims and vow: never again."

It was also welcomed outside the political realm. US television reality star Kim Kardashian, who has Armenian ancestry, tweeted about the vote to her 62 million followers.

"This is personal for me, and millions of Armenians who descended from genocide survivors," she said.

According to estimates, there are between 500,000 and 1.5 million Americans of Armenian origin.