The House passed two measures Tuesday aimed at sending a strong message to the Turkish government amid deteriorating relations between American lawmakers and the country.
The House of Representatives first voted on a bipartisan basis Tuesday evening to approve a resolution that would “commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance” of “the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.”
The designation as a genocide by the US House of Representatives is a significant political development as Turkey maintains to this day the killings did not constitute genocide and disputes the death toll, putting the figure closer to 300,000.
The House-passed resolution has existed in various forms for decades, but congressional leaders from both parties had avoided taking action on it because of Turkey’s strategic importance to American interests in the Middle East and its membership in NATO.
The resolution, spearheaded by California Democrat Adam Schiff, passed 405-11. As a standalone House resolution, it does not need approval from the White House.
“Too often, tragically, the truth of this staggering crime has been denied,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Today, let us clearly state the facts on the floor of this House to be etched forever in the congressional record: The barbarism committed against the Armenian people was a genocide.”
“It is a great mistake that we have not passed this long before this,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters ahead of the vote.
Turkey summoned US Ambassador David Satterfield after the measure was passed, according to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the bill, saying the recognition “lacks historical and legal basis and issued for domestic consumption” and is “null and void in the eyes of Turkish people.”
Lawmakers on Tuesday night also approved a firm sanctions bill to punish Turkey for its military offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
“It’s important for us to make sure that we’re sending a very clear signal, both with the sanctions resolution and in the genocide resolution, that we do not support what the Turks have done and that they need to withdraw,” Rep. Liz Cheney, the hawkish Wyoming Republican who chairs the House GOP conference, said before the vote.
The sanctions bill, introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel alongside GOP Rep. Michael McCaul, passed on a vote of 403-16. It would punish senior Turkish officials involved in the decision to launch an offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria and those committing human rights abuses, block the sale of arms to Turkey for use in Syria, and require a series of reports to examine the consequences of the Turkish offensive in Syria.
Engel’s proposal goes well beyond the administration’s response to Turkey’s actions — Trump placed limited sanctions on Turkey a few days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began the offensive, but lifted them after claiming that Turkey had agreed to a ceasefire.
“The United States needs to make sure that Turkish President Erdogan faces consequences for his behavior, because President Trump has failed to demonstrate American leadership in this regard,” Engel said on the House floor. “It’s now on Congress to step up and impose consequences on Turkey.”
Despite its bipartisan support, the sanctions bill is unlikely to advance in the Republican-held Senate.
Competing sanctions proposals regarding Turkey already exist in the Senate, but there has been little movement on the issue in recent days, and it is not clear that Republican leaders plan to bring such a response to the floor.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has cautioned against “developing a reflex to use sanctions as our tool of first, last, and only resort in implementing foreign policy.”
He said last week that sanctions could play an important role in responding to Turkey, but “we need to think extremely carefully before we employ the same tools against a democratic NATO ally that we would against the worst rogue states.”
Fahrettin Altun, a spokesman for Erdogan, said on Twitter, “The U.S. House of Representatives vote on the Armenian Resolution is deeply troublesome for anyone who cares about the US-Turkey relationship.” He also called the sanctions bill a “direct contradiction to the spirit of strategic alliance.”
Senators from both parties will receive a briefing from Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, as well as other officials, on the situation in Syria on Wednesday afternoon.