During the unraveling of the Ottoman Empire, the embattled leadership ordered the forced deportation of ethnic Armenians from the region. Nobody has ever been able to say for certain how many people were slaughtered in the years following the order, but experts estimate that somewhere between 300,000 and 1.5 million ethnic Armenians lay dead when all was said and done.

Armenia’s “Great Catastrophe” was, in the eyes of much of the world, the first genocide of the 20th century. Ceremonies were held today in both Turkey and Armenia commemorating the massacres, yet even in the face of such a solemn anniversary, Turkish officials continued to deny that ethnic cleansing was the motivation for the forced deportations and murders.

Calling what happened to ethnic Armenians is a consistent point of contention even amongst the world’s most powerful governments. The EU Parliament, and even the pope, have used the word “genocide” to describe what happened, but the United States continues to lag behind. President Barack Obama has come under fire in recent days for offering official statements that omit the use of the word “genocide” to describe the “Great Catastrophe,” and many see this as the breaking of a major campaign promise.

More from the New York Times:

In appointing the secretary of the Treasury, Jacob J. Lew, to lead the American delegation to Yerevan, the White House referred to the ceremony as the “Centennial Commemoration of the Events of 1915” — euphemistic enough perhaps to satisfy President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, but a grave disappointment to Armenians who had hoped Mr. Obama would make good on his promise as a presidential candidate to recognize the killings as genocide.

In a statement on Friday, Mr. Obama called the killings of Armenians “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century,” adding that “the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire were deported, massacred and marched to their deaths.”

He also suggested that the absence of the word genocide in his statement was an official position, but not a reflection of his own personal beliefs. “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” Mr. Obama said.

The United States isn’t alone in its official position. Counterintuitive though it may seem, Israel holds a similar position, although many in the country are pushing for reform even in the face of the political difficulties it would cause.

For both the US and Israel, however, recognizing the massacres of 1915-16 would come at great political cost. Israel’s strategic alliance with Azerbaijan against Iran presents a major complication with any show of solidarity with Armenia; Armenia and Azerbaijan exist together in a state of war, and continue to dispute the nature of a 1992 clash in the village of Khojaly (complication: Khojaly sits in the disputed Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh) that ended in the deaths of 600 Azeri civilians.

Israel’s relationship with Turkey has foundered over the years, but the United States continues to tread lightly on the issue of the Armenian genocide for fear that use of the “G-word” could further damage relations with the strategic ally. Russia faces similar issues, as they depend on Turkey’s cooperation in the construction of a pipeline bypass around Ukraine.

It’s the dark and disgusting side of international politics at play. Relationships in this volatile area of the world are important, but as Ali Gharib points out, placating Turkey 100 years later does nothing to advance freedom in the region:

But there will never be a right time to enrage Turkey and it’s not worth it to continue to placate their denialism: the fight against terrorism will go on despite Turkey’s wounded pride. Turkey – unlike Libya, where post-revolutionary chaos led to a deadly attack on American diplomats – has sophisticated and heavy-handed security forces, so any failure to help protect US diplomats and troops there would be an abdication of its position as an ally.

Obama isn’t the first president to dance around the “G-word,” but he should be the last.

The Daily Mail has a devastating collection of photographs chronicling the crimes against the ethnic Armenians.

This piece has been updated to correct the timeline of the fall of the Ottoman Empire.


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