Turkish-American relations Face Another Test Over the Armenian Issue

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 46

(Photo: AP)

The United States House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee narrowly passed a resolution, which calls on the president to refer to the killing of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I as “genocide.” Though it remains uncertain whether the resolution will be brought before the full House, already, it has threatened to affect Turkey’s relations with the US and Armenia.

Ankara reacted to this development promptly. Turkish government officials reiterated strongly Turkey’s policy that any formal recognition of “genocide” claims would jeopardize Turkish-American strategic relations. They also repeated that this development would unduly interfere with its own efforts to normalize relations with Armenia, prematurely ending the current reconciliation process. President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, attributed the vote to local political considerations (www.tcbb.gov.tr, March 4).

In search of devising an appropriate response to the developments, Ankara promptly recalled its Ambassador to Washington, Namik Tan. The Turkish foreign ministry also summoned US Ambassador to Ankara, James Jeffrey.

Outraged by the resolution, Turkish public and political actors increasingly adopted nationalist rhetoric, arguing that Turkey could not be dictated to from outside. A discussion on how Turkey might “retaliate,” if the resolution were to be adopted by the US Congress, has already commenced. Speculation ranges from Turkey’s exclusion of US companies from defense contracts to shutting down the Incirlik airbase or withdrawing Turkish troops from Afghanistan. In response to one question, Davutoglu did not rule out any of these options, noting that the cabinet would consider all possibilities (Aksam, March 5).

These developments raise questions about Ankara’s relations with Washington on many levels. In the days preceding the vote, Turkish parliamentarians and government officials had flooded Washington in an effort to block the resolution. Joined by Turkish interest groups based in the US, they campaigned against the resolution. Also, several US companies doing business with Turkey raised objections against the resolution (Cihan, March 2). The passage of the resolution represents a “defeat” for Turkish lobbying efforts. Nonetheless, Turks are seeking refuge in the fact that the resolution only passed with a narrow margin. Turkish lobbyists in Washington argue that the resolution may never see the House floor, under pressure from the administration (Hurriyet Daily News, March 8).

From the Turkish perspective, the real puzzle is how the Obama administration will handle this issue. Administration officials expressed objections to the House resolution. However, the Turkish side found the administration’s efforts half-hearted, as they came at the last minute and failed to prevent an affirmative vote. Davutoglu expressed concern that the administration did not throw its weight against the vote, which, in his eyes, indicated that they did not fully appreciate Turkey’s strategic value. “This picture deeply disturbed us,” he added. Responding to criticism from the US, Davutoglu rejected the assertion that Turkey had caused any “delays” and warned that if Congress insisted on its course, it might “kill” the entire normalization process with Armenia (Aksam, March 5).

In the coming days, therefore, Obama’s position on the “genocide” resolution is likely to be the greatest test of his new vision for a “model partnership” with Turkey. When the Foreign Affairs Committee adopted a similar resolution in 2007, the Bush administration prevented it from being discussed before the House, arguing that it would harm strategic ties with a geopolitically indispensable ally. The Obama administration maintained the same presidential position on this issue.

Although both Obama and US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had pledged to support the Armenian theses during their 2008 election campaigns, once in office they prioritized United States’ strategic interests. Obama avoided uttering the word “genocide” in his April 24, 2009 statement on Armenian Remembrance Day, though condemning the killings in strong language. The administration managed to avoid criticism from Armenian groups, arguing that the United States should promote efforts by the Turkish and Armenian leaders to seek reconciliation (EDM, April 28, 2009). Following the Foreign Affairs Committee vote, Clinton again used the same reasoning to prevent Congress’ further involvement in the matter: “[we] have made clear, both last year and again this year that we do not believe any action by Congress is appropriate, and we oppose it,” said Clinton (www.voanews.com, March 4).

The next test will be Obama’s statement on April 24. The Turkish side is again mobilizing all its assets to prevent Obama from using the term “genocide,” and sending signals that Turkey will not be the one to lose if the US administration succumbs to pressures from the Armenian lobby. The way out of this looming stalemate seems to hinge on the conclusion of the Turkish-Armenian normalization.

However, Turkey and Armenia have proven unable to maintain their initial momentum, and the prospects of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation are weakening every day. Both Ankara and Yerevan refrained from sending the protocols they signed last year for parliamentary approval, expecting the other side to take the first step. Meanwhile, Ankara objected to a ruling by the Armenian constitutional court, arguing that it violated the spirit of the protocols (EDM, January 26). If the parties fail to secure another breakthrough over the next few weeks, Obama might run out of arguments to justify his failure to satisfy the expectations of the Armenian lobby, coming under increasing pressure as April 24 approaches.

Herein lies the dilemma, which highlights how Turkish-US relations are entangled with Turkish-Armenian normalization. The US administration believes that the overall progress so far has been satisfactory, yet the Turkish government should take further steps, especially forwarding the protocols for parliamentary ratification, to re-energize the process. However, the Turkish government argues that as long as the Armenian lobby pursues anti-Turkey decisions, Ankara will be unable to proceed with the normalization. Thus, reportedly, Davutoglu decided to wait until April 24 to take any further step on the parliamentary ratification process, in order that the US may first take some positive steps (Hurriyet, March 6). It will be interesting to follow how the parties untie this knot.