US House Vote Adds New Twist to Turkey-Armenia Diplomacy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 47

U.S. President Barack Obama (foreground) with Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan

A key committee in the United States House of Representatives has once again approved a draft resolution recognizing the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. The dramatic development, condemned by Ankara and welcomed in Yerevan is widely seen in Armenia as heralding a last-ditched attempt by Washington to salvage the Turkish-Armenian normalization agreements signed in October under American mediation.

Armenian politicians and pundits believe that Washington will now use the prospect of the resolution’s adoption by the full House in its efforts to persuade Ankara to drop its conditions for ratifying the agreements. Yerevan, meanwhile, has reaffirmed its intention to annul the landmark deal if the US pressure on Ankara yields no results in the coming months.

The bill, narrowly endorsed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 4, calls on President Barack Obama to “accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide.” “The vast majority of experts, academics, authorities in international law and others, who have looked at this issue for years, agree that the tragic massacre of Armenians constitutes genocide,” Howard Berman, the committee chairman, said during the committee debate on the issue broadcast live by Armenian and Turkish television channels.

The Congressional panel has previously passed similar resolutions in 2000, 2005, and 2007. Heavy lobbying by the White House (and uproar in Ankara) kept them from reaching the House floor. Berman seems to have faced no such pressure from the Obama administration. It was not until March 3, almost one month after he scheduled the vote, that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly telephoned the California Democrat and asked him to drop the proposed legislation. Clinton and other administration officials pointedly declined to oppose it until then, adding to Turkish anger. Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, complained that the Obama administration did not lobby hard enough against a bill which is at odds with the official Turkish version of the events in 1915 (Hurriyet Daily News, March 5).

Many in Armenia take a similar view, suggesting that Washington itself engineered the House committee vote to gain a potent bargaining chip in its Armenia-related dealings with Ankara. In the words of Razmik Zohrabian, a deputy chairman in the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, the Americans have “realized that they should talk to Turkey with pressure and force” (, March 5). Stepan Safarian, a senior lawmaker from the opposition Heritage Party, likewise construed the genocide resolution as a US attempt to “make Turkey sober up” (Haykakan Zhamanak, March 6).

“The American side is clearly trying to … secure the ratification of the Turkish-Armenian protocols by the Turkish parliament in return for preventing a resolution debate reaching the full US House of Representatives,” Haykakan Zhamanak, a leading Armenian daily, editorialized on March 6. An unnamed senior official from the Turkish foreign ministry cited by Hurriyet Daily News made a similar point. Davutoglu also appeared to allude to such a possibility during his March 5 news conference in Ankara. He said his government will not be “pressured” into establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia and opening the Turkish-Armenian border –something which is envisaged by the two protocols.

Turkish leaders, notably Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have for months made clear that Turkey’s parliament will not ratify the accords without a resolution of the Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan. “Turkey’s insisting on conditionality, which was not part of the protocols, has led us to where we are today,” Hugh Pope, the Turkey analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told the Christian Science Monitor, commenting on the House committee vote.

Yerevan’s swift and highly positive reaction to the genocide resolution was a measure of its growing frustration with Ankara’s Karabakh linkage. “This is additional proof of the devotion of the American people to universal human values and is an important step toward the prevention of the crimes against humanity,” Armenian Foreign Minister, Edward Nalbandian, said in a written statement. Armenian officials were previously more cautious in their public pronouncements on the bill formally introduced by pro-Armenian US lawmakers in early 2009.

During an informal conversation with Davutoglu in Kiev on February 25, Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan, voiced his most explicit threat yet to walk away from the deal, if Ankara fails to honor it “within the shortest possible time” (Statement by the Armenian presidential press service, February 25). On the same day, the Armenian parliament passed legal amendments that make it easier for the Sargsyan government to terminate international treaties before their ratification (Aravot, February 26).

Speaking to Armenian state television on March 5, Nalbandian stood by his view that the international community would blame Turkey for the possible collapse of the normalization process. The authorities in Yerevan have clearly been buoyed by continued US calls for the rapid and unconditional ratification of the protocols. The genocide bill and the increased expectation of stronger US pressure on Ankara seem to have only boosted their confidence.

Some Armenian officials implied, until recently, that the Turkish side has until late March to validate the protocols or face their unilateral repeal by Armenia. But the latest indications are that Yerevan is ready to wait at least until the April 24 annual remembrance of more than one million Ottoman Armenians killed in what many historians consider the first genocide of the twentieth century. Ankara hopes that Obama will again refrain from using the word “genocide” in a statement that he is due to issue on the occasion.

Obama expressed his “firmly held conviction that the Armenian genocide is … a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence,” when he ran for president and sought the backing of the influential Armenian-American community. “As President, I will recognize the Armenian genocide,” he said in a January 2008 statement. Obama broke his campaign pledge after taking office, citing the need not to hamper the ongoing Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.

Hillary Clinton, who likewise pledged to recognize the genocide during the US presidential race, made the same argument when she indicated on March 5 that the Obama administration will try to prevent a full House vote on the controversial resolution ( Justifying this stance will be much more difficult if the stalled normalization process ends in failure. This alone should make the administration keenly interested in its successful promotion.