The Bush administration is publicly opposing a resolution pending in the US Congress that would officially recognize the mass killings of Armenians during the Ottoman era as genocide. The administration's opposition is grounded in concerns that Turkey could retaliate by refusing to cooperate with the US war in Iraq.
This year, however, legislators appear more likely than ever to adopt a resolution. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, is on record as supporting passage of such a measure. The murder of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in January also seems to have influenced the attitudes of some US representatives. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A vote on the resolution could occur in April.
At a Congressional hearing on March 15, representatives from the US Department of State and Department of Defense said passage of the resolution would unnecessarily inflame anti-American sentiment in Turkey. The resolution "would undercut those voices emerging in Turkey who call for a truthful exploration of those events in pursuit of Turkey's reconciliation with its own past, and with Armenia," said Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. "Our fear is that passage of any such resolution would close minds and harden hearts."
The public backlash in Turkey could be so strong that the Turkish government would be forced to act, perhaps by closing or restricting US access to Incirlik Air Base, a key transportation hub for US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, restricting use of the Turkey-Iraq land border, or allowing fewer over-flight rights, Fried said.
A genocide resolution would surely hamper US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, asserted Daniel Fata, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. "Passage of the resolution would inflame nationalist and anti-American sentiment [in Turkey] at a time when the Turkish public already has a very low opinion of the United States," he said. "Turkey's contribution to the global war on terrorism and US strategic objectives in the region is significant it would all be at risk. More broadly, relations with a crucial NATO ally would suffer a serious and lasting blow, [undermining] our ability to achieve our near- and longer-term goals in the Middle East."
Fried and Fata's comments before the Europe Subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs came shortly after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sent identical letters to members of Congress opposing the resolution. The letters noted that Turkey retaliated against France after the French parliament passed a resolution in October recognizing the Armenian killings as genocide, cutting all military contacts and withdrawing from negotiations on defense contracts. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In Fata's written testimony to the subcommittee, he listed various contracts that US defense-related companies are pursuing with Turkey, totaling several billions of dollars.
US officials stated that, although Armenia and the large Armenian diaspora in the United States steadfastly support the adoption of a resolution, Armenians in Turkey oppose it. "We hear from members of the 60,000-70,000 strong Armenian-Turkish community that any such resolution would raise popular emotions so dramatically as to threaten their personal security," Fried said in his testimony.
The Turkish government, lobbying against the resolution, is making the same point. Public relations officials for the Turkish Embassy have circulated newspaper editorials quoting Dink as being against such resolutions. "The winning of the empathy and compassion of the Turkish population is far more important than the adoption of Armenian resolutions in hundreds of parliaments elsewhere," said Dink, quoted in an editorial in the Baltimore Sun.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.