A US congressional committee narrowly passed a resolution on March 4 officially to term Ottoman Turkey's 1915 massacre of ethnic Armenians as genocide. The move is likely to complicate relations between the United States and Turkey, and could bring the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process to a halt.
The resolution, which passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee by a 23-22 vote, is nonbinding, and its prospects in the full House of Representatives are unclear. Nevertheless, Turkish government officials and lobbying groups warned before the vote of adverse consequences if the resolution won approval. Turkish officials specifically mentioned that the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process would be threatened by passage of the genocide resolution.
A similar resolution was adopted by the same committee in 2007 by a slightly wider margin, but never came to a vote in the full House of Representatives.
A delegation of Turkish MPs visited Washington the week before the vote to lobby members of the committee and journalists. Members of the Turkish parliamentary delegation were in attendance as the committee debated the resolution. Also in the audience were the ambassadors of both Armenia and Turkey, as well as three survivors of the 1915 tragedy, aged 97, 98 and 105.
"Turkey is a vital, and in most respects, loyal ally to the United States in a volatile region. We have also been a loyal ally to Turkey and should continue to be so. Be that as it may, nothing justifies Turkey turning a blind eye to the reality of the Armenian genocide," said Howard Berman, a Democrat from California and chair of the committee.
Those who argued against the resolution did not attempt to deny that genocide had occurred. Some said they opposed adoption on the grounds that it would damage relations with Turkey, a key US ally that hosts an American air base at Incirlik. "I don't think with our troops in the field, and knowing that we might have to take some kind of military action down the road, maybe even against Iran, we need to have as many friends in that part of the world as possible," said Dan Burton, a Republican representative from Indiana.
Some members also cited the sensitivity of the ongoing Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process for opposing the resolution. "This is a fragile process that deserves protection," Burton said. "If we pass this [resolution], it jeopardizes those negotiations between the Armenians and the Turks." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A few members who previously supported similar resolutions said that they voted differently this time because they wanted the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process to succeed. William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said that a meeting with a member of the Turkish parliament left him convinced him that passage of the resolution would "imperil" Turkey's negotiations with Armenia. "I want to be clear, on the record, that I think there was a genocide. But the timing [for adopting a resolution] is wrong" because of the protocols process, said Mike McCaul, a Republican from Texas who has also supported genocide resolutions in the past.
Members who supported the resolution countered that the US-Turkish alliance would endure. "Turks say passing this resolution could have terrible consequences for our bilateral relationship. And indeed, perhaps there will be some consequences," said Berman. "But I believe Turkey values its relationship with the United States at least as much as we value our relations with Turkey. And I believe the Turks, however deep their dismay today, fundamentally agree that the US-Turkey alliance is too important to get sidetracked by a nonbinding resolution passed by the House of Representatives."
Berman also pointed to statements by Turkish officials, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have said that Turkey will not ratify the protocols until the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has been resolved. Such statements indicate that Turkish threats to abandon the ratification process over congress' genocide resolution may be moot.
Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California who is one of Armenia's staunchest supporters in Congress, called Turkey a "paper tiger" that has not acted on similar threats it made when other countries, including Canada, France and Belgium, passed similar resolutions. Since France passed a genocide recognition resolution in 2001, Sherman said, French exports to Turkey have increased four-fold.
The Obama administration, which had remained quiet on the measure, made a surprise last-minute intervention. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly wrote Berman on March 3 to ask him to hold off on a resolution vote, saying its passage would damage relations with Turkey. President Obama and Clinton both supported genocide recognition during their time in the Senate. And in contrast to previous US administrations, the Obama White House did not lobby hard against the resolution.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.