Partly due to Europe’s reluctance to welcome Turkey as a full EU-member, Ankara has redirected its foreign policy toward the east, which in 2009 culminated in a flurry of protocols and trade agreements with countries such as Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Last month’s decisions, in the United States and Sweden, to recognize the Ottoman-era killings of Armenians as genocide will do little to seduce the Turks back into the Western realm. On March 4, the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA) passed a non-binding resolution to define the early 20th century massacres as genocide, which means the issue can now be brought to vote in the US House of Representatives. Shortly after, the Swedish parliament on March 11 voted in favor of declaring the mass killings genocide. So far, 23 countries worldwide have done so.
According to HCFA Chairman Howard Berman, a vast majority of experts, academics and authorities in international law agree that the Armenian massacres constitute genocide. Berman backed up his statement by pointing to the International Association of Genocide Scholars and Professor Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; the former concluded that “the historical record on the Armenian Genocide is unambiguous and documented by overwhelming evidence;” while the latter has said that “the Armenian Genocide is the closest parallel to the Holocaust.” Turkey admits the killings took place, yet denies they meet the legal requirements of “systematic planning” and “intent” to be able to define them as genocide. In protest against the two decisions, Ankara recalled its ambassadors to the US and Sweden.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan furthermore warned that the HCFA decision could damage US-Turkey relations. “Let me say quite clearly that this resolution will not harm us,” Erdogan said on March 6. “But it will damage bilateral relations between countries, their interests and their visions for the future. We will not be the losers.”
The US military fears adopting the resolution may have dire consequences for its attempts to “pacify” Iraq. Turkey, a key Nato-member, currently allows the American army to use Turkish airports and air space to reach Iraq, while it is a public secret that without the consent of Ankara there would be no Iraqi Kurdistan.
US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have declared their unhappiness about the decision, as it foiled their attempts to reconcile Turkey and Armenia, the latter being an increasingly important player in Washington’s foreign policy in the Caucasus following the disastrous 2008 Russia-Georgia War.
“There are currently 170,000 Armenians living in our country,” Erdogan told the BBC Turkish service. “Only 70,000 of them are Turkish citizens, but we are tolerating the remaining 100,000. If necessary, I may have to tell these 100,000 to go back to their country because they are not my citizens. I don’t have to keep them in my country." Interestingly, the HCFA adopted the resolution, despite intense lobbying by Turkey and at least six major corporations. According to Associated Press journalist Stephen Singer, BAE Systems, Goodrich, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, United Technologies and Chevron spent $14 million in 2009 lobbying against recognition.
Chevron holds a major stake in an oil pipeline that crosses Turkey, while Raytheon has agreed to sell Stinger missile launcher systems to the Turkish army. Another major factor for the HCFA to adopt the resolution may have been the breakdown in relations between Turkey and Israel, following the latter’s Gaza invasion at the end of 2008 in which some 1,400 Palestinians died, mostly civilians, and 13 Israelis, 10 of which were soldiers. In the past, major Jewish and pro-Israel organizations in the US routinely lobbied against recognition of the Armenian genocide, fearing it might harm relations between Israel and its only major alley in the Middle East.
But Turkey has been one of the most vocal critics of Israel’s violent conduct in Gaza and this year the variety of groups that make up the Israeli lobby in Washington remained silent.
Still, all is not lost for Turkey, and Armenians around the world should not put their hopes too high. This is not the first time the HFCA have called upon US representatives to recognize the Armenian massacres as genocide, yet so far modern-day geopolitics have always prevailed over historical truth and justice.
PETER SPEETJENS is a Beirut-based journalist