Committee vote may have given Turkey a leg up

Tülin Daloglu Contributor
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Has Congress considered any measure as often over the last four decades as the “Armenian Genocide” resolution? Again and again the bill has returned to Capitol Hill, only to fail each time. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has debated the bill at least four times since 2000, and it has become increasingly clear that each committee member believes that what happened to the Armenians during World War I was indeed a “genocide.” Yet despite that seemingly unanimous position, the resolution passed last week on a 23-22 vote. When it was considered in 2007, the committee passed it by six votes. Given how the gap has closed, the measure doesn’t stand a chance to get a floor vote this time.

This is indeed a positive development for Turkey, even though Turks are deeply offended that the vote took place at all. They’re sick and tired of the House having this debate, and many would love to see Congress promise never to discuss it again. Of course, that will never happen. Surely, Armenians don’t relish this endless conversation either, but clearly many feel morally obliged to carry on the fight for their loved ones. While I feel strongly that it’s a mistake for Congress to legislate this conflicted bit of history, I fully respect the hard work of the Armenians to keep the issue alive.

That said, it is important for Turkey not to overplay its hand. Ankara recalled its ambassador to Washington, Namik Tan, soon after the bill passed the committee. I am not even sure as to whether that was the right decision. But Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is adamant that Ambassador Tan will not be returning to the U.S. until “there is a clear development on this issue.” It’s fair to speculate that Turkey likes to get assurances from President Obama that he will not use the term “Armenian Genocide” in this year’s April 24 statement. While doing that, Erdogan rebuked Berman without fully understanding why he gave extra time for the committee members to finish voting. On Tuesday, he said, “you will call the U.S. an advanced democracy; do every thing that a progressive democracy can not tolerate. This is not the right thing. Yet this is what they do.”

But for now at least, the resolution is dead. No one in Congress wants to assume the economic and national security risks of a full House vote. They wished Turkey to deal with this issue as plain historical fact and get over with it long time ago. But it isn’t that simple for Turkey, whose citizens remain convinced that accepting the label of “genocide” will touch off a generation of reparations claims. More importantly, many Turks believe that during World War I the Ottomans criminally neglected their own population as well, and that the Armenians were hardly the only ones to suffer. Because of that widespread suffering, they reason, the atrocities that Armenians faced could not be considered a “genocide.” Refusing to acknowledge a Turkish side of the story now only serves to add to the tragedy rather than remedy it.

Both Turks and Armenians want to reconcile, but they seem to be in it for the wrong reasons. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian signed two protocols five months ago in an attempt to normalize their relationship, with strong U.S. support. But House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) was correct when he said last week that “[T]here is a (strong) likelihood that these protocols will not be ratified (by the respective parliaments) in the near future because the Turkish Prime Minister said he won’t put those into effect until the Nagorno-Karabagh issue is resolved.”

Turkish leaders will not admit it, but they have begun the process of de-linking the Nagorno-Karabagh issue from the Turkey-Armenia normalization process. The Turkish government misjudged the situation, and did not take into account the influence of Azerbaijan. For Turks, “[m]aking a rapprochement was a play toward the U.S. and Congress (to get rid of the genocide resolutions),” said Thomas Goltz, a political science scholar at Montana State University. “What got sacrificed was the special relationship with Azerbaijan. It was a huge blow.”

However, Suat Kiniklioglu, the head of the U.S.-Turkey inter-parliamentary friendship caucus, says that such an argument does not hold up. “It writes openly in the protocols that the ‘regional conflicts will be resolved by peaceful means,’” he said. “We’re not talking about the Middle East. This evidently refers to the Karabagkh issue.” But the Armenians could argue that it means Azerbaijan should not use military force against them, and they worry about what will happen as they watch Azerbaijan increase its defense budget.

In fact, “Armenians are not trying to normalize their relationship with Turkey for the sake of normalization,” Kiniklioglu told me. They are “trying to position themselves in a more advantageous place on the Karabagh issue after opening the borders with Turkey.” Turkey is trying to gain sympathy within the international community and find a new way to fight the genocide claims. Why shouldn’t the Armenians do the same thing with their own issues? If not naïve, Turkish leadership failed to understand why the Armenians were interested in signing the protocols. Afterall, Turkey closed its border with Armenia after a massive attack on Karabagh.

Berman was right. Turkey’s parliament will not pass the protocols any time soon, and they will surely blame him and his colleagues in Congress for that failure. In the end, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s vote gave Turkey a bigger victory than it could have realized.

Based in Washington, D.C., Tulin Daloglu is a correspondent for Turkey’s HABERTÜRK. In the 2002 general election, she ran for a seat in Parliament as a member of the New Turkey Party. Her e-mail is tdaloglu@yahoo.com