The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Armenian Genocide: Power Card for Turkey

Posted by vmsalama on October 13, 2007

By Vivian Salama

PostGlobal – Washingtonpost.com (click here for link)

The decision by a United States congressional panel to recognize the genocide of Armenians in Turkey during World War I is a classic example of being in the right place at the wrong time.  
A great number of experts worldwide have concluded that the atrocities that occurred between 1915 and 1923 were the result of deliberate actions taken by the Ottoman Empire to exterminate this particular minority group.  Acrimony between Turks and Armenians has stretched back over several centuries given that the Armenians represented both a political and religious opposition to Ottoman rule.   
Historical accounts by Western researchers have revealed that Ottoman troops and paramilitaries killed tens of thousands of men, women and children and left hundreds of thousands more to die of starvation or exposure to harsh weather.  The Turkish government maintains that these people were victims of civil war and unrest, adding that the many Muslim Turks died as well.  Most scholars agree that it is not the number of deaths that makes this genocide but rather the fact that the Ottoman government sought to annihilate these people on the basis of ethnicity.
What does it mean for Turkey?  Technically speaking, the passing of this US legislation does not bind Turkey to take any legal action.  Among Ankara’s concerns is that recognition will empower the Armenian lobby for repartitions.  Also a concern by the Turkish government is the on-going Armenian claim over Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia — but located in Turkey.  Turkey also worries – legitimately – that having genocide on its record will hurt its changes of European Union integration.  Last year, the French government adopted a bill making it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide, adding that Turkey must recognize the Armenian deaths as genocide before it enters the EU.

To recognize such atrocities is learn from them.  The Turkish government of today is not the Ottoman regime of 100 years ago and so we mustn’t confuse the two.  Turks have a uniquely deep-rooted sense of nationalism and many Turkish analysts argue that the country cannot bear the burden of a genocide in the way several other countries have done.  [An example: Article 301 of Turkey’s controversial penal code, which took effect on June 1, 2005, states: “A person who publicly denigrates Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years.”]
The decision by the House to push for genocide recognition at this point in time is a bit perplexing.  The democrats took a contentious stand against an ally in the belief that what they were doing was right.  It was an opportunity to reassert their majority status and undermine the foreign policy of the Bush Administration.  
Can America afford to burn any more bridges in the region?  Turkey has long served as a strategic ally to the United States.  Despite refusing to allow U.S. forces to use their soil for staging the ground war that would topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, Turkey permits the use of Incirlik Air Base and roads.  These privileges, according to Secretary of State Robert Gates, would “very much be put at risk” by recognizing the genocide.  Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey may retaliate by shutting the flow of material to Iraq and even Afghanistan.  The country continues to amass troops on its border with Iraq and has said that it is willing to take all necessary measures against Kurdish separatists it suspects of hiding in Iraqi Kurdistan.  
Undoubtedly adding to EU concerns is the escalating sectarian violence at Turkey’s doorstep.  While it is unlikely that the violence will physically spill over the Iraq-Turkey border, direct involvement of the Kurds may bring this war too close for comfort for Europe and further complicate the coalition struggle in Iraq.  Turkey has thus far held back from getting directly involved, mainly due to persuasion by the United States.  However, the Turkish government views the recognition of the Armenian genocide as a major slap in the face and given the tone emanating from Ankara these last few days, there is no telling what retaliatory measures will be taken.
 This ruling was a long time coming so it is certainly a battle won in the Armenian fight for justice.  For the Turks, it is an added hurdle on the road to EU integration but a power card in their relationship with the United States.  For America, it is just another setback in what has become a regional struggle.  

One Response to “Armenian Genocide: Power Card for Turkey”

  1. jrsyshadow said

    Here are my thoughts: http://gafancher.wordpress.com/2007/10/24/recognizing-the-armenian-genocide/

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