x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Turkey reacts with fury to US genocide claim

The country's relations with America took a hit and the envoy to US is recalled after a resolution to recognise the death of thousands of Armenians in 1915 as genocide.

ISTANBUL // Turkish-American relations were in turmoil yesterday after a US congressional panel called on the United States government to recognise the death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the First World War as genocide, a move observers said would obstruct chances of reconciliation between governments in Ankara and Yerevan.

"This was the last nail in the coffin of the protocols" foreseeing the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of the border between Turkey and Armenia, Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, said yesterday. The protocols were signed by both governments last year but have not been ratified. Prof Aktar, a leading member of a group of Turkish intellectuals that is calling for reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, said government efforts to bring the two countries closer together had ended in a "total fiasco".

Despite lobbying by Turkey and a last-minute appeal by the White House, the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee voted 23-22 to approve a non-binding resolution which calls on the US president, Barack Obama, to ensure US policy formally refers to the killing of the Armenians in 1915 as genocide. It is not clear yet whether the resolution will reach the floor of the House. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, warned against such a resolution.

Following the vote, Ankara recalled its ambassador in Washington, a very strong sign of protest in international diplomacy rarely seen between two allies such as Turkey and the US. The office of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said in a statement the his nation had been "accused of a crime it did not commit". Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, warned of the adverse effects on Turkish-US relations. "Turkey will not be responsible for any negative consequence of this vote."

Before the decision, Turkish media had reported that Ankara threatened to cancel defence and civilian deals with US companies worth billions of dollars. A small nationalist party said it would stage anti-American demonstrations in several Turkish cities in protest. Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister and a driving force behind the Turkish-Armenian protocols last year, said the US lawmakers were "preventing a historic peace between the Turkish and the Armenian peoples". Mr Davutoglu said Turkey's efforts to resolve disputes with Armenia would continue, but that the vote in Washington put those in jeopardy.

But there were also signs that Ankara is not interested in further escalating tensions with the US. Mr Davutoglu said it was "early" to talk about retaliatory steps, in a reference to possible sanctions concerning the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey, an important logistical hub for US troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also said there was no question of pulling back Turkish soldiers from Afghanistan.

Turkey fears a genocide recognition by a growing number of western countries could lead to compensation demands or territorial claims by Armenia. Parliaments in France, Switzerland and other countries have passed resolutions condemning the Armenian genocide in recent years. Mr Obama supported recognition as a US presidential candidate, but has refrained from doing so since he came to office last year, citing reconciliation efforts between Ankara and Yerevan.

The fate of the Anatolian Armenians is one of the most delicate issues in Turkish society. Armenia and many international scholars say the Ottoman Empire ordered the killing of the Armenians in the First World War and that up to 1.5 million people perished in massacres and death marches. Turkey puts the death toll much lower and says the deaths were unintentional consequences of a relocation campaign under wartime condition. Ankara also says that many Muslim Turks were killed by Armenian militants.

In the protocols signed after Swiss mediation last year, Turkey and Armenia agreed to have historians look at the events of 1915. They also said they would exchange ambassadors and open the border, which has been closed since the early 1990s, when a conflict between Turkey's ally Azerbaijan and Armenia erupted over the region of Nagorny-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave on Azerbaijani territory. Under pressure from Azerbaijan and nationalists at home, Mr Erdogan has promised his government would not send the protocols to parliament for ratification until there is progress in the Karabakh question. From there, the process started to unravel as both the US and Armenia had rejected linking the issues.

But Prof Aktar predicted that Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts by individuals and society would continue. One example is a project to rebuild a 10th-century bridge over the Arpacay river that forms the border between Turkey and Armenia. The bridge, which used to be an important crossing point on the Silk Road, the historical trade route linking Europe and China, would be rebuilt in a joint Turkish and Armenian effort, according to reports in the Turkish press. Prof Aktar said that over time, the track of "civilian diplomacy" may become strong enough to influence official policy in both countries. @Email:tseibert@thenational.ae