x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Will Obama risk Turkey's wrath?

Ankara will seek to prevent the new American president Barack Obama from describing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians almost 100 years ago as "genocide".

Hillary Clinton pays her respects at the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk in Ankara at the weekend.
Hillary Clinton pays her respects at the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk in Ankara at the weekend.

ISTANBUL // Although there are many issues that Turkey would like to discuss with the new administration in Washington, Ankara's politicians and diplomats will be concentrating on one task in the coming weeks: to prevent Barack Obama from using the word "genocide" to describe the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians almost 100 years ago. Attention is focused on the traditional message of the US president on April 24, the day commemorating the massacres against Armenians in what was then the Ottoman Empire. In recent years, presidents have avoided the term "genocide" to not offend Turkey, a strategic US ally. But Ankara has been concerned that Mr Obama may change this, as the new president used the term during his election campaign and promised to recognise the genocide. In a statement in January last year when he was a US senator, Mr Obama talked about his "firmly held conviction that the Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable." He added: "As president I will recognise the Armenian genocide." Turkey's concerns formed part of the talks between high-ranking Turkish officials and the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in Ankara last weekend. Mrs Clinton's visit was seen as an effort to put US-Turkish relations on a new footing after a period marked by tensions over the US invasion in Iraq. Judging by Turkish reactions, Mrs Clinton succeeded. Turkey's foreign minister, Ali Babacan, said relations between the two countries had "entered a new era". But despite that positive assessment and a cautious rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia that started last year, the prospect that the United States may officially label the events that took place during the First World War a genocide is still so explosive in Turkey that Ankara warned of irreparable damage to Turkish-US relations, should the term be used. "I see a risk here," Mr Babacan told the NTV news channel last weekend. "Just one word may seem easy for them. But ? they have to understand the consequences, the reaction of our people," the minister said. "We conveyed that message to Clinton as well." Armenians and much of the international community say that as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a genocide orchestrated by Ottoman authorities that started in 1915. Turkey rejects that term, puts the number of victims much lower and argues the death of the Armenians was the result of a resettlement under wartime conditions. Several countries around the world have passed resolutions recognising the genocide, but the United States has not done so yet.

Turkish media speculated in recent weeks that the possibility of Mr Obama's recognising the genocide had risen after the latest spat between Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, over Israel's attacks in the Gaza Strip. Other observers think that an announcement, made during Mrs Clinton's visit, that Mr Obama plans to travel to Turkey in early April has taken much of the pressure off Ankara. "To think of a visit to Turkey would not make sense for an American president who is going to use the word 'genocide'," Kadri Gursel wrote in a column in Milliyet, a daily newspaper. According to news reports, Mr Obama's visit is expected around April 7, about two weeks before he is to make his first official statement on the Armenian question as president. Mr Obama may also be hesitant to fulfill his campaign pledge on the Armenian issue because such a step could endanger efforts to make a new start in relations between Turkey and Armenia. A joint statement after talks between Mrs Clinton and Mr Babacan in Ankara underlined "US support for the efforts of Turkey and Armenia to normalize relations". Omer Taspinar, a Washington-based columnist for Sabah, a daily newspaper, wrote on Monday that Mr Obama would tell Turkey and Armenia to open a new chapter in their relations. "The time has come to sign an historic agreement with Armenia." Turkey broke new ground in its relations with its neighbour when the president, Abdullah Gul, visited Yerevan in September. There have been several high-level contacts since then, and Armenia's president, Serzh Sarkisian, is expected in Turkey this year. Some Turkish observers have predicted an opening of the border between the two countries, which has been closed for more than 10 years, and the establishment of diplomatic relations. Wrapping up a visit to Washington a few days ago, a group of Turkish lawmakers also expressed their expectation that Mr Obama would not use the term and that Congress would not pass a resolution recognising the genocide. "I do not think that President Obama will use that despicable term," said Sukru Elekdag, a deputy and former Turkish diplomat, according to press reports. "Congress will look at what the president says." But another Turkish lawmaker, Nursuna Memecan, said Armenian groups were lobbying for recognition of the genocide by Washington. "We cannot rest peacefully," she said. tseibert@thenational.ae