Turkey Angered by Petition On White House Website

A petition on the White House website calling for Turkey to open its borders to Armenian-Syrian refugees has provoked a reaction from the Turkish Foreign Ministry as the Syrian crisis now appears linked to other issues in US-Turkey-Armenia relations.

al-monitor Syrian refugees wait to cross the border to Turkey at Bab El-Hawa on the outskirts of Idlib, near the Syrian-Turkey border, Jan. 13, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof.

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us, turkey, syrian refugees, syrian crisis, syrian, refugees, diplomacy, armenians

Jan 21, 2013

On Jan. 5, a petition appeared on the White House website calling on the government of Turkey to open its border with Armenia for refugees from Syria.

"The road from Syria to Armenia goes through Turkey, which closed its border with Armenia in 1993. It creates a big problem for Armenian refugees," the petition reads. "Thus, we are kindly asking to call Turkey to open the land border with Armenia (at least, for refugees) without any preconditions. There shouldn't be closed borders in the 21st century."

The petition is one of many posted on the White House website on a wide range of issues. "The right to petition the government is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," the White House explains. "If a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it's sent to the appropriate policy experts and issue an official response."

This petition requires 100,000 signatures by Feb. 4 to be worthy of a White House review, and had only received 708 by the time this article was written.

Although the petition is not a declaration of US policy, and unlikely to get enough signatures to even motivate a review by the White House, the Turkish Foreign Ministry nonetheless felt the need to respond.

The ministry's statement categorically rejected any implied accusation by this petition that the closed status of the Turkey-Armenian border jeopardizes the lives of Armenian-Syrians in war-torn Syria, where the United Nations estimates more than 60,000 lives have already been lost.

"It's worth stressing that Turkey is providing shelter to more than 150,000 Syrians without any discrimination based on their religion, language, race or ethnic origin, and that a large number of Armenians fleeing Syria have already reached Armenia in a variety of ways — including passage from Turkey," the statement read.

Turkey closed the border after Armenia's attack on Kelbajar, Azerbaijan, in 1993, a key development in the war over Nagorno Karabagh and a source of continued tension.

Whether Turkey did the right thing in closing the border at the time as a gesture of solidarity with Baku is a different subject from that of accusing Turkey of magnifying the risks to the lives of Syrian Armenians.

The Turkish Red Crescent Society's joint efforts since December 2012 with the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul in providing humanitarian aid to the Armenians in Syria has gone unrecognized.

"Those in Syria are Anatolian Armenians," stressed Cengiz Aktar, a highly respected associate professor in Bahcesehir University's Political Science department. "Turkey needs to provide them special and unique assurances when they arrive here — including the psychological element. They're the grandsons and granddaughters of those who fled Turkey during World War I."

Speaking to Al-Monitor on the condition that they remain anonymous, Turkish authorities said, "If there is a request, Turkey is ready to provide a separate camp for the Armenia- Syrians. But we haven't yet received any demand that will make us consider this."

They added: "And if there is a large number of Armenians from Syria fleeing to Turkey, Ankara will most likely allow them a safe passage to Armenia. So far, however, we have not yet seen such demand from the Armenian community in Syria." Finally, the same Turkish sources tell Al-Monitor that, "Although the petition claims there are 200,000 Armenians left in Syria, no one can really know for sure how many Armenians are actually now remaining in the country."

Both Turks and Armenians want to reconcile, but they seem to be in it for the wrong reasons. Since Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian signed two protocols in 2009 in an attempt to normalize their relationship, with strong US support, the initiative simply went dead without the protocols being ratified in the respective parliaments.

Even the second-track diplomacy is stalled because Armenian NGOs don't want to engage in talks with their Turkish partners that may lead to the perception that they have softened their position on the recognition of the events of 1915 as "genocide" just two years before the centennial anniversary. And the Turkish government has simply lost momentum after defeating the last resolution at the US Congress in 2010. Finally, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he won't bring those protocols to a parliamentary debate until the Nagorno-Karabagh issue is resolved.

While the closure of the border with Armenia had nothing to do with the 1915 events, many Turks now believe these two issues are linked. Certainly, Armenians make this linkage. Although there is now an open debate in Turkey about the Armenian issue, and some Turks openly use the word "genocide" to define the fate of the Armenians on the last days of the Ottoman Empire, many Turks remain convinced that accepting the genocide label will touch off generations of reparations claims. More importantly, many Turks still 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.

With only two years left before the centennial anniversary of 1915, Turkey's sensitivity to the implications of any effort in the US even tangentially connected to the debate over genocide recognition may explain why the Turkish Foreign Ministry would bother responding to a petition by private US citizens that at present has only 700 signatures and may not even merit a White House review.

Today, Turks see the Armenian situation in Syria as no different from any other civilians trying to survive in a war zone, and Ankara is doing what it can to assist all refugees, including Armenian-Syrians. It seems, however, that the perennial debate over US recognition of the Armenian genocide is unavoidably linked to other issues in Turkey-Armenia relations and now the Syrian crisis.

Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York TimesInternational Herald TribuneThe Middle East TimesForeign PolicyThe Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report. She also had a regular column at The Washington Times for almost four years.

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