Turkey Pulse

Turkey awaits Obama’s Armenian statement

Article Summary
Former Turkish ambassadors to Washington say there are limits to what Ankara can do if President Barack Obama refers to Armenian massacres as genocide.

It’s betting season again for Turkish-US ties. Will US President Barack Obama use the “G-word” on April 24 in his message of sympathy to the Armenians, or will he skirt the issue and use the term Meds Yeghern — which in Armenian means the Great Crime — instead of genocide to describe what befell the Armenians in 1915?

Should he go for the latter option, as he has done before, Ankara will still protest and refer to the need for “justice in remembrance,” pointing in this way to the millions of non-Armenians killed in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. It has, however, learned to live with statements that do not openly refer to genocide.

But what if Obama uses the term genocide this time? We are led by Turkish officialdom to believe this will poison Turkish-US ties and leave an indelible mark. These strategic ties have prevented successive US presidents from bowing to pressures from Armenian-Americans, and their supporters in Congress, to refer to the events of 1915 as “genocide.”

Otherwise, Turkish officials know that the Armenian genocide is considered an incontrovertible fact across the board in the United States, and that past presidents have refused to spell this out in order not to anger a strategic ally in a volatile part of the world.

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During his presidential campaign in 2008, Obama also promised Armenian-Americans to call the events of 1915 genocide, but could not follow up on this once in office. He chose the middle road instead by using the term Armenians use for genocide (Metz Yeghern).

US officials have also noted, in the meantime, that Turkey in recent years has been inching toward more objectivity with regard to the Armenian issue, and has also taken conciliatory steps such as restoring Armenian churches in Anatolia, and allowing these to be used for worship.

Ankara, nevertheless, remains strongly opposed to use of the term genocide, saying this is a legal expression, which in the Armenian case has not been established in a court of law the way the Jewish Holocaust has. This, however, has not prevented a growing interest in Turkey concerning the fate and identity of the Armenians.

A minor breakthrough in this respect came when Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while he was still prime minister, issued a message of condolence in 2014 to the grandchildren of the Armenians, and expressed his wish that the Armenians who died in 1915 rest in peace.

Erdogan’s message was welcomed in Washington, where then-State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it was “a step in the right direction” and expressed her hope that this would advance reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu issued a similar message this week, taking the sentiments in Erdogan’s 2014 message a step further. He said Turks “understand what the Armenians feel,” because they also suffered during World War I.

“We remember with respect the innocent Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives and offer our deep condolences to their descendants,” Davutoglu said. “It is both a historical and humane duty for Turkey to uphold the memory of Ottoman Armenians and the Armenian cultural heritage.” 

It is not clear what influence this message will have on Obama’s Armenian statement. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is in Washington currently, trying to learn what Obama will say, and to warn of the consequences to ties if the word genocide is used.

Despite current strains in Turkish-US ties on a host of issues ranging from Israel, Syria and the fight against the Islamic State to the deteriorating state of democracy and freedoms in Turkey, these ties continue to be referred to as “strategic” by both sides.

This, however, has not prevented uncertainty on the Turkish side concerning Obama’s Armenian statement. One reason for this is Pope Francis' recent message to the Armenians where he used the term genocide. This was followed by a nonbinding European Parliament resolution, which made a special reference to Francis’ statement, and used the word genocide no less than seven times.

Meanwhile, the German parliament is due to adopt a similar resolution. Turkey and Germany were allies during World War I, and many Armenian historians say Berlin shares some of the blame for the genocide. This will give an added significance to the Bundestag’s resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide.

President Erdogan and Davutoglu angrily rejected Francis’ statement and the European Parliament’s resolution, claiming they were prejudiced and reflected no compassion for Muslims who also died in 1915.

Faruk Logoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), who is a former Turkish ambassador to Washington (2001-2005), is not so sure that Turkey’s strategic ties with the United States will hold this time. He told Al-Monitor that there were negative factors in Washington working against Ankara today, such as the loss of support from the Jewish lobby, which has been estranged as a result of Erdogan’s attacks on Israel and support of Hamas.

“There is also Pope Francis’ statement and the European Parliament’s resolution, as well as the fact that this is the centenary of 1915. Obama, who is a lame duck now, may decide this is the moment to fulfill his promise to the Armenians in 2008,” Logoglu said.

Logoglu added that Obama may also decide not to oppose an Armenian genocide resolution in the US Congress. Former presidents, and Obama himself, had opposed these in their capacity of “commander in chief,” arguing that this resolution would harm US interests and endanger American lives.

Logoglu, however, believes that even if Obama uses the word genocide, Turkey’s response will ultimately be limited, despite the angry rhetoric emanating from the government. “Ankara will recall its ambassador for consultations to show its displeasure and send him back after a while. There are no sanctions that Turkey can impose on the US,” Logoglu said.

Sukru Elekdag, a long-serving former Turkish ambassador to Washington (1979-89), is of the same view. He told the daily Hurriyet in a recent interview that he also expects Ankara to recall its ambassador in the event that Obama refers to an Armenian genocide. He added that the ambassador will be sent back eventually, even if this does not happen before the general elections in Turkey on June 7.

“[The government] will use some strong language, but considering the present strain in bilateral ties, it will not go beyond a certain point,” Elekdag said. For example, he does not expect Ankara to take steps such as revoking the right extended to the US military to use bases in Turkey.

These assessments by two former Turkish ambassadors to Washington, who had to spend a lot of time on the Armenian issue during their tenure, show that the “strategic” component in Turkish-US ties, or what’s left of it, cuts both ways and that Ankara cannot afford to sever ties with the United States.

There is the strong possibly, however, that Obama will consider the “big picture” again, given Turkey’s continuing strategic importance despite its disagreements with the United States, and choose not to add to the turbulence in Turkish-US ties at a sensitive moment in the region.

He might also note how the Armenian issue is being debated and commemorated by various groups in Turkey much more openly than in the past, and may not want to obstruct this positive trend by adding grist to the mill of ultranationalist Turks.

Put briefly, it seems that the bet will remain open until Obama speaks on April 24. But if he utters the “G-word,” it is clear that this will leave an indelible mark on Turkish-US ties, even though there is little Ankara can do to retaliate.

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Found in: us-turkish relations, turkey-armenia relations, recep tayyip erdogan, barack obama, armenian issue, armenian genocide, armenia, ahmet davutoglu

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His articles have been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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