(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s planned visit to Turkey next month -- no definite date given -- may be dogged by a new legislative push to recognize the mass killings of Armenians almost a century ago as “genocide.” It is a highly emotional issue for many Turks.
The visit, announced in Ankara over the weekend by visiting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will likely come just weeks before the annual commemoration of the deaths of up to 1.5 million orthodox Christian Armenians in 1915 and the years following, as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated.
Obama will have a full agenda of issues to discuss with his Turkish hosts, but his campaign pledge – “as president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide” – has not been forgotten.
Turkey denies the genocide claims, viewing them as an affront to its national dignity. It maintains instead that between 250,000 and 500,000 Armenians, and at least the same number of Muslims, died in civil strife and war-related deaths over the period in question.
U.S.-Turkey relations took a severe knock in 2007 when an “Armenian Genocide” bill was passed by the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In the face of strong opposition from the Bush administration, which warned it would jeopardize relations with an important ally and put at risk supply lines to U.S. troops in Iraq, the resolution did not in the end go to the floor for a vote.
A related Senate bill that year, authored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), was co-sponsored by both Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden. Although Obama did not join them, his campaign statement 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,” won him Armenian-American endorsements.
Armenian-American campaigners are more confident of success this year than they were in 2007, given the new administration and makeup of Congress, where 94 percent of candidates endorsed by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) were successful.
“Now – with longstanding advocates of this noble and necessary cause in the White House, leading the State Department, serving in the Cabinet, heading up both Houses of Congress, and chairing key Congressional committees – we are set to overcome the final barriers to full and formal U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide,” ANCA executive director Aram Hamparian said last month, as a new bipartisan legislative drive for a resolution was launched.
It is expected that the new resolution will be introduced on or around April 24, the annual genocide remembrance day.
On Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan acknowledged there was a “risk” that Obama would keep his campaign pledge to recognize the killings as a genocide.
But, in an interview with Turkey’s NTV news channel, he also said he believed that “the new administration understands Turkey’s sensibilities better today.”
Babacan said a “bad” decision by the U.S. would hamper a process of reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia. The 1915 killings and the much more recent Nagorno Karabakh territorial dispute lie at the root of tensions between the two neighbors, which do not have diplomatic ties.
Air base use
Announcing the visit, Clinton said it would take place “within the next month or so” and that the date would be made public soon. It’s widely expected that it will take place when Obama is in Europe in early April for G20, European Union and NATO meetings.
Unless other travel plans are announced in the interim, Obama’s visit will be his first to a Muslim country.
Last December, he suggested that he would, during his first 100 days in office, deliver a major speech to the Islamic world from a key Islamic capital.
A majority Muslim but officially secular NATO member positioned between Europe and Asia, Turkey is often presented as a bridge between Islam and the West. Clinton in a Turkish television interview described it as “a model democracy with a secular constitution that shows Islam can coexist with both.”
It is unclear, however, whether Obama’s Turkey visit will be the occasion for that anticipated address. Clinton said in response to a reporter’s question that planning for the visit had only just begun and “we just don’t know yet” what the program would involve.
Whatever the case, he will have much to discuss with Turkey’s leaders.
Turkey is a key player in plans to bring oil and gas from Central Asia and Iraq to world markets via pipelines that do not traverse Russian territory and are deemed less vulnerable to disruption.
As a neighbor and fellow non-Arab Islamic country, Turkey could also have a role to play in attempts to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programs.
Turkey has brokered indirect talks between Israel and Syria, although Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s harsh condemnation of Israel’s military operation against Hamas in Gaza prompted some questioning in Israel about Turkey’s capacity to act as an objective mediator.
Babacan said Saturday Turkey was ready to mediate further, and Clinton said the importance of the talks “cannot be overstated.”
Of the many issues on the table, however, achieving U.S. objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan may be the most pressing.
Turkey’s parliament refused to allow U.S. forces to attack Iraq in 2003 from Turkish territory, but the U.S. air base at Incirlik in south-east Turkey later became an important transit hub for U.S. air cargo and fuel heading for Iraq.
Turkey has expressed a readiness to help when the troops leave Iraq, although exactly what that would entail would be discussed, Babacan said during a joint press appearance with Clinton. She said the U.S. would seek advice from Turkey on “the safest and most effective means of withdrawing our troops.” The administration says the withdrawal will be complete by the end of 2011.
If Turkey agrees, Incirlik could also become key to U.S. plans for Afghanistan, given attacks on supply lines through Pakistan and the recent decision by Kyrgyzstan to close down a U.S. airbase used to transport troops and equipment into the theater.
Obama wants to deploy an additional 17,000 personnel to bolster 38,000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan, alongside another 30,000 non-U.S. NATO troops there.
The use of Incirlik, either in support of the expanding Afghanistan mission or for facilitating the exit from Iraq, would require the consent of Turkish lawmakers. The daily Hurriyet newspaper reported recently on “speculation in Ankara” that approval may be made conditional on a U.S. pledge not to allow an Armenian genocide resolution to make progress on Capitol Hill.
The last time the genocide issue roiled relations, in 2007, Turkey threatened to retaliate by restricting U.S. use of Incirlik for Iraq-related operations.