Those watching the mounting US-Turkey tensions over a congressional committee's resolution recognizing the Armenian 'genocide' could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu.
A committee passed a similar resolution in 2007, leading Turkey to recall its ambassador to Washington – something it did again after the resolution passed yesterday – and warn of a serious rupture in relations with the US. A last-minute intervention by the Bush administration kept the bill from going any further.
This year was supposed to be different. The historic accords that Turkey and Armenia signed this past October to restore diplomatic relations and put in motion a process to examine the past were supposed to take the legs out from under any effort to tar Turkey with the “genocide” label.
But the stalling of that reconciliation process, and Turkey’s deep emotional reaction to the genocide issue have, once again, created a potentially damaging situation for Turkish-US relations. It could have far-ranging implications for US policy in the Middle East, where Turkey is one of Washington's most important allies and an increasingly influential powerbroker.
“Turkey will certainly feel impelled to take retaliatory action against the US, which will take the form of noncooperation in terms of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and possibly leading to restrictions on the use of strategic assets like the Incirlik air base – areas where there is important cooperation,” says Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), an Istanbul think tank.
“This is an area where identity and emotion are in a sense superseding pure interests," he adds. "On a topic like this, the national interest is trumped by a core question loaded with emotions that cuts deep to the issue of identity.”
Why accords with Armenia have stalled
The signing of the accords was initially hailed in Turkey as an important breakthrough. But Ankara seemed to put the brakes on the process after facing strong opposition from domestic forces and oil- and gas-rich Azerbaijan, a traditional Turkish ally that is also a key component of Ankara’s energy policy.
“Obviously there was an attempt by the Turkish authorities to try something else than what they were doing for the last 95 years, and it failed,” says Cengiz Aktar, director of the European Studies Department at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.
Neither country has ratified the accords, and Turkey now insists that their progress is conditional upon movement on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian forces.
The stalling of the Armenia accords, say analysts here, is a key reason why the US and Turkey have reached a point where Ankara is again warning that its ties with Washington could be severely damaged if the resolution continues on its way to a full vote.
“We would not have been here if the protocols had gone forward,” says Hugh Pope, Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy and advocacy group. “Turkey’s insisting on the conditionality, which was not part of the protocols, has led us to where we are today.”
'Enraged' at being portrayed as grandchildren of genocide perpetrators
Now faced with another “genocide” resolution in Washington, Turkey appears to have returned to the same strategy it has used in previous years, one that is informed by more than simply political concerns.
“It’s emotional because Turks are very much enraged to be portrayed as grandsons of people who committed genocide, especially when it happened during a time when tumultuous things were happening all over,” says Mr. Ülgen of EDAM.
“The second aspect [of the Turkish reaction] is the political and legal question, namely, if such a bill is adopted in Congress, that might lead to a situation where Turkey might find itself as a defendant in a number of legal cases in the US, which is something Turkey doesn’t want to find itself in,” he adds.
The question now is how far Ankara is willing to take things if the resolution is put forward for a full vote in the House, something Speaker Nancy Pelosi must first decide to do.
Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California, called Turkey a "paper tiger" and noted that, although France passed a resolution recognizing the genocide in 2001, trade between the countries has since flourished.
Bahcesehir’s Aktar says he also believes Turkey’s threats are a “bluff.” But Ulgen says “all bets are off” if Congress actually passes the resolution.