By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 16/02/07):
It seems an odd way to treat a friend. Washington’s relations with Turkey, a key Nato ally, have been on the slide since 2003 when Ankara’s parliament refused to allow US troops to transit into Iraq. That infuriated the Bush administration. Ensuing chaos in Iraq and the impetus the occupation has given Kurdish secessionism infuriated Turks in their turn. Iran and Hamas are other points of strain. One recent poll found that 81% of Turks disapprove of US policies.
Now the relationship is heading for a potentially spectacular rupture following the decision of the US House of Representatives’ newly installed Democratic leadership to follow France in endorsing a bill officially recognising as genocide the 1915 killings of Christian Armenians by Muslim Turks. As matters stand, there is sufficient bipartisan support to pass the measure if, as expected, it is put to a vote in the next few weeks.
The genocide label is an ultra-sensitive issue in Turkey. It has long claimed that mass killings at the time by both sides were part of the civil upheavals accompanying the collapse of the Ottoman empire. “If this measure is adopted it will create a very serious problem in US-Turkish relations,” a senior Turkish official said yesterday. “You cannot put Turkey in the same shoes as the Nazis.” Armenia (and the Armenian diaspora) should accept a proposal by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to set up a joint commission to study what happened, the official said.
But politics in Ankara and Washington are stoking confrontation. A presidential election is due in Turkey in May, followed by parliamentary polls this autumn. Neither Mr Erdogan, tipped as the next president, nor other candidates can ignore intense national feelings stirred by the genocide debate. At the same time, the Democratic speaker, Nancy Pelosi, like other House members from California, has a vociferous Armenian-American constituency to placate. When Turkey’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, was in Washington last week, she refused to meet him. “Local politics must not be allowed to poison strategic ties,” Mr Gul said later. Passage of the bill would create a “nightmare”.
Calls are already being heard in Turkey for a downgrading of bilateral military cooperation, including logistical assistance to US forces in Iraq. General Yasar Buyukanit, chief of the Turkish general staff, went to the Pentagon this week to spell out the possible damaging consequences.
“Turkey is playing the security card against the genocide bill,” wrote columnist Mehmet Ali Birand of the Turkish Daily News. That meant reminding the Americans of Turkey’s contributions in Afghanistan and Kosovo, its supportive ties to Israel – Ehud Olmert was in Ankara yesterday – and the way it “actively participates in communications between Iran and the US”.
The White House opposes the bill but may be unable to stop it. Meanwhile, the US is urging Turkish “outreach” to Armenia in the wake of the Hrant Dink murder.
But new reasons for killing off the resolution are emerging every day. One is that a surge in anti-Americanism following its passage could translate into a Turkish decision to ignore Washington and send its troops into northern Iraq, with potentially disastrous consequences for US efforts to stabilise the country.
The senior Turkish official said there was no plan to intervene and no link to the genocide bill. But Ankara is increasingly impatient over US reluctance to suppress armed PKK separatists who launch raids into south-east Turkey from Iraqi Kurdistan. And according to Asli Aydinbas, of Sabah newspaper, a “limited and defined” Turkish military intervention in Iraq is already on the cards.
“The US government believes passage of the Armenian resolution would make a cross-border operation more likely,” he said. “Even a debate on the floor of the House of Representatives would end Washington’s power to deter such an operation.” Seen this way, the genocide bill could spark a whole new bloodbath.