Oztarsu: US relations with Turkey are at a critical juncture

US President Barack Obama will not use the word “genocide” when describing the alleged Armenian genocide during his annual Armenian Remembrance Day speech on April 24, 2012, Turkish political analysts have claimed. Specialists in Caucasian and US politics say it would not be timely for Obama to undermine Turkey’s stance on the issue, given the rising importance of Turkey’s partnership with the US in handling political crises in the Middle East.

“Regarding the Armenian question, US relations with Turkey are at a critical juncture,” said Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu, a journalist and expert on the Caucasus at Yerevan’s European Regional Academy.

“Considering that Turkey will remain a strategic partner for the US, we may assume that they will not change their position on this issue,” he told Sunday’s Zaman. He pointed out that the US president has not said “genocide” on Remembrance Day in previous years. Turkey vehemently rejects the genocide claims, saying the killings came as the Ottoman Empire was trying to quell a civil strife and that Muslim Turks were also killed in the clashes.

Turkey has repeatedly urged the US president not to use the word genocide on April 24 during his speech, asking him to not only refer to Armenian pains but also those of the Ottoman Turks during World War I, and to mention Turkey’s proposal of establishing a joint commission of historians and experts from both Turkey and Armenia to study evidence for the events of 1915 in the archives of Turkey, Armenia and other relevant countries around the world.

As a presidential candidate, Obama repeatedly vowed to recognize the Armenian genocide once in office, voicing his commitment to commemorating and ending genocide.

Since 2009, the Armenian diaspora in the US has waited for the president to honor his promise. Obama’s repeated failure to use the word “genocide” in his Armenian Remembrance Day message has created deep disappointment in the community.

The US has not officially recognized the Armenians’ claim that there was a genocide in eastern Turkey between 1915 and 1923. Before Obama’s presidency, US leaders blocked attempts to pass resolutions recognizing the World War I-era killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide.

Pointing to this fact, Öztarsu claimed, “For the US, it is normal to make promises to gain the support of Armenian community during the election period and leave them aside due to the strategic importance of Turkey.” Turkey is a strategic US ally whose significance has increased in the last year due to their close cooperation over the development of several crises in the surrounding region.

The Turkey-US security alliance, which includes cooperation on counterterrorism and military training, has strengthened since the deployment of US radar on Turkish soil as part of a NATO-backed missile defense system designed to protect European members of the NATO alliance from potential missile threats emanating from a region boiling with security problems.

The two countries also aim to steer political developments in the same direction in the Middle East, which is  going through a political transition process as a result of the Arab Spring revolutions, by fostering democratic rule, a peaceful transition period and the rule of law.

Turkey and the US are now jointly involved in solving the Iraqi political crisis through dialogue and a commitment to the establishment of a political system which safeguards the voice of all sects and ethnicities.

Another hot issue is the question of the political solution in Syria. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Obama declared a common agenda on the eve of a critical nuclear security meeting in Seoul in March with regard to the Syrian crisis, marking the importance of uniting the opposition against the brutal regime in Syria and providing non-lethal aid to the dissident forces, including telecommunications and medical supplies.

Turkey’s intermediary role in the Iranian nuclear crisis has also been appreciated, although the issue seems to be on the backburner in the US due to ongoing events in Syria, but continues to bear significance given the imminent contingency of an Israeli pre-emptive strike on the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities. The US and Israel are staunch allies and Obama has repeatedly pledged to protect Israeli security over the issue. The latest nuclear talks between Iran and the Western governments in İstanbul last week were deemed as a last and great opportunity for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and both sides appealed for Turkish assistance when a deadlock loomed during the talks.

In remarks similar to Öztarsu’s, İlter Turan, professor of political science at İstanbul’s Bilgi University and also an expert on US politics, agreed that Obama will likely refrain from making statements that could raise resentment in Turkey, considering their current amicable relationship.

“The Armenian issue is not taking hold of discussions in the US election; it is not a pivotal issue,” Turan said, pointing to the fact that the Armenian diaspora is less influential in the US than it is in France.

Political observers in Turkey have commented that the French incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy tried his best to garner the Armenian vote by giving full-fledged support to a draft bill initiated by a member from his party last fall that would have criminalized denying the Armenians’ claims of genocide. The draft bill was deemed unconstitutional by the French Constitutional Council in February.

Meanwhile, Öztarsu mentioned alleged support for Armenian claims from the Jewish lobby in the US due to Turkey’s critical stance against Israel over the last decade. He believes this support could help Armenians exert more influence in the House of Representatives for the recognition of their claims in the upcoming years. “The Jewish lobby is a very strong lobby in the US and the Armenian community is closely following their critical attitude against Turkey,” Öztarsu asserted, estimating that the Jewish lobby will ratchet up efforts for the recognition of the Armenian cause in the House.

Satisfying both Turkey and Armenian diaspora

In previous years, Obama found himself between a rock and a hard place while trying to satisfy both Turkish and Armenian claims over the events of 1915 to 1923.

Describing the events in his previous speeches as “Meds Yeghern”, which means “Great Calamity” in Armenian, Obama has not only drawn a rebuff from both Turkey, who described the US president’s wording as one-sided, but also from the Armenian diaspora, given that he failed to brand the events as genocide.

Barış Özdal, an expert in the Armenian question and lecturer at the international relations department of Bursa’s Uludağ University, claimed that for Obama to use the Armenian term to refer to the allegations is at the disadvantage of Turkey in the long-term.

“Using the Armenian word would negate the Turkish thesis on the question, because the word has started to procure acceptance as ‘genocide’ in the terminology of international relations,” Özdal proposed.

“Some terms are not politically neutral — everyone remembers the Holocaust when we use the word genocide, and we think of a system of racial segregation against black people in South Africa when we say apartheid,” Özdal said.

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