April 6th, 2009
02:21 PM ET

Obama's Turkish dilemma

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/04/06/obama.turkey/art.obama.turkey.cnn.jpg caption="President Obama and Turkish President Abdullah Gul hold a joint news conference Monday."]

F. Stephen Larrabee, RAND

President Obama's visit to Ankara this week highlights Turkey's growing strategic importance to the United States - and a high stakes dilemma for the President and for U.S. strategic interests.

Turkey today plays an increasingly important role in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East, and its cooperation is critical to achieving U.S. objectives in all three areas. Turkey also enjoys strong ties to Iran and Syria, which could be helpful as Washington seeks to establish a dialogue with both countries.

Turkish cooperation could be important in facilitating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and promoting stability once they leave. Turkey is even emerging as an important transit route for the transport of Caspian oil and gas.

However, the administration's efforts to repair relations with Turkey could be derailed by a Congressional resolution introduced last month condemning Turkey for the mass deportation and death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915.

The fate of the Armenians killed in 1915 is a major tragedy and an important moral and political issue. However, the Armenian Genocide Resolution is not the way to address it. Passage of the resolution would precipitate a crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations, and damage broader U.S. interests in the region.

The genocide resolution is a highly emotional issue in Turkish domestic politics and has been a source of deep discord in U.S.-Turkish relations. In the fall of 2007, the Bush administration narrowly averted a serious crisis with Ankara only by a last minute all-out lobbying campaign that prevented the resolution (HR-106) from coming to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But the genocide resolution is far from dead. The Armenian lobby was encouraged by its near success in 2007. And the proposal has strong support among Democrats, who traditionally are more concerned about human rights issues than are Republicans. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is from California, which has a large - and very vocal - Armenian community.

Senator Hillary Clinton and President Obama both supported the resolution during the presidential campaign. In office, they could change their minds, as a number of their predecessors have done. They might have trouble, however, persuading some of their colleagues.

If the resolution is passed, the Turkish government could come under strong domestic pressure to take retaliatory actions. Anti-American sentiment there is already high. US-Turkish relations seriously deteriorated during the Bush administration as a result of the US invasion of Iraq and the unwillingness of the Bush administration to assist Turkey in combating cross-border attacks by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a terrorist group located in the Kandil mountains in northern Iraq. Clearly President Obama is working to rebuild relations with his visit there.

If the genocide resolution is passed, however, Turkish leaders might be pressured to retaliate by, for example, denying the United States use of Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. Incirlik plays a critical role in the transport of people and materials to Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, with the recent loss of U.S. access to the base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, Incirlik could become a crucial hub for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Loss of access to Incirlik could also complicate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

The Armenian conflict remains sensitive because it was key to Turkey's emergence as a nation. Recalling the conflict conjures fears of separatist conflict, and fuels Turkish nationalism. However, Turkey has shown a greater willingness to address the issue more openly in recent years. At the end of 2008, more than 26,000 Turks signed a letter apologizing for the deaths of the Armenians who died at the hands of the Ottoman authorities in 1915.

Passage of the genocide resolution could seriously set back the process of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation currently underway between Ankara and Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. This process has gained important momentum since President Abdullah Gul's historic visit to Armenia - the first visit to Armenia ever by a Turkish president - in September 2008. Recent statements by Turkish and Armenian officials suggest that the two countries are close to normalizing relations.

A normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations would have important implications for stability in the Caucasus and enable Armenia to reduce its political and military dependence on Russia – an important U.S. policy objective. It would also remove a major obstacle to Armenia's ability to join regional energy schemes, from which Armenia has been so far excluded. This process risks being derailed, however, if the genocide resolution is passed.

The Obama administration thus needs to pursue a two track policy. First, it should seek to bolster strategic ties to Turkey and continue to actively support the Erdogan government's struggle to combat terrorist attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party. This is regarded by Ankara as the litmus test of the U.S.-Turkish security relationship. Second, the administration needs to work with the Congressional leadership, especially Pelosi, to head off passage of the genocide resolution.

Instead of passing the Genocide resolution Congress should encourage the process of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, particularly the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border (closed since 1993), which would have an important economic impact on Armenia and decrease Armenia's economic isolation.

In return for heading off the resolution, Turkey should pursue reconciliation with Yerevan and continue the effort to promote greater internal openness in addressing the Armenian issue that has been evident in recent years.

This would represent a win-win situation for all sides and avoid a crisis that could do untold damage to U.S.-Turkish relations and broader U.S. interests in the Middle East and Caucasus.

Editors Note: F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

soundoff (113 Responses)
  1. Tara

    The Armenian diaspora needs to put its own hate-mongering aside and think of what is in the best interest of its brethren currently living in Armenia. Actual Armenians who still reside in the country want nothing more to end the isolation in which they live. They realize their country is tiny and landlocked and that they need to cooperate with neighboring countries around them. Why is it that there exists an Armenian community in Turkey who are happy to live there and who acknowledging that something horrible did take place in 1915 are wise enough not to blame it on the government of Turkey but the Ottomans? The diaspora in this country should take a good look in the mirror and realize its tactics of spewing hatred for all Turks living in the States and abroad (and acts of violence that often go hand in hand with this) are hurting, not helping, their cause.

    April 7, 2009 at 10:29 am |
  2. John mama

    The two-face Obama..........
    With a big dissapointment as no American citizen i see the new president not support his promises.The Armenian's Genocide by Turkey is one of the crucialiest thing in the recent year but Obama is with Turkey(TWO FACE!). The next thing is the turkish invasion in Cyprus in 1974 and the occupation of the island since. They killed many innocent as olguts commitees but obama stills visits Turkey without saying anything.
    No Obama, we don't want you here, you are just a liar......
    Italy,Greece,Armenia,France,Malta,Cyprus,Bulgaria,Albania and many countries don't want turkey to E.U. so you can't begging anymore.

    April 7, 2009 at 10:00 am |
  3. Hasan tezbasan

    Armenians are treated equally during 800 years of Ottaman history, and I am proud of it. We can infer this from; unlike minorities of any other place of the world, Armenians brought up to most important positions in the society and goverment. They pretty much happily lived for 780 years and suddebnly what changed the course suddenly? any smarty can think of this situation? It is so unfair to admit that Ottamans did a systematic hatred and killings suddenly in the last few decades of the Empire.

    I will tell you what happened. When Ottomans were fighting Russian in WW1, Armenian Army stabbed from behind. The Armenian soldiers dropped their ottoman souls suddenly and merged to russians army aiming to beat the sick horse to death.

    Also, While all Ottoman Men were fighting for their country, Armenian insurgents grouped and killing and massacring thousands of their neighboor, friend Turk villages. Are these all lie? of course not, but history is not written by only Armenian Story-tellers; please go to Russian archives, Ottoman Archives, Armenian Archives and do yoru research for god's sake. Don't be fooled by manipulaters.

    April 7, 2009 at 9:34 am |
  4. Attila

    Have you ever thought that why this massacre claims come up every year in congress?
    Do you know, Turks and Armenians existed many centuries together without any problem in this region under the Ottoman Empire regime?
    Do you know exactly, what was the reason of the conflict occurred at least 100 years ago between Turks and Armenians?
    Please, hear the past, see the present and look ahead to the future.
    In other words, we must focus together hand in hand to our present problems such as economy, health, education and prosperity.
    Let's get back to the point; our problem is how to prepare a good future to our children and live together in a peaceful world.In this case we must leave this claims and solution to the Turkey and Armenia.
    Both countries can do better than others.

    April 7, 2009 at 8:04 am |
  5. ken

    Armenian millitary forces commited genocides in the town of Khojali (Azerbaijan) with the population of 7 thousand azeri people on februrary 26 1992. There were 3 thousand people in the town at the time of Armenian millitary forces' attack. As most part of the population had to leave town during 4 months blockade. 613 people were killed, 1000 peaceful people of different age became invalid during Khojali genocide. 106 women, 63 children, 70 old men were killed. 8 families were completely annihilated, 130 children lost one parents, while 25 both of them. 1275 peace residents were taken hostages, the fate of 150 of them is still unknown.
    This is real face of armenian nationalism.

    April 7, 2009 at 7:59 am |
  6. bilge

    Generally i agree with you Larrabee. You seem a unbiased writer.
    As to B.H.Obama's visit to Turkey, this is the first time we, muslims, have ever feel sympathy with usa govt. for a long time. I think it stems from Obama's sincerity that doesn't exist in Bush.

    Eventually usa understood that Turkey is a indispensable friend for her.

    April 7, 2009 at 6:54 am |
  7. L.K.

    What will be the positive outcome of the resolution, except the word genocide and maybe retribution. There are also evidence that Armenians were supporting Russia during the war. 🙁

    Also, question for the individuals who support the passing of the resolution:

    – How would this help the current situation with Turkey-Armenia
    – How would this help the relationship between US-Turkey
    – Who do you blame, Ottoman Empire or Turkey. Two different governments.
    – Would Armenia want this resolution, because it will damage the relations with Turkey, which is need?

    Why view is that why worry about the past and ruin the future of the two nations who probably could benefit from each other.


    April 7, 2009 at 6:44 am |
  8. Hakan Ozen

    If this was a genocide, then please look what happened to 500.000 Turkish civilian in the WWI period. Turkey deny the genocide because Turkish citizens didn't die by deportation like Armenians faced. They were murdered.

    April 7, 2009 at 6:39 am |
  9. Ali Kurt

    What happened between 1915-1917 at Ottoman Empire was a tragedy no one can change that. But at that time Ottoman Empire was collapsing and all western nations tried to break it piece by piece.
    But this tragedy is not same as Adolf Hitler's genocide that killed millions of Jews.
    This was well planned to create great Armenia in that region.
    And it was planned and organised by France and Britain.
    As an Albanian Turkish citizen I think this tragedy has many partners this includes Ottoman Empire, Britain France and Germany all who to blame. Before this tragedy happened Armenians were considered priviledged and many became high ranking military officials at Ottoman times. As Armenians tried to break away from the country they lost this priviledge and this tragic civil war happened.

    April 7, 2009 at 6:24 am |
  10. Sinan

    John Mathis wrote:
    "This is quite simple, Turkey should apologize for the genocide against the Armenians and move on. The whole world accept of course Turkey, a few muslim nations in Africa and the US have already recognized the genocide. In fact, 33 states of the our Union have already recognized the genocide. Why not say “sorry” and move on. Damn, this is not that hard." 🙁 ?

    1-Why shall i accept such a blame on my nation?
    that was a struggle against russia backed treaters during I.world war where hundreds of thousands from our side had also been killed while defending nation and did nothing more violent than what was done in afghanistan,ıraq,vietnam,algeria,palestine or Hiroshima-Nagazaki.
    will your congress ask for the right of raped women in İzmir by greek army, burning houses,murders in anatolia by foreign troops ?
    As a turk i know that if those soldiers had not been there my family would now be like palestinians and turkey would be iraq. Even if all the universe passes such a law, we will not betray our history and mark our honourable defence as "genocide"
    2-Armenia officially demands eastern anatolia and genocide propaganda is the first step.2nd is payment and land trials.We are not idiot.

    April 7, 2009 at 6:05 am |
  11. Avi13

    I do not understand the need for a resolution. I am Turkish and know that this was a symmetrical act between the two parties, where both sides had casualties. Genocide is a systematic killing of people by their ethnicity or race. This was a war between the two parties in this case, where all the killed were human, from both of the races, which is sad.

    Why can not people leave history to historians? If history is defined by legislation, what will come next?

    Let us make laws and legislations, resolutions regarding peace, prosperity and welfare.

    April 7, 2009 at 6:03 am |
  12. Canan

    greetings from Turkey. i'm a Turkish citizen and i'm proud for it even if the whole world try to blame us for something that is not true actually.-which is called 'false genoicide'.
    We Turks are always open to face with the history,but it is really the Armenians who escape from its past. we can prove our innocence by our historical documents.it's not a genoicide but moving people to somewhere else because of the bad conditions of that place during the World War I in 1915.

    Anyway,if you blame us for that , why the whole world can't see the Armenians massacre on the Azeri Turks.They killed most of the children and pregnant women brutally. So why dont you call this as a 'Genoicide' too???? Why do people dont show sentiments against Armenians atrocities to Turks if they are so concerned about human rights.
    please be more neutral and impartial while making comments, stop lingering the whole world with such kind of false claims if you dont have some proofs.

    April 7, 2009 at 6:02 am |
  13. memotzz

    Totally agree with sensitive people from all over the world.It was a war by all means,thousands of people died or fled from all sides.What was Anzacs doing for God's sake in Canakkale?
    So with all due respect to our Armenian friends(I have quite a few),please stop attacking or making implausible demands from Turkey through extreme exaggeration of tragedies and body count.Turkey has lots of problems today and the clearest danger is bizarrely interpret fanatic Islamism taking over the country while 1 million clueless jetset are living like everyday is a party.

    April 7, 2009 at 6:01 am |
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