Turkey's government has denounced a resolution approved by a U.S. House of Representatives committee that calls the 1915 massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks a genocide. The measure passed on Wednesday despite extraordinary last-minute efforts by Bush Administration officials, including the President himself, to have it shelved out of concern that it could hurt relations with a key NATO ally and affect U.S. troops in Iraq. Seventy percent of American air cargo and a third of the fuel the U.S. uses in neighboring Iraq passes through the its air base in Incirlik in southern Turkey. Prior to the bill's passage, Turkish politicians had warned of possible retaliation by blocking the use of Incirlik.
Hundreds of demonstrators picketed the U.S. embassy in Ankara just before the vote. "A Bill of Hatred," ran the banner headline on the top-selling Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. The non-binding measure, which passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee by a vote of 27 to 21, will now be sent on to the full House. "Unfortunately, some politicians in the United States have once again sacrificed important matters to petty domestic politics despite all calls to common sense," said Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
For the Turkish government, "the timing of the vote is catastrophic," says prominent political commentator and columnist for the Posta newspaper Mehmet Ali Birand. It comes as Washington tries to persuade Turkey not to launch a military operation into north Iraq to pursue separatist Kurdish guerrillas who are based there and who have been staging increasingly violent attacks in southeast Turkey. The U.S. is opposed to any such move, fearful that it could disrupt Kurdish-controlled north Iraq, the only relatively stable area in the country.
But the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under huge public pressure after several deadly attacks by Kurdish guerrillas in the southeast that have killed 30 people in under two weeks. Members of Turkey's parliament are due to vote on allowing a cross-border military incursion next week, and the military machine is already preparing. "After the U.S. House vote, the Turkish public is going to think tit for tat," says Birand. "This is going to strengthen the nationalists, including the position of those people who want us to invade north Iraq."
Despite its displeasure, however, Turkey's government is unlikely to make good on its threats to take retaliatory action against the U.S. even if a resolution clears House. "The government is disinclined to consider drastic moves like an embargo, or closing Incirlik," says Birand. The real outcome of Wednesday's bill may be to strengthen a growing tide of ultra-nationalist isolationism in Turkey, fueled by public perceptions of being unwanted by Europe (it is seeking to join the E.U.) and ignored by the U.S. One recent victim was high-profile Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was shot to death by a teenager with links to nationalist groups. His son, Arat Dink, and publisher Serkis Seropyan were sentenced on Friday to one year in jail for "insulting Turkishness" by referring to the Armenian genocide. They will appeal the verdict.