For many years, the US Congress and successive American administrations have refused to use the term genocide to describe the atrocities the Armenian nation suffered a century ago under the Ottoman Empire — ostensibly for fear of offending Turkey. American diplomats have been told to avoid the “G-word”. In 2005, the ambassador of the US to Armenia John Evans disobeyed. He said that “the Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century”. He was recalled and forced into early retirement.
In fact, American diplomats at the time of the genocide, in 1915, were the witness to Ottoman killings, warning their country that something worse was coming. Henry Morgenthau, for example, US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, cabled Washington that a “campaign of race extermination” was underway, while the US consul in Aleppo warned that a “scheme to extinguish the Armenian race” was being planned. No one directly intervened.
Last week, more than 100 years on, the Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved Resolution 296 in a 405-to-11 vote, officially recognising the mass killing of Armenians as genocide. The next day, Turkey summoned the US ambassador in Ankara.
Responding to the House’s decision, Erdogan said: “We do not recognise this decision you have taken,” describing the House move as a “meaningless political decision” rather than the outcome of a sincerely held belief.
Turkey sees the passing of the genocide resolution as “revenge” for its invasion of northeast Syria.
“In my opinion, the US political establishment has always known that what happened in the very last period of the Ottoman Empire (1913-1923) was genocide, and had actually recognised it on several occasions (1951, 1975, 1981, 1984), but due to political reasons, Congress and successive governments, both Republicans and Democrats, have refused to use the word “genocide,” bowing to Turkish autocratic pressure and the power and action of certain lobbies,” Greek genocide scholar Vassilios Meichanetsidis told Al-Ahram Weekly.
According to Meichanetsidis, Yavuz Ağıralioğlu, spokesperson of the nationalistic Good Party, in response to the US resolution, said: “We retaliate against the US through our decision of naming our children Enver, Cemal and Talaat. If this inappropriateness continues, we will name everyone, including our daughters, Talaat.”
Enver, Cemal, Talaat, and Kemal (Ataturk) were just some of the many Ottoman statesmen and authorities who planned and executed the 10-year-long genocide of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians/Arameans. So, Turkey not only denies the genocide; many officials openly take pride in it.
“Governments, international organisations and public opinion across the world should do more to bring Turkey to account for the genocide and to stop its ongoing crimes in the region, in Cyprus in 1974, and now Syria,” Meichanetsidis said.
“Although Turkish officials may see House Resolution 296 as ‘revenge’ for Turkey’s invasion into northern Syria, that military operation — as well as Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defence system, the S400 — simply reduced the impact of US pressure and blackmail,” Meichanetsidis stated.
Would the US House of Representatives have voted through the Genocide Resolution if Turkey hadn’t invaded northeast Syria?
“The House of Representatives might eventually have ended up voting for recognition. But the operation into northeast Syria certainly speeded up the process and made it easy. The large majority for the resolution might never have been realised if the latest Turkish operation in Syria had not occurred. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back in Washington, DC,” Ilhan Tanir, the Washington based senior editor for AhvalNews, said.
Tanir added that was too early to see what damage to bilateral relations the decision may have said. “As the operation continues, the hatred that US politicians and officials have for Turkey’s strongman may deepen.”
Meichanetsidis thinks this should have happened a long time ago.
“It would have been much more meaningful if the House of Representatives had recognised the genocide before Turkey invaded northeast Syria. For the recognition of crimes against humanity and genocide, and for justice for the victims, should not depend on political developments and considerations. It should be the ethical stance of all governments and international organisations to stand by the victims of genocides against the criminals and perpetrators involved.”
Meichanetsidis hailed the US decision. “In any case, it is certainly a positive step, and the reaffirmation by the US of Ottoman responsibility for the 1915-1923 Christian Genocides will hopefully be the beginning of greater justice for Armenian, Greek and Assyrian/Aramean victims, and for all victims of other genocides, regardless of their ethnic or religious origins.”
The day the House passed the resolution, former US permanent representative to the UN, Samantha Power, in an opinion in The New York Times, stated that “The Turkish government devotes millions of dollars annually to lobbying American officials and lawmakers. More than $12 million during the Obama administration, and almost as much during the first two years of the Trump presidency. Turkish officials have threatened to respond to genocide recognition by suspending lucrative financial ties with American companies, reducing security cooperation and even preventing resupply of our troops in Iraq,” Power wrote.
The Turkish ambassador to the US warned that passage of the “biased” resolution would poison Turkish-US relations. But who stands to lose the most from this development? “The Turkish administration thinks the US needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the US. Turkey does not have only bad relations with the US but with the EU, regional actors, most of its neighbours and most of the Arab world. When you think of such an isolated US administration, poisoned Turkish-US relations migth be a significant factor deteriorating Turkey’s stability and security,” Tanir told the Weekly.
Representative Ilhan Omar (Minnesota, Democrat) was one of just two Democrats to vote “present” on the resolution, meaning she was against its passing, claiming that “recognition of genocide should not be used as cudgel in a political fight”. She argued that other atrocities, including the slave trade and the killings of Native Americans during colonisation, need to be acknowledged.
Omar was criticised for her stance. “There’s no right or wrong time to stand up for justice” the Armenian public protested across social media.
One Republican, too, voted “present.”
Omar, who arrived to the US as an immigrant from Somalia, also voted against a bill to punish Turkey for its invasion of northern Syria.
“I think she is sympathetic with Turkey’s Islamist government and President Erdogan. Ms Omar is known to be close with some of America’s Muslim Brotherhood circles and appears to share many worldviews of the Islamists, according to notable experts on Islamism and Islamist politicians I had interviewed in the past,” Tanir commented. “Even before she became a House representative, Ms Omar was close with Erdogan’s government. Her first interview was also given to Turkish state TV. I don’t think she can vote against Erdogan’s government.”
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) advocated heavily to secure the vote on Armenian Genocide in the House of Representatives.
“We’ve helped bring to an end the longest foreign veto over US policy in American history. We cannot find a similar example of a foreign government dictating a policy like this for so many years,” ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian told the Weekly.
“We, Armenians of America, have been troubled for decades. America has been on the wrong side of history. But it would be a mistake to say that America is now on the right side of the issue.”
Hamparian said that the goal of the organisation is not a one-time statement, or one-time recognition. “The goal is for America to be on the side of truth and the side of justice. That means that part of US-Turkey relations should be moving Turkey towards truthful and just reckoning with this issue. That’s what we would like to see.”
“We want US recognition to help to spur remedies. If Turkey likes to call the Armenian Genocide a conflict or a misunderstanding that we can talk through, we will of course say it’s a crime, and the answer to a crime is justice. The US has long been covering for them. As the possibility of denial disappears, Turkey should understand the urgency of sitting down with the Armenians and to work through the issue,” Hamparian told the Weekly.
The ANCA is the largest and most influential Armenian-American grassroots NGO. Working in coordination with a network of offices, chapters and supporters throughout the United States, and affiliated organisations around the world, the ANCA actively advances the concerns of the Armenian-American community on a broad range of issues. Its mission is to foster public awareness in support of a free, united and independent Armenia, to influence and guide US policy on matters of interest to the Armenian-American community, and to represent the collective Armenian-American viewpoint on matters of public policy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.