America's Turkey Problem


Feb 23, 2007

By F. Stephen Larrabee and Suat Kiniklioglu

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on February 23, 2007.

As America struggles to stabilize Iraq while fighting rages, the last thing it needs is to become embroiled in a new crisis with Turkey.

But that is where Washington appears headed if Congress passes a resolution recently introduced by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. and several colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives accusing Turkey of committing genocide against Armenians from 1915 to 1918.

Turkey denies claims by Armenians that the Ottoman Empire, Turkey's predecessor government, caused the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in a genocide. The Turkish government contends that far fewer Armenians died, and that Armenians were killed or displaced in civil unrest when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Clarifying the events surrounding the tragic deaths of the Armenians is an important issue and deserves attention. But passage of the proposed congressional resolution would open a Pandora's box of new problems by aggravating U.S.-Turkish relations and seriously impairing the progress Turkey has made to address the Armenian issue — all while failing to promote the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation that is most needed.

The Bush administration has warned that even congressional debate of the resolution could damage U.S.-Turkish relations. And even Schiff has acknowledged that the resolution might harm relations between the two countries in the short term.

The resolution comes at a particularly sensitive moment in Turkish domestic politics. Turkey is entering a volatile electoral period, with presidential elections in May and parliamentary elections in November.

As these elections approach, Turkish politicians will be tempted to play to the galleries. Consequently, the passage of the genocide resolution could put the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan under strong domestic pressure to reduce cooperation with the United States.

A new crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations would hurt America at a time when the two nations are beginning to overcome the strains caused by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and could undercut President Bush's new strategy to stabilize Iraq.

Some 60 percent of all U.S. military equipment destined for Iraq goes through the territory or airspace of Turkey, a Muslim ally and member of NATO. If this route to Iraq were restricted or closed entirely, the ability of the United States to effectively combat the insurgency and violent militias in Iraq would be impaired.

The Erdogan government could also come under domestic pressure to restrict U.S. use of the air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey to re-supply American troops in Afghanistan.

In the last several years, Turkey has begun to address the Armenian issue more openly, recently opening up to scholars the Ottoman archives from the period. In addition, Erdogan offered in 2005 to set up an international commission of historians to examine the Armenian issue and deliver its findings to the world community.

In addition, motivated by Turkey's negotiations to join the European Union, a lively internal debate has begun within Turkish society. In March 2006, a major international conference devoted to the fate of the Armenians was held in Istanbul — a development unthinkable a few years ago.

Rather than taking steps that will inflame popular opinion in Turkey and undercut this process of greater openness, Congress and the White House should work together to press Turkey and Armenia to take concrete steps to promote bilateral reconciliation and regional security.

In particular, the United States should press Armenia to make a more vigorous effort to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh border dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan.

At the same time, Turkey should be encouraged to alter Article 301 of the Penal Code, a broad law that restricts free speech and press by making it a crime to insult Turkish identity. And Turkey should also take additional steps to address the Armenian issue more openly.

These moves could pave the way for an opening of the Turkish-Armenian border, closed since l993. Both sides would benefit from such a move. Opening the border would enable Armenia to reduce its current economic isolation and dependence on Russia and Iran. It would also open new possibilities for Armenia to participate in regional economic cooperation and energy initiatives from which it has so far been excluded. In addition, it would remove an important obstacle in Turkey's relations with the European Union.

When it comes to U.S.-Turkish relations, as well as Turkish-Armenian relations, all parties benefit by steps that promote reconciliation rather than confrontation.

© 2007 United Press International

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. Suat Kiniklioglu is head of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund.

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