Two ways of looking at the Armenian genocide

THERE are two ways of looking at the diplomatic tug-o-war currently being fought in Washington over the question of the Armenian genocide. One can either decide with his heart, taking the side of the Armenians, and vote, yes, the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians was genocide. End of story.

By Claude Salhani

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Published: Sun 21 Oct 2007, 8:35 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:32 AM

Or, one can vote with his mind, and oppose the notion. Either way the United States will upset a close ally in the region.

While mulling over the issue, the question for the Bush administration and for the Congress is the following: from a national security perspective, which of the two countries — Turkey or Armenia - is more important to the US war effort in Iraq, and which one contributes more towards what President Bush calls "the war on terror."

My guess is Turkey and by a long shot.

The fact that the Ottoman Turks committed genocide in the slaughter of Armenians around the time of World War I is not in question. The massacres did take place. The killing of Armenians is well documented. There are images, films, as well as firsthand accounts — the testimony of the hundreds of thousands of survivors who managed to escape and tell their stories. The killings did happen.

Other than a few hard-line Turks, few are those who contest the facts: Armenians were killed, slaughtered by the tens, by the hundreds, by the thousands, until more than 1.5 million died. The killings followed a pattern that appeared to fit the definition of genocide: The "systematic killing of a people with the intent of eliminating that particular ethnicity."

The fact that those acts of massive killings are labelled "mass murder," "ethnic cleansing" or "genocide" is a matter of pure semantics.

Regrettably, the dead are dead; changing the tactical name of how it is they came to die is not about to bring them back to life. Nor would it change how they died. What it will accomplish is possibly help their memory and somewhat sooth the sufferings of their descendants. But in so doing, it risks producing a major geopolitical upset, accompanied by strategic alliances being reviewed at a time when the United States needs all the friends it can get, particularly in such a sensitive part of the world.

Both Armenia and Turkey are important US allies. Turkey is a NATO member. But Turkey also plays an important role of mediator between the West and Central Asia. Alienating Turkey at this juncture could have grave consequences, not least for the US military fighting in Iraq. Turkey provides the use of some of its military bases close to the Iraqi border to US air force planes. A vote recognising the Armenian genocide as such would result in these bases being closed to the US military.

Incirlik Air Base serves as a hub for military material going in to both Iraq and Afghanistan. About 74 per cent of air cargo into Iraq transits Incirlik. Six US military C-17 aircraft based at Incirlik move the amount of cargo it took 9-10 military aircraft to move from Germany, saving $160 million per year, according to Anthony H Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"Americans need to understand that the Turkish government and Turkish military have provided substantial support to the US in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein," said Cordesman in a report.

Another question the US government can ask itself is why bring up the matter now? None of those responsible for the killings of Armenians are still living. "Sanctioning Turkey today for atrocities committed against the Armenians in 1916, would be equivalent of punishing the son for crimes committed by the father," said Alon ben Meir, a professor at New York University.

"Tragic as the fate of the Armenians may have been in the aftermath of World War I, the fact remains that the issue is more than half a century old," said Cordesman.

What is desperately needed between Turkey and Armenia is to promote reconciliation — if that is at all possible — rather than enact non-binding resolutions which will only widen the schism and further distance a precious US ally.

Turkey, who wants admittance into the European Union, could close the chapter on the Armenian genocide by admitting that what happened in 1916 was indeed genocide, however, stressing that the crimes were committed by an entity predating the modern Turkish Republic, which after all, bears no resemblance to its forerunner. For the sake of maintaining stability in the region, Ankara can issue an apology to Yerevan, and while making it clear that modern Turkey is not financially or morally liable for the crimes of their fathers.

And if despite the protests and advice the US Senate passes the resolution anyway, the Turkish parliament can always reciprocate by recognising the genocide of Native Americans by the white settlers. It should have about as much political weight as Washington recognising the Armenian genocide.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times. He may be contacted at

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