Turkey's Answer to the Armenian Question

Turkey dodged yet another bullet in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday when a resolution "recognizing" the Armenian "genocide" failed to reach the floor for a vote. Had Resolution 252 gone before legislators, it, in all likelihood, would have passed. That is exactly what the powerful Armenian-American lobby is determined to make happen. And that is a reality Ankara must either be prepared to accept or prevent by normalizing relations with Armenia.

There is no doubt that something horrible happened to over 1.5 million Armenians in eastern Anatolia in the spring of 1915. It is a vexed issue, fraught with intense emotion. Armenians and their sympathizers maintain that it was genocide. It is a charge the Turks deny.

Given that the Turkish government hasn't made public archived material on the matter or been willing to debate the issue, it is difficult to defend them. The heart wrenching stories of Armenians who survived deportations, starvation and executions make it impossible to do so. There is an overdue need to access Ottoman archives where the world -- and not one side -- can make a more informed conclusion. That would upset any effort for a Congressional resolution. It would also be more in line with Ankara's "zero problems" foreign policy.

Because Turkey is facing, according to its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, "pressure to assume an important regional role," the country has made it a priority to "carry out a careful foreign policy." Open and good diplomatic relations with all of Turkey's neighbors is its underpinning. While that has happened with Syria and Iran, it has not with Armenia. That must change.

In 2009, Turkey and Armenia had launched talks intended to normalize relations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with the Swiss government, was actively involved. Among the things that were brokered was the inclusion of a clause that would have had historians examine the evidence from 1915. Unfortunately, the Turks scuttled the negotiations that otherwise would have been a remarkable step that could have avoided yesterday's close call, and any other ones in the future.

Passionate Armenian-Americans have lobbied to label Ottoman actions as genocide for decades. Protected by the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the Israeli lobby, the Turks, NATO's second most powerful members, have managed to avoid the Armenian question entirely. Since adopting a more activist approach to regional Middle Eastern affairs, which has included closer ties to Tehran and championing the end of Palestinian isolation in Gaza, Ankara is no longer shielded by anyone.

Without a strong ally on Capitol Hill, U.S.-Turkish relations have hit an all-time low. Resolution 252 has found the perfect moment to rear its head. There is little political capital to defend a country everyone inside the beltway considers "lost." It is an issue that will most certainly resurface in the next Congressional session. It is unlikely to continue to come out in Turkey's favor.

That the House resolution labels the Ottoman Empire's actions "genocide" does not make it so. It is a point of semantics, in which there are no legal ramifications. It is nothing more than political pandering to a very effective ethnic lobby.

Still, it is a pandering that the U.S. and Turkey cannot afford. Much is at stake in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, where Turkey has lent Washington tremendous and reliable support; support Washington is keen to continue. Sadly, its policymakers are no longer in a position to rescue Turkey at the eleventh hour. Nor should Turkish policy makers want them to. Turkey's new independent diplomacy puts the responsibility of tackling the Armenian question in its own hands.

To start the process, Turkey must normalize relations with Armenia, which have never been formally established. Though the two shared an open border when Armenia declared independence from the USSR in 1991, it was closed down in 1993 over a border dispute Armenia has with its other Turkic neighbor, Azerbaijan. Turkish-Armenian reconciliation must include the examination of historical records of 1915. Armenians and Turks deserve to know the truth about the events that took place at that time.

Armenians are eager to reconcile with the Turks. The BBC reports "most people in Armenia feel their landlocked country has been too isolated since the Turkish border closed and are ready for it to reopen." Armenia, which continues to suffer from the legacy of the Soviet planned economy, has remained "underdeveloped." Yerevan wants to do business with its economically powerful Turkish neighbor, its only real link to the West. Many deals are already underway. Flights between the two countries are packed with businessmen signing agreements to trade and collaborate.

Turkey was able to avoid a relationship with Armenia and the Armenian question for years. Armed with a bold, new foreign policy, a strong economy and an Armenian neighbor ready to engage, Turkey has what it needs not only to permanently frustrate Armenian-American efforts for a "genocide" resolution, but, more importantly, to set the truth about 1915 straight. Nothing could prove Turkey's capacity for true global and mature leadership more.