Ignoring stern warnings from Ankara, a key committee of the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly approved on Thursday a resolution that recognizes the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide and urges President Barack Obama to do the same.
Armenia welcomed the development immediately after the Foreign Affairs Committee endorsed the measure by a margin of just one vote. “We highly appreciate the decision by the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the United States House of Representatives to adopt Resolution 252 on the recognition of the Armenian genocide,” Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian said in a statement.
“This is another proof of the devotion of the American people to universal human values and is an important step toward the prevention of the crimes against humanity,” he said.
By contrast, Turkey condemned the committee vote and recalled its ambassador to Washington "for consultations." “We condemn this resolution accusing Turkey of a crime that it has not committed,” the Turkish prime minister’s office said in a written statement reported by “Hurriyet Daily News.”“Our Ambassador to Washington Namik Tan was recalled tonight to Ankara for consultations after the development.”
Howard Berman, the Democratic chairman of the House committee and a strong backer of the resolution, put it to a vote despite reported pressure from the Obama administration. The White House said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned Berman on Wednesday to warn that the legislation could harm efforts to normalize Turkish-Armenian relations.
"Secretary Clinton called Chairman Berman yesterday and in that conversation the secretary indicated that further Congressional action could impede progress on normalization of relations," Reuters news agency quoted U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer as saying.
Hammer also said Obama called Turkish President Abdullah Gul on Wednesday to urge quick ratification of the U.S.-brokered Turkish-Armenian normalization agreements signed in October.
“The vast majority of experts, academics, authorities in international law and others, who have looked at this issue for years, agree that the tragic massacres of the Armenians constitutes genocide,” Berman said, opening a committee debate on the politically sensitive bill.
The California lawmaker acknowledged that Turkey, which vehemently denies any premeditated effort to wipe out the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population, is a “vital ally” of the United States. “Be that as it may, nothing justifies Turkey's turning a blind eye to the reality of the Armenian genocide,” he said.
Opponents of the resolution warned that Turkish retaliation against genocide recognition could deal a serious blow to the ongoing U.S. military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and lead to the closure of a key U.S. military base in southeastern Turkey. They said the resolution’s passage could also undermine the implementation of the Turkish-Armenian agreements. Some of them emphasized the fact those agreements call for the formation of a Turkish-Armenian inter-governmental panel that would look into the events of 1915.
Several resolution opponents also made clear that they believe the slaughter of more than one million Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire did amount to a genocide. But as one of them, congressman Mike Pence of Indiana, pointed out, “now is not the time” for the United States to officially affirm that. “Turkey is a strategic partner in our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he argued.
“For us, to ram this thing through and jeopardize our relationship with Turkey at a time when our troops are on the field and we are in war makes no sense to me,” said Dan Burton, another Indiana Republican.
“We need to ensure that our decisions and our actions concerning the resolution before us do not have unintended consequences that could place at risk critical U.S. security interests, our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our troops serving in harm's way,” agreed Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican.
But Berman dismissed such arguments. “The Turks say passing this resolution could have terrible consequences for our bilateral relationship and, indeed, perhaps there will be some consequences,” he said. “But I believe that Turkey values its relationship with the United States at least as much as we value our relations with Turkey.
“And I believe the Turks, however deep their dismay today, fundamentally agree that the U.S.-Turkish alliance is simply too important to get sidetracked by a non-binding resolution passed by the House of Representatives.”
The ensuing committee vote lasted more than 90 minutes. Visiting parliamentarians from Armenia and Turkey as well as representatives of the Armenian and Turkish communities in the U.S. present at the proceedings waited anxiously as U.S. legislators took their time voting for or against the genocide bill. It was passed by 23 votes to 22.
The two main Armenian-American advocacy groups, which have for decades been lobbying for U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide, were quick to hail the outcome. “We are pleased that the resolution passed with the composition of the committee being more adverse to us than in decades and in the face of extreme tactics,” a leader of the Armenian Assembly of America told RFE/RL’s Armenian service from Washington.
“The truth prevailed in the end,” Elizabeth Chouldjian, a spokeswoman for the Armenian National Committee of America, told the Yerevan-based Yerkir-Media television. “The Turkish pressure proved futile.”
While approval by the Foreign Affairs Committee was indispensable for progress of the resolution, prospects for its discussion and adoption by the full House of Representatives anytime soon remain uncertain. The committee already backed similar bills in 2000, 2002 and 2007. But strong pressure from the previous U.S. administrations prevented them from reaching the House floor.
It was also not immediately clear just how the development will affect the implementation of the Turkish-Armenian agreements. Ankara warned before the vote that the genocide resolution would make their ratification by Turkey’s parliament even less likely.
In a separate statement issued earlier on Thursday, Nalbandian denounced his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu’s reported remark that the Turkish government could easily ensure the ratification if it wanted to. “Thus, Turkey is admitting that it has been artificially dragging out the ratification process,” he said. “This is a clear breach of our understandings.”