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US genocide vote angers Turks; ambassador recalled

Every year around this time attempts are made in Washington to recognize the mass killings of Armenians during and after WWI by forces of the Ottoman Empire as genocide. And every year around this time Turks get a little edgy, throwing aside previous disagreements and doing their best to defend themselves against the dark stain of the g-word.

Until now, it’s worked. But yesterday a new chapter was added to this perennial friction. The Democrat-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the resolution, which calls on President Obama to “characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide.”

Here in Turkey, the vote was followed as closely as any football match — and that’s saying a lot. It was a close game, but in the end the Turkish lobby was defeated in a vote of 23-22.

The reaction was immediate, with the Turkish ambassador recalled from Washington. Then the threats began, with statements by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu arguing that the vote will damage ties with the Obama administration and torpedo reconciliation efforts between Turkey and Armenia.

Last October, Turkey and Armenia began the first diplomatic attempt to normalize relations with a series of agreements. But, because of domestic and regional pressures, neither Ankara nor Yerevan has ratified the accords, leaving Turkey once again exposed on the issue.

The vote clears the resolution for consideration by the full House but — given the close committee vote and pressure from Turkey and the Obama government — it is unclear whether the measure will reach a floor vote.

“We do not believe that the full Congress will or should vote on that resolution and we have made that clear to all the parties involved,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters at a conference in Costa Rica yesterday. Genocide resolutions passed the House Foreign Affairs committee in 2000, 2005 and 2007, but none have yet made it to the House floor.

So what does the US have to lose? Potentially, a lot. The alienation of Turkey could negatively impact the interests of the United States in several international issues like the nuclear crisis with Iran and the stability of Caucasian energy routes. The loss of Turkey’s logistical support for US operations in Iraq (and to a lesser degree Afghanistan) would also be a major blow.

For the small Armenian community left in Turkey, the vote left them more concerned than celebratory, uneasy about what the U.S. Congress’ decision could do to ongoing efforts to create normal diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia.

"We live with Turks, and Turkey is changing for the first time in 100 years," said Etyen Mahcupyan, editor in chief of Agos, a bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "Of course 1915 is hugely important to us, but not what the U.S. Congress calls it."