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Why Won’t the United States Recognize the “Armenian Genocide”? Blame Geopolitics

Image via NBC News

Both the United States and Israel refuse to say the words “Armenian Genocide.” Is this because they doubt whether the killings constitute a “genocide” or because of deference to Turkey, a crucial ally in the Middle East?

Last month, on the 24th of April, Armenians around the globe commemorated the tragedy faced by their ancestors almost 100 years ago in 1915. There was public outcry because President Donald Trump did not use the word ‘genocide’ in his statement on that day. He mentioned the atrocities that occurred and stated that it was a “dark chapter of human history” but nowhere is the mention of the term ‘genocide’. This should come as no surprise; former President Barack Obama similarly failed to utter the word for the entire eight years of his presidency, even though he promised he would while running for office.

The explanation for this is simple: Turkey is a key ally for the United States in the Middle East, and Turkey’s cooperation is crucial for American operations in Syria from the Incirlik U.S. Air Force Base located near the Syrian Border.

Another country that astonishingly does not recognize the events of 1915 as a genocide is Israel. This is rather ironic given that there are few other peoples who can empathize more with the horrors of ethnic cleansing than the Jewish people. This is because Israel prioritizes military ties with Turkey and economic ties with Azerbaijan over the recognition of these terrible events. Turkey is a key military ally in the region, while Azerbaijan and Armenia have been in conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region since 1988. Israel imports 40% of its oil from Azerbaijan in exchange for weapons and defense systems.

Currently 23 countries officially recognize the genocide including Germany, France, Russia, Uruguay, Canada, Greece and Brazil, each of them inciting furious responses from Turkey such as undoing military ties or repealing ambassadors. In 2015, Pope Francis termed the incidents “the first genocide of the 20th Century” to the ire of the Turkish government who subsequently recalled its ambassador from the Vatican. With such strong reactions to these recognitions of the genocide, it begs the question of why Turkey denies the genocide so strongly? What is the Turkish side of the story?

The Turkish version of events is that the situation was much more complex than it is portrayed due to a powerful Armenian lobby. It says that the arrests made on Armenian intellectuals on the 24th of April 1915, for which the Remembrance Day occurs, were in response to the actions of the Dashniaks and Hunkchakians, Armenian socialist political parties which led “40 uprisings over a period of 20 years.” The arrests were thus made in response to a terrorist threat to the Ottoman government and not to cleanse an ethnic group.

A manifesto written by the First Armenian Prime Minister, Hovannes Katchzoui, seems to give credence to these claims as he basically says that “the struggle begun decades ago against the Turkish government brought about the deportation or extermination of the Armenian people in Turkey and the desolation of Turkish Armenia.” The manifesto has been dismissed by some as a biased translation of the Prime Minister’s original statement by the deniers.

As for the killings of innocent women and children, Turkey and the deniers claim that those were war crimes and were neither planned nor sanctioned by the state.

President Erdogan has repeatedly called for a joint historical commission into events surrounding the killings which has been denied by Armenian authorities. He has called for this to stop being a political issue and let historians objectively decide whether it was a genocide or not. The fact that Armenian authorities have denied this could reflect the lack of confidence in their claim.

But if the discussion is about objective historical inquiry then it should be noted that the International Association of Genocide Scholars, The Institute on Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem and the Institute for the study of Genocide in New York all concur that the events did constitute a genocide. The death toll has also been disputed with the Armenian side claiming 1.5 million lives deaths, while the Turkish side claims the total as closer to 300,000. The International Association of Genocide Scholars has said that the death toll was “more than a million.” The overall weight of historical academic opinion favors the Armenian tally. 

The biggest blow to deniers came last month when Taner Atckam, a Turkish Historian at the University of Worchester uncovered new evidence of state complicity in the killings as reported in an article by The New York Times. Among the evidence was a telegram sent by a high-ranking Ottoman official inquiring about the killings and deportations of Armenians in Eastern Anatolia, the Eastern part of the Ottoman empire.

It looks like President Erdogan is getting the objective historical inquiry he wanted after all. Turkey’s days of denial look as though they are becoming increasingly numbered, but will the United States and Israel respond, in turn, by using the word genocide? 

Pranav Prakash is a student at Rutgers University. 

Pranav Prakash is a student at Rutgers University and writes about international relations.

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