Alarm bells rang last week when Turkey recalled its ambassador from Washington for consultation after a US congressional committee passed a resolution declaring the Ottoman Turks committed genocide against the Armenians in 1915. Passage of the resolution by the full House of Representatives, slated to vote on the issue in the upcoming weeks, threatens US/Turkish relations.
On October 10 the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the resolution with a vote of 27-21 despite warnings from President George Bush. "One thing Congress should not be doing is sorting out the historical record of the Ottoman Empire," said Bush on October 17. In addition, eight former secretaries of state and three former defence secretaries sent joint letters to the Speaker of the House, Representative Nancy Pelosi, underlining the seriousness of putting the resolution to a full vote of the House.
While such a vote has appeared imminent, there is a glimmer of hope as cosponsors of the resolution have begun to withdraw their support in the past week. Additionally, other representatives have voiced their opposition.
"I think bringing this bill to the floor may be the most irresponsible thing I've seen this new Congress do this year," John Boehner, the Republican minority leader in the House told media on October 14. "Turkey is a very important ally in our war against the terrorists - in a very strategic location in the world. They've been a great ally of ours. They are very upset about this resolution and the speaker should not bring this issue to the floor."
Yet, the Bush administration has so far been unable to convince Pelosi to drop the controversial resolution.
Washington's efforts to deter Ankara from an assertive military response against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Northern Iraq have been significantly weakened, analysts said. On October 17 the Turkish parliament granted the green light for one year to allow Turkish military troops to conduct operations against PKK rebels located in northern Iraq. The initiative received massive support with 507 votes in favour and 19 against.
Ankara has blamed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for the deaths of 30,000 people since 1984.
As many as 20 Turkish soldiers have died in clashes with the PKK in the past two weeks alone. At the end of September, 12 civilians, including seven members of the village guard, were killed after being ordered off a minibus near the Iraqi border in southeast Turkey.
"Our patience has run out after the latest attacks. It will be a priority item once it is sent to parliament," said Nihat Ergun, a deputy parliamentary group chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Turkey has said US-led forces in Iraq are failing to control PKK militants hiding in the relatively calm northern part of the country. "Washington can't expect Turkey to stand by and watch such attacks continue. We can't live off American lip service and empathy without more concerted action. The time has come to seize the bull by the horns and tackle the PKK full-on next door," said one hawkish political analyst.
The White House has meanwhile warned domestic proponents of the resolution of collateral damage to its efforts in Iraq should the Turkish army face off with the Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq as it attempts to flush out the PKK. The resolution also risks destabilising the wider region, while severely limiting the possibility of political reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey. Losing Turkey - a key ally in the region that enjoys close ties with Israel and strong links to other states in the Middle East - could spark further turmoil in the Middle East and jeopardise US interests in the region.
The US shot itself in the foot, according to Turkey's military chief, General Yasar Buyukanit. One local political analyst extended the analogy, saying the move is closer to blowing off an appendage and maiming US efforts - no matter how futile - in bringing stability to the region.
The Turkish government wants to see action with measurable results - that the resolution be dropped altogether. That the US administration is unable to block Pelosi from taking the vote to the House does not change Turkey's position on the matter. Prime Minister Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul have not minced words over the risk in passing the resolution, with Buyukanit grimly warning that military relations with the US would never be the same should the full US House of Representatives pass the resolution.
Little reminder that Turkey suspended military ties after the lower house of the French National Assembly passed legislation in October 2006 that would make it an offence to deny that Ottoman Turks committed genocide against the Armenians. Talks with Gaz de France over the proposed 4.6bn euro Nabucco pipeline that would bring gas from the Caucasus through Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to Western Europe, were also suspended in protest.
The stakes are that much higher for the US given its involvement in Iraq and its significant geopolitical interests in the Middle East. That the US air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey could be closed to the US military for operations in Iraq is a possibility. As much as 70% of US air cargo destined for Iraq goes through Turkey, as does roughly one-third of the fuel used by the US military in Iraq, according to US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. Apart from closing air space to American aircraft and suspending joint military exercises, the Turks could also exclude US companies from military procurement programmes. Serious measures to be sure for two NATO allies, but ones that reflect the gravity of the affront.
Last week Erdogan said Turkey was prepared to face international criticism if the military were to launch a cross-border offensive against the PKK in northern Iraq. Yet he is in the unenviable position of having to respond assertively to the PKK attacks - in so doing appeasing members of the opposition and military - while averting a complete breakdown in relations with the US. Erdogan said on Tuesday, before the vote in parliament, "I sincerely wish that this motion will never be applied. Passage of this motion does not mean an immediate incursion will follow."