Turkey’s lobbying power in Washington diminished

The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently passed a resolution commemorating the “Armenian genocide,” clearing the way for the resolution to be voted on in the Senate, a sign of Turkey’s diminished lobbying power in the US capital.

A senior diplomat and expert on Turkish-American relations told Sunday’s Zaman that, if the resolution comes to the Senate floor, it will be adopted, “without a doubt.”

“Turkey has no weight in Washington. Not anymore,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be named. The diplomat also added that only five Republican Party members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations had voted against the resolution. Of the 18-member committee, 12 voted for the resolution and one abstained during the voting on April 10. The resolution had been introduced to the committee by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez from New Jersey one week before its adoption.

There was no Turkish ambassador present at the embassy building in Washington at the time the resolution was accepted onto the agenda of the Committee on Foreign Relations. Ambassador Serdar Kılıç had been appointed to the post by the Turkish Foreign Ministry back in January, replacing the seasoned diplomat Namık Tan. Kılıç arrived in Washington, D.C., about the time the resolution passed in the committee. Ambassador Tan had already left three weeks before Kılıç’s arrival. Kılıç reportedly came to Washington once, years ago, as a diplomatic courier. However, he still needs to present his credentials to US President Barack Obama before he starts working in Washington officially.

With the support of Armenian lobby groups in the US, numerous “Armenian genocide” resolutions have been introduced to the committees of both chambers of the US Congress over the years. In the majority of cases, Turkish lobby groups in the US capital have been able to defend Turkey’s policies, and the resolutions have not reached the US House or Senate floor.

It will be the decision of Senate majority leader Harry Reid to take the resolution onto the Senate’s agenda. In the past the US administration had interfered at the last minute by sending a letter from the White House and the US State Department to members of Congress and senators saying that passing a resolution recognizing the “Armenian genocide” would damage the Turkish-US relationship and harm US interests in the region.

According to sources who spoke to Sunday’s Zaman, the expectation on both the Turkish and American sides is that the resolution will not be brought to the Senate floor, as Turkey is still too important for American interests. But this time the US administration has not spoken up on the issue, at least publicly. The reason behind this is recent developments in Turkey, such as limited access to social media, press freedoms and freedom of expression, a tighter grip on the judicial system and certainly the issue of threatening to expel the US ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, over accusations of the US being behind a “foreign plot” against the country following a graft probe that implicated some members of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) at the end of last year.

Another expert who follows Turkish-American relations closely agreed that Turkey has lost its weight in Washington. Talking to Sunday’s Zaman, the expert, who wished to remain anonymous, pointed out that the resolution in the Senate committee had passed rather quickly when compared with past Armenian resolutions. Secondly, the expert emphasized the Turkish government’s relatively muted reaction to the resolution, with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu saying he did not think Obama would allow such a resolution to harm Turkish-American relations.

The resolution was not on the US Senate’s agenda on the last working day before the Easter recess, on Friday. The Senate will reconvene on April 28. Turks will focus on the statement to come from President Obama on April 24 to see whether he will use the “g-word.” Obama has so far refrained from describing the events of 1915 as genocide.

“It would be a mistake to think that after April 24 there is no risk of this resolution coming to the Senate floor,” the same expert warned. This runs contrary to Turkish reports suggesting that the resolution will not be an issue when the Senate reconvenes after the Easter recess on April 28.

Senator Reid is one of the co-sponsors of the resolution, and he seems inclined to bring it to the floor, according to the expert.

The resolution (H. Res. 410) is “expressing the sense” of the Senate on April 24, the day on which Armenians remember the events they describe as genocide. Ankara denies claims that the 1915 events amount to genocide, arguing that both Turks and Armenians were killed when Armenians revolted against the Ottoman Empire during World War I in collaboration with the Russian army, which was then invading Eastern Anatolia.

The resolution calls on the Senate “to remember and observe the anniversary of the Armenian genocide on April 24, 2014” and says the US president “should work toward an equitable, constructive, stable, and durable Armenian-Turkish relationship that includes the full acknowledgement by Turkey of the facts about the Armenian genocide.”

‘Transactional relations’

The expert on Turkish-American relations said the US describes its relationship with Turkey as “transactional relations” at this time, which could be interpreted as meaning, “We will talk about our needs, but when something that is not in line with universal values happens in Turkey, we will express our opinions about it.”

Ali Babacan, deputy prime minister responsible for economy, was in Washington recently to attend the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) annual spring meetings. The expert said Babacan had probably had a good chance to assess how the US administration views Turkey at this point, referring to Turkey’s limits on press freedoms and bans on social media.

According to this expert, the transactional relations with Turkey include three important aspects for Washington: improving Turkey’s relations with Israel, reaching a solution for the long-divided island of Cyprus, with the incentive of the natural gas that was found in the region last year, and lastly the Syrian war.

After a Gaza-bound aid flotilla was attacked by Israeli forces in March 2010, killing eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American, Turkey downgraded its diplomatic ties with Israel, with the Israeli ambassador being expelled from Ankara in September 2011 after Israel refused to apologize for the killings.

Israel formally apologized in 2013 for what it called “operational mistakes” that might have led to the deaths of the victims. Turkey has asked for three things from Israel in connection with the incident: an apology, compensation for the victims’ families and the lifting of the Gaza blockade. Turkey and Israel are currently negotiating a compensation deal, but an agreement has not yet been forthcoming.

In Cyprus, the US is pushing for a comprehensive solution. The leaders of Turkish and Greek Cyprus met in Nicosia in early February and resumed peace talks with the aim of reunifying the island.

Experts say that one of the most important incentives for restarting the Cyprus negotiations is the natural gas in the area and the billions of dollars that a gas deal would bring to those involved in possible pipeline projects. The US administration backs an energy partnership between Israel, Cyprus and Turkey to allow their mutual energy dependency to help restore and maintain peace in the east Mediterranean.

Relations with war-torn Syria are also a matter of concern for Washington, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying Turkey is in a state of war with Syria. Foreign Minister Davutoglu later clarified the statement from Erdogan, noting that the situation in Syria is an extremely serious matter to which Turkey must pay close attention.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and fled from the country. Turkey’s borders have been violated many times. … Turkey shot down a Syrian military jet three weeks ago. That is why this is an extremely serious matter that needs to be followed by Turkey. This is what our prime minister means,” Davutoglu said on April 3.