A diplomatic rift between Turkey and the United States deepened on Friday after Ankara recalled its ambassador to Washington over a vote in the US Congress to label the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks an act of genocide.
The envoy’s recall came as the White House, which opposed the vote by the US House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, sought to mollify its Nato partner, which is a strategic staging post for US forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The House committee passed the genocide resolution on Wednesday despite Turkish warnings that such a move could seriously damage bilateral ties. The ambassador was ordered back on Thursday.
”It is natural that the ambassador should be recalled for consultations after such a decision was taken in Congress,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mahmut Bilman said.
”It is difficult to say when he [the ambassador] will return to Washington,” he added.
Ankara staunchly rejects the genocide tag for the 1915 to 1917 mass killings of Armenians and its furious reaction to the Congress vote has fuelled fears within President George Bush’s administration that it could lose access to a crucial military base in Turkey.
White House national security council spokesperson Gordon Johndroe said he looked forward to the ambassador’s ”quick return” and reiterated the administration’s opposition to the resolution ”because of the grave harm it could bring to the national security of the United States”.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the US House of Representatives, insisted that the resolution would go forward to a full House vote.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul denounced the House committee vote as ”unacceptable” and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned further action could be taken if the resolution is passed by the full House.
”We are going to continue our action before it [the text] goes before the full session,” said Erdogan. ”After that there are measures that we can take, but now is not the time to talk about them. We are evaluating these measures.”
A senior lawmaker from Erdogan’s ruling party has signalled that Turkey could consider barring the United States from the Incirlik military base — an important staging post for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At least 1,5-million Armenians were killed from 1915 to 1917 under an Ottoman Empire campaign of deportation and murder, according to Armenians.
Turkey acknowledges that 250 000 to 500 000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in a conflict after Armenians took up arms for independence.
The Bush administration said it would lobby the full Democratic-led House against taking the measure further.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates, during a visit to London, highlighted the possible threat to US supply lines into Iraq, with 70% of US air cargo, 30% of fuel shipments to US forces and 95% of new Mine Resistant Armoured Protected Vehicles (MRAPS) passing through Turkey.
France, Canada and the European Parliament are among those that have labelled the Armenian killings as genocide. French military planes are no longer allowed to fly over Turkish airspace.
George Harris, a former State Department expert on Turkey, said Ankara’s decision to recall its ambassador ”shows a certain amount of seriousness”.
But the Middle East Institute analyst added: ”There’s a lot of politicking going on. They have tied their hands a little bit by stirring up such a hornet’s nest in Turkish public opinion.”
Armenia strongly welcomed the US Congress vote while Turkey warned that the already tense relations could suffer more.
”Armenia will altogether lose [the prospect of] positive openings in the future,” Erdogan said.
Turkey refuses to establish diplomatic relations with its eastern neighbour because of its campaign for the international recognition of the massacre as genocide.
Turkey dealt a heavy economic blow to the impoverished ex-Communist nation in 1993 when it shut their common border in a show of solidarity with Azerbaijan, which was at war with Armenia over the territory of Nagorny-Karabakh. Turkey and Azerbaijan are close allies. — AFP