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Vivian Salama

USA/Middle East

Vivian Salama is an award winning reporter, producer and blogger. Currently based in Lahore, Pakistan, she has reported for various publications from across the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, the United States and North and South Korea. She has also appeared as a commentator on the BBC, France24, South African Broadcasting Corp., TVNZ, NPR and as a reporter for Voice of America radio. Her byline has appeared in numerous publications including Newsweek, USA Today, the International Herald Tribune, the National, Jerusalem Post, and the Daily Star. Salama has an MA in Islamic Politics from Columbia University and she previously worked as a lecturer of international journalism at Rutgers University. Close.

Vivian Salama

USA/Middle East

Vivian Salama is an award-winning reporter, producer and blogger. Currently based in Lahore, Pakistan, she has reported for various publications from across the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, the United States and North and South Korea. more »

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Right Intentions, Wrong Time

The decision by a United States congressional panel to recognize the genocide of Armenians in Turkey during World War I is a classic example of being in the right place at the wrong time.

A great number of experts worldwide have concluded that the atrocities that occurred between 1915 and 1923 resulted from the Ottoman Empire’s deliberate actions to exterminate this particular minority group, which represented both political and religious opposition to Ottoman rule. Acrimony between Turks and Armenians has stretched back over several centuries.

Historical accounts by Western researchers have revealed that Ottoman troops and paramilitaries killed tens of thousands of men, women and children and left hundreds of thousands more to die of starvation or exposure to harsh weather. The Turkish government maintains that these people were victims of civil war and unrest, adding that the many Muslim Turks died as well. Most scholars agree that the number of deaths is irrelevant; however numerous the victims, the Ottoman government sought to annihilate them people on the basis of their ethnicity.

What does that mean for Turkey? Technically speaking, the passing of this US legislation does not bind Turkey to take any legal action. Among Ankara's concerns is that recognition will empower the Armenian lobby to seek reparations. Turkey also worries – legitimately – that having genocide on its record will hurt its chances of European Union integration. Last year, the French government adopted a bill making it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide, emphasizing that Turkey must recognize the Armenian deaths as genocide before it enters the EU.

To recognize such atrocities is learn from them. The Turkish government of today is not the Ottoman regime of 100 years ago, and we must not confuse the two. Turks have a deep-rooted sense of nationalism and many Turkish analysts argue that the country will not bear the burden of a genocide in the way several other countries have done. (An example: Article 301 of Turkey's controversial penal code, which took effect on June 1, 2005, states: "A person who publicly denigrates Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years.")

The decision by the House to push for genocide recognition at this point in time is a bit perplexing. The Democrats took a contentious stand against an ally in the belief that what they were doing was right. It was an opportunity to reassert their majority status and undermine the Bush Administration’s foreign policy.

But can America afford to burn any more bridges in the region? Turkey has long served as a strategic ally to the United States. Despite refusing to allow U.S. forces to use their soil for staging the ground war that would topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, Turkey permits the use of Incirlik Air Base and roads. These privileges, according to U.S. Secretary of State Robert Gates, would "very much be put at risk" by recognizing the genocide. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey may retaliate by shutting the flow of material to Iraq and even Afghanistan. The country continues to amass troops on its border with Iraq and has said that it will take all necessary measures against Kurdish separatists, whom it suspects are hiding in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The escalating sectarian violence at Turkey's doorstep undoubtedly adds to EU concerns. While it is unlikely that the violence will spill across the Iraq-Turkey border, Kurdish involvement may bring this war too close for Europe’s comfort and further complicate the coalition struggle in Iraq. Turkey has thus far held back from getting directly involved, mainly due to U.S. persuasion. However, the Turkish government views the genocide resolution as a major slap in the face; given the tone emanating from Ankara these last few days, there is no telling what retaliatory measures they will take.

The ruling has been a long time coming, so it is certainly a battle won in the Armenian fight for justice. For the Turks, it is an added hurdle on the road to EU integration but a power card in their relationship with the United States. For America, it is just another setback in what has become a regional struggle.

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