Robert Fisk: Will Obama honour pledge on genocide of Armenians?

World Focus

Share
Related Topics

It's all supposed to be about campaign promises. Didn't Barack Obama promise to deliver an address from a "Muslim capital" in his first 100 days? It's got to be in a safe, moderate country, of course, but where better than Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secular/Islamist nation of Turkey, whose rulers talk to Syria as well as Israel, Iran as well as Iraq? But when the Obama cavalcade turned up in the heart of the old Ottoman Empire last night, he and all his panjandrums were praying that he did not have to use the "G" word.

The "G" word? Well, if it doesn't trip him up in Turkey today, Mr Obama is going to have to walk into a far worse minefield on 24 April when he has to honour another campaign promise: to call the 1915 massacre of 1,500,000 Armenian Christians by Ottoman Turkey a "genocide". Presidents Clinton and Bush jnr made the same pledge in return for Armenian votes, then broke their solemn promise when Turkish generals threatened to cut access to their airbases and major US-Turkish business deals after they were in office.

This is no mere academic backwater into which Mr Obama must step but a dangerous confrontation with the truth of history, an explosive swamp of bones and old photographs – along with a few still-living survivors – through which he must either walk with dignity or retreat with shame; and the entire Middle East will be watching the results. For the Palestinians – most of whom, ironically, are Sunni Muslims, the same religion as the Ottoman Turkish murderers – it is a crucial issue. For if Mr Obama cannot risk offending America's Turkish allies about a 94-year-old persecution, what chance is there that he will risk offending America's even more powerful ally, Israel, by condemning the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the ever-growing illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the constant destruction by Israel of Palestinian homes that prevent the creation of a Palestinian state?

Starting on 24 April 1915, Enver Pasha's Turkish army and militias rounded up almost the entire Armenian community, massacred hundreds of thousands of men and sent vast death marches of women and children into the deserts of Anatolia and what is now northern Syria. Expert historians, including Israel's own top genocide academic, insist that the shooting-pits, the organised throat-cutting, the mass rapes and kidnappings – even the use of primitive suffocation chambers – all constituted a systematic genocide.

And it is important to record exactly what Mr Obama said on his campaign website in January 2008. "The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president." Which pretty much locks up any attempt to wriggle out of the promise. Or so you would think.

But already the administration's soft shoes have been trying to finesse away the pledge. "At this moment," Mike Hammer, a White House National Security Council spokesman, said last month, "our focus is on how, moving forward, the US can help Turkey and Armenia work together to come to terms with the past". That Mr Obama should allow such a statement to be made, along with the usual weasel clichés about "moving forward" and "coming to terms", speaks volumes.

Neither the Palestinians nor the Arabs in general have tried to – or should – compare the 1915 slaughter with Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, but there are some faint historical mirrors which rightly worry them. The Turks allege that they began killing Armenians in the city of Van because Armenian insurgents, backed by a regional superpower, in this case, Tsarist Russia, attacked the Turks of eastern Anatolia. Israel claims it bombarded Gaza last December and January because Palestinian "terrorists", backed by a regional superpower – Iran – fired rockets at Israelis.

The political parallels are not exact, of course, but Israel can in any case scarcely debate them when it officially refuses to acknowledge the Armenian genocide in the first place.

But for Mr Obama, there are more pressing points. US and Turkish officials are already discussing how Ankara can help in a US military withdrawal from Iraq, and Mr Obama desperately wants Turkey to help open up the Muslim world to his government to staunch the massive wounds the Bush administration inflicted.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, 5 July 2015  

George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s  

Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

James Cusick James Cusick
Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high