House Democrats will bring to the floor on Tuesday a long-stalled and controversial resolution that could further inflame already tense U.S.-Turkey relations. Top Democrats say that is exactly the point.
"I think some of us are a little bit annoyed with Turkey, and we want them to know how much annoyed we are," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., told NPR last week.
Engel said he believes the resolution — which has existed in some form for decades but has never been brought to the House floor — will pass. "Obviously, I believe we will, or we wouldn't put it out," Engel said. The resolution is part of a pair of actions — the other is a bipartisan economics sanctions bill — aimed at rebuking Turkey for its military incursion into Syria, among other recent transgressions.
One of the lead co-sponsors of the four-page resolution is House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who represents one of the largest concentrations of Armenian Americans in the United States. The resolution also enjoys support from many House Republicans, including Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Florida and Rep. Peter King of New York, both co-sponsors.
"It's an extremely contentious historical issue," said Lisel Hintz, a Johns Hopkins University professor who studies Turkish politics and international relations. "For the U.S. to take a position on it, I think for frankly any country to take a position on it — from the Turkish perspective — is meddling in the international affairs of that country's sovereignty."
According to the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, 49 states have already recognized that an estimated 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923 were systematically killed in the Ottoman Empire, which is now modern-day Turkey.
The resolution is a victory for Armenian Americans and their allies, who have long unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to recognize it. "We urge all members to support this bipartisan human rights legislation and ensure that the days of genocide denial are over and that America's proud chapter in helping the survivors of the first genocide of the 20th century is honored and preserved," said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.
In recent decades, the U.S. government has been coy about efforts to formally recognize those events out of fears of inflaming relations with Turkey, where the government denies that a genocide occurred. The Turkish government has traditionally deployed intense and effective lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill to discourage Congress from passing the resolution.
"I came here 23 years ago. One of the things I thought was morally incumbent upon Congress was to recognize the first genocide of the 20th century, the Armenian genocide," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., at an Oct. 23 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. "We were told: 'But Turkey is a great ally of the United States. Don't put that at risk.' How's that working out for us?"
U.S. lawmakers' attitudes toward Turkey have been degrading for years, most recently over Turkey carrying out military attacks against Syrian Kurdish forces that are allies of the U.S. fight against ISIS. "There's an extremely high level of tension right now, which means particularly within the U.S. Congress right now, there is an almost unified sentiment against Turkey," said Hintz, adding that passage of the resolution will likely ratchet up tensions even further.
However, Hintz said the resolution could have unintended consequences, including bolstering Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political strength back home. "It would be absolutely perfect timing for him," Hintz said. "I think a recognition of the genocide resolution, what that's going to do is unite the opposition, and the opposition is the only chance you have of defeating Erdogan."
There is a bipartisan Senate resolution by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, recognizing the Armenian genocide as well. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Cory Gardner of Colorado are among the co-sponsors. All four senators are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. However, the Senate plays a more direct role in shaping foreign policy and tends to take a less reactionary stance on such issues. There is no current plan to bring the resolution up for a Senate vote.
The Trump administration has not yet weighed in on the House resolution. In recent decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations have generally tried to avoid the Armenian genocide debate. Turkey is a NATO member, stores many U.S. nuclear weapons and is a strategic military ally in regards to U.S. policy in the Middle East.
For example, President Obama declined to use the term "genocide," which some of his top administration officials later said was a mistake. "I'm sorry that we disappointed so many Armenian Americans," Samantha Power, Obama's U.N. ambassador, told the Pod Save the World podcast last year.