WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Friday sought to limit fallout from a resolution branding the World War One-era massacre of Armenians by Turkish forces as “genocide,” and vowed to stop it from going further in Congress.
Turkey was infuriated and recalled its ambassador after a House of Representatives committee on Thursday approved the nonbinding measure condemning killings that took place nearly 100 years ago, in the last days of the Ottoman Empire.
A Democratic leadership aide told Reuters there were no plans “at this point” to schedule a vote of the full House on the measure, and a State Department official said this was the administration’s understanding as well.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, facing questions about the issue while traveling in Latin America, declared Congress should drop the matter now.
“The Obama administration strongly opposes the resolution that was passed by only one vote in the House committee and will work very hard to make sure it does not go to the House floor,” she said in Guatemala City.
The resolution squeaked through the House Foreign Affairs Committee 23-22 on Thursday despite a last-minute appeal against it from the Obama administration, which feared damage to ties with Turkey. The NATO ally is crucial to U.S. interests in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
The issue puts President Barack Obama between Turkey, a secular Muslim democracy that looks toward the West, and Armenian-Americans, an important constituency in some states like California and New Jersey, ahead of the November congressional elections.
Similar resolutions have been introduced in past sessions of Congress, but never passed both the House and the Senate. In 2007, the same House committee passed such a resolution but it never came up on the floor after then-President George W. Bush weighed in strongly against it.
After the committee’s vote on Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan warned of possible damage to ties with the United States.
On Friday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said chances of Turkey’s parliament ratifying peace protocols with Christian Armenia were jeopardized by the vote on the 1915 massacres.
One U.S. analyst said the normalization accords were mired even before the U.S. resolution upset Turkey.
“The protocols were already in trouble and ... what happened yesterday makes much life much more difficult,” said Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official.
Muslim Turkey accepts that many Christian Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks but denies that up to 1.5 million died and that it amounted to genocide — a term employed by many Western historians and some foreign parliaments.
The U.S. envoy in Ankara, James Jeffrey, distanced the Obama administration from the resolution after being invited for talks by Turkish officials. “We believe that Congress should not make a decision on the issue,” he said.
There was also anger in Baku, Azerbaijan, a close Muslim and Turkic-speaking ally of Turkey. Its parliament warned that the U.S. resolution could “reduce to zero all previous efforts” to resolve a long-standing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Kenneth Hachikian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America, said supporters would gather next week to do a “whip count” of House backers of the genocide resolution.
The resolution has 137 co-sponsors in the House, which is one measure of support and not close to the majority of 217 needed to pass. Advocates need to show they have enough votes to pass the measure for it to be brought to the House floor, Democratic congressional aides said.
The resolution urges Obama to use the term “genocide” when he delivers his annual message on the Armenian massacres in April. He avoided using the term last year although as a presidential candidate he said the killings were genocide.
Ronald Reagan was the only U.S. president to publicly call the killings genocide.
Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn, editing by Matt Spetalnick and Vicki Allen