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Turkey's Delay Tactics in Opening the Border with Armenia

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While some people are dismissing Pres. Obama's solemn campaign pledge to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, Turkish leaders have taken the president's promise very seriously.

Ankara has dispatched to Washington several high-level delegations, both before and after Obama's inauguration, with the express purpose of lobbying key decision-makers in the White House and Congress on this issue.

The Turkish scheme to induce Pres. Obama not to acknowledge the Genocide, however, was dealt a serious blow after the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Erdogan harshly criticized Israel's invasion of Gaza and angrily confronted Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos. Incensed by Erdogan's words, Israeli and American-Jewish leaders told visiting Turkish dignitaries that they would no longer oppose the pending congressional resolution on the Armenian Genocide.

As April 24, the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, gets closer, Turkish leaders have accelerated their two-pronged campaign, trying to block the congressional resolution as well as Pres. Obama's anticipated statement on the Armenian issue. Beyond Turkey's persistent efforts in Washington through its Ambassador, lobbying firms, and parliamentary delegations, Turkish leaders also pressured American officials passing through Ankara in recent weeks, such as U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

After returning home from their lobbying junkets, Turkish officials said they were repeatedly told in Washington that unless Turkey opens the border with Armenia promptly, there is a good chance that Pres. Obama would use the term genocide in his April 24 statement. This may be the reason why Turkey's Foreign Minister Ali Babajan admitted last week that there is a "risk" the American President would acknowledge the Armenian Genocide next month.

Why is Turkey then seemingly going against its interests by continuing to keep the border with Armenia closed and risking the U.S. president's acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide?

In my view, highly experienced Turkish diplomats are playing a sophisticated game of delay tactics to gain maximum benefit from the eventual opening of the border with Armenia.

The Turkish game plan is to block or dilute Pres. Obama's April 24 statement, either without opening the border at all or by delaying the opening as much as possible. Turkish officials create the impression that relations between Armenia and Turkey are steadily improving, as demonstrated by "secret" meetings which are then leaked to the press as well as publicized high-level meetings. Such encounters, including "football diplomacy," have scored public relations points for Turkey and given credibility to its claim that relations are indeed improving.

The Turks have several reasons for preferring to give the impression that they are about to open the border, without actually doing so.

First, any conciliatory move towards Armenia would damage Turkey's relations with Azerbaijan. Turkish officials have tried to manage this problem by making the return of Artsakh (Karabagh) to Azerbaijan a pre-condition for opening the border. Since the Armenian side appears to have rejected this proposal, Ankara has been forced to abandon any direct linkage between the border opening and the Artsakh conflict.

Second, by constantly repeating that they are engaged in "delicate negotiations" with Armenia, Turkish officials have sought to prevent other countries, particularly the United States, from acknowledging the Armenian Genocide, even though these two issues are completely unrelated.

Third, Turkish officials realize that opening the border promptly would not be in their best interest. The more they drag the negotiations, the more concessions they hope to secure from Armenia -- a time-honored Turkish diplomatic practice!

Fourth, by delaying the border opening, Turkey also gains more time to negotiate with the Obama administration and reach a favorable understanding on both the congressional resolution and the President's April 24 statement.

Fifth, another important reason why Prime Minister Erdogan and his ruling party are using delaying tactics is that any deal with Armenia before the March 29th crucial local Turkish elections would harm their standing in the polls.

Sixth, Turkish officials would probably wait until the first week of April, when Pres. Obama is expected to visit their country, to discuss directly with him the linkage between the border issue and granting transit rights to U.S. troops leaving Iraq, sending additional Turkish soldiers to Afghanistan, as well as blocking U.S. acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide.

Even though Armenian-Americans can neither match Turkey's vast resources nor its powerful clout in Washington, they are naturally very concerned about these Turkish ploys and are hard at work to ensure that Pres. Obama carries out his campaign promise on the Armenian Genocide.

Despite reports from reliable sources that Armenia and Turkey will be signing an agreement when Foreign Minister Ali Babajan visits Yerevan on April 16, one would hope that Armenian officials would delay signing any document with Ankara just before April 24. Otherwise, the Armenian leadership would not only desecrate the memory of the Armenian martyrs, but would also provide the perfect excuse to the Obama administration not to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide in April. After waiting for the opening of the border for 16 years, Armenia could well afford to wait a few more days!