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Was 1915 Massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks Genocide?

A U.S. congressional panel has described as genocide the 1915 killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.

The non-binding resolution in the House Foreign Affairs Committee recommends that President Barak Obama recognize the 1915 killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide. The measure was passed by a narrow 23 to 22 vote with one member not participating.

The Obama administration opposed the resolution. After the measure passed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. does not believe the full House of Representatives will or should vote on the resolution.

Turkey's reaction was swift. Ankara said the measure accused the Turkish nation of a crime it had not committed. Its ambassador to Washington Namik Tan was recalled for consultations. And Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated he might not attend a mid-April nuclear energy summit in Washington hosted by President Obama.

Historians agree Armenians were massacred by the Ottoman Empire - what was to become Turkey - during World War I. But not all agree that it was genocide.


Ronald Suny, an expert on Armenia with the University of Chicago, defines genocide. "The definition of genocide that is most often used is the official U.N. definition in the Genocide Convention of the late 1940s. And that definition argues that a genocide is the intentional killing of all or part of a designated people defined by their faith, their race, their ethnicity or their nationality," he said.

Suny explains that during the First World War, the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and was thus at war with Russia and most of Europe. "When the Ottomans were defeated at a major battle in the winter of 1914-15, the government saw the Armenians, who were on both sides of the Russian-Turkish frontier, as a potential 'fifth column' - a danger, an internal danger to their empire," he said.

"And they then carried out systematically, deportations of Armenians from eastern Anatolia, first demobilizing the Armenian soldiers who were serving with the Ottoman army, forcing them to dig their graves and shooting them. And then women and children, deporting them into the deserts of Syria, massacring them along the way and ultimately killing thousands and thousands when they reached Dayr az Zawr, the end point in the Syrian desert," he added.

Suny says the case is clear - the action by the Ottoman Turks was genocide. "There is no doubt that there was, in fact, a state organized, systematic deportation and massacre of a designated population, defined by their religion and ethnicity, namely the Armenians," he said.

"And that it was carried out, initiated and organized by this government. So if you have a mass killing of an ethno-religious group, carried out by a government in order to eliminate those people from their homeland, or to destroy their political and cultural potential - that is, by the conventional definition and most scholarly definitions, a genocide," he continued.

Not genocide

The majority of scholars and historians agree with Ronald Suny. But Guenter Lewy from the University of Massachusetts does not.

"There is the initial definition by the United Nations when they adopted the genocide convention, which is considered generally authoritative. And that involves the intentional destruction of a group in whole or in part for religious, ethnic or racial reasons. Applying that definition, I do not think one can consider what happened here a case of genocide. I don't think there was any intent to exterminate the Armenian community. There was an intent to remove them and neutralize them as a fifth column," he said.

Lewy says rejecting the genocide label is not a popular view. "It takes some courage these days to do so because there is a lot of pressure and some rather vicious attacks. I can speak here from personal experience. If you look me up on Guenter Lewy, Armenian genocide and you look at some of the blogs, you will find a lot of vituperation: you are called a genocide denier on a par with holocaust deniers," he said.

Experts also disagree on the number of Armenians killed by the Ottoman Turks. Guenter Lewy says close to 700,000 perished.

But most scholars - such as Roger Smith with the College of William and Mary - say the figure is higher. "Out of about two million Armenians that were thought to exist in 1915, probably about a million and a half - at least over a million - perished and others were dispersed. So that if you say in 1915 there were two million Armenians in what we call Turkey, but the Ottoman Empire - there are now about 60,000 Armenians in Turkey. So a huge, vast population change," he said.

The issue of the Armenian genocide remains a very emotional one for both sides. Experts say for any chance of normal relations between Turkey and Armenia in the future, Ankara and Yerevan must first resolve a very painful chapter in their past.