Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s stance on Turkey disappointing - analysis

U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, who has positioned herself as a critic of imperialism, an opponent of tyranny and a defender of the oppressed, has disappointed many by her recent stance on Turkey, the Kurds, and the Armenian genocide, said academic Djene Bajalan and journalist Michael Brooks in Jacobin magazine. 

On Tuesday, Omar was the only Democrat to vote against sanctioning Turkey over Ankara’s military offensive against Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria and was one of the only members of the U.S. House of Representatives who refrained from voting to recognise the Armenian Genocide. 

The Congresswoman linked calls for sanctions against Turkey to the United States’ indiscriminate and wide-ranging measures against countries such as Venezuela and Iran in an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Oct. 23. 

“Research has shown that sanctions rarely achieve their desired goals,” she said, adding that sanctions in the worst-case scenario hurt the people of a country without making a dent in the country’s behaviour.

This criticism might be legitimate in general, but the sanctions proposed for Turkey were not the kind of blanket punishment that have caused so much suffering in Iran or Venezuela, Bajalan and Brooks said. Instead, sanctions on Turkey targeted Turkey’s defence industry and political leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

By voting against the sanctions bill, Omar “showed solidarity not with those being murdered by Turkish forces in northern Syria but with Erdoğan and the fifteen Republicans who voted against the resolution,” the authors said referring to Turkey’s nine-day military incursion into Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria that was launched on Oct. 9. 

“If Omar has been disappointing on sanctions, perhaps the biggest self-inflected blow has been on a symbolic issue: the recognition of the Armenian genocide,” the authors said. 

Omar, who was widely criticised across the political spectrum after Tuesday’s votes, said in a statement on Wednesday that recognition of genocide should not be used as cudgel in a political fight.

“It should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics. A true acknowledgement of historical crimes against humanity must include both the heinous genocides of the 20th century, along with earlier mass slaughters like the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide, which took the lives of hundreds of millions of indigenous people in this country,” she said.

“This statement is troubling on numerous levels. First, Omar might balk at the use of genocide recognition as a ‘cudgel’,” Bajalan and Brooks said. “However, given Turkey’s ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing and brutalisation of the Kurds it is precisely the moment for such recognition.”

“Second, it seems naive at best to believe that the debate on the Armenian genocide can be decoupled from politics, especially given the social and political taboo in Turkey against discussing the massacre,” the authors said. Bajalan and Brooks said that there was no serious debate about whether the Armenian genocide had taken place and Omar’s objections on academic consensus echoed Turkish talking points.

"Finally, Omar’s demand that no recognition of the Armenian genocide take place until other historical crimes are acknowledged is a case of what-aboutism — one that is especially jarring because it comes from the mouth of such a committed advocate of solidarity and human rights,” the authors said.