By Joshua Kucera
The United States is stepping up its role in brokering reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey, aiming to reinvigorate the stalled process. The impending debate over a US Congressional resolution to formally recognize the Armenian genocide, however, is shaping up as a wild card in the delicate process.
Last October, at a ceremony in Switzerland, Armenia and Turkey signed protocols to pave the way for the establishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of the border between the two countries.
Since then, the two sides have argued over the ratification of the protocols by the two countries’ respective parliaments.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played an unprecedented role in the signing of the protocols, personally mediating between the two parties to help resolve a last-minute dispute.
On February 4, Clinton’s deputy, James Steinberg, went to Yerevan to meet with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. The reconciliation process topped his agenda of discussion points. The next day, Steinberg met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at a security conference in Munich to discuss the same issue. “I very much hope that both Armenia and Turkey will move forward. I don’t think delay is in anybody’s interests,” Steinberg said in Yerevan.
Some political observers believe that heavy US involvement is needed to break the current logjam. “The US role has been indispensable in this process. If the United States doesn’t continually encourage the parties, the likelihood of ratification is greatly diminished,” said David Phillips, former chair of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission and director of the Program on Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding at American University. Phillips added that the United States had to go with “a full-court press that needs to engage both Hillary Clinton and President [Barack] Obama, if we’re going to be able to seal the deal.”
A complicating factor will be the upcoming debate over the perennial Congressional resolution on the Armenian genocide. Resolutions recognizing the genocide are regularly brought up by legislators from heavily Armenian-American districts, though the resolutions have always failed, usually because of concerns that passage would alienate Turkey, a close US ally.
The newest version of the resolution was introduced last year, but no action has yet been taken on it. In early February, Rep. Howard Berman, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, announced that he will bring the resolution up for debate on March 4.
The move appears to be an attempt to spur Turkey to action on the protocols. The belief among some in Washington is that Turkey will want to appear helpful – and thus will ratify the protocols – in order to convince members of Congress that Ankara is a valuable ally, said Emil Sanamyan, the Washington-based editor of the newspaper Armenian Reporter.
“Since it [the resolution] was introduced there was no progress at all, because I think the Obama administration asked the Congressional leadership, Nancy Pelosi and Howard Berman, not to touch the resolution while there was progress being made [on the protocols]. Now, clearly, progress is not being made, the process is stalled and lo and behold, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee schedules a vote on it for early March,” Sanamyan said. “It’s not so much pressure from Armenian-American groups, but was made with a nod from the State Department to use the resolution as leverage to get Turkey to make progress on this process.”
The State Department, which has traditionally opposed Armenian genocide resolutions because of the potential to offend Turkey, has been unusually reticent to criticize the resolution this time around, said Elizabeth Chouldjian, spokeswoman for the Armenian National Committee of America, an Armenian-American lobbying group. State Department officials have not been lobbying members of Congress against the resolution, as they have in the past, and when senior State Department officials have been asked recently about the resolution they have dodged the question, Chouldjian said.
“Under the Bush administration, that would have been the opportunity for them to oppose the legislation,” Chouldjian continued. “But here, you have a dodging, working around the question, certainly not opposing it.”
If the State Department thinks the genocide resolution vote will make Turkey more likely to ratify the reconciliation protocols, it is miscalculating, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Because the protocols are controversial now in Turkey, there is no domestic political will to ratify them, something State Department Turkey experts are well aware of, he said.
In addition, the United States has a diminishing amount of leverage over Turkey, as Ankara increasingly is orienting its foreign policy away from the West and toward the Middle East, Cagaptay said. “So there’s not a lot the United States can do to make the Turks move forward on this,” he said.
A State Department spokesman, when queried about the genocide resolution, said the department does not comment on pending legislation before Congress. The White House did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Passage of the resolution would almost certainly dash any hope that Turkey would ratify the protocols. “The Turkish-US relationship… will suffer a tremendous blow in the wake of any vote in Congress which would attempt to mischaracterize the historical facts of the First World War, and the events of 1915,” said one Turkish official, speaking to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. “The ratification of the protocols will be permanently derailed.”
Pro-Turkish lobbying groups are using the delicate situation surrounding the ratification of the protocols to convince members of Congress to oppose the genocide resolution, said GÃ¼nay Evinch, president of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations. “A resolution will cause everything to move into paralysis,” he said. “It’s time to push both sides toward ratification of the protocols. And that can be done with positive reinforcement, rather than negative.”
But that is just a pretext, said Phillips, the American University expert. “The Turks knew full well that the protocols wouldn’t deter Armenians from seeking genocide recognition, so this confluence of factors was predictable from the beginning,” he said. “After gauging the domestic political backlash, it appears that Ankara is looking for an excuse to walk away from their commitments.”
Some members of Congress who have previously supported the genocide resolution are not supporting it now, citing the ongoing protocols process, Sanamyan said. In addition, the United States is also likely to soon start moving toward imposing new sanctions on Iran for Tehran’s intransigence on its nuclear program, and Turkey’s cooperation would be indispensable in that effort. And that debate in Congress is likely to take place at the same time as the genocide resolution debate.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.