Washington Getting More Involved in Reconciliation Process

Joshua Kucera 2/19/10

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.
[For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Since then, the two sides have argued over the ratification of the
protocols by the two countries’ respective parliaments. [For
background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

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. [For background see the Eurasia
Insight archive].

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. [For background see the Eurasia Insight

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

"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 G’`-‘nay 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

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.

Editor’s Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance
writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the
Caucasus and the Middle East.

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