Visible and Invisible Factors that Led to House Victory

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At long last, one branch of the United States government recognized the Armenian Genocide.

Indeed, the House of Representatives adopted HR 296 with an overwhelming number of votes (405-11). For more than 35 agonizing years, the hopes of the Armenians were hanging over the unstable political relations between the US and Turkey. The latter’s continuing bullying and threats and the US’s hesitation made the passage of the resolution all the more valuable.

The significance of the resolution is enhanced even more because of its inclusive content: it sums up all the previous legislative and commemorative acts, including the United States government’s May 28, 1951 to the International Court of Justice, President Reagan’s Proclamation 4838, House Joint Resolution 148 of April 8, 1975 and others, as well as the fact that 49 out of 50 states have extended recognition, as have 30 countries and the European Union.

These items expand the political and legal scope of the measure to universal parameters.

It was also very dramatic to watch one representative after another giving testimony and arguing for the passage of the resolution, reverberating the voices of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, US Consul Leslie Davis (who wrote The Slaughterhouse Province), sometimes with emotional overtones.

Political pundits and the general public have been wondering why the resolution passed now, at this very moment, after dangling for 35 years.

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One explanation is that the stars were in proper alignment to yield a positive result. Those stars are certainly the political factors which were almost always at odds to force friends and foes in Congress to confess that “it is not the time to pass the resolution in order not to offend our ally Turkey.”

But as Rep. Adam Schiff stated in his testimony, it is always the right time to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

Several times in the past, the votes were lined up and were tantalizingly close to passage but once Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, delayed the vote. Another time, the White House intervened through President Bill Clinton to Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert; the two were at odds with each other on all issues except when it came to holding a vote on the Armenian Genocide.

Later on, Mr. Hastert’s cover was blown to reveal him as a corrupt official on the payroll of the Turkish government.

Samantha Power, President Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, is part of the story. She had endeared herself to the community as a humanitarian, publishing her powerful book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, on the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide. That book also propelled her all the way to the White House, despite her run in with another powerful woman, Hillary Clinton.

Ms. Power had convinced the Armenian community through a letter that Barack Obama would recognize the Armenian Genocide if elected, which of course, turned out to be false.

Her opinion piece in the New York Times (October 29, 2019) comes belatedly to absolve her as she writes: “I have written about the Armenian Genocide and argued for recognition, including (unsuccessfully) as a member of the Obama Administration. I have joined Armenian-Americans at numerous commemorative events.”

Given the Machiavellian nature of realpolitik, Armenians can forgive Samantha Power’s transgressions, although Rabbi Shmuley Boteach had taken her to task in the Jerusalem Post (November 5, 2019) for breaking her pledge.

Many factors contributed to generate such a powerful momentum for the passage of the resolution, some of them obvious, while others are subtler.

Of course, the two Armenian advocacy groups, the Armenian National Committee of America and the Armenian Assembly of America, worked relentlessly to educate the legislators and galvanize their grassroots forces.

But all these factors and organizations were in motion before, yet nothing had resulted. The fact of the matter is that other political developments came to empower the movement and wrench success. One was the deterioration of American-Turkish relations.

Turkey’s authoritarian rule at home only cost that country a slap on the wrist; it was President Erdogan’s arrogance and challenge to the White House that brought the situation to a head.

Ankara, in its drive to carve a security zone inside Syrian territory, began slaughtering the Kurds, including members of the YPG forces who had valiantly fought alongside US forces in defeating ISIS. That infuriated the American public and President Trump, who resorted to puerile arguments to discount the contributions of the Kurdish forces. He imposed sanctions on Turkey and lifted them within 24 hours. Yet, on the same day as the Armenian Genocide vote, the House concurrently passed another resolution to impose its own sanctions, again with an overwhelming bipartisan support.

We have mentioned that this combination of factors led to the passage of the resolution. However, each factor has a relative potency; we mentioned the deteriorating US-Turkish relations and Turkey’s defiance of NATO’s leadership in purchasing Russian military hardware.

We have also to factor in the Turkish-Israeli relations. President Erdogan is intoxicated with power.  No one can challenge his harsh authoritarian rule at home but his intoxication has blinded him as he has crossed some red lines in his foreign policy.

It may sound ironic, but the fact that the passage of the resolution is indirectly Mr. Erdogan’s gift to the Armenians. In order to trace that intricate combination of politics, we have to further delve into Middle Eastern affairs.

First, Israel has punished all authoritarian rulers in the region which have posed existential threats through the US’s military muscle — Libya, Iraq, Syria and now Iran is on the radar.

That policy can work also in reverse to reward Israel’s friends.

Turkey has challenged Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. It has opposed independence for Kurdistan from Iraq, citing concerns over Iraq’s territorial integrity, as if Turkey cared about any nation’s territorial integrity. (Cyprus and Syria provide ample evidence to the contrary. )

On the other hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the only head of state to call for Kurdish independence because Israel has set up shop in autonomous Kurdistan, having its intelligence, military and political assets there, close to the Iranian border. And yet, Turkey is worried that an  independent Kurdistan will inspire and inflame all Kurds in the region, including the 25 million in Turkey, to fight for independence.

The Kurds in Syria were about to carve out another autonomous enclave in Syria, near the Turkish border. That is why Erdogan took the risk of routing the Kurds from their historic habitat under the guise of creating a safe zone.

As the Kurds were chased out, they were chanting slogans including “Long Live the Kurdistan-Israeli Friendship.” That was more than a symbolic gesture.

Therefore, Israel lost another base in Syria.

In the meantime, Turkey has been supporting the Palestinians, Hamas in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Islamists in Libya.

It was also on the wrong side in the standoff between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, siding with the former, while Israel supports the Saudi Kingdom. To top it all, Turkey sent its warship to the Eastern Mediterranean to disrupt oil and gas exploration by a consortium set up by Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and Cyprus. Turkey’s claim was based on defending the supposed rights of Northern Cyprus, a country illegally carved out of Cyprus, by invading Turkish forces in 1974. Thus, it is clear that the increasing Turkish-Israeli tensions have been impacting Israel’s transatlantic relations.

It is a fact that every time the Genocide resolution was brought to the House floor, Israeli advocacy groups, certainly in

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Visible and Invisible Factors that Led to House Victory

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coordination with their government, were mobilized to stop the momentum. Turkey has never failed to mention that Jews will be safe in Turkey as long as they keep to the government line.

This time around, many Jewish organizations who formerly had opposed the resolution, supported the Armenians. The Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish American Resource Council and other Jewish organizations were publicly supportive of the passage of the bill and indeed advocated for it. It was obvious that the Israeli government had released all the stops. We should recognize and appreciate the fact because that was the most powerful factor which eliminated the hesitation of all the members of the House, even if it was an unintended consequence.

The reaction in Israel was also favorable. The Times of Israel states that “two prominent Israeli politicians on both sides of the aisle independently call for Jerusalem to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide after the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to recognize the World War I era crime.”

The reference is to Yair Lapid, a longtime supporter of recognition, who says “I will continue to fight for the Israeli recognition of the Armenian Genocide,” and former Likud Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

There are statesmen and scholars who genuinely wish to have Israel recognize the Armenian Genocide. But the Israeli government has held the Genocide issue like sword of Damocles over Turkey’s head and it brings it to the floor of the Knesset every time it has an interest to extract from Turkey. Therefore the government will not give away that prize easily because it may come in handy in case of another confrontation.

At the present time, SR 150 sponsored by Senators Robert Menendez and Ted Cruz, has garnered 20 votes in the Senate. With 18 Democrats and 2  Republicans on board, it seems the resolution, at this time, does not enjoy bipartisan support.

Armenians around the world hailed the passage of the House resolution jubilantly. President Armen Sarkissian and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan thanked the US House of Represenatives just as the Turkish government predictably reacted angrily.

President Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun stated: “Those who voted for this resolution will be responsible for the deterioration of a critical relationship in a turbulent region.”

Turkey’s parliament also condemned the resolution while the Foreign Ministry protest had cited another resolution, mistakenly criticizing another resolution about forced abortions. Erdogan himself, talking to his AK party members, stated that “These efforts … were passed by the House of Representatives, using a negative atmosphere formed against our country among the American public. In a sense, they were being opportunistic.” He also shed some doubt on his scheduled forthcoming visit to Washington.

In response to Turkey’s reaction, Samantha Power wrote, “When bullies feel their tactics are working, they generally bully more.” And in conclusion, she added, “If Mr. Erdogan turns further away from a relationship that has been immensely beneficial for Turkey, in favor of deepening ties with Russia and China, it will not be because the House voted to recognize the Armenian Genocide. It will be because of his own repressive tactics are coming to resemble those of Russian and Chinese leaders. The House vote was overdue. Now the Senate and President Trump should follow suit. The facts of what occurred a century ago demand it.”

Let us find out if this time around the stars are aligned, again.

 

 

 

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