Armenian Genocide Recognition Crosses a Threshold

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Although some 30 countries have already recognized the Armenian Genocide, recognition by the legislative branch of the most powerful nation in the world has a unique significance and far-reaching impact.

First, the US House of Representatives passed Resolution 296 in October by an overwhelming majority (405-11) and then the US Senate on December 12 by a unanimous vote, passed its own resolution.

The causes and consequences of these actions still continue to reverberate in many political quarters in the world, including in the US, Turkey, Armenia and now, also, in Israel.

This is not the first time that the US government, on different levels, has recognized the Armenian Genocide. President Ronald Reagan did so in April 1981, calling it by its real name.  In the subsequent 20 years, the issue had become a political football. Every year in April, the presidential proclamation would dance around the term “genocide,” hopes would be  raised in Armenian circles and then be dashed, angry words would emanate from Turkey and then, everything would revert back to normal.

There has never been room for any legislator to dispute the documents and veracity of the Armenian Genocide. The only concern was not to anger Ankara to cause a disruption in Turkish-American relations. That is why the only remaining excuse was “it is not the time to take up the Genocide issue.” But as Sen. Robert Menendez stated recently on the floor of the Senate, it is always time to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

Governments do not make decisions based on charity or humanitarian concerns, even if the latter is touted sometimes publicly. Their decisions are based on realpolitik. Today, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are subject to mass murder by government forces. It seems that it is not in the interest of any power to intervene forcefully and stop the carnage. The same scenario unfolded in Rwanda in the 1990s. Despite the alarm sounded by the United Nations Peacekeeping force command in that country about the imminent genocide of civilians, no country intervened and later on, President Bill Clinton’s apology for not having prevented the genocide was not able to bring back 800,000 souls.

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At this time, the US is implementing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions as a punitive measure against Ankara’s transgressions. It is true that the genocide resolution is being used by the US as a political tool to punish Ankara and that, certainly, does not diminish the significance of the action. On the contrary, it confirms that the resolution is in line with US foreign policy and it is part and parcel of that policy.

Granted, the resolutions are non-binding, but the mere fact that the term “genocide” has been used, has political, historical an even legal consequences.

Many legislators in the past have pursued the case in the chambers of the US legislative branch but they have been stopped by the excuse of its “not the right time.”

Senators Bob Dole and William Proxmire deserve to be remembered for their efforts toward their passage in the 1980s.

This time around, Representatives Adam Schiff and Gus Bilirakis in the House of Representatives and Senators Robert Menendez and Ted Cruz in the Senate spearheaded the drive for recognition, which was brought to its successful conclusion.

The passage of the resolutions was met with jubilation in the parliament in Yerevan and throughout the Armenian world, while it caused anger and threats in Turkey. Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan characterized the move by the US Senate as “a victory for justice and truth.” He further elaborated that this is a tribute “to the memory of 1.5 million victims of the first genocide of the 20th century and a step in the promotion of the prevention agenda.”

During the Cold War, Turkey was considered an asset to the NATO forces and thanks to US largess, it developed its economy and army, and became the second largest power in the NATO structure. But in the aftermath of the Cold War, it has become a liability and drifted away from its benefactors to pursue its own rogue course, most of the times in opposition to the policies of its allies.

Turkey has become entangled in many regional adventures through unilateral decisions, without the consent and approval of the NATO Central Command, but always cognizant that it can invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter. Indeed, the key section of the treaty’s Article 5 commits each member state to consider an armed aggression against one to be an attack against them all.

After testing US resolve, Turkey made the decision to invade Syria and massacre the Kurdish forces allied with the US. Despite President Donald Trump’s flip flop, even the Republican-controlled Senate lost patience with Ankara. But what seems to have broken the camel’s back was Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu’s threat that Turkey can evict the US from the air base in Incirlik. Washington realized that Turkey meant business and in collusion with Russia and Iran, was in the process of undermining the US presence in the Middle East, intending to dislodge the US entirely from the region.

Following the resolution, the same threat was repeated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself. At this time, the two countries are on a collision course but if we remember how Erdogan went crawling to Moscow to apologize after shooting down a Russian military jet, we may predict another similar U-turn in Ankara. Perhaps it is to cultivate such an end that caused President Trump to state on Tuesday, December 17, that he does not back the resolution.

The successful conclusion of the recognition was through the correct lineup of many political stars. Although we cannot discount the valiant pursuit of the Armenian advocacy groups, and mainly the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee of America in Washington. But the role of these groups is confined to keeping alive awareness of the Genocide and to take advantage of historic opportunities like this one. Had it not been that endeavor, similar opportunities would come and bypass unnoticed.

After crossing a monumental milestone in Washington, due diligence requires that we find out the mood in Israel and by extension the mood among its lobbying groups in Washington, because the future momentum of these legislative actions may be influenced by Israeli policies.

On December 15, Ha’aretz newspaper in Israel wrote: “Turkish reaction failed to frighten members of Congress, an attitude that is not shared by Knesset members and the Israeli cabinet, who still can’t bring themselves to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Israel’s justification has traditionally been based on two grounds. One is concern that recognizing a holocaust of another people would undermine the singular nature of the Jewish Holocaust as a one-time historical event. The other is that it would bring about a total break between Israel and Turkey.”

Further down, the paper cites a more ominous course as it states: “Relations between Israel and Turkey haven’t really been rehabilitated but now Israel is being careful not to anger Turkey because of the concern over the future of the pipeline between Israeli oilfields and Europe.”

This means further hurdles down the road. We must understand that each nation will be engaged in political actions based on their own selfish interests, and not morality.

There is some conditional thaw among Jewish groups in the US and the Israeli lobby. Abe Foxman, the former head of the ADL, had turned himself a controversial figure in the debate of genocide recognition, by making reckless statements. Today, he seems to have mellowed out, stating that “there were several reasons for neutrality. Chief among them, however, was their not wanting to damage the Israeli-Turkish relationship or putting Turkish Jews at risk. … Things have changed. Turkey is no longer an ally of Israel.”

The Times of Israel has approached both Jewish Groups, the reluctant ones and the ones who have decided to support recognition publicly. However, referring to past Jewish conduct, the paper reveals some facts that were already obvious: “Shai Franklin, a senior fellow at the Institute of Religion and Policy, said that the Israeli government often directed US Jewish groups to stay out of the push for recognition.”

Today, there is a shift, hopefully a long-term one. Following the House Revolution, the Anti-Defamation League and Religious Center of Reform Judaism, the political arm of the Reform Jewish Movement, have issued statement supporting the passage of the resolution.

The Times, quoting again Shai Franklin who writes: “There is a division of labor in the American Jewish community. If the ADL has come out in support of recognition, a lot of groups may see them covering the wider community on this issue.”

Beyond rectifying historic justice, US recognition has also acknowledged Armenia’s current political status. In addition to recognition, the US has increased aid to Armenia. These moves have not gone unnoticed in Moscow, which thus far had taken Armenia for granted. A shift in Moscow’s treatment of Yerevan raises Armenia’s political significance in the region. The youthful government, which has garnered an absolute mandate and legitimacy through the last parliamentary elections, hopefully shies away from introverted domestic policies, to capitalize on this new enhanced opportunity that it enjoys through a historic accident.