How To End A Genocide Debate

The frozen relations between Armenia and Turkey are now showing some
signs of melting.

By Grenville Byford | NEWSWEEK

Published Feb 28, 2009

>From the magazine issue dated Mar 9, 2009

It's almost April, so Washington is gearing up for another performance
of the "Armenian Genocide Resolution Spectacular," a regular event
since 1984. Here's the historical plotline: the Armenian-American
lobby gets a few U.S. congressmen to sponsor a resolution recognizing
the 1915 massacre of Armenians in what is now Eastern Turkey as a
"genocide." Then other members of the House are induced to support it.
(Members of the House may not be history buffs, but they understand
the importance of stroking a powerful domestic lobby.) Next, the
Turkish government says Turkey is too important to be insulted like
this. In response, the American administration, recognizing that
Turkey is indeed a critical NATO ally whose Incirlik Air Base is vital
to the Iraq mission, starts twisting congressional arms to abandon the
resolution. Offstage, the Israeli lobby, generally keen to boost
Turkish-Israeli relations (though less so this year), works against
the resolution. Finally, the House leadership reluctantly shelves the
whole thing and the curtain falls.

Before staging this year's performance, however, Congress should note
that hitherto frozen relations between Armenia and Turkey are now
showing signs of melting, and that this may be the first step toward
reconciling the Turkish and Armenian peoples. In September, Turkish
President Abdullah Gül attended a Turkey-Armenia football match in
Yerevan at the invitation of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who
recently met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in
Davos. The two foreign ministers, Turkey's Ali Babacan and Armenia's
Eduard Nalbandian have also been meeting. Both have made optimistic

Progress has been possible because the Armenians have focused on the
concrete issue of opening the Armenian-Turkish border?a vital matter
to them since none of their other neighbors (Azerbaijan, Georgia and
Iran) can offer a viable trade route to the West. Both sides have
wisely avoided the genocide dispute, surely recognizing it will have
to be dealt with eventually but that developing economic ties will
make it easier to do so. Lingering in the background, however, is the
Armenian diaspora's passionate insistence that there was a
genocide?and its mirror image in the fury of the Turkish people
denying it. Right or wrong is not the point. No Turkish government
could contemplate opening the Armenian border with this issue front
and center, and Congress should recognize that a genocide resolution
would put it there.

In all probability, Turkey and Armenia can only resolve the genocide
dispute if they recognize that "was it a genocide?" may be the
ultimate question, but it is not the most important one today. To
those aiming for reconciliation, two questions outrank it: what common
facts can Turks and Armenians be brought to accept, and is the common
ground sufficient for both sides to start binding up the wounds? To
this end, Erdogan's proposal to establish a joint historical
commission should be pursued. Though Armenia has rejected the idea so
far?largely because it is winning its argument on the world stage?the
government has softened its stance recently. If the aim is
reconciliation, persuading the Turks to abandon the blanket denial
they are taught as schoolchildren is what counts.

Progress is not as implausible as it sounds. In the early days of the
Republic, Kemal Atatürk, who was not personally implicated, described
the Armenian massacres as "shameful acts." No ex-Ottoman officials
were investigated, however, as Turkey needed the newly minted heroes
of its War of Independence to have no stain on their characters.
Today, Erdogan will accept an investigation. In return, Armenia must
accept a reciprocal investigation into the Ottoman Armenians, who
fought with the sultan's Russian enemy, and their responsibility for
massacres of Turks and Kurds. Weaving together these two violently
opposed historical perspectives will take time and patience. As
important as the final answer, however, is the development of empathy
across the divide.

Congress can help keep the path to reconciliation open if it is
willing to deny the Armenian-American lobby the instant gratification
of a genocide resolution. Surely doing so would be far better than
repeating the exercises of the last 25 years over and over again until
a resolution finally passes and all the House's leverage over Turkey
evaporates, along with most of the good will in the Turkish-American
alliance, and maybe even the alliance itself. For its part, the
Armenian diaspora might even support reconciliation if only as its
second choice. Finally, good relations between Turkey and Armenia
would further U.S. objectives in the Caucasus. The proposed
hydrocarbon corridor through the Caucasus from Central Asia looks much
more secure in the context of Turkish-Armenian friendship, and it
might give Armenia the confidence to break with the status quo in the
longstanding Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan.
Congress and others should recognize that this year holds real promise
for the beginning of reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian
peoples. If nothing comes of it, Congress can always return to a

Byford writes frequently on Turkish affairs and is a regular
contributor to