Grenville Byford on Turkish-Armenian Reconcilation

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 noises.

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 resolution.