The United States deserves its share of the blame for the failure of recent years’ efforts to normalize Armenia’s relations with Turkey, according to a renowned U.S. scholar who has been actively involved in Turkish-Armenian dialogue in the past.
In an extensive monograph released by New York’s Columbia University on Friday, David Phillips says that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama did not do enough to stop the Turkish government linking parliamentary ratification of the 2009 Turkish-Armenian normalization agreements with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He also calls for a U.S. “policy review” on Armenia-Turkey that would consider the possibility of officially recognizing the 1915 Armenian massacres in the Ottoman Empire as genocide.
“The United States is also at fault. The Obama administration missed an opportunity to reaffirm de-linkage of the Protocols with negotiations over NK (Nagorno-Karabakh) when Obama visited Turkey in April 2009,” Phillips writes. “U.S. officials did not accurately assess the level of opposition to ratification in Turkey.”
“While U.S. influence was essential to signing of the Protocols, the Obama administration bureaucratized the follow-up. It should have appointed a ‘Special Envoy for Ratification of the Turkey-Armenia Protocols.’ The Special Envoy could have played a useful role in maintaining momentum, working the system in Washington, and keeping the parties focused on next steps rather than pre-conditions,” he says.
The 130-page text contains a detailed description and analysis of the failed normalization process as well as events leading up to its effective launch by Switzerland in late 2007, several months before Serzh Sarkisian took over as Armenia’s president. Its author coordinated the work of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), a U.S.-sponsored panel of retired diplomats and other public figures, in 2001-2004.
The Swiss mediation, fully backed and facilitated by Washington, culminated in the high-profile signing in Zurich in October 2009 of the two protocols that commit Ankara and Yerevan to establishing diplomatic relations and opening the Turkish-Armenian border. Turkey had closed it at the height of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war for Karabakh, out of solidarity with Azerbaijan.
Faced with an uproar from Azerbaijan, Ankara subsequently made clear that Turkey’s parliament will not ratify the protocols until there is decisive progress towards a resolution of the Karabakh conflict acceptable to Baku. The Armenian side denounced that stance, arguing that neither document makes any reference to Karabakh. Sarkisian froze the process of Armenian protocol ratification in April 2010 and has since repeatedly threatened to scrap the Western-backed deal altogether.
Phillips, who is now a program director at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, essentially agrees with Yerevan on the issue. “The Protocols included no pre-conditions or linkage to NK,” he writes. “[Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, however, established a pre-condition when he went to Baku [in 2009] and stated that the Protocols would not be ratified unless Azerbaijan’s sovereignty was restored.” Erdogan could have ignored the vehement Azerbaijani protests had he been “truly committed” to the Turkish-Armenian normalization, says Phillips.
Turkish officials have claimed all along that the protocols make indirect and implicit references to Karabakh. An unnamed Turkish Foreign Ministry official interviewed by Phillips is quoted in the monograph as saying that there was a “gentleman’s agreement” between Ankara and Yerevan that bilateral ties and the Karabakh dispute “will be considered in parallel.” James Jeffrey, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, likewise told Phillips that the two issues were not quite delinked.
“According to Jeffrey, Obama did not discuss de-linkage with [President Abdullah] Gul or Erdogan during his April  trip. Instead of affirming de-linkage, Obama was silent on the issue,” says Phillips. He cites other U.S. diplomats as saying that Washington had a “plan B” in case the Turks refused to unconditionally implement the protocols. But, he adds, “no fallback plan was apparent other than convincing Sarkisian to suspend rather than withdraw his signature.”
Incidentally, Phillips called for stronger U.S. pressure on Ankara when he visited Yerevan in February 2010. “Unless the Obama administration presses the Turks at the highest level, the likelihood of the protocols being ratified in Ankara will decrease,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) at the time.
In his monograph, Phillips criticizes Armenia for agreeing to announce, in a joint statement with Turkey, a “roadmap” to the normalization on April 22, 2009, two days before the annual remembrance of the Armenian genocide victims. An unnamed senior Armenian official is quoted as confirming that this was done to make it easier for Obama to backtrack on his campaign pledge to recognize the genocide once elected president.
“Washington wanted us to announce the agreement before Genocide day so President Obama wouldn’t have to mention genocide in his statement,” the official told Phillips. “The Turks expected us to say ‘no,’ but we fooled them.”
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), an influential political party, pulled out of Sarkisian’s coalition government just days after the Turkish-Armenian statement. The main opposition Armenian National Congress likewise accused Sarkisian of helping Turkey thwart genocide recognition.
“The timing of the announcement galvanized opposition among a broad cross-section of Armenian society, which believed that the Protocols would be manipulated by Ankara to undermine genocide recognition,” argues Phillips. He also faults Yerevan for agreeing to disclose the Turkish-Armenian protocols only four months after they were secretly finalized in April 2009.
Like many other pundits, Phillips believes that the protocols can hardly be revived “in their present form.” Still, he says the Turkish-Armenian border can be reopened even without their entry into force. “Erdogan can make history by issuing an executive order to open the border and normalize travel and trade as a step toward diplomatic relations,” he says.
Phillips also makes a case for continued U.S. financing of direct contacts between the civil societies and business communities of the two estranged nations. He goes on to urge the Obama administration to rethink its policy on Turkish-Armenian relations and consider “innovative ideas” suggested by U.S. and other experts. “The discussion could consider whether U.S. reaffirmation of its genocide recognition [proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981] would remove recognition as a bargaining chip, thereby creating conditions more conducive to reconciliation,” he says.
The monograph reaffirms Phillips’s view that a landmark study commissioned by the TARC from the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) could serve as a blueprint for ultimate Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. The ICTJ concluded in 2003 that the Armenian massacres “include all of the elements of the crime of genocide” as defined by a 1948 United Nations convention. But it also said that the Armenians can not use the convention for demanding material or other compensation from Turkey.
“In any event, [genocide] recognition should not be an item for negotiations,” concludes Phillips. “It should not be traded for political concessions. Not only does negotiating recognition dishonor past victims, but it also sends a signal to future perpetrators that they can act with impunity when great powers find it politically expedient.”