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A Historic Opportunity for Turkey and Armenia | Commentary

By Solomon P. Ortiz Something just happened in the House of Representatives for the first time in history — something that takes necessary steps to bridge a century-old divide while strengthening U.S. national security interests and enhancing U.S. foreign policy.  

This action, which comes via a resolution introduced on April 29th by Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, aims to jump start the process of repairing relations between two important U.S. allies — Turkey and Armenia. This century of acrimony between the two nations has kept their relationship — and thus, true stability and security — from burgeoning.  

To wit, the vast majority of effort spent here in the United States — by the countries’ vast diaspora, their representative organizations and lawmakers — has been focused on the past. Most notably, they have come to loggerheads over events that happened in 1915. These events were undoubtedly a great tragedy — one that deserves commemoration — but the conversation has been more dominated by what we call the tragedy more than it has been by how we can encourage these nations to come together and look toward the future.  

It is time for that discourse and approach to change.  

Thankfully, on March 29, Sessions, with whom I served in the House for more than a decade — introduced an unprecedented resolution which calls on the president to “work toward equitable, constructive, stable, and durable Armenian-Turkish relations for the next 100 years, based upon the two countries’ common interests and the United States’ significant security interests in the region.”  

There have been commitments to improving Turkish-Armenian relations in the past. Most notably, former secretary of State and current presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton was a strong supporter of the 2009 Zurich Protocols, which would have normalized relations between the nations. She attended the final agreement and signing of the protocols, but was unable to secure the actual ratification of them by each country’s legislative body.  

The failure of the 2009 protocols puts the Turkish-Armenian relationship in a perilous position that should be gravely concerning to us here in the United States. Without Turkey as its tie to the West, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has strengthened its influence throughout Armenia and on policymakers in Yerevan. The result has been an ominous new alignment, brokered by Russia, that brings Armenia into ever-closer relations with a third nation — Iran.  

A new natural gas pipeline and railway connecting Iran and Armenia is living proof of the escalating cooperation, as is the extraordinary recent increase in weekly flights between the two nations – which have gone from three to 50 in just a few years. Meanwhile, Putin’s role has inspired dire analysis from policymakers. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., for example, warned in a recent subcommittee hearing that “… Armenia’s [new] banking relationship with Iran [has been] authorized, pushed, prodded and cajoled by Russia.”  

The motivation to bring Armenia back into the fold of European nations is thus, self-evident, but normalized relations also stand to substantially benefit Turkey — and a stable Turkey is a key to the United States’ foreign policy. While Turkey is dealing with millions of refugees from the conflict in Syria and concurrently working to keep its borders closed to those trying to join ISIS, its closed relations with Armenia stifle what should be an extremely beneficial affiliation. Normalization would galvanize economic growth in the country’s poorer eastern regions. It would allow the Kurds to reap the benefits of tangible progress, providing that population with an alternative to separatist aggression.  

All of this is to say — a concerted effort to reunite Turkey and Armenia is not just the right thing to do on ethical grounds, it is crucial to the United States’ and allies’ world standing.  

This fact is, by no means, news to many policy makers, but interests have for too long been sidetracked by issues such as the events of 1915. Each year resolutions are introduced, and arguments are made on both sides, regarding events 100 years in the past, while the present and future are swept to the side.  

The issue is understandably emotional. But as difficult as it may be, the future relies on the ability of the great peoples on both sides to move beyond a 100 years of bitterness. It is the obligation of the Congress of the United States, as leaders with a vested interested in the stability and security of Armenia and Turkey, to push a message of open dialogue, not continued hostility.  

The introduction of House Resolution 226 is the first step in that dialogue. For the first time in a long time, members have a path towards encouraging trust and cooperation. Now, we find out if they have the wisdom to take it.  

Former U.S. Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz represented Texas’ 27th congressional district in the House of Representatives from 1983 until 2011. He is an advisor to the Turkish Institute for Progress.

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