YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—If the Turkish Armenian Protocols fall apart, it will have a “serious adverse effect on US-Turkish relations,” according to a renowned U.S. scholar who was actively involved in the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC).
In an interview with RFE/RL on Thursday, David Phillips stressed that the administration of President Barack Obama understands that stronger U.S. pressure on turkey is essential for salvaging the fence-mending agreements between Armenia and Turkey.
Phillips also criticized Ankara’s linkage between the implementation of those agreements and a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. He dismissed Turkish claims that a recent ruling by the Armenian Constitutional Court ran counter to key provisions of the Turkish-Armenian “protocols” signed in October.
Phillips, who coordinated the work of the U.S.-sponsored TARC in 2001-2004, further said that Armenia should not rush to walk away from the deal. But he stressed that its ratification by the Turkish parliament cannot be “an open-ended process.”
“If these protocols fall apart and there is a diplomatic train wreck, it will have a serious adverse effect on U.S.-Turkish relations,” he said. “And this comes at a time when the U.S. is seeking Turkey’s cooperation on Iran, when Turkey is playing an increasingly important role in Afghanistan and during the wrap-up to redeployment from Iraq.
“The Obama administration knows full well that these protocols should go forward because it is in the interests of Turkey and Armenia. It is also in America’s interests to keep the process moving forward so that U.S.-Turkish cooperation is in effect.”
Analysts believe Washington will step up pressure on Ankara ahead of the April 24 annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. Obama avoided properly characterizing the annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians as Genocide in his April 24 statement in 2009, implicitly citing the need not to undermine the ongoing Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg discussed the issue with President Serzh Sarkisian and Foreign Minisiter Edward Nalbandian during a one-day visit to Yerevan on Thursday.
Phillips, who currently runs a conflict resolution program at the American University in Washington, declined to speculate on just how strong that pressure will be. “But I do believe that unless the Obama administration presses the Turks at the highest level, the likelihood of the protocols being ratified in Ankara will decrease,” he said.
Phillips described Steinberg’s visit as a “a clear indication that the Obama administration understands the importance of this matter and the need to raise the profile of its involvement.” “And its efforts to use its leverage should intensify in the near future,” he said. “The U.S. needs to be actively engaged in this process if it is going to work.”
U.S. officials have already made clear that they disagree with Ankara’s highly negative reaction to the Armenian court ruling. While upholding the legality of the protocols, the Constitutional Court ruled last month that they cannot stop Yerevan seeking a broader international recognition of the Armenian genocide.
Turkish leaders claim that the court thereby prejudged the findings of a Turkish-Armenian “subcommission” of history experts which the two governments have agreed to set up. The Armenian side insists, however, that the panel would not be tasked with examining the history of the Genocide. It says the Turks are deliberately exploiting the ruling to justify their reluctance to ratify the protocols.
“There is nothing in the [relevant protocol] annex that says that the subcommission is going to be considering the veracity of the Armenian genocide,” agreed Phillips. “If those questions are being raised, they are being raised as a way of deflecting the focus of discussions and creating conditions whereby Armenia is blamed for any breakdown of the process.”
“If the Turks ever thought that signing the protocols would bring an end to international recognition efforts, they were wrong,” he said. “They should have known that from the beginning and I’m quite sure that they do know that.”
Commenting on Turkish leaders’ repeated statements making protocol ratification conditional on the signing of a Karabakh agreement acceptable to Azerbaijan, Phillips said, “The protocols are very clear. There is no mention in the protocols themselves or in any of the annexes about Nagorno-Karabakh.”
President Serzh Sarkisian has publicly threatened to annul the agreements unless Ankara drops the Karabakh linkage “within a reasonable time frame.” Some of his aides have spoken of late March as an unofficial deadline for their unconditional implementation.
In Phillips’s view, walking away from the deal at this juncture would be a “mistake.” But he acknowledged that the Armenian government cannot wait for Turkish ratification for much longer.
“I know that for domestic political reasons, this can’t be an open-ended process, and April 24, as the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, has been put forward as a deadline,” he said. “Whether or not April 24 is a deadline is something for the Armenian government to decide. But there clearly needs to be an end point.”
In the meantime, suggested Phillips, Sarkisian should formally submit the protocols to Armenia’s parliament “without necessarily calling for a vote.” “Then the onus of responsibility for a potential diplomatic breakdown would rest with Ankara,” he reasoned.
Phillips spoke to RFE/RL in Yerevan where he arrived earlier on Thursday to present the newly published Armenian translation of his 2005 book, “Unsilencing the Past,” that gives a detailed account of TARC’s largely confidential activities. The panel of Turkish and Armenian retired diplomats and prominent public figures was set up in 2001 at the U.S. State Department’s initiative and with the tacit approval of the authorities in Ankara and Yerevan.
TARC repeatedly called for the unconditional establishment of diplomatic relations between the two states and opening of their border before being disbanded in 2004. It is also infamous for commissioning a study on the Genocide from the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). In a report released in February 2003, ICTJ concluded that the Armenian Genocide “include all of the elements of the crime of genocide” as defined by a 1948 United Nations convention.
But the report also said, to the dismay of Armenia and its worldwide Diaspora, that the Armenians cannot use the convention for demanding material or other compensation from Turkey. Former U.S. President George W. Bush repeatedly cited the ICTJ study in his April 24 statements.
Phillips hailed the study as a potential blueprint for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. “The full benefit of that finding has yet to be fully understood and materialized,” he said.
Phillips also credited TARC with laying the groundwork for the unprecedented thaw in Turkish-Armenian relations that began shortly after Sarkisian took office in April 2008. “The rapprochement that’s underway today would never have occurred in this time frame if TARC hadn’t existed,” he said. “All of TARC’s recommendations are now being put into effect.”