A few short hours after a meeting with US President Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and several US GOP Senators about Syria, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham blocked a resolution acknowledging the Armenian Genocide (The Hill, 2019). Graham objected on the grounds that we should not try to “sugarcoat history or try to rewrite it.” The rejection of the resolution, and its interpretation as a denial of the 1915 Armenia Genocide, sparked an outcry that echoed globally. Although he backed his controversial stance by what could be described as a pithy justification (at best), his motivations for blocking the resolution were arguably influenced by his previous meeting and interest in emboldening US-Turkish relations. His use of history as a bargaining chip might have gone overlooked if he hadn’t chosen House Resolution 296.
The resolution was proposed on the 29th of October 2019 and met with near-unanimous support from both Democrats and Republicans. House Resolution 296 intended to: “…(1) commemorate the Armenian Genocide, the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923; (2) reject efforts to associate the U.S. government with efforts to deny the existence of the Armenian Genocide or any genocide; and (3) encourage education and public understanding about the Armenian Genocide” (congress.gov). The vote resulted in 97% yea (405 votes; 226 democrats, 178 Republicans, 1 Independent), 3% nay (11 Republicans), and 13 abstaining (6 Democrats, 7 Republicans) (GovTrack). Although resolutions are not presented to the President for action, the can be blocked by even a single dissenting Senate vote after the resolution is asked for consent, as Robert Menendez did regarding H.Res.296 on Wednesday 13th of November 2019. (Bills and Resolutions)
Timing may have played a critical role in the block, in terms of the larger context regarding Operation Peace Springinitiated last month. Turkish treatment of former US allies living the region has posed as an unavoidable ‘elephant in the room’ of all recent US-Turkish bilateral discussions. Although he did not formally cite this in his justifications, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s presence at a meeting of the US and Turkish presidents only hours before (where Syria was the predominant topic of discussion) was surely catalytic to Graham’s block. Regardless of any potential gains that may have been made (or attempted) regarding US-Turkish relations have done nothing to alter the behavior which strains those relations. Meanwhile, Trump’s Syria Policy remains under heavy fire:
“Mr. Trump has come under withering criticism from former military commanders, Democrats and even some of his staunchest Republican allies for pulling back United States troops from Syria’s border with Turkey, clearing the way for a Turkish offensive that in nearly two weeks has killed scores of Syrian Kurdish fighters and civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents” (Schmitt and Haberman).
Trump’s stop-and-go withdrawals have been underscored by the continued presence of several hundred US special forces troops in Eastern Syria. To the tune of tension, strained US-Turkish relations over the last month amplify the controversy of both the House of Representatives (29 October) and the Senate Block (13 November). The House of Representatives vote was conducted on the 29th of October, one month to the day of Operation Peace Spring. Turkey, traditionally an ally of the US, filled the void left by the departing US, however, while the Kurds and Americans fought alongside each other for years; the Turks and the YPG (an extremist, predominantly Kurdish faction with links to the militias of Northern Syria) have fought against each other for decades. Turkey’s aggressive zeal against the Kurdish residents of Northern Syria — who fought alongside the US for years — has caused an outcry (Kingsley). This complicates US-Turkish bilateral relations further (The Hill). One month into Turkey’s intensified position in Northern Syria plus the US House of Representatives overwhelming cross-party support for recognizing the Armenian Genocide (indirectly pointing a finger, yet again, to Turkey as an aggressor) jammed the wedge between the two countries further.
What was significant about the dissenting or abstaining of these 11 votes from the House of Representatives Vote? Their reasons for initially rejecting the Resolution 296 range from geostrategic considerations and fears over the loss of American lives to less sophisticated rationalizations. Some, but not all, of the votes had traceable connections with Turkey’s interests and/or Turkish benefactors in some form or another. Several days after the first vote, it was announced that Ilhan Omar (who abstained on Oct 29th) received donations from a group with ties to Turkey’s president. Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation (and one of only four Native American congressmen) maintains a warm connection with Turkish interest groups on the bond of a common ancient ancestry. Virginia Foxx has a Turkish son-in-law (although not all Turks endorse anti-Armenian positions, this likely increases Mrs. Foxx’s respective interest in Turkish concerns). Among the ‘nay’ votes, Mark Meadows acknowledged “the reality of ‘the genocide of Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, and others at the hands of the Ottoman Empire,’ but he went on to argue that formally recognizing this historical episode might jeopardize American troops.” (Hoonhout, National Review) He was more elaborate than others the geo-strategic complications affecting the situation: “‘Because of potential retaliation that could endanger our allies and troops in the immediate future, it was troubling to see this vote come as the U.S. just worked out an agreement for a ceasefire and safe zone in Syria,’ Meadows said.” (Hoonhout) Although his statement does not necessarily correlate with the fact that he voted for sanctions against Turkey, there is arguably much more resonance with Meadows justifications than of Graham’s weak show of ‘altruism.’ Some of the nay votes, such as that of Greg Pence, US Vice President, Mike Pence’s brother, are not so complicated to draw links between. (Hoonhout) Others, such as the three Indiana Congressmen and woman; James Baird, Susan Brooks, and Larry Buschon also voted against the October 29th resolution but opted not to release statements. What we see from their behavior in past votes however is that Books was in favor of sanctions against Turkey, Buschon against the removal of US troops from Syria.
“While there perhaps were plausible strategic concerns that dissuaded certain members from voting in favor of the resolution (such as a desire to prevent Turkey from more fully embracing Russia), other lawmakers seem to have more parochial, even personal, reasons for their opposition” (Evans, National Review).
Only two of the eleven referenced any geostrategic concerns for their opposition. In sum, the formal recognition of the Armenian Genocide has become a political coin that has been bartered in exchange for the favor of Turkey’s hand. Inexcusably, “History” has been the sacrificial lamb of geopolitical intentions. Where Syria has morphed into a battleground of the major powers to play their proxy, the past itself has become yet another proxy, an abstraction of the Syrian War’s balance of power dynamics, albeit in a new theatre.
As a final disclaimer, I would like to note that this article does NOT aim to minimize the devastation of the genocide, simply to unpack the geopolitical implications behind Sen. Lindsey Graham’s ineloquently sugary statement. Likewise, I should note, that this article has no formal authority to impose upon what should or should not be done, only to elucidate the geo-strategic dimensions that have made a seemingly straightforward resolution into an inflammatory controversy. If indeed history should be left to the historians as suggested by some, we are leaving them with quite a bitter narrative sip on.