Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution formally recognizing the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The non-binding resolution declares that it is United States policy “to commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance” and “to reject efforts to enlist, engage, or otherwise associate the United States Government with denial of the Armenian Genocide.” The resolution passed by a bipartisan vote of 405-11. Supporters anticipated another lopsided vote in the Senate, where Senators Cruz and Menendez had introduced a similar resolution.
But now it seems the Senate resolution is dead. After meeting with Turkish President Recep Erdoğan in Washington last week, Senator Lindsey Graham abruptly voted to block consideration of the measure. The Senate, Graham said, should not “sugarcoat history or attempt to rewrite it.” He added, “I do hope Turkey and Armenia can come together and deal with this problem,” and said that his concerns were about “the future,” not “the past.” Graham joins Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who also objected to the Genocide resolution on grounds of historical accuracy: The resolution, she implied, did not reflect an “academic consensus.”
Lindsey Graham and Ilhan Omar. That’s quite a coalition.
Aside from being incoherent—how would calling something a genocide amount to “sugarcoating” it, exactly?—Graham’s statement is shameful. It would be one thing to oppose Genocide recognition for state reasons, as some have done; wrong, but at least comprehensible. But to dismiss what happened in 1915 and charge supporters of the resolution with trying to revise history is grotesque. Moreover, it is very dangerous for Christians in the Middle East today.
Notwithstanding Graham and Omar, the historical facts about the Genocide are well known. Historians Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi recount the story well in a new book, The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Armenians and other Christians, particularly Syriac and Greek Orthodox, comprised a significant portion of the population of the Ottoman Empire’s eastern provinces. When Christians asserted their rights under Ottoman law, it caused a backlash from the wider Muslim population. Some Christians formed paramilitary groups to protect themselves from depredations. Resistance led to rounds of brutal state repression, particularly the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s, during which hundreds of thousands of Christians died.
When World War I began, the Young Turk government worried that Christians, especially Armenians, would prove disloyal. So the government decided to deport the entire Armenian population from Anatolia to Syria—through the desert, without adequate food, water, or shelter. Columns of refugees were attacked by Turkish and Kurdish irregulars along the way, typically with the collaboration of the officials who were supposed to be guarding the victims. Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenian Christians perished in death marches and slaughters.
Advocates have been seeking official American recognition of these events for decades, but the drive has intensified recently. It is not simply a matter of paying tribute to past victims. The events of 1915 bear on the plight of Christians in the region today. Middle Eastern Christians and their (few) advocates in Washington know that the contemporary persecution and displacement of Christians in the region follows old patterns. Sometimes, even the towns and cities are the same. Just last week, ISIS ambushed and murdered a Catholic priest, Fr. Hovsep Bidoyan, while he visited a church in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. Deir ez-Zor was the site of a vast concentration camp where hundreds of thousands of Armenians died 100 years ago.
The Genocide resolution is about the future as well as the past. Reminding people of past atrocities can, one hopes, prevent their repetition. Before last month, Genocide resolutions had always failed, for a simple reason. Turkey denies that the events of 1915 constituted genocide and has successfully pressured the U.S. government to remain silent about it. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have strongly opposed the resolution and prevented it from coming to a vote.
This time, the politics shifted. The Turkish invasion of northern Syria, which has displaced more than 300,000 people, has wounded Turkish credibility in Washington. The invasion has placed the region’s Christians in grave danger: Just when ISIS seemed suppressed, the Turkish invasion has given the group new life. Because of its irritation with Turkey, the Trump State Department signaled it did not strongly oppose the House resolution, which gave Republicans a green light to vote for the measure. And of course many Democrats were eager to pass the resolution in order to embarrass the Trump Administration, which had mishandled the situation (first withdrawing U.S. troops and allowing Turkey to invade Syria, and then issuing empty warnings about the consequences).
In short, politics largely explains why the resolution passed last month, after so many years of trying. But that doesn’t mean the resolution is wrong. Occasionally, political calculations encourage lawmakers to do the right thing.
What is one to make of Senator Graham? He has expressed outrage at Turkey’s invasion of Syria. He recently suggested that NATO should expel Turkey for threatening the Kurdish militias who helped destroy ISIS. But his comments and his vote to block the Genocide resolution will only embolden Turkey and threaten the region’s Christians even more. Turkey does not see ISIS as a terrible problem and would happily accept the group’s revival, if that means injuring the Syrian Kurds.
That local Christians like Fr. Bidoyan will pay the price for the revival of ISIS is, to put it mildly, not a difficulty for Turkey. What difference would it make? In 100 years, people like Graham will suggest the suffering was all a fantasy, anyway. It won’t be the Armenian Christians who died in 1915 who will pay for Graham’s actions. It will be the dwindling and threatened Christian minority in the Middle East today.