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‘Armenian Orphan Rug’ displayed by White House

The Ghazir Rug is an Armenian style rug woven by orphans of the Armenian genocide in Ghazir, Lebanon. Also known as the Armenian Orphan Rug, it was gifted to President Calvin Coolidge in 1925 and kept in storage at the White House until being put on display in the White House Visitors Office in November 2014. (photo by Wikimedia Commons)

The White House’s decision to put the “Armenian Orphan Rug” on public display is just another manifestation of recent tensions in US-Turkey relations. Turkey no longer plays a key role in any of the regional issues, and Turkey-US relations are definitely much different from a year ago.

This interesting exhibit was put on display this week in Washington. Named the Armenian Orphan Rug, it was woven by Armenian girls orphaned in 1915. It is now on display at the White House Visitor Center.

The timing that made the exhibit more interesting was its [alignment] with the peaking of tensions in US-Turkey relations. But, first, some background to the decision to exhibit the rug.

About a year ago, on Nov. 23, 2013, I wrote an article on then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s Washington visit and the Armenian Orphan Rug. Recalling that article will help understand how the relations have soured since.

I wrote:

“As I was thinking of Ahmet Davutoglu’s Washington visit, I saw a news item in Foreign Policy journal about a rug woven by Armenian girls orphaned in 1915. The news report was important, as it sheds light on the [Barack] Obama administration’s approach to Turkey. In his meeting with Davutoglu, [John] Kerry practically avoided mentioning anything that was happening in Turkey and any issue that could raise tensions with Turkey. To refrain from micro-politics and to focus on the big picture is the paramount foreign policy principle of the Obama administration. … Obama, aware of his dwindling influence in the region, doesn’t want to upset an ally like Turkey. That is why although they are frequently discussed in Washington think tanks and in closed meetings, the US never raises issues such as the Gezi protests and violence against women in official meetings.

“Now, about the rug woven by Armenian children after World War I and then presented to the US president. The rug was woven by 1,400 Armenian orphan girls of 1915 at the Ghazir orphanage as a gesture of gratitude to the US for its assistance. In 1925, the rug was presented to President Calvin Coolidge. Until the of end Coolidge’s tenure, the rug stayed in the White House and was then given to the Coolidge family. In the 1980s, the family donated the rug back to the White House where it has since been displayed during special occasions related to Armenia.

“A couple of weeks ago, the Smithsonian Museum asked to borrow the rug to promote a book on rugs. The request was denied by the White House. … Then, 31 congressmen, in a letter to the White House, asked for permission to display the rug at the museum. The White House did not answer.

“[The] rug was not loaned to the Smithsonian Museum [because] Obama is looking at Turkey in the big picture. As long as the war in Syria continues, no progress is made in nuclear talks with Iran; if bombs go off in Iraq, and Turkey continues to play a key role in all these crises, the Armenian Orphan Rug is destined to age in White House storage without seeing the daylight.”

This is what I wrote a year ago. But the situation is not the same today.

Yes, the war in Syria goes on. Bombs still explode in Iraq and the end of talks with Iran is uncertain. What has changed is this: Turkey no longer plays a key role in any of these issues, and Turkish-American relations reflect that.

Let’s have a look at what is happening in Iraq, Syria and Iran. Iran played a substantive and constructive role in setting up a new government in Iraq, in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and the signing of an oil agreement between Iraqi Kurds and Baghdad. Should the oil agreement succeed in solving the problems between Erbil and Baghdad, then Turkey’s influence in Iraq will diminish even more. If nuclear negotiations with Iran succeed, Turkey’s hand in Syria will weaken. One reason why Obama refrained from taking more serious steps against the Syrian regime was to not anger Iran and thus complicate the nuclear talks. If the nuclear issue with Iran is solved, then Washington can work with Iran even closer in Syria. This, of course, will marginalize Ankara’s role in a solution for Syria.

The White House’s decision to display the Armenian Orphan Rug is just another manifestation of tensions in US-Turkey bilateral relations in recent months. To note a few: Obama’s weapons assistance to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Kobani despite Turkey’s objections and Vice President Joe Biden’s lecture at Harvard accusing Turkey of supporting IS. And last week, after Ankara and Washington agreed to train 2,000 Syrian opposition militants at Kirsehir, the Americans announced that they would train PYD fighters in northern Iraq.

This is but a summary of Turkey’s status in regional politics and in its relations with the United States.

Perhaps the only positive aspect of this depressing picture is that it gives us an opportunity to view this priceless work created knot-by-knot by an aggrieved people to express their pain.

Gonul Tol

Al Monitor

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