Truth, notoriously, is the first casualty of war. The truth about the fate of Armenians living under Ottoman rule in 1915 may not be dead yet, but it has certainly wilted in the glare of Washington lobby politics. What should be the subject of solemn commemoration, has instead become the subject of a Mexican standoff, with a plethora of international actors promising dire recriminations if their own view of that tragic history does not hold sway.
A Turkish government at odds with its own military, a democratic US Congress unmindful of the Presidency administration, America’s Armenian community and other ethnic lobbies, the small Armenian community left in Turkey, Armenia itself, even the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq have all drawn their pistols. The immediate cause of this complex matrix of bluff and double bluff is a decision by the foreign affairs committee of the US House of Representatives to recommend the passing of a resolution that would recognise an Armenian genocide.
Turkey is so affronted by the decision that it has thrown itself, according to many commentators, into a frenzy of self-harm. The Turkish parliament has just passed a decree of its own which would allow the army to pursue Kurdish separatist targets in the north of Iraq. Public opinion is outraged at the recent deaths of Turkish soldiers and civilians as well as foiled terror operations on a much wider scale in the capital, all attributed to militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK). These Turkish Kurds appear to operate with impunity in the de facto independent Kurdish entity in Iraq despite Ankara’s repeated calls to the US and Iraq to sort the problem out. Whereas a limited ‘hot pursuit’ operation would probably not produce a breakdown in the Iraqi north (where there are already small numbers of Turkish troops), a more ambitious operation could well land Turkey in the same imbroglio the US finds itself in the rest of that country. So far Turkey has heeded US admonitions to respect the status quo. The EU, which Turkey aspires to join, has warned against any belligerence.
One would think that the passing of the genocide resolution, which Turks regard as an unfriendly act, will make the country’s military less likely to stay its hand. The price of oil spiked to a record high of over $88 per barrel on the news. To this has to be added another threat being whispered by the Turks that they will retaliate directly by denying or limiting US access to Incirlik airbase. This facility on the Mediterranean is vital for the provisioning of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and would be a key staging point in the event of a US withdrawal.
The curious thing is that the current Turkish government spent much effort in the build up to the 22 July general election resisting the demands of its military to give it licence to go into Iraq. The conventional wisdom then was very different. Most believed that the Turkish military was putting pressure on the government not because they wanted to storm across the border but that they were agitating for permission to go into Iraq to undermine the credibility of a government whose secular credentials they suspected. With an election victory safely under their belt, it seems the government is happy to call the military’s bluff. The message to their own generals is to be careful for what they wish. Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, confirmed that the passage of the motion would not commit Turkey to any immediate operation. At the same time he has upped the pressure on the US and the Kurdish administration in the north to do something about the PKK.
While Turkey may be trying to spin the Armenian resolution to its own advantage, it is genuinely fearful of damage to its prestige. While there may be individual Turkish scholars prepared to look harder at the nation’s past, official history gives zero credence to claims of genocide. Instead, Turkey proposes a joint historical commission to look at the facts. To many ethnic Armenians this is just a way of stalling recognition that the Earth is round.
One explanation proffered as to why Ankara refuses to cede an inch in the debate is that it might lead to endless legal wrangling in the US courts. Turkish diplomats used to study the three Rs of ‘recognition, recompense, and restitution’ but now legal opinion has shifted. The current view in the Turkish foreign ministry is that the passing of what is after all a non-binding resolution expressing the opinion of the US House of Representatives would not open the flood gate to class actions.
The more convincing explanation for Turkish obduracy is that most people do not actually believe there is a case to answer. School text books teach that the Turkish Republic emerged from the ashes of the First World War in the teeth of opposition from the great European powers. So many Turks died during the war campaigns and so many Muslims died in the Caucasus in the bloody aftermath that no Turkish politician will stand up to say ‘Yes, but…’
The assumption that the resolution could only be killed in committee and would pass if it reached the House floor is no longer unquestioned. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, who has backed the resolution in face of presidential displeasure, is now dodging a hail of editorials claiming she is gratuitously insulting a loyal Turkish ally and putting American lives at risk. Not all politics is local, they warn. The result is that 21 sponsors of the resolution have now withdrawn. The more cutting criticism comes from those who accuse Ms Pelosi, or the main sponsor of the resolution , Californian representative Adam Schiff, not of putting morality above Realpolitik but playing ‘genocide politics’ themselves.
There are those who accuse the backers of the resolution of ‘caring less about justice and more about votes and campaign contributions from the Armenian-American lobby, concentrated in the key 2008 election battlefields of California, New Jersey and Michigan,’ according to Simon Tisdall in the Guardian. Author Stephen Kinzer writes that Turkey must answer to charges of genocide but says that the House of Representatives is not the one to wag the finger. ‘It is another depressing confirmation that Congress – as personified by Pelosi – leaps to grasp temporary political advantage and inflame world tensions when it should be trying to calm passions and promote reconciliation.’
The argument liberal-minded Turks, and indeed former Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosyan, have against the resolution is that it will not force Turkey to re-examine its history but simply fuel the forces of isolation. The resolution will make it more difficult to re-establish normal relations between Turkey and Armenia. The land border between the two is closed not because of the genocide issue, but because Turkey protests the occupation by Armenia of great swathes of territory during the war with Azerbaijan. Some Turks fear the resolution will be oil on the nationalist fires in Turkey, and while they might not burn out of control, they question who will guarantee to control the blaze. This argument, that the resolution undermines forces for change in Turkey, cuts little ice across the Atlantic among the resolution’s supporters, who see the conjuncture of a Democratic Congress eager to defy a discredited Republican president as a rare opportunity to see historical justice done. And, they argue, how powerful are those forces for change when even a Turkish government, advertised as reform minded, still tolerates a raft of legislation used to limit freedom of expression?
It is pledged to promulgating a new, more liberal, constitution but in the meantime it still hangs on to laws like article 301 of the penal code, which notoriously makes it an offence to insult ‘Turkishness’. Even as the US Congress was debating Resolution 106, an Istanbul court was convicting Turkish-Armenian journalists Sarkis Seropyan and Arat Dink (son of assassinated Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink). Both were given a one-year suspended sentence for the publication of an interview with Hrant Dink in 2006 in his own weekly newspaper Agos in 2006 in which he discussed the Armenian genocide in Turkey and advocated a repeal of article 301. The same item, appearing in a Reuters report, was carried by other Turkish newspapers but only Agos, which mainly serves the Armenian community, was indicted.
It is not surprising that the remaining Armenians in Turkey are fearful of the consequences of a House resolution which promises to brand them as a fifth column. Towards the end of September, the Istanul Patriarch, Mesrob II, who attends to the spiritual need of the remaining Armenian 70,000 souls in Turkey, actually went to Washington partly to make clear his opposition to 106. One person travelling in the Patriarch’s entourage went as far as to accuse the diaspora of resenting the very existence Armenians still in Turkey, and even happy to encourage a backlash.
Many American-Armenians believe that their co-ethnics in Turkey have views that need not be taken into consideration either because they are too frightened to speak, what they say is coerced, or they have become Uncle Toms and traitors to their own cause. The Patriarch was judicious in his words, but it was clear that some did not want him to speak at all. A presentation he was meant to give at Georgetown University on how to end the impasse between Turk and Armenian was cancelled for ‘security reasons’. It was to be held at the Woodstock Theological Center, which had agreed to host the talk on short notice at the request of the Rumi Forum, an Islamic-centered interfaith dialogue group associated with the theologian Fethullah Gulen. After being swamped with requests for press facilities, and under reported pressure from Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the Center clearly threw in the towel.
Whether the resolution passes or not, the recriminations will continue. The search for justice and the search for truth seem badly served by what has become an arm wrestle between competing Washington lobbies.