When does a massacre rise to the level of genocide and when does the world render such a judgment?
Those are the unspoken questions underlying this month’s rhetorical firestorm created when leaders in both the Senate and the House of Representatives suddenly highlighted legislation that had been discreetly buried in sub-committees since the middle of March. The virtually identical non-binding resolutions (S.106 and H.106, respectively) called for U.S. foreign policy to reflect “appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian Genocide” that occurred during World War I in modern day Turkey – then the Ottoman empire.
The Turkish government went ballistic. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan warned of serious consequences if either chamber of the U.S. Congress passed its bill. The Bush administration warned that approval would – not “could” but “would” – create a serious rupture with an important NATO ally. Turkey is a vital link in the U.S. air logistics system resupplying U.S. forces in Iraq. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in the course of answering a question during a mid-month press conference, noted that 70 percent of all air logistics for Iraq and 33 percent of fuel used in the war flow through or over Turkish territory.
Secretary of State Rice took issue with the timing of congressional leaders. All living former secretaries of state and national security advisors registered opposition to the resolutions. Secretary Gates also took issue with the timing, as did the Commander of U.S. Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, who observed that “the resolution in the House on the Armenian genocide…just sticks a knife in and just runs it around” (New York Post, October 23, 2007).
Ankara’s reaction seemed disproportionately swift and severe, particularly considering that the dates most often given for the mass executions of Armenians are 1915-1918, years before the official founding of the modern state of Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Ataturk). A quick search revealed that in every decade since World War II, one or more congressional resolutions condemning the Armenian genocide creates a stir and may even advance down the legislative road – a sparsely-attended hearing or a sub-committee vote in the House of Representatives.
Starting in the 1980s, Ankara upped the ante by hiring top-flight Washington public relations firms to undermine congressional sentiment for pursuing legislation. The significance of this additional element suggests that by the 1980s, Ankara was no longer on the psychological defensive – the “sick man of Europe” as it was described in 1914. Although not initially alarming, the slow emergence of the “new” radicalized practitioners of terror transformed Turkey from a “marginal” player in any NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict to a central position, as the only Muslim-majority and the only “Oriental” member of NATO, in Washington’s (and a reluctant European Union’s) efforts to reduce violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other locales in the Middle East.
Still, this year’s response was so vehement that something else must be in play. Without question, Turks believe they have greater freedom to act in 2007 because the Bush administration has failed so miserably in its “global war on terror.” And it has been only 55 months since the Turkish parliament voted against letting U.S. troops cross Turkish territory to participate in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq – and made it stick. Moreover, Turkey’s religious-based ruling Justice and Development party has survived in power (and won 340 of 550 seats in parliament in elections held July 23, 2007) for more than five years without a coup d’etat by the staunchly secularist Turkish military is also a source of newfound confidence in the country.
Both the government and the military also agreed on the need to subdue the Kurdish fighters of the PKK who use the rugged terrain of the Iraq-Turkish border as a base for rest and rearming. This part of Iraq is controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish parties and defended by the 100,000-strong pesh merga. They have proved unable or politically incapable of implementing promises to the Bush administration and Erdogan’s government to halt PKK attacks that are creating a low but constant death toll – similar to the American experience in Iraq – among Turkish units on the border. In response to this failure, the Turkish parliament approved legislation empowering the prime minister and the army chief to send more Turkish troops into Iraq to destroy PKK fighters and base areas.
All authorities in Turkey stress that they will act only if the Iraqi and coalition forces fail to rein in the PKK. They are not keen to become further enmeshed in going after the PKK given the history of the Armenian suppression. When spelled out, the psychology of repression is ugly, as the following thumbnail sketch of Armenia’s history and a more general look at 20th century genocides reveal.The History of the Armenian Genocide
At the end of the 19th century, the once-mighty Ottoman Empire was struggling to control its restive Christian Armenian minority. Estimates of the number killed in uprisings against the autocratic ottoman sultans in the last decade of the 19th century run to more than 100,000. Ironically, it was a group of army officers – the “Young Turks” – concerned about the widening gap in capabilities between Ottoman and European armies, who forced the sultan to accept limitations on his power. Not content sharing power, three officers – Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver, and Ahmed Djemal – engineered a coup d’etat in 1913 and assumed total control of the government as well as the military. The next year they took Turkey into World War I on the side of the Central Powers (Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) – the losing side.
But the war also held promise to be an excuse for solving what some in the new regime called the “Armenian problem.” The vision of the triumvirate was a New Turkey – called Turan – stretching from the Mediterranean islands off Turkey’s western flank all the way across Central Asia to the Caspian Sea. Some 500,000 Armenians were in this broad area whose boundaries included much of the historic Armenian homeland. With the Eastern Front pitting Turks against Russians, “special measures” were required to insure the integrity of the war effort.
- All weapons held by Armenians were confiscated as the population was considered sympathetic to their fellow Christians in Russia.
- The 40,000 Armenians in the Turkish army were disarmed and converted to labor battalions.
- In April 1915, Armenian political, cultural, religious, and other elites were seized in coordinated raids and then killed. Mass arrests of Armenian men and their execution followed. Ironically, some Kurds joined in the killing. The allied powers warned the Turkish rulers to stop, but with the war grinding on, the implied threat was toothless.
- Undeterred, the three rulers initiated new measures against women and children –forced marches with little food or water, with the victims in some cases being marched into the desert.