Tuesday, October 16, 2007

POLITICS - The Vote on Armenian Genocide

The nuts and bolts of the vote on Armenian Genocide:

First, I’ll describe just what exactly this is for those not in the know. Armenians are a Christian ethnic group generally located in the eastern regions of Turkey, near the aptly-named nation of Armenia. The short of it is that hundreds of thousands of Armenian lives were lost, and both viewpoints agree on that. I’m not here to say whether I agree with the vote or not; whether I think the incident was genocide or it wasn’t. Rather, I am aiming to at least share my crazy ideas about what the vote really means about the future. This is not just outlining our view on history: this is directly related to everything that is going on in the Middle East today and what is yet to come.


Let’s start with some history to bring everybody up to speed on the goings-on in Anatolia (the Turkish peninsula) from the turn of the 19th-20th century up until today:

In the early 20th century, Turkey was undergoing revolution. The Ottoman Empire was on its way out and the Turkish Republic was on its way in. Specifically, toward the end of the 19th Century, the Ottoman monarchy was losing more and more power to the populace. In 1908 through 1909, revolution took its hold and the monarchy effectively lost its power. By 1912, power shifted about and ultimately a group (the Committee of Union and Progress) emerged, wielding the majority of influence through to 1918. The Turkish War of Independence began in 1919, and the founding of the modern Turkish Republic took place in 1923.

Now bear in mind what is going on over in Europe at this time. European monarchies were on their way out, too: the populace was gaining greater power and the royal families were losing power. The monarchies, looking to distract the populace, targeted scapegoats and blamed all problems on them. Hence, Jews and Gypsies – common foreigners throughout all the empires – took the brunt of the blame. The Jews were a particular target due to their perceived wealth, which added to the differentiation between them and the common lower-classes of the general populace; and confiscated loot made for a nice donation to the Imperial treasury.

World War I occurred between 1915 and 1918. All the European empires were rife with xenophobia: each nation thought they were superior to the other; and at the start of the war, everybody happily beat their war drums confident in that they would easily defeat their inferior neighbors. Racism was a fact of life during this time, and the Ottoman Empire faced the exact same issues as the European empires. The Christian Armenians tended to be a rather wealthy ethnic group, which made them prime targets for scapegoats.

The Ottoman Empire had a number of laws which basically guaranteed equality regardless of ethnicity or religion. Ethnic groups recognized by these laws were called “millet”, and sure enough the Armenians were a recognized millet. This alone put the Ottomans above most Europeans as far as tolerance is concerned. However, toward the end of the 19h century, Sultan Abdul Hamid II took the loss of monarchial powers to heart: suspending the constitution and assuming dictatorial powers. A scapegoat was needed to distract the public and solidify their unity: hence the initial confrontations against Armenians during the end of the 19th century.

The efforts of Sultan Hamid II faltered, and the secular “Young Turks” movement led a revolution in 1908 – effectively ousting the monarchy. Sultan Mehmet V took power in 1909, but while the monarchy continued to exist, it had little power. The Young Turks were initially welcomed by religious and ethnic minorities, but during the revolution, a more hard-line offshoot came to power: the Committee of Union and Progress – largely led by three powerful men whom came to be known as the Three Pashas.


Turkey was still highly unstable and facing significant unrest, so the Committee saw the same need to distract the populace in an effort to rally them behind a common, unifying cause. Come 1915, accusations were made that the Armenians were preparing to ally themselves with Russia (Russia being a member of the Allied Powers during World War I, and the Ottoman Empire being allied with the Central Powers). Hence, from 1915-1917, a war was waged which, at its end, resulted in hundreds of thousands of Armenian deaths – far overshadowing relatively insubstantial Turkish losses.

Here is where the touchy issues really start: some see these acts as genocide and others see these acts as unfortunate incidents arising from a period of unrest, where xenophobia was common throughout both Anatolia and Europe. Both sides agree that hundreds of thousands of Armenians died; the difference of opinion is solely in context. Personally, I think both sides are right, but view any acts as performed by the Turkish government of old rather than its reformed modern incarnation. Regardless of viewpoint, the confrontation ultimately made its way to Germany, forming the foundations of Adolf Hitler’s planning for World War II.

After World War I, the Allied forces took control of Turkey and reinstituted limited power to the monarchy. Between 1919 and 1920, a military tribunal was set up by Sultan Mehmed VI to try leaders for their involvement in World War I. The Three Pashas fled the nation and the military tribunal effectively dissolved the Committee of Union and Progress. The Three Pashas were found guilty in absentia of violating the ethnic/religious tolerance laws. They were sentenced to death, but were never officially executed. Two were assassinated in retaliation by Armenian forces, and another died of disputed circumstances: potentially by a Soviet soldier or potentially by an Armenian assassin.

The Allied victory in World War I instituted harsh penalties upon the losing nations. This led to the rise of fascism in Germany, but also brought about some relative good with the rise of the Turkish Republic. The peace treaty which the Ottoman Empire signed to formally end World War I was devastating to the independence and economy of Turkey. The treaty ceded lands in the east to form the two new nations of Georgia and Armenia. Anger over the penalties accepted by the Sultanate prompted Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to lead Turkish revolutionaries against the Ottoman Empire, the Allied occupation forces (including British, Greek, French, and Italian forces), and forces from the ceded lands of Georgia and Armenia. Per the peace treaty signed in 1923, this revolutionary’s victory formed the secular and relatively peaceful state that is the modern Turkish Republic, ensuring tasty kebabs and döner kebaps for all.


The peace treaties which defined the Turkish Republic set in motion issues such as that regarding Cyprus, but that’s generally irrelevant to this whole article. What is important is that it was during the turmoil of the revolutionary war that the Kurdish ethnic group in the southeast made repeated attempts at autonomy. These attempts would continue to be made until 1937, when the government placed the Kurdish areas under martial law. Prompted by the polarization of the world during the Cold War (Turkey was a very important Western ally), Kurdish nationalism rekindled in the 1970’s and continues to this day. The more notorious of nationalist movements is that of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group which aims to create an independent Marxist nation out of southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by the USA, NATO, and the EU, among others.

And so now we come to 2003, when Operation Iraqi Freedom began its incursion into Iraq. Turkey was an important ally during the Cold War, and remained so during this war. After much negotiation, American forces were permitted to use Turkish territory to for supply movement and as a base of operations for the war in Iraq. Critical to these negotiations was a commitment from the USA that it would not support an independent Kurdistan. Access to Turkish soil and airspace was absolutely critical to the USA, as it provide access to the northern portions of Iraq.

Today, the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq are comparatively peaceful. The border passes to the north provide billions of dollars in revenue to the Turkish government; and are all that keep the US forces in the north supplied. Supplies must arrive from Turkey, as it would be too risky to ship supplies from the south (via Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or the Persian Gulf). Syria and Iran are not particularly friendly toward the US (well, personally, I think it’s more the other way around), so we cannot bring in supplies through those borders. The only remaining country is Jordan (which is cordial toward the US), but has generally declined military involvement as it aims to maintain peace with all of its neighbors.


So now, after all that history, we finally come to the vote pending before Congress which would, if approved, formally recognize that what occurred in 1915-1917 was an act of genocide. That would make Turkey (or, specifically, the Ottoman Empire) responsible for what is widely considered to be the first act of modern, systematic extermination of a Human population.

Why now? It’s been 80 years and we’re only now, at a federal level, in a position where it looks likely that we’ll formally recognize the occurrence as genocide? Lo and behold, this is where modern politics comes to play with history.

As we all know, we are fighting an unpopular war in Iraq. “The time to stop the war was before we invaded!” Yes, we all know that, thank you Democratic rhetoric. I blame Republicans for leading us into war just as much as anybody else, but the Democrats are only pointing fingers; not offering solutions. Republicans are generally leaning toward troop increases, which – while not necessarily a good solution – is at least the best (read: “only”) real solution I’m hearing from anybody. OK I’m going to stop before I go off on a rant here, but basically the Democrats want us out of Iraq and they’re failing in Congress at any measures to do it.

The vote on Armenian Genocide may be the best indirect way the Democrats seek to end the war in Iraq. Already, Turkey has ordered that the ambassador to the US return to Turkey for consultations. This is among the strongest messages that a nation can send short of taking less-peaceful actions such as economic penalties or severing diplomatic ties entirely. Severing diplomatic ties is one step short of declaring war, sans the outright hostilities, and Turkey certainly does not wish to go to that extreme with a long-time ally.

Should the vote fail (meaning the USA continues to not recognize the incident as genocide), the Armenian population in America will be dissatisfied; but the world in general will continue on pretty much as it is right now. The war in Iraq will not be directly impacted.

There is a high possibility that the vote will pass and the USA formally recognize the incident as an act of genocide. Now the ball is in Turkey’s court as to how to react. They will react, but by how much is where the delicate politics of the Middle East comes in. The two most potent tools at Turkey’s disposal are the issue on Kurds and the use of Turkish airspace and border crossings.

Turkey has made numerous incursions into northern Kurdish Iraq under the premise of national security, seeking suspects accused of being aligned with the PKK. This generally fits in with the War on Terror and Turkey is a critical ally, so the US has turned a blind eye so long as incursions remain few and infrequent. The US needs to maintain peace with its ally, Turkey; but also with the Kurdish-Iraqi forces which maintain relative peace in the north – freeing manpower and resources to concentrate on the more chaotic southern regions of Iraq.


In response to the vote on Armenian Genocide, Turkey has indicated that they may potentially wage a full-scale occupation of Kurdish Iraq. Such a move would completely alienate the Kurdish population against Turkey and destabilize the peaceful northern region. This puts the US in a real bind: support our Turkish allies in cracking down on PKK terrorists under the premise of our War on Terror, alienating our Kurdish allies; or support the Kurds.

We won’t go with the latter. Why? Turkey has a bigger stick. If we supported the Kurds, Turkey would play its ace: use of airspace and border crossings. This is somewhat unlikely in itself as Turkey gains billions of Dollars in revenue from these agreements, but if we supported the Kurds… I’d wager that Turkey would shut these down in a heartbeat. If Turkey restricts either (or both), that is the end of the war in Iraq as we know it. That’d end any support of the Kurds, too. That’s it, right there. There would only be two options:

The first option is to keep fighting the war from the south northwards, using Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf to import supplies. The southern and central regions of Iraq would remain about as they are, but the north would be shot straight to Hell. Public sentiment would go from little to none as even supporters of the Iraq War question what the point is if we can only win two thirds of the country. It’d be an incomplete victory, assuming we could actually win. Nevermind the diplomatic fallout in Turkey itself which would like give rise to anti-American and less-secular movements. We’d then come to option #2:

Option #2 is what we’d either be forced to go with pretty much right away, or it’d take a few months before everything worked itself out such that this becomes the only option. That is: a complete withdrawal from Iraq.

As for the future of Iraq, there are three sections to look at: Iraq generally consists of the Kurdish-aligned north, the Syrian-aligned west, and the Iran-aligned east. Let’s look at the north first:

Turkey would be very likely to continue the occupation of northern Iraq. This could continue indefinitely: the world may either turn a blind eye to it, causing northern Iraq to potentially become annexed to Turkey proper; or the world may begin negotiations to return the land to Iraq. The latter may be likely, as tensions over the Armenian Genocide vote would cool down after a couple years.

During that time, Syria and Iran will likely strengthen their respective influences over Iraq. If the northern region remains occupied or if Turkey succeeds in formally annexing the land, it may inspire Syria and Iran to potentially occupy and/or annex the remaining portions of Iraq. It is possible, given Turkey’s history as an ally of the politically-dominant US, that annexation could be a possibility. If this occurs, the US would face a difficult diplomatic effort in rationalizing the support of a Turkish annexation but not Syrian and/or Iranian annexations. The obvious objection is that the US just doesn’t like Iran or Syria; but that wouldn’t be appropriate grounds, internationally, to block such moves whilst permitting another. So begins the next stage of the great debacle that is the Middle East: the next showdown with Syria and/or Iran.

Now let’s backtrack a bit… what if we support Turkey in cracking down on the PKK? The war in Iraq will continue, but resources and manpower will be drained to nil. This effectively opens a third war in addition to Afghanistan and Iraq: now we’ll be fighting against Kurdistan. Manpower in the south is already short even with the troop surge: our forces address one fire whilst another one burns; they address that second fire while the first one rekindles. If they leave to go north, both of those flames will flare up and the war will be lost.

Unfortunately, we won’t formally end the war for several months at the least – likely not until January 2009, when the Democratic victor wins Presidential election. Not to sound all confident in the liberal party and what-not: frankly I despise all the candidates; but let’s face it: the Democrats are going to win. Until then, with the third front opened up, hundreds of Allied, American, Turkish, Iraqi, and Kurdish lives will be lost unnecessarily. It’s particularly unfortunate in that this is the most likely path that will play out, unless Turkey backs down from its threats and ultimately takes a minor reaction to the vote.


If I were a betting man, I’d say that the vote will pass, Turkey will press into northern Iraq, we will support Turkey and open a third front, there will be twice as many casualty reports hitting the news, and we’ll leave Iraq behind by the end of 2009.

We’ll negotiate with Turkey to leave Iraq, we’ll succeed with those negotiations, and Iraq will be left decimated. Iran and Syria will increase their influence indirectly, but they won’t make a formal attempt at occupation and/or annexation. Anti-American extremists will take hold in Kurdistan and the general Kurdish populace will strengthen their demand for an independent Kurdistan formed from land in Turkey in Iraq.

We’ll be set up for the next round of wars in the Middle East, likely to come around full-circle by 2012.

That’s my guess. Let’s see how it pans out.