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This is Genocide: The U.S. Senate’s Armenian Gambit vis-à-vis Turkey

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

Now that Donald Trump is inhabiting the White House, the waning of the U.S. as a global power is all but accelerating. Some countries though still seem to attach a lot of importance to American words and actions. The Republic of Turkey, currently ruled by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (or the Prez) and his Justice and Development Party (or AKP) appears to be a case in point.

That most mercurial of American political operators, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, was able to thwart the Senate vote on the recognition of Armenian genocide when the Prez was visiting Washington DC last November. But now, the Democrat Bob Menendez from New Jersey and the Republican Ted Cruz from Texas have co-sponsored a Senate resolution on 12 December for the U.S. to recognize and commemorate the Armenian Genocide. And this “nonbinding” resolution was unanimously passed: “That it is the sense of the Senate that it is the policy of the United States . . .  to commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance.” S. RES. 150 does not require President Trump’s signature, but will undoubtedly ensure that tempers flare up in Turkey whenever the fateful 24th of April approaches. Afterwards, Trump roundly rejected the Congressional vote, with his administration stating that it does not consider the Armenian tragedy to be a “genocide.”

NPR’s National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC., Brakkton Booker slyly, though somewhat erroneously remarks that “Turkey largely acknowledges that Armenians were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces, but it has often disputed the figures and denies the killings amounted to genocide.” In reality, the Turkish side of the story does not just simply downplay the numbers involved, but in actual fact sees the massacre of Ottoman Armenians in the context of the then ongoing war effort (1914-18) and as part of the Ottoman suppression of open Armenian rebellion and treacherous collusion with the Russian Empire. The Danish historian Torben Jørgensen somewhat mischievously summarises the basic Turkish view on the matter in the following off-hand manner: “Nothing happened to the Armenians, and anyway it was their own fault.”

The Invented Tradition of Turkish Denialism: At the Intersection of Terror and Historiography

In fact, the 1915 events in Ottoman Anatolia bind the U.S. and Turkey in a strange and convoluted manner. Insightfully, Torben Jørgensen recounts that “fifty years after the genocide, in 1965 Armenian societies in different countries went out into the streets in remembrance of the events of 1915. In California Armenian-American activists got together with the governor Ronald Reagan [1911-2004, 1967-75] and other prominent politicians and civil servants for the inauguration of a Martyrs’ Memorial.” For, the U.S. state of California is home to a sizeable Armenian population. Already in the 19th century, “approximately 5,000 Armenians had immigrated to the United States.” These numbers would rise in the course of the 20th century, and it is estimated that between 1.5 and 2 million Armenians nowadays reside in the U.S., with more than 200,000 individual living in California today. In “1973 two Turkish diplomats from the Los Angeles Consulate were shot and killed by an elderly Armenian survivor [by the name of Gourgen Yanikian],” and this murder “started a series of Armenian attacks in several countries throughout this decade,” explains Jørgensen. Between 1973 and 1985, “[m]ore than forty Turkish citizens, most of them diplomats, were killed during the Armenian terror,” Dr Jørgensen adds. The Washington Post‘s education columnist Jay Mathews in a 1982 piece explains that at “least six separate Armenian terrorist groups bombed or damaged Turkish embassy property in Beirut, Paris, Vienna, Madrid, Berne, the Hague, Brussels, Athens and Geneva. Turkish airline offices have been bombed in Rome, London, Amsterdam, Milan, Paris, Geneva, Frankfurt, and Copenhagen. Also bombed were the Ottoman Bank in London and the [now no longer extant Atatürk] airport and Galata Bridge in Istanbul.” Drs Laura Dugana, Julie Y. Huang, Gary LaFreea and Clark McCauley published a concise study of this arguably intense yet short-lived episode of active Armenian terrorism in 2008: “ASALA [or, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia] began in the mid-1970s, and by the early 1980s had become extremely active. In 1982 alone, ASALA mounted 25 attacks, killing 18 people and injuring 111 others. However, immediately thereafter, attacks and fatalities attributed to ASALA plummeted, and by 1988, the organization had effectively disintegrated. JCAG [or, the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide] was less active than ASALA in terms of either number of strikes or casualties, but, like ASALA, JCAG increased its activities into the early 1980s and ended its attacks by 1988.” The authors argue that these terror groups suddenly experienced a “loss of legitimacy among the Armenian diaspora population that supported them and gave them cover” as a result of a particularly bloody attack on the Paris airport of Orly, when an “explosive device detonated prematurely in the terminal area by the Turkish Airlines counter, killing eight people (four French, two Turkish, one American, and one Swedish) and wounding over 50 more.”

The last ASALA-claimed terror attack occurred in 1988, but this bloody episode lasting from 1973 till 1988 ensured that the issue of the Armenian genocide had now permanently entered global consciousness. These single-issue Armenian terrorists had even targeted historians dealing with Turkey and the Ottoman Empire.

As with most things related to Turkish studies, the godfather of Orientalism, Bernard Lewis (1916-2018), provided the original blueprint used by Turkish academic opinion and apologists alike. Lewis’ seminal and immensely influential book The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961) namely put it like this: “For the Turks, the Armenian movement was the deadliest of all threats . . . [when] a desperate struggle between them began — a struggle between two nations for the possession of a single homeland, that ended with the terrible holocaust of 1915, when, according to some estimates, up to a million and half Armenians perished, as well as an unknown number of Turks.” These pregnant words lay dormant until the Armenian issue was brought out in the open as a result of already-mentioned Armenian campaign of terror, as I contended in an earlier article. The first one to follow Lewis’ lead was arguably, the UCLA Professor (1968-97) Stanford J. Shaw (1930-2006). As an academic, Shaw was an historian of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, and throughout his career he has acted as the lofty and supposedly impartial academic voice of Turkish denialism in the West. Particularly, his two-volume History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey (1976-7), penned together with his wife Ezel Kural Shaw, which remains a stalwart albeit antiquated textbook, takes a prominent place in this context. The second volume, dealing with the 19th and 20th centuries, contains an ‘Armenian’ section consisting of some seven out of nearly one thousand pages (both volumes combined). These seven pages indicate that at the time the Armenian issue had not been high on the historical agenda. And, arguably this neglect as well as his facile way of dealing with the matter have led to many academic and less academic attacks on the figure of Professor Shaw.

Dr Maria Karlsson, an historian specialising in the topic of genocide denial, summarised the Shaws’ handling of the issue as follows in 2011: In those seven pages, “the Armenians are cast as the rebellious, provocative revolutionary force that, in fact, threatened the very existence of Empire, and the massacres and marches are depicted as civil war,” which is very much in line with Lewis’ depiction. Shaw’s portrayal has provided Turkish politicians and historians alike with a template, a narrative picture to counter Armenian claims and scholarship: “Stanford Shaw had close connections with the Turkish government. He delivered what was necessary: Shaw observed the usual formalities in academic texts, i.e. notes, bibliographies etc. His title and position at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) gave him prestige. Above all Shaw was trained in the Western academic tradition, he understood Western thinking, and therefore could help in leading the Turkish denial of the genocide in 1915 along new paths which were more sophisticated,” as explained by Jørgensen.

SEE ALSO: Turks, Kurds, Armenians & Americans: Genocide Denial as Turkish Republic’s Raison d’être

In the latter part of the academic year 1977, the professor’s home was firebombed, forcing him to cancel the rest of his classes for the remainder of the quarter. Following his retirement from UCLA twenty years later, Shaw went to Bilkent University in Ankara, where he again acted as professor of Ottoman and Turkish history from 1999 till his death in 2006. Following Shaw’s demise, the equally pugnacious professors Heath Lowry and Justin McCarthy have now taken over the mantle as Turkey’s main academic apologist in the West. And as a result, Lowry has in due time been appointed the Atatürk professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies at Princeton University (a position established and paid for by the Turkish government in 1991), whereas McCarthy has even received Turkey’s Order of Merit in 1998 and has also famously lectured Turkey’s parliamentarians on “The Reality of Armenian Issue” in 2005. These three American historians – whom Karlsson calls the “triad of Western deniers of the Armenian Genocide” – stand at the basis of what I have called the invented tradition of Turkish denialism that has dominated the intellectual discourse on the issue in Turkey throughout the latter part of the 20th and at the outset of the 21st centuries.

New Cold War Realities: The “Kurds” as the new Armenians

This strong American connection is illustrative of Turkey’s importance as a NATO member during the Cold War (1947-91).  The ‘Armenian Issue’ has always functioned as a bargaining chip in the Turco-American relationship. And now that the world is arguably going through a New Cold War, AKP-led Ankara appears to be distancing itself Washington while seeking connections to Moscow and Beijing. Last month, Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina acted as if yesteryear’s Cold War realities were still valid today, even telling the press that his object was not “to sugarcoat history or try to rewrite it, but to deal with the present.” But now Menendez and Cruz appear to have broken the spell, and catapulted the Armenian bargaining chip into the 21st century as an open threat to the New Turkey and providing a sure source of annual discomfort in Ankara. Menendez and Cruz’s successful intervention came “after three GOP senators previously blocked passage of the resolution amid pressure from the White House, which argued that it would undercut negotiations between Washington and Ankara,” as put by The Hill‘s Senate Reporter Jordain Carney. The U.S. Senate vote brings to “32 the number of countries who recognize the mass killings of Armenians as genocide. France and Italy joined the list earlier this year. In Britain, the three devolved legislatures of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have given formal recognition, but not the UK as a whole.” And rather than leading the world in this context, as seems to be the American prerogative, the United States have now simply joined ranks with others in condemning Turkey as a historical perpetrator unspeakable crimes and outrages. And this apparently rather new or fresh ‘memory’ or ‘consciousness’ of past Turkish crimes easily bleeds into present perceptions of Turkish policy goals and actions, as is vividly illustrated by the current concern with the fate of the “Kurds” of northern Syria (particularly the enclave known as Rojava).

And in the present context, these “Kurds” even seem to be eager to play an Armenian role in this Turco-American tête-à-tête that has now come out in the open. The SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) General Commander Mazloum Abdi Kobani (whom Turkey has identified as PKK operative Ferhat Abdi Şahin) actually tweeted that “[t]he US Senate adopted a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. This is a clear message that genocide campaigns are not possible in the 21st century. This decision will stop Turkey from committing massacres against the Kurdish people and stop its invasion of Rojava” (7:50 pm, 13 Dec 2019). Even though, public opinion recently declared that President Trump had thrown the Kurds under the bus, Abdi Kobani’s tweet nevertheless indicates that the “Kurds” or rather the PYD/YPG/YPJ/PKK nexus would still prefer to be under the American aegis. In a rather strange and somewhat twisted way, the “Kurds” seem to be seeking U.S. protection as had been offered the Armenians in the Berlin Treaty (1878)’s Article 61: “The Sublime Porte [name traditionally given to the Ottoman government] undertakes to carry out, without further delay, the ameliorations and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by the Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Circassians and the Kurds . . . . It will make known periodically the steps taken to this effect to the Powers, who will superintend their application.” The ‘Powers’ alluded to are the “Great European Powers” acting as guarantor of the treaty – “Great Britain, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, [and] Russia.” A certain irony is contained in the fact that the “Great European Powers” were at the time asking ‘Turkey’ (or the “Sublime Porte”) to protect Christian Armenians against possible violent transgressions carried out by Muslim Kurds and Circassians (known as Çerkes, in Turkish, and denoting a Muslim ethnic group hailing from the Caucasus that had been expelled by the Russian Empire in the period 1864-7, a historical episode that also carries the moniker of “A Forgotten Genocide,” in some circles). As such, Kurdish culpability in the execution of massacres as part of the Armenian genocide has been a long-attested certainty. Some years ago, Professor Ariel I. Ahram matter-of-factly mentions that the execution of the “Armenian genocide during World War I . . . entailed massive involvement by Kurdish militias armed and recruited by Ottoman authorities.” And previously, during the latter part of the 19th century, Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) “ordered the creation of the Hamidiye Regiments (Hamidiye Alayları) in [Ottoman Anatolia’s] eastern provinces. This was a system of village guards comprised of Kurds,” and subsequently, “these newly established regiments [were deployed] in the Ottoman campaign against the Armenians,” as recounted by Dr Maya Arakon. As a matter of fact, Kurdish tribes under the guise of the Hamidiye Regiments proceeded to ethnically cleanse Armenians as well: “The Hamidiye Regiments were thus an excuse for Kurds to mistreat the Armenians and to drive them out of the regions that they considered Kurdish,” as related by the historian Naci Kutlay (as translated by Arakon). These historical facts put more than just a question mark on the Kurdish-led HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party)’s 2015 election platform that included the phrase that “the [Turkish] state should issue state-level apologies for genocides and massacres committed against different groups over the years.” But now, the PYD/YPG/YPJ/PKK nexus, arguably in some nefarious and opaque way also linked to the HDP, via a tweet launched into cyberspace by Mazloum Abdi Kobani seems to be volunteering to take the place of 19th and 20th-century Armenians in the 21st century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the “Great Powers” proved remarkably ineffective in “superintending” ‘ameliorations and reforms’ meant to safeguard the Armenian population of Ottoman Anatolia. In the present configuration, the United States seem even less able to act as a shield to protect the “Kurds” in Syria (or Rojava) against possible Turkish incursions and/or supposed genocidal intent.

Visitors to the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan on October 30, 2019 (Image Source: CNN, Credit: Karen Minasyan AFP/GETTY)

American-Armenians are now happily celebrating the American recognition of the Armenian genocide. And on the historiographical front, Dr Taner Akçam, as the sole Turkish historian of note to openly use and publish about the G-word, actually says that the “Senate decision is a historic one [marking] a historic day, not only for Armenians but also for people of Turkey and also for all those who are fighting for truth and justice.” But in the cold light of day, it seems to me that Senators Menendez and Cruz may very well have achieved their victory, but in view of the ever-changing New Cold War configurations, the rift between Washington and Ankara may also seem ever-widening, arguably lessening the impact of the Senate decision. In fact, taking the whole affair to a whole new level, the Prez himself appearing on the pro-AKP A Haber television channel came out with a frankly rather absurd riposte: “We should oppose [the U.S. Senate decision] by reciprocating such decisions in [Turkey’s] parliament. And that is what we will do. Can we speak about America without mentioning [Native Americans]? It is a shameful moment in US history.” Erdoğan’s advisers may very well have heard Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, a well-known supporter of Muslim causes worldwide who is not averse to associating herself with the Prez. Omar, who voted “present” in last month’s House vote, has namely publicly said that a “true acknowledgment of historical crimes against humanity must include both the heinous genocides of the 20th century, along with earlier mass slaughters like the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide, which took the lives of hundreds of millions of indigenous people in this country.”

Does this now mean that Ankara-Washington relations are going to devolve into tit-for-tat recriminations against the backdrop an ever widening trans-Atlantic rift?!

In the same context, Ankara may also very well be moving closer to Moscow, but one should not lose sight of the fact that Russia already in 1995 ”recognize[d] April 24 as a day of remembrance for the victims of the [Armenian] Genocide.” And this probably means that the New Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will in the coming weeks and months once again be forced to hone his dance skills in order to perform breath-taking geopolitical pirouettes to please and/or seduce his dance partners, whomever they may be . . . like a crazed whirling dervish on an eternal loop between Ankara, Washington, Moscow, Bejing and any other location that might prove useful in the long or short term. In a strange yet striking way, S. RES. 150 may now very well have diffused the deadly charge contained in the Armenian-American time-bomb previously forever threatening Turkey.

21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans. the greater Middle East, and the world beyond.. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in the English language Turkish press, culminating in him becoming the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @TheErimtanAngle. Read Can’s archive here.

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