Genocide Acknowledgment: Why Turkey and the State Department Fear It

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The Armenian Weekly
Watertown, MA
February 3, 2001


Genocide Acknowledgment: Why Turkey and the State Department Fear It
By David Boyajian

Conventional wisdom says that the United States was bullied by Turkey into withdrawing the Armenian Genocide Resolution from the House of Representatives a few months ago.

Conventional wisdom is wrong. The most powerful nation on earth is not afraid of Turkey. Moreover, the US would have stood firm had it felt Genocide acknowledgment would advance its national interests.

In actuality, the United States-or part of it-has been Turkey's willing accomplice in the Genocide debacle and more.

The very fact that the big guns-the State Department foremost, but also the Pentagon, White House, and others-were unholstered to shoot down the resolution suggests that much is at stake.

Turkey is worried about Genocide acknowledgment. The Turkish government acknowledging the Genocide would puncture its overblown, can-do-no-wrong self-image. Furthermore, an admission could encourage other ethnic groups-notably Kurds, Assyrians, Greeks, and others-to more vigorously press for recognition of Turkish crimes against them.

More ominous, however, are the other generally cited consequences of acknowledging the Genocide: reparations and territorial claims.

Reparations to Armenians are a matter not only of money but also of possible restoration of individual, communal, and church property and landholdings lost in the Genocide. According to legal expert Shavarsh Toriguian, author of The Armenian Question and International Law, there are precedents for such types of cases.

Armenian territorial claims would probably be based on pacts such as the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which provided for Armenian and Kurdish states on formerly Ottoman land. Armenia's borders were delineated by President Wilson and included 16,000 square miles, with a Black Sea coastline, that presently lie in eastern Turkey.

Then there are other potential land problems, such as the 60-year old Syrian claim over the Turkish coastal province of Alexandretta-Hatay.

Turkey's ongoing fear of internal fracture is not unwarranted in view not only of legitimate claims by Armenians, Kurds, and others, but also Turkey's own tenuous identity based on forcing the catchall term "Turk" upon its varied population of Kurds, Laz, Balkan Muslims, Circassians, Chechens, Assyrians, Armenians, and others.

Territorial claims cast a shadow over Turkey's entire eastern half. This worries many Turks because even a minor loss of land there could cut the off country from the Turkic nations directly to the east.

Some Turks today openly say that their country has a "Sevres syndrome," referring to the fear that Turkish territory could splinter along ethnic lines, abetted by outside forces.

The Turkish Daily News recently reported that senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official Tansu Okandan "has emphasized that Armenia was continuing its territorial claims on Turkey, adding that Armenian authorities have identified six northeastern provinces of Turkey as 'western Armenia.'"

The same news agency states that some Turkish foreign policy experts "believe that Armenia's territorial claims are the main reason" for "pushing for global recognition of the alleged genocide of Armenians."

The official Web site of the Turkish Armed Forces says that "receiving compensation" and "obtaining territory from Turkey" are parts of an Armenian "plan."

Certainly neither Turkey nor the State Department have forgotten worldwide Armenian calls after World War II, also put forward by Stalin, to annex Kars and Ardahan to Soviet Armenia, calls that were rejected by Turkey and the US. The Republic of Armenia today has not put forward any territorial demands against Turkey.

Turkish officials frequently say that Turkey is a "unitary state," which specifically alludes to its anxiety over Kurdish separatism.

The State Department has been fretting too. Two years ago, US Ambassador to Turkey Mark Parris declared: "We want a democratic and stable Turkey, with its territorial integrity uncompromised." Translation: Both countries are worried about losing Turkish land.

For quite some time the State Department has refused to officially characterize the Armenian Genocide as "genocide." The new role of Turkey since the dissolution of the Soviet Union may have only reinforced US denial.

Were Turkey seen only as a NATO ally, a buffer against Russia, a friend of Israel, and an adversary of Iran and some Arab nations, these might be enough to explain the State Department posture on the Genocide.

But there's more: Turkey is central to the State Department's post-Cold War strategy to project the United States politically, economically, and even militarily into Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia, four of which are Turkic.

Referring to this very area, journalist and geopolitical analyst Anatol Lieven asserts that due to "the personal interests of some State Department officials and academics, the result has been an ambitious strategy to roll back Russian influence in the region and to replace it with a new, more benign American hegemony."

The overall goal is to stop imperialistic Russian pressures against its neighbors-nearly all of them ex-Soviet republics or satellites-and thereby, it is hoped, tame and physically contain Russia so that it can never again challenge the West.

As part of this strategy, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have recently joined NATO. Nearly all of the other ex-Communist countries of eastern Europe are on a fast-track for NATO membership.

On Russia's southern border in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the eight ex-Soviet republics are to be linked to the West mainly via oil and gas pipelines-such as the proposed Baku-Ceyhan and trans-Caspian projects-and bolstered with economic and military assistance from the West.

Georgia and Azerbaijan, though not Armenia, have expressed great eagerness to join NATO. The US Army's 82nd Airborne Division has even dropped in, literally, on Kazakhstan.

Facing an arc of independent or hostile countries across its entire land mass from Europe to China, Russia is to be contained to an extent undreamed of during the Cold War.

Turkey is a critical link in the containment policy. Its eastern territory is the only friendly land-bridge into the three republics of the Caucasus, which in turn is just across the Caspian Sea from Central Asia.

After all, northern routes into that region are blocked by Russia, while southern routes traverse countries that are hostile or problematic to the US-Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Therefore Turkey, particularly its east, must remain intact if the Russian bear is to be caged. Or so the State Department believes.

Turkey's eastern provinces are vulnerable to Armenian and Kurdish territorial claims. Thus, it would appear, the State Department looks with disfavor upon issues, such as Genocide acknowledgment, that might further such claims.

Whatever one may think of the goal of containing Russia, and putting aside overly sentimental notions of Russia as Armenia's "big brother," a side-effect of the plan is to isolate Armenia between its two Turkish adversaries. Armenia would also be distanced from Russia's counterbalancing presence and dependent on the alleged goodwill of the West. Historically, these elements have been disastrous for Armenians.

Perhaps an enlarged Armenia and a Kurdish state might someday be seen by the US as alternatives to eastern Turkey. This would, however, require a considerable shift in State Department thinking.

The need to link Azerbaijan to Turkey is emphasized by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's National Security Advisor. Mr. Brzezinski, in his book The Grand Chessboard, asserts that Azerbaijan is a "geopolitical pivot" and "the vitally important cork controlling access to the bottle [of the] Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia." Pipelines from Azerbaijan to Turkey "would prevent Russia from exercising a monopoly on access to the region."

Actually, the proposed Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, is viewed by most American experts as economically unjustifiable because there may never be enough Caspian oil to fill it.

Regardless, since even a largely empty pipeline would further the geopolitical goal of creating a permanent American passageway into the region, the State Department ignores the economic costs and continues to pressure oil companies for construction.

Armenia and Georgia are the only routes through which Turkey and the West can reach Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. Although Georgia is pro-Western and currently serves as the link between Turkey and Azerbaijan, it is torn by ethnic separatism and under pressure by Russia. That leaves Armenia, but its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed.

Only a Karabagh agreement can unseal the Armenian-Azeri border and, therefore, the crucial Turkey-Nakhichevan-Armenia-Azerbaijan corridor across southern Armenia. The detached Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan has a 6-mile border with Turkey. The Turkish-Armenian border might open as well.

The result: the Caucasus, Caspian Sea, and therefore Central Asia, would be thrown open to the West. But only if Karabagh is solved, which explains why the State Department so badly wants an agreement.

Incidentally, although it pretends otherwise, Russia does not particularly want a Karabagh agreement for these very same reasons.

So intent is the State Department to forge a Turkic corridor across Armenia that special negotiator Carey Cavanaugh recently said that he has not yet given up on the "Goble plan," which Armenia rejects, that envisions a formal exchange of land: Karabagh to Armenians, and southernmost Armenia (Meghri) to Azerbaijan.

Might the State Department acknowledge the Genocide to make Armenians more inclined to take a chance with a Karabagh agreement? Evidently not. Genocide recognition is apparently regarded as a slippery slope that could put eastern Turkey, and thus the goal of Russian containment, at risk.

Moreover, the State Department feels it will get what it wants without making any concessions to Armenians. Better, it thinks, to provide some aid to Armenia while making veiled threats that failure to reach a Karabagh accord will ultimately lead to Armenia's isolation.

Stripped of diplomatic niceties, "isolation" means this: "Play ball with the US, or you Armenians will find yourselves facing the Turks alone after we chase your friend, Russia, from the Caucasus, and, by the way, remember what happened in 1915."

Unfortunately, were Armenia to fall exclusively into the American orbit, it would be vulnerable to Turkish designs anyway because the US will nearly always let Turkey have its way. Witness, among many examples, Turkey's occupation of Cyprus, its vicious assaults on Kurds using American-made weapons, and, in the last decade, its saber rattling against Armenia.

Meanwhile, the State Department hedges its bets by urging "dialogue" between Turks and Armenians on the Genocide, hoping either that the issue becomes mired in endless academic discourse or that, through some miracle, an agreement is reached that does not disrupt US strategy.

If the State Department's containment policy drives it to lie about the Genocide, subtly threaten Armenia, and let Turkey get away with murder-past, present, and future-that is evidently considered a small price to pay.

While the reasons for the State Department's collusion with Turkey are apparent, how to bring about positive changes in US policy is admittedly a harder task.

Some policies may appear to be set in concrete due to entrenched elements in the State Department that are incapable of asserting American interests and values over Turkish ones. Yet it is precisely because the containment policy is built on questionable assumptions that change is possible.

The United States is relying on a Turkey that is contemptuous of human and minority rights, largely undemocratic, unwilling to undertake more than token reforms, and always on the brink of instability and possible fracture. Moreover, these characteristics typify many of the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The region bears little resemblance to eastern Europe, the other and more stable pole of the US containment policy.

Ironically, while seeking to prevent the reestablishment of a Russian empire, the containment strategy may promote a potentially destabilizing, rogue pan-Turkic one that could threaten American and Western interests.

State Department rhetoric about support for democracy and human rights in the region appears to be, unfortunately, a smokescreen for less attractive geopolitical goals. Aside from the hypocrisy, policy based on an unsustainable lie, such as Genocide denial, can only end in failure. This can be likened to sabotaging American interests.

It is unclear if Congress and the American people understand what the State Department has in store for them. Perhaps they need to be told.