Andre Avanessians, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
April 24, 2016 will mark the 101 year anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The killing of 1.5 million Armenians carried out by the Ottoman Empire (current day Turkey), continues to go unrecognized by United States, a nation that considers human rights and justice to be cornerstones of the American identity. A historical event that often gets overlooked by political elites in the US (and many around the world), the push for recognition of those lost over a century ago remains a top priority within the Armenian and Armenian-American communities.
Historical Context – Armenians Under Ottoman Rule
Geographically, Armenians have settled in the Eurasian Caucasus for over 3,000 years. Within that period, multiple empires – at one time or another – have conquered the Armenian people, including: Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Mongols, Arabs, the Ottoman Turks, and Russians. Armenia finally declared independence from the long line of occupiers on September 21, 1991 when Armenia broke from the Soviet Union. However, the bloodiest and longest rule over the Armenian population came in the 15th century, when Armenia was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. One of the last Muslim empires in history, the reign of the Ottoman Empire spanned over 600 years. For most of that time, the Armenian community was able to maintain a small level of independence. Unfortunately, religious minority groups residing in the empire, like the Armenian populace, who are primarily Orthodox Christian, were subject to political, legal, and financial persecution. Given the majority Muslim population, anyone not associated with the Muslim faith was deemed to be an “infidel.” Despite the limitations placed on Armenians, historians have noted that Armenians were becoming more educated and prosperous than their Ottoman neighbors. Given the geopolitical landscape, Ottoman leaders feared that Armenians would favor joining a more Christian-based system of governance, like the Russian Empire in the North East. The first wave of Armenians were killed between 1894 and 1896 during the Hamidian Massacres, as Armenians began to push for political reform under the rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. This state-sanctioned genocide that killed 100,000 Armenian inhabitants.
After the fall Sultan Hamid II, a nationalistic revolutionary party called the Young Turkey Party (Young Turks) took power in 1908. With a mission to “Turkify” the empire, non-Turks–and especially Christian non-Turks–were seen as a grave threat to the new state.
World War I – The Ottoman Empire’s Last Stand
In 1914, Turkey entered WWI on the side of the Central Powers, which included Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the same time, Ottoman religious figures declared jihad against all Christians except their allies in the war. Considered to be traitors by the Empire and fearful that Armenians would win their freedom if the Allied Powers won the war, Armenians formed volunteer battalions to help Russian forces fighting against the Turks in the Eastern Caucasus. Shortly thereafter, on April 24, 1915, the Armenian Genocide began with the execution of 300 Armenian political figures, educators, writers, and dignitaries in Constantinople (current day Istanbul). Over the course of two years, deportations, concentration camps, death marches, and execution squads known as the Special Organization systematically killed 1.5 million Armenians.
Despite the United States receiving reports about the horrors unfolding in the Ottoman Empire from then-US Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, the US maintained its neutrality. By 1918, World War I ended with a defeat for Germany and the Central Powers. Shortly before the war ended, the Young Turk triumvirate–Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver, and Ahmed Djemal–abruptly resigned their government posts and fled to Germany where they had been offered asylum. By 1922, approximately 388,000 Armenians remained in the Ottoman Empire.
US Alliance With Turkey (1945 – Present)
The aftermath of World War II left nations like Greece and Turkey open to the possibility of Communist influence during the early stages of the Cold War. As the Communist Party began to destabilize Greece, and Soviet forces attempted to coerce Turkey into utilizing the Turkish Straits for military and economic purposes, the US had to intervene. Thus, in 1947, President Harry Truman introduced the Truman Doctrine. Intended to provide military and economic aid to Turkey and Greece, the hope was to strengthen and prevent both nations from failing and falling under Communist rule. With Greece rebuilt to withstand Soviet influence, it allowed Turkey to maintain its stability by averting any potential crisis in the Middle East. With the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, the need for a global coalition to stave of Soviet forces was a necessity. With the admission of Turkey into NATO in 1952, it solidified an alliance that would further the possibility of justice for the Armenian community.
Over the decades, the ability for the United States to project its military strength in the Middle East has been a primary factor for continual denial of the genocide. Currently, there are 24 NATO bases and major US military installations located in Turkey. It would be geopolitically challenging for the US to reassert dominance in the region through a new proxy nation. Given the current threats in the region involving ISIS and the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran, strategically maintaining an alliance with Turkey is in the best interest of the US. From a US perspective, the benefits outweigh the costs, which makes morality and justice take a backseat to national interests. Despite multiple congressional resolutions introduced in the US (never approved) and a number of presidents noting Turkey’s historical persecution of Armenians, there have never been any tangible steps towards justice.
“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” – Adolf Hitler, in 1939 when explaining the rationale for overtaking and executing the people of Poland. According to some European historians, the failure of the US and the international community to adequately respond to the Armenian Genocide may have emboldened international actors to pursue similar programs of systematic mass killing. Had there been a greater response from the US and the Allied Powers at the time, European leaders may have been better prepared to confront events such as the Holocaust sooner than they actually did. Unlike the US, many nations have formally recognized the Armenian Genocide. Within the last year, Germany finally joined the list of nations that recognized the atrocities carried out against the Armenians. It was a major step towards justice given Germany’s involvement in planning and partially carrying out the deportations. Continued European recognition of the Armenian Genocide mounts pressure against Turkey to confront its past, especially as Turkey continues to fight for admittance into the EU.
For the Armenian community, Turkey’s recognition of the genocide would be a major symbolic victory. Yet Turkey continues to defend its actions from over a century ago as a “necessary deportation” during a time of war. Even though many Armenians living in Turkey still feel like they are treated as “second-class” citizens, the hope is that Turkey’s younger generation will move towards a path of acceptance of their past. Unfortunately, as long as the US looks to its own interests, the likelihood of recognition seems scarce. Making sure Turkey remains a constant contributor to NATO forces and sustaining robust economic ties are essential to the US. Recognition of the Armenian Genocide will only damage or sever those bonds, which is a chance the US is not willing to take. Only time and other international entities will be the driving factors that finally resolve this issue and provide closure to the Armenian people.