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On Future Turkish Political Leadership

19 Nov

[Prefatory Note: In a jointly written article, Bulent Aras and I made the case for a more assertive role for Ahmet Davutoglu in the new Turkish governing process that is emerging in the aftermath of the AKP victory in the November 1st snap election. In essence we are claiming that Turkey would benefit from a greater sense of equilibrium in the relationship between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu. Such a course of action has the potential of diluting the severe form of polarization that has dominated the Turkish political scene in recent years as well as restoring Turkey as a politically stable and economically dynamic country that could spread a much needed moderating influence beyond its borders. The credibility of such a role depends on three factors: restoring a meaningful peace process with representatives of the Kurdish people; lending support for a Syrian compromise based on an inconclusive and flexible approach; adopting a regional posture of independence that is not seen as distinct from the approach being taken by the United States. This ambition is in our view connected closely with a willingness of Erdogan to confine his presidential role to the existing constitutional framework and to support a process of constitutional reform that does not displace the present parliamentary system.]


Hopes for the Morning After in Ankara: Taking Stock (2002-2015)

3 Nov


The stunningly unexpected electoral triumph of the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan creates a window of opportunity for Turkey that will not remain open very long. The country is most likely to experience another damaging cycle of polarization of the sort that has been so divisive ever since the AKP first came to power 13 years ago. Only a radical rupture can disturb this tormented continuity by making a determined move toward moderation. Such a rupture will require a convergence of the unlikely from two directions: an embrace of responsible democratic leadership by Erdoğan and the formation of a responsible opposition platform by the various forces that have been battling against the AKP all these years. Only such a dual embrace has any hope of success, one side without reciprocity from the other side will probably only engender anger and frustration.

Ever since the AKP gained electoral leverage in 2002 sufficient to shape the governing process in Turkey, an intense polarization has been evident. It pitted the displaced Kemalist urban elites of the West that had run the country since the founding of the republic in 1923 against the emergent Anatolian elites who gathered their strength from the religious and socially conservative ranks of Turkish society. The Kemalist opposition initially depicted this ongoing struggle for Turkey’s soul and political future as between the democratic secular legacy bequeathed by Kemal Ataturk, and the Islamic militants that supposedly ran the AKP, and thirsted to make Turkey into an Islamic Republic along Iranian lines. Secularists whispered to one another that regardless of its public utterances of adherence to the Constitution what really motivated the AKP was commitment to this secret Islamic agenda. From the beginning, Erdoğan the dominant political figure in the AKP, was an  anathema to secularists. Also, expressive of this oppositional fervor that accompanied the AKP initial electoral victory were secularist objections to the presidential appointment by Parliament of Abdullah Gul, above all complaining that because his wife wore a headscarf he could not properly represent Turkey in diplomatic circles.

In this first phase of polarization the AKP hardly fought back, but rather tried to compile a record that would make the secularist allegations appear irresponsible, and hence largely to blame for poisoning the quality of Turkish political life. The credibility of this style of response was augmented by the high priority initially accorded by the AKP leadership to seeking European Union membership, a goal also espoused by the opposition. This mainstream posture was reinforced by the achievement of economic success along neoliberal lines and through regional and extra-regional activist diplomacy that seemed at once to enhance Turkish prestige in the Middle East and to be dedicated to the peaceful resolution of all international disputes, what was called, it turns out prematurely, ‘zero problems with neighbors.’ These achievements were acknowledged by the Turkish citizenry in a series of electoral victories of the AKP. By and large this Turkish role was also internationally appreciated, as signaled by its election to term membership m the UN Security Council and by a new acknowledgement of Turkey as an important actor.

Yet these AKP achievements did not mollify the opposition. This passivity only added to the frustration of the anti-AKP forces, even rage as power slipped from their hands, with no prospect of recovery in sight. These electoral rejections of the opposition parties created a depressive mood among the secularists who increasingly, yet rarely openly, pinned whatever hopes they had on a military coup that alone was capable of restoring their rightful place at the top of the Turkish political pyramid. A second disruptive strategy in the early years of AKP governance was to seek the closure of the party by accusing the AKP and its leaders of criminal culpability due to their alleged policies of undermining the Kemalist principles embedded in the Turkish Constitution, and the Turkish Constitutional Court came within vote of dissolving the AKP.

Those in the opposition not willing to endorse such radical initiatives as a military or judicial coup, were still deeply dissatisfied with AKP governance. These milder opponents expressed their discontent verbally. They discounted the seeming success of the AKP economically and politically by insisting that the AKP claim to enact democratizing reforms were not sincere, but were adopted cynically to improve the prospect of qualifying for EU membership. The economic success was also discounted as a lucky windfall, an unearned result of policies put into operation under the guidance of Kemal Derviş, and instituted well before the AKP took over the government.

Even in the face of such mean spirited provocations, the AKP did not counter-attack as it could have, but concentrated its energy on the reform process, seeking to insulate the governing process from the notorious ‘deep state’ that had undermined elected governments in the past at the behest of the unaccountable Turkish intelligence services and the armed forces, and on several occasions mandated coups. The civilianization of the Turkish government should have been celebrated by all democratically inclined sectors of society as a major and unexpected achievement. Instead the elimination of the deep state was totally ignored by the opposition, and probably even resented, as it tended to undermine prospects for an extra-constitutional return to power, which was bad news given the unlikelihood in the foreseeable future of any kind of victory via the ballot box. Privately, many secularists regarded the Turkish armed forces as a brake needed to block AKP ambitions and protect the country against an Islamic tsunami.

As allegations of an AKP plan to turn Turkey into a second Iran faded more and more into a domain of implausibility, a new scare scenario was contrived by the hardcore opposition. It centered on the contention that Erdoğan was intent on becoming a second Putin, pushing the country toward autocratic rule and fostering an unacceptable cult of personality. Ignoring AKP achievements with the help of a strong media presence that demonized Erdoğan, contributing to this nihilistic posture of uncompromising polarization, which actually deprived Turkey of what every healthy democracy needs—a responsible party of political opposition that projects alternative policies, programs, including an alternative vision. It was not in the country’s interest to have one hegemonic party govern all these years in what amounted to a political and ideological vacuum, with no credible alternative leadership competing for power.

This overall portrayal of the Turkish scene changed in 2011 due to two major developments. First, the Arab Spring unexpectedly erupted generating waves of instability throughout the entire region. Ankara quickly and enthusiastically welcomed the Arab uprisings, and Erdoğan’s popularity in the region reached peak levels. But when the regional unrest spread to Syria, there soon arose a growing challenge to the zero problems diplomacy as a result of the draconian response of the Damascus regime to the first stirrings of revolt. If we recall that Syria was put forward as the centerpiece of zero problems diplomacy, we can realize that Erdoğan must have felt great pressure to distance Turkey from this display of Syrian brutality. When Ankara’s efforts failed to persuade Bashar al-Assad, the real autocrat next door, to stop killing Syrian civilians and adopt a reform program, the dye was cast. Turkey found itself gradually drawn into the wider regional turmoil by stages, initially in Syria when it sided with the anti-regime insurgents.

Turkish foreign policy had previously been challenged on other fronts, especially by deteriorating relations with Israel that reached a negative climax in 2010 when Israel boarded a Turkish merchant ship, Mavi Marmara, in international waters killing nine Turkish nationals who were taking part in an international humanitarian mission that consisted of several ‘peace boats’ determined to deliver assistance to blockaded Gaza, whose people had been suffering for years from collective punishment.

Secondly, in 2011 the AKP won their biggest electoral victory ever, leading Erdoğan to adopt a more aggressive style that expressed itself in ways that antagonized the opposition even more. He seemed to be disregarding critics and claiming a populist mandate in the spirit of majoritarian democracy, that is, a mode of ruling that stressed effectiveness and central power, and rejected the republican stress on checks and balances. This shift enraged the opposition, and led to the portrayal of Erdoğan as a dark angel intent on destroying Turkish republicanism in the process of becoming a reigning tyrant. After 2011 Erdoğan’s aggressiveness toward the opposition gave polarization a more symmetrical quality for the first time. This polarization was, however, misrepresented in the international media as solely the consequence of Erdoğan’s autocratic ambitions and brash governing style rather than being a belated reaction to an earlier circumstance of unilateral polarization that the opposition to the AKP had foisted upon the country from the first moment that Erdoğan grasped the reins of power.

Anti-AKP waves of harsh criticism, especially in liberal circles of government and media, began blaming Ankara for alienating Israel and the United States, as well as pursuing an imprudent policy toward Syria. The AKP leadership was accused of abandoning its traditional reliance on American guidance, thereby undermining Turkish security. This was coupled with the insistence that the AKP was at last showing its true Islamic and sectarian face, favoring the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Egypt, and Gaza, pursuing a foreign policy shaped by its Islamic identity rather than based on adherence to secular realism as offering the best approach to the protection of Turkish national interests.

In May of 2013 the Gezi Park demonstrations took place, at first peacefully and later increasingly in confrontational modes, taking slanderous aim at Erdoğan who was being compared by demonstration leaders to Hitler. As the protests against the government intensified after their opening rather mild phase, it became obvious that the ambition of the activists was to create a crisis of legitimacy in Turkey that would produce so much unrest that the country would become ungovernable, and a political process would ensue that brings the military out of the barracks to rescue a country on the brink of collapse. This is what was starting to happen in Egypt, and in a couple of months was consummated by a popularly backed military coup headed by General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to power. Why not also in Turkey?


The government response to Gezi led by Erdoğan was defiant and suppressive, with police relying on excessive force that resulted in the tragic and unwarranted death of several demonstrators and injury to many more. The protests failed to ignite the hoped for groundswell of anti-government activism, although it did reinforce the international impression that Turkey was on its way to becoming a police state and it stimulated the domestic opposition to believe that it could build a powerful anti-AKP movement.

Another factor that riled the atmosphere at this time was the sharp break with the Hizmet movement led by the mysterious Islamic figure, Fetullah Gulen. Formerly allied with the AKP, tensions had been mounting, and exploded in response to the December 2013 Hizmet allegations of widespread corruption in the Erdoğan cabinet leading four ministers to resign, and implications that the trail of corruption if properly followed would lead to Erdoğan and his family. As would be expected, Erdoğan struck back, accusing the Hizmet movement of establishing ‘a parallel government’ that was subverting proper lines of authority and policy in the Turkish state bureaucracy. The claim was made that Gulen followers had succeeded in penetrating the police and the prosecutors’ office, and were responsible for bringing false charges against the military leadership, and doing other subversive things.

This accumulation of tactics designed to undermine the AKP and Erdoğan should be taken into account when addressing his still questionable effort to move toward an executive presidency. After all there were credible reasons for the AKP leadership to believe that it had been multiply targeted: polarization, judicial invalidation via party closure, aborted military coups, popular uprising, parallel government. In reaction, it is not altogether unreasonable for Erdoğan to arrive at the view that only a strong presidency could achieve security and stability that was needed if Turkey was to cope with the many challenges that it faces at home and in the region. It is understandable, but still highly imprudent as deep cleavages in the population persists. Even after the election landslide victory of the AKP and Erdoğan half the country remains deeply alienated, and would be susceptible to temptations of insurrection if these ambitions to revise the Constitution go forward.

In essence, this is an occasion on which Erdoğan alone has the capacity to move the country in a more grounded democratic and peaceful direction, softening if not overcoming polarization. Seizing such an opportunity would require Erdoğan to acknowledge the divided polity that Turkey has become, and to respect widespread fears of authoritarian rule. The most convincing way to do this would be to defer to the prime minister and head of the party, Ahmet Davutoğlu in the formation of a new government, and welcome a working partnership that divided authority harmoniously between these two highly gifted political leaders. It is not encouraging to hear Erdoğan talk vaguely of the added de facto powers that the Turkish presidency has somehow acquired without the benefit of constitutional reform and of his intentions to renew his personal crusade to create an enhanced presidency on a de jure basis.

Also menacing Turkey’s future has been the revived violence of the Kurdish struggle, giving rise to a strong military response. After this electoral outcome it is up to Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to take the initiative in declaring a ceasefire to take effect immediately, to welcome the HDP deputies to the Parliament, and to commit to a reopening of the reconciliation process, possibly even giving some sort of role to the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

Let’s hope than when Erdoğan awakens the morning after his glowing victory, he chooses what is best for Turkey rather than to settle for becoming a grandiose figure who is certain to be both revered and feared. Only if he tames his ambitions will Erdoğan ensure his legacy as a great Turkish leader, second only to Ataturk. Such speculations are admittedly in the realm of the fanciful, but little else seems relevant at this stage if Turkey hopes to find ways to reverse the downward spiral of recent years, and move back from the brink of turmoil that is engulfing much of the region.

Nonagon of Toxic Conflict: Notes on the Turkish Quagmire

2 Oct



The lethal complexity of politics in the Middle East has become overwhelming. The main political actors producing a continuous stream of swerves and turns that randomly juggle alignments and almost casually switch the identity of friends and enemies. In practical terms what this means is that there are indecipherably opaque conflicts, a multitude of state and non-state actors with distinct agendas, a bewildering array of seemingly contradictory and shifting conflict patterns, and controversial media manipulations orchestrated from various sources of governmental and insurgent authority situated both within and without the region. This geometry of conflict can be best approximated as a nonagon connecting the US/Turkey/Kurds/ISIS/Iran/Syria/Russia/Saudi Arabia/Israel, and even this is a crude simplification that leaves out many important actors. It is little wonder the Middle East has become a puzzle so daunting that only fools are clear about what should be done. The best we can do is to pick up a piece at a time, and hope it makes some sense a few weeks later.


Amid all these complexities there are some crucial developments bearing on Turkey’s relations to the overlapping realities of civil, national, regional, and extra-regional warfare. Turkey had deftly managed to avoid toxic engagement with the troubles of the region until 2009 when it began to cross swords with Israel, followed by jumping imprudently and overtly onto the anti-Assad side after the 2011 uprising in Syria. These prior problematic issues were temporarily eclipsed recently after Turkey crossed several additional treacherous thresholds of turmoil: the renewal of the deadly clash with Kurdish aspirations in Turkey and Syria; a formal joint undertaking with the United States to combat ISIS presence while still proclaiming solidarity with ‘moderate’ anti-Assad forces; and the recognition that the scale of the unmanageable flow of Syrian refugees across the Turkish border and outside of the camps is becoming unmanageable and a threat to domestic order.


As if this is not enough to worry about, polarized domestic politics in Turkey was unable to produce either a governing majority for the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the June elections or in the aftermath an agreed coalition. As a result Turkey has an embattled interim government until a new election on November 1. The country is also beset by a divisive controversy that targets Recep Tayyip Erdoĝan as primarily responsible for all the above alleged wrongs, accusing him both of harboring the unabashed ambition to run the country as its executive president and of needlessly arousing Kurdish hostility and fears by adopting an ultra-nationalist posture during the electoral campaign that ended in June. The Turkish opposition seems to forget the uncomfortable reality that if by magic Erdoĝan disappeared the array of formidable problems facing the country would not disappear with him. And perhaps, even more uncomfortably, awake to the realization that the AKP since 2002, despite some notable errors and deficiencies, has been responsible for a remarkable series of positive economic, social, and political developments, as well as the upgrading of the country as an importantly independent regional and global political actor.


After 30 years of struggle between the Turkish state and it large Kurdish minority (14-18 million) causing up to 40,000 battle deaths there were finally hopes of peace raised in 2013 when a reconciliation process was started and a ceasefire established by the AKP led government. Now these hopes have disappeared and been replaced by daily violence as well as dire fears of what is to come, which includes the possibility of a full-scale civil war. In reaction to these developments Erdoĝan, emphatically declared the end of the peace process, although somewhat later ambiguously renewing a call for national unity, a new ceasefire, and a revived search for reconciliation. As might be expected, conditions were attached by Erdoĝan to such a proposal: abandonment of armed struggle by the Kurdish movement , the PKK (or Turkish Workers Party), which has been operating out of its main base area in Iraq’s Qandil mountains.


The recently proclaimed military collaboration of Turkey and the United States with the agreed goal of jointly battling ISIS adds to the confusion. It is Kurdish armed groups, including the PKK, and especially its Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga militia that have proved to be the most effective forces combatting ISIS and the Assad government in recent months, and an indispensable complement to America air strikes. In effect, the anti-ISIS campaign is at cross-purposes with the renewed Turkish preoccupation with the fight against the PKK and the Assad regime. Fighting against the Kurds weakens the fight against ISIS and Assad, and vice versa.


From Ankara’s perspective there is logic to the seeming irrationality of stepping up the fight against the strongest enemy of its main Syrian enemy. Ever since the Iraqi Kurds established their state within a state in northern Iraq and the Syrian Kurds seemed within reach of their goal of establishing Rojava (or Syrian Kurdistan), the more radical parts of the Turkish Kurdish national movement, evidently had second thoughts about negotiating with the Turkish government a peaceful end to their struggle in exchange for rights and some measure of limited autonomy. After so many years of struggle why should Turkish Kurds settle for far less than what their Kurdish comrades in Iraq and Syria achieved? It should be appreciated in raising such a question that the Kurdish minority in Turkey is about three times the size of the Iraqi Kurdish population, estimated to be between 15 and 20 million, which happens to be more than eight times the size of the Syrian Kurdish minority. It would seem that what the reconciliation process would offer Turkish Kurds fell below reasonable expectations, and it could be argued that the success of the Kurdish political party (HDP or Peoples Democratic Party) in the June elections associated with electing 80 members of Parliament as a result of crossing the 10% marker for the first time accentuated rather than alleviated Kurdish anxieties. There is no direct evidence at this point, but circumstantially it seems as if the HDP’s success was not welcome news to the PKK as it seemed to augur a premature accommodation with the Turkish state, and thus a betrayal of more ambitious goals for the Kurdish national movement. How else can we explain the PKK repudiation of the ceasefire with Turkey on June 11th only four days after the historic HDP electoral success in June?


Then the ISIS suicide attack on July 20, 2015 in the Turkish border town of Suruç killing 32 young Turkish civilian activists made clear that Ankara could no longer ignore the threat posed by ISIS despite the disturbing contradiction of battling against an opponent of both the Kurds and Assad. Hence, the agreement with the United States with respect to ISIS, and the accusations that Turkey was nevertheless using most of its military capabilities to fight against the Kurds and Assad.


In this atmosphere of growing political violence the Turkish government faced a mounting internal security threat. Between the June 7 Turkish national elections and late July, there were over 281 violent attacks carried out in Turkey by PKK operatives, including a series of lethal assaults on police and military personnel. In retaliation, unsurprisingly, the Turkish armed forces launched air attacks against PKK positions in the Kandil area of northern Iraq. To blame this upsurge of violence on Erdoĝan is not only simplistic but deeply misleading.


Two other factors can better explain what happened. First, the Kurdish militant leadership in the Kandil base areas came to the conclusion that the political success of Kurdish armed struggle in Iraq and Syria could be duplicated in Turkey; secondly, a concern that the rewards of the reconciliation process started by the Turkish state if allowed to continue would reward Kurdish politicians and business people who took few risks to advance the national movement in Turkey, while the PKK fighters enduring decades of hardship, loss, and danger would end up being invited back to Turkey with an inadequate acknowledgement of their long struggle. Of course, in between the Turkish state and the AKP there were many Kurds and Turks to yearned for peace and political compromise, and opposed any behavior on either side that would resume a zero-sum bloody struggle in which one side or the other would be a winner and the other a loser.


The prolonged Syrian civil strife burdens Turkey further. It is relevant to recall that in the years immediately before 2011, and the Arab Spring, when Turkish regional diplomacy was capturing the imagination by its call for ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ it was then Assad’s Syria that served as the poster child of the policy reaching an unprecedented level of cordiality as between the two governments and their respective leaders. Earlier tensions were dissolved and forgotten, friendship and trade flourished in relations between the two countries, and overnight the governments of Syria and Turkey seemed to reconcile their differences, opened their borders, increased economic and cultural interaction, creating an impression that durable harmony will persist long into the future.


Then came the Arab Spring in early 2011, which spread to Syria in March shortly after the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The Damascus government responded with torture and crimes against humanity in its reactions to peaceful demonstrators who were initially suppressed in Daraa, and later in many parts of Syria. Turkey, along with the UN, tried for several months to coax the Assad leadership into meeting the political demands of the Syrian people by instituting democratic reforms. Assad seemed to agree, but no power-sharing steps were taken. Instead there was a spread of insurgent activity, and an intensification of indiscriminate violence and frequent atrocities by the government, including heavy bombing of rebel held Syrian cities and towns, and eventually recourse to chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Syrian casualties rose, mass atrocities were documented, and hundred of thousands of refugees streamed across the Turkish border, creating a major humanitarian challenge that continues to grow, reaching the astounding figure of over 2 million.


Against this background, Turkey increasingly and overtly sided with the rebel forces. Istanbul becoming the center of operations for anti-Assad political activity, which included explicit backing of the Friends of Syria (a loose and ineffectual anti-Assad coalition put together by the United States and Turkey). Various forms of military assistance were channeled to the Free Syrian Army but it steadily lost ground against the well-equipped Syrian armed forces, which enjoyed support and assistance from Russia and Iran. Early in the conflict Ankara believed that the balance of forces had shifted decisively against Assad, and that the Syrian regime would collapse in a few weeks. It was mistakenly thought that Syria, like Libya, would be easy prey to a popular uprising, forgetting that the Damascus government unlike Tripoli had loyal support from a series of important Syrian minorities as well as from large segment of the urban business world, was strongly backed by Iran and Russia, and possessed significant military capabilities.


The situation became even messier. Even before the appearance of ISIS, it seemed that the Al Nusra Front had become the most effective opposition to Assad, was linked to Al Qaeda. In this mix, when ISIS seemingly came out of the blue to mount an even bigger challenge to Damascus the alignments for and against became hopelessly complex. It is not surprising that given these developments the Turkish leadership was initially reluctant to confront ISIS as its battlefield record of success seemed to pose the biggest threat to their biggest enemy! Turkey still understandably wobbles on the tightrope that stretches between opposing Assad and fighting PKK and ISIS.


How this interplay of US/Turkish/Kurdish/ISIS actions and reactions will play out is currently unknowable. To intervene in such a zone of multiple conflict is beset with risks, costs, and unknowns but so is standing by as horrified spectators. The assumption in the West has been that military power offers the only way to calm the waters without sacrificing Western interests, but the consistent record of intervention is one of repeated costly failures. Perhaps, the very hopelessness of the situation makes the moment right for bold forms of regional diplomacy. Tangibly, what this means is bringing Russia and Iran into the game, and minimizing the influence of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel seems to be promoting regional disorder, destabilizing the internal public order of the major states in the region. Saudi Arabia apparently cares for little other than the survival of the royal regime in the Kingdom. It can savagely undermine the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza yet claim to be leading the Sunni struggle against the spread of Shia Islam, justifying its interventions in Syria and Yemen. And globally, it is Saudi funds and Wahabi militancy that is bringing extremist politics to the forefront throughout the Middle East.


With such tensions, contradictory agendas, and unconditional ideologies at play the outlook for compromise and normalcy is dim. Oddly, Russia without ties that bind is freer to dampen the forces of extremism than is the United States that remains beholden to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Iran despite the theocratic and repressive character of its government has the internal stability that Turkey now lacks, and if allowed could play a constructive force role by helping to work out a political transition in Syria and Yemen and playing a leading part in an anti-extremist coalition needed to cope with ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Al-Nusra Front operating in Syria.


Will this happen? Of course, not. It is far too rational and realistic. The United States despite its power and residual leadership potential finds itself stuck in a geopolitical straight jacket of its own devising, and without its ability to behave like a rational actor. The region seems destined in coming years to fluctuate between chaos and autocracy, and this means that Arab populations will experience repression, displacement, chaos, and cycles of demonic political violence. More than elsewhere, the Middle East is badly in need of political miracles.


Turkey is one of the few actors, situated within and without the Arab World, that retains the capacity to be a constructive influence in support of compromise and nonviolence conflict resolution. This helpful performance depends on the Turkish recovery of composure within its borders, which seems dependent of the AKP recovering an effective majority allowing it to form a government after the results of the new election on November 1st become known. The second best solution would be a strengthening of the AKP and CHP (Republican Peoples Party) parties in November, followed quickly by a coalition between these two parties that puts national unity, economic development, and political stability ahead of partisan confrontation. It is the anti- Erdoĝan preoccupation that has mainly hindered Turkey’s effort at regional leadership, although Erdoĝan has contributed to this atmosphere by his reliance on autocratic tactics in quelling the Gezi uprising in 2013 and expressing his views without sensitivity to opposition values and outlooks ever since scoring a major victory in the 2011 elections. It is time for Erdoĝan and the AKP to abandon ‘majoritarian democracy’ and also time for the political opposition parties and media to assess the Erdoĝan and the AKP in a more balanced, and less polarized views. It is unfortunate that even prior to 2011, the opposition to the AKP was unyielding in voicing its intense hostility, giving no credit, and insisting the AKP under Erdoĝan’s leadership was guiding the country away from the secularism of the Republic era, and toward the imposition of an Islamic theology in the manner of Iran. Let’s hope that the CHP does well enough in the new elections to join with the AKP in giving Turkey the government it deserves, and that Erdoĝan will be content to be presidential in a constitutional system that is essentially based on parliamentary supremacy but with some recourse to judicial checks on arbitrary power.


The focus on Turkey, and its role with respect to Syria and the conflicts with Syria, PKK, and ISIS is not meant to minimize the importance of the other actors in the region that are part of the geopolitical nonogon. There are several overlapping regional proxy wars that have complicated, perhaps precluded, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, including serious intraregional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Syria as well as the extraregional rivalry between the United States and Russia. Also of indeterminate significance are the variety of undisclosed Israeli regional moves and the leverage exerted by way of its often dysfunctional special relationship with the United States (preventing negotiation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone or allowing Iran to play an appropriate diplomatic role). Although not as notoriously described, the willingness of the United States to give Saudi Arabia a free pass with respect to internal repression and recourse to force as in Yemen, and earlier Bahrain, is a further source of regional turmoil.

Turkey’s Electoral Maelstrom        

3 Jul



If I were Turkish, and not merely a sympathetic observer and part time resident, I would write an Open Letter to the opposition political parties that had separately and collectively achieved several goals in the June 7th elections:

            –repudiating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s push for a constitutional shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system;

            –for the Kurdish-based HDP, a significant gain in support to cross the 10% threshold, and get a rather large foot in the Parliament;

            –for the ultra-nationalist MHP to achieve a significant gain in electoral support;

            –for the secular stronghold of Kemalist republicanism CHP maintenance of their position as by far the strongest opposition party by almost 10% over their nearest competitor.


Since arriving in Turkey a couple of weeks ago, the media is filled with a wide range of informed speculations about what will happen, as well as vigorous advocacy about what is best for the country, for the AKP, and for the various parties and political personalities, and none more so, than the diverse passions that swirl around the name Erdoğan. In such an atmosphere it seems foolhardy to venture into such roiled waters. My only advantages the absence of access to insider gossip and great sympathy with the struggle of Turkey and its leaders to find their way in a chaotic and dangerous region at a time of a deepening global crisis fraught with ecological, political, and economic uncertainties.



The situation created in Turkey by the elections was one that continued the AKP (Justice & Development Party) as the dominant political party, with 40.9% of the vote, an edge of more than 15% over the CHP (Republican Peoples’ Party) winning 25.0% of the vote. Despite dominating the election and winning 256 seats, the AKP still fell short of the majority of representatives in the 550 seat Parliament required to achieve a mandate to form a new government without entering into a coalition with one of the three parties that together gathered almost 60% of the votes in June. This leaves essentially two broad coalition options—either the AKP forms a coalition with one of the three opposition parties or the opposition parties unite in a three-way coalition (as no two of the three parties have enough representation in Parliament to make a majority).




So far neither alternative has proved feasible. The AKP has seemed quietly receptive, promising transparency in the process, but has made clear that it is not responsive to proposals that seem disproportionate to the electoral showing of the purported junior partner. When the CHP leader, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, demands that it will only enter a coalition if the prime minister is rotated, and starts with himself as prime minister, he reaches so high as to effectively declare himself out of the game. Similarly, when the MHP insists that its entry into a coalition with the governing depends on ending the peace process with Kurds that the AKP began, it is expressing unacceptable demands for a coalition partnership. Moving forward on Kurdish reconciliation is urgent at this time as a breakdown of negotiations is likely to lead to a renewal of internal violence, which given the regional realities, could spill across boundaries and be even bloodier than the earlier decade of struggle with the PKK. Finally, the DHP, perhaps understandably, sees no gain for its prospects arising from a coalition given the hostility to Kurdish aspirations exhibited by AKP leaders during the electoral campaign and considering the hardline taken by the MHP against even a moderate accommodation with Kurdish expectations.





This gridlocked situation is adverse to Turkey’s national economic and political interests. Already the World Bank has adjusted downward its forecasts of Turkish economic growth in light of this ambience of uncertainty surrounding Ankara’s governing process, and this situation is likely to worsen if no government is formed within the 45 day window allowed for a coalition process to reach closure.


It is in this context that the opposition parties stand to lose all that they appeared to have gained on June 7th. If as seems likely there is no coalition formed by the deadline, then the options open to President Erdoğan are eager to invite the AKP to form a minority government or to call for new elections in the shortest possible time. The minority government option, which Prime Minister Davutoğlu has pronounced as unworkable, would also in all probability lead to new elections rather soon, but maybe not immediately. The political process would be very fragile. Whenever the AKP failed to win parliamentary support from any one of the three opposition groups to support its policy initiatives, the government would be paralyzed by inaction, and a call for new elections would be quickly forthcoming.


It is this likely, but still avoidable, failed coalition scenario, that remains threatening to the hopes of opposition forces. In the event that no coalition is formed, and new elections are held, the most probable outcome, although this interpretation is contested, is a big swing of more pragmatically inclined voters toward the AKP. After all, for the Turkish economy to fulfill its potential it definitely needs a government firmly in place as soon as possible, and only the AKP on its own or in stable coalition can achieve this result. Given such a perception, the logical step for a Turkish citizen would be to vote for the AKP even if it wasn’t her or his first choice in June. What is more, such a transfer of votes to the AKP could have two other results, possibly depriving the HDP of its parliamentary representation by reaching a level in this second cycle that fell below the 10% threshold, thereby giving the AKP enough electoral strength not only to resume its role as majority party but to allow Erdogan to press forward with his ambition to convert Turkey into a presidential system. Both the CHP and MHP could also do worse on a second go around, and this would certainly dim their stars.


Of course, this outcome, while logical is by no means assured. Voters in the sort of polarized atmosphere that has existed in Turkey during the whole of the AKP period of governance, leads many Turks to vote with their hearts rather than their heads. If this turns out to be the dominant pattern, then it is quite possible that this second electoral cycle will resemble the first, possibly strengthening the incentives of both the AKP and the opposition to swallow some pride and reach a workable set of coalition arrangements. Or it might accentuate the dysfunctionality of Turkish political culture at this point, leading to a sharp economic downturn accompanied by a menacing uptick in political instability, including new signs of insurgent violence.


Here, then, is the essential situation: above all, if reason prevails, most Turks will likely increasingly act to create the conditions necessary to form a majority government, and in the process could deprive the country of two achievements attributed to the prior election—minority representation for the Kurds and others plus a curtailment of the ambition of its current president. With this understanding, the unwillingness of opposition parties to minimize their bargaining demands to form a coalition seems unfortunate and even irrational under present conditions, making much more likely an overall outcome that will not be pleasing to anti-AKP forces for one or another reason. It is especially likely that this post-election impasse could give new life to the Erdoğan game plan to revise the Constitution so as establish a presidential system.


Such reflections may turn out to be far from the manner in which the Turkish political scene unfolds. It purports only to share my attempt to comprehend a situation that seems complex and confusing to most Turks. Americans are notorious at getting non-Western societies wrong, and I do not claim to be an exception, which is part of the reason I have spent many of my adult years opposing American military interventions in distant lands.


Israel’s Shimon Peres Reacts to the Turkish Elections

10 Jun


Newspapers reported on June 9th that former Israeli president Shimon Peres (2007-2014) was pleased by the outcome in Turkey. He is quoted as saying “I am happy about what happened in Turkey – Erdoğan wanted to turn Turkey into Iran, and there is no room for two Iran’s in the Middle East.”


It is worth recalling that the downward spiral in relations between Turkey and Israel started in a real way when Erdoğan attacked Israel and Peres personally for defending Israel’s massive attack on Gaza at the 2009 World Economic Forum in the course of a panel in which both he and Peres were members. Erdoğan responded to Peres’ contention that Hamas was responsible for violence against Israeli civilians. His words were undiplomatically blunt: “Mr. Peres, you are a senior citizen and you speak in a loud tone. I feel that your raised voice is due to the guilt you feel. But be sure that my voice will not be raised as yours is. When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you struck and killed innocent children on the beaches.” So piercing the haze that separates these polite evasions of such international events from the cruel realities under discussion was a welcome rarity: on this occasion Erdoğan was confronting the naked face of power with a truth that needed to be heard. After

interference from the chair, Erdoğan strode off the stage announcing that he was through forever with the World Economic Forum, not for allowing Peres to speak, but for the attempting to stifle a response.


The deterioration in Turkish/Israeli relations climaxed the following year when Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, the lead vessel among six in a freedom flotilla containing peace activists bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza and seeking to break the Israeli blockade. The incident on May 31, 2010 resulted in the death of nine Turkish nationals, and created an enduring rupture in the political relations between the two countries that continues despite efforts by the American president, Barack Obama, to encourage normalization. Turkey is prepared to compromise on the issues raised by the Mavi Marmara attack, but to its credit will not accept normalization until Israel lifts its blockade of Gaza and ceases its use of massive force against the totally vulnerable Gazan civilian population.


Erdoğan’s departure from diplomatic protocol at the World Economic Forum illustrated his impulsive tendency to vent his feeling in public places without the usual filters of self-censorship that is second nature for most politicians. Of course, assessing such outbursts generally depends on the context and on whether what is being said so forthrightly has merit or not. Erdoğan’s public venting in relation to policies that were sensitive for secular Turks became particularly frequent, intensifying polarization, especially after the AKP’s one-sided victory in the 2011 general election after which the Turkish leader did seem to embrace a more majoritarian view of democracy (acting on the mandate of the majority of voters), and abandoning the pragmatism of his earlier posture based on an acceptance of republican democracy (that is, respect for minority values and views, checks and balances on the exercise of state power).


Reverting to the recent Peres assertion, it is certainly inflammatory and deeply misleading to link Turkey under the AKP with Iran, and to contend that Erdoğan’s hidden project is to convert Turkey into a second Iran. This is both false and insulting, as if Turkey is incapable of self-determination according to the declared will of its own public and elected leaders. There exists no credible evidence that Turkey has in any way endorsed the defining feature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, namely, a theocratic mode of governance.


Peres also essentializes Iran, refusing to acknowledge its recent evolution as a result of Hassan Rouhani’s election as president in 2013 and Iran’s forthcoming nuclear diplomacy that went the extra mile in search of a formula that would normalize its regional and global relations, which if accepted by the West and put into practiced, will almost certainly be viewed as a major contribution to regional and world peace. Peres speaks as if Iran is the hermetically sealed embodiment of political evil rather than a country that has struggled to overcome its autocratic past under the Shah, and managed to be stable during this period of exceptional regional turmoil with its theocracy displaying a willingness to indulge a limited democracy despite threats and provocations from the United States and Israel. There is much to criticize in Iran, but for such criticism to be responsible, it should be responsive to actualities, especially in the Middle East where there are such scant grounds for stability, let alone justice.


In important respects, the outcome of the Turkish elections is far better interpreted as a Kurdish HDP victory rather than an Erdoğan AKP defeat. Time will tell whether the Kurds will be constructive and creative in this phase of their political engagement within Turkey and in relation to Kurdish political developments in neighboring countries. It will also determine whether Erdoğan is statesmanlike and creative in shaping the political future of the country, taking to heart the electoral message that any shift to a presidential system is not now in the interests of the country.

Turkish Elections: It’s Not Just Erdoğan!

9 Jun


The Turkish general election on June 7th ended more or less as the polls predicted. The only small surprise was that the Kurdish Party (HDP) ended with 13% of the vote rather than either falling just below or above the 10% threshold needed for parliamentary participation. By clearing the 10% hurdle, the HDP denies the winner, Erdoğan Justice and Development Party (AKP), the majority required to form a new government. This means either a coalition, currently deemed unlikely and even undesirable, or a minority government with a new set of general elections scheduled in coming months.


The spinning of the Turkish election results in the West is rather malicious. It seems designed to generate two kinds of reactions: first, that the outcome was a personal defeat for Erdoğan and the AKP; and secondly, that now Turkey faces a period of instability and uncertainty, an atmosphere supposedly confirmed by a drop in the Turkish stock market and currency value. Such assessments, although not totally wrong, are misleading in dangerous and possibly self-fulfilling ways if taken by the Turkish opposition and the world as the real meaning of what took place. It is disturbingly reminiscent of the effort of the opposition in Egypt to discredit the Morsi presidency as soon as he was elected in mid-2012, generating a crisis of legitimacy despite his electoral victory, setting the stage for a populist revolt and the Sisi-led coup a year later. This undermining of electoral results is one of the most dangerous games being played by certain elements in the United States and the Middle East, and could lead the way to yet another regional disaster.


I believe what is most important about the Turkish elections is their affirmation of the growing strength and poise of Turkish democracy. If ever there existed a temptation to manipulate the vote so as to keep the HDP below the 10% margin, it was in this election as it would have enabled the AKP to have the majority in the Turkish Grand National Assembly so as to form a new government on its own and later have the parliament mandate a referendum on the shift to a presidential system in which the governing party would be quite sure to prevail. The fact that enough voters, especially among young and progressive Turkish citizens voted for the HDP, exhibited a healthy resistance to the perceived efforts to consolidate power further in Ankara, especially in the person of Erdoğan.


When the Conservatives in Britain won 36% of the vote to 30% for Labour the media called it a landslide, and a decisive vindication of Tory policies. In Turkey, although slipping 6% points (and losing 2.5 million votes compared to 2011), the AKP still prevailed in the election by more than 15%, winning 41.8% of the popular vote, with its closest competitor being the old Ataturk party, the CHP, winning only 25%. It might be well to recall that in 2002 the AKP formed the government although winning only 34% of the overall vote, gathering its majority because 45% of the total ballots were cast for parties that fell below 10% , resulting in their transfer mainly to the AKP.


The fact that HDP will now have 79 members in Parliament despite being an overtly Kurdish party is a further healthy development that might make a long overdue reconciliation more attainable. Also notable was the election of 97 women to parliarment along with four Christians, the first Roma ever, and a member of the Yazidi community. Such increased diversification refutes in a very vivid manner the contention that the AKP leadership was gradually turning Turkey into an Islamic republic, a so-called ‘second Iran.’


What is so striking about the world media reactions is their failure to note these encouraging developments, or to take balanced account of the dignified acceptance of the public will exhibited by the existing Turkish leadership. The AKP Chairman and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, said simply “This nation’s decision is the best decision,” indicating respect for the outcome. So far, as well, Erdoğan has in no way challenged the vote that was certainly, in part, a defeat for his insistence that the ‘New Turkey’ would be more successful if it shifted to a presidential system. He has not lived up to the Putinesque persona that his detractors have long insisted upon.


The other failure of world perception has to do with some attention to some other contextual explanations for some decline in AKP popularity. In the background, is the fact of holding the reins of government in Turkey ever since their surprise victory in 2002, reaffirmed with increasing margins in 2007 and 2011 general elections. It is always a sign of a healthy democracy when a portion of the voters indicate their belief that ‘it time for a change.’ There is truth in the adage that ‘power corrupts,’ and a shift of leadership to a responsible opposition can be a revitalizing development for a country. Unfortunately, a persisting weakness in the Turkish political firmament is the absence of a credible alternative to the AKP. The opposition parties lack leaders of suitable stature or any kind of alternative program that commands widespread support. In this sense, I would suppose that there would have been a larger defection from the AKP in this election if a viable alternative did exist. Why there is no such alternative is something that constructive critics of the AKP should be devoting their attention to rather than giving their energies over to incessant and mean-spirited attacks.


There are additional explanations of some loss of voter support by the AKP. Above all, the weakening of the economy, with growth falling to 3% of GNP, or possibly a bit lower, and unemployment rising to 11%. Such a decline in economic performance is a product of many factors, but it certainly disappointed the expectations of many Turks struggling to get along on a day-to-day basis. Also, important is the deep cleavage that developed with the Hizmet Movement led by Fetullah Gulen, whose followers supposedly shifted votes in this election to the CHP and MHP. And finally, the lingering bad taste associated with the government’s excessive use of force in response to the Gezi Park demonstrations of 2013 apparently led many on the left and among the young to vote for the HDP, and may have given this Kurdish party the support it needed to qualify for parliamentary representation and thereby change the political climate in the country.




There are also understandable dissatisfactions in Turkey about Ankara’s Syria policy, which has resulted in both a huge influx of refugees, numbering about 1.5 million, and controversial tactics in lending some support to extremist anti-Assad forces. It is always easy to second-guess what to do in situations of a severe humanitarian/political crisis, and no governmental actor has emerged with a positive reputation in this post-Arab Spring period. Although the Turkish government seems to have made miscalculations, especially underestimating the strength and resilience of the Assad regime, it has more than most regional or global actors pursued a principled position throughout. It has supported democratizing movements, and opposed efforts to restore authoritarianism or to use governmental violence against peaceful demonstrators as in Syria and Egypt.


The election results are very new. What will ensue is not yet at all clear. It is a moment for all sides to show leadership and composure, and most of all, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. Erdoğan, in particular, has been given a rare opportunity to turn electoral defeat into political victory. All he has to do is make a statesmanlike speech, acknowledging the setback for his vision of Turkey’s future but displaying his respect and admiration for the democratic process, and his commitment to maintaining Turkish political stability and working toward economic revival. It would be an opportunity for Erdoğan to put to rest among all except his most ardent enemies, the contention that he is an aspiring autocrat in the Putin mold. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, Erdoğan has so far taken the high road, but without making his response fully evident. At least, he does not lament defeat, but rather acknowledges the will of the electorate expressed by a vote in which 84% of eligible voters took part, and calls on all parties to evaluate the results “healthily and realistically,” adding that “the esteem of our nation is above all else.” Instead of berating the opposition, Erdoğan praised the turnout as exhibiting “the precious nation’s determination for democracy and for reflecting its will at the ballot box.” There was no bombast or recriminations that has sometimes in the past marred Erdoğan’s performance as a leader. It is too early to be sure that this benign mood will persist, but these early signs are hopeful.



For Davutoğlu the opportunity presented to him is more complex, but still very present. It is his moment to show firm leadership and demonstrate his dedication to a smoothe transition in the interest of the whole country. Without distancing himself from Erdoğan, Davutoğlu can demonstrate that he is quite capable of leading the country, and sensitive to the benefits of parliamentary democracy. Davutoğlu could emerge as a co-leader with Erdoğan that would not only restore confidence in AKP’s competence and underlying commitment to secular democracy, but would show to the Middle East that non-autocratic rule true to a nation’s history and character is possible. Of course, it is also a moment to move forward with the Kurdish peace and reconciliation process and to improve the human rights record of the government, especially showing a greater capacity to respect criticism from the media and political dissenters.


Despite the turbulence of the region, the economic troubles of neighbors in the Middle East and Europe, Turkey has enjoyed a period of extraordinary success during these years of AKP governance. The economy tripled in size, the militarized deep state has been dismantled, and overall democracy has been strengthened and diversified in relation to gender and ethnicity. Beyond these national gains, the regional and global standing of Turkey increased dramatically. Perhaps, more than any country, Turkey in this AKP period showed the world that it is possible to pursue an independent line in foreign policy and yet maintain continuity with its most enduring alignments. It is easy to overlook such notable achievements, especially given the polarizing passions of the anti-Erdoğan opposition.

It may also be a time for bringing back the steady hand of Abdullah Gul to the governing process. It would be a further sign of the ability of the AKP to learn from its mistakes, and to provide Turkey with the best possible leadership.


In my view, persons of good will throughout the world and in Turkey, should now breathe a sigh of relief, being glad that the AKP plan to establish a presidential Turkey has been put back on the shelf and yet relieved that the AKP was again supported by a significant plurality of Turkish citizens in an impressively free and fair electoral process.

Armenians 1915: The Genocide Controversy

19 Apr

Armenia: The Genocide Controversy


Of the many current concerns associated with historic wrongs, none is more salient these days than the long simmering tensions between modern Turkey and the Armenian diaspora (and the state of Armenia). And none so convincingly validates the assertion of the great American novelist, William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This year being the centenary of the contested events of 1915 makes it understandable that was simmering through the decades has come to a boil, with the anniversary day of April 24th likely to be the climax of this latest phase of the unresolved drama.


The Armenian red line for any move toward reconciliation has been for many years a formal acknowledgement by the Turkish government that the killings that occurred in 1915 should be regarded as ‘genocide,’ and that an official apology to the descendants of the Armenian victims should be issued by the top political leaders in Turkey. It is not clear whether once that red line is crossed, a second exists, this one involving Armenian expectations of reparations in some form or even restorations of property and territory. For now the battleground is over the significance of granting or withholding the G word from these momentous happenings. The utterance of this word, alone, seems the only key capable of unlocking the portals leading to conflict resolution, but it is a key that Turks across the political spectrum refuse to use.


What has recently raised the temperature on both sides is the clear alignment of Pope Francis with the Armenian demands. At a solemn mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on April 12th that was devoted to the centenary of the Ottoman killings of Armenian Christians Francis quoted with approval from the 2001 joint declaration of Pope John Paul II and the Armenian religious leader Karenkin II to the effect that these massacres in 1915 were “widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century.” The pope’s reliance upon an earlier declaration by a predecessor pontiff was interpreted by some Vatican watchers as a subtle indication of ‘restraint,’ showing a continuity of view in the Catholic Church rather than the enunciation of a provocative new position. Others equally reliable commentators felt that situating the label of genocide within a solemn mass gave it more authority than the earlier declaration with the 1.1 billion Catholics around the world, with likely more public impact. The unusual stature enjoyed by this pope who is widely admired the world over as possessing the most influential voice of moral authority, exerting a powerful impact even on non-Catholics, lends added significance to his pronouncements on sensitive policy issues. There are some in the Catholic community, to be sure, who are critical of this latest foray into this conflict about the application of the word genocide at a delicate time. For instance, the respected Vatican expert, Marco Politi, said that Pope Francis’s comment were typical of this pope who “uses language without excessive diplomatic care.”


For these very reasons of salience, one supposes, the Turkish response has been strident, involving some retreat from the more forthcoming statements made just a year ago by the then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In an apologetic and conciliatory speech addressed directly to the Armenian community Erdoğan in 2014 said: “May Armenians who lost their lives in the early twentieth century rest in peace, we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.” His language in 2015 reverts to a much harsher tone, in a pushback to Francis declaring that religious leaders make a ‘mistake’ when they try to resolve historical controversies. In an effort to constructive, Erdoğan restates the long standing Turkish proposal to open the Ottoman archives and allow a joint international commission of historians to settle the issue as to how the events of 1915 should most accurately be described, and specifically whether the term genocide is appropriate. Both Erdoğan and the current prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, continue to regard the core issue to be a historical matter of establishing the factual reality. The Turkish position is that there were terrible killings of the Armenians, but at a level far below the 1.5 million claimed by Armenian and most international sources, and mainly as an incident of ongoing warfare and civil strife in which many Turks also lost their lives, and hence it was an experience of mutual loss, and not ‘genocide.’


The almost internationally uncontested historical narrative is that the essential factual questions have settled: the Ottoman political leaders embarked on a deliberate policy of mass killings of the Armenians living in what is now modern Turkey. From this international consensus, the Armenians claim that it follows that Armenian victimization in 1915 was ‘genocide,’ the position endorsed and supported by Pope Francis, the European Parliament, and about 20 countries, including France and Russia. As might have been expected the NY Times jumped on the bandwagon by publishing a lead editorial with the headline, “Turkey’s Willful Amnesia,” as if was a matter of Ankara forgetting or a dynamic of denial, rather than is the case of selective perception, nationalism, and fears about the fragility of domestic political balance that explain Turkey’s seemingly stubborn adherence to a discredited narrative.


Yet there are weighty problems here, as well. The conclusion of ‘genocide’ is ambiguous. Not only did no such crime, labeled as such, exist in 1915, but there was not even the concept crystallyzed in this manner. Indeed the word was not coined until 1944 by Rafael Lemkin in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, written in reaction to the crimes of the Nazis. Lemkin’s text does indirectly lend support to the Armenian insistence that only by acknowledging these events as genocide is their true reality comprehended. Consider this often quoted passage from Lemkin’s book: “I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times in history. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”


From a Turkish perspective, it is notable that the Nuremberg Judgment assessing Nazi criminality avoids characterizing the Holocaust as genocide, limiting itself to crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. If in 1945 there was no legal foundation for charging surviving Nazi leaders with genocide, how can the crime be attributed to the Ottoman Turks, and how can the Turkish government be reasonably expected to acknowledge it. Also in the Nuremberg Judgment there is a clear statement to the effect that criminal law can never be validly applied retroactively (nulla poena sine lege). This principle is also embedded in contemporary international criminal law. That is, if genocide was not a crime in 1915, it cannot be treated as a crime in 2015. Yet from an Armenian perspective, this issue of criminality is tangential, and is not the ground on which the Turkish narrative rests. Both sides seem to agree that what is at stake is whether or not to characterize the events as ‘genocide,’ regardless of whether genocide was a distinct crime in 1915.


But here ambiguity abounds on this issue of criminality. The preamble of the Genocide Convention (1950) includes language compatible with the wider import of Armenian contentions: “Recognized in all periods of history that genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity.” In effect, that the reality of genocide long preceded the conclusion of the treaty. And even the premise of prior criminality is reinforced by Article 1: “The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace, or time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish.” By using the word ‘confirm’ it would appear that the crime of genocide preexisted the use of the word ‘genocide’ invented to describe the phenomenon, and thus no persuasive jurisprudential reason is present to oppose redescribing the events of 1915 as an instance of genocide.


Such a discussion of the pros and cons of the legalities is far from the end of the debate. The pressure to call what happened to the Armenians as genocide is best understood as a pycho-political campaign to achieve an acknowledgement and apology that is commensurate with the magnitude of the historical wrong, and possibly to set the stage for a subsequent demand of reparations. The insistence on the label ‘genocide’ seeks to capture total control of the moral high ground in relation to the events by authoritatively associating the tragic experience of the Armenians with the most horrendous events experienced by others, and most particularly by the Jewish victims of Nazism. In this sense, although Nazis were not indicted at Nuremberg for genocide, the whole political effort to criminalize genocide as a crime was in reaction to the Holocaust, lending an initial credibility to the ‘never again’ pledge. In other words, only by calling the events of 1915 genocide can the issues of guilt and responsibility be resolved in accord with the Armenian narrative with sufficient gravitas. The Armenian claim is thus not to be understood as primarily expressive of a criminal law perspective, but reflects the key contention that what took place resembled what is prohibited by the Genocide Convention, and thus in this extra-legal sense is appropriately called ‘genocide,’ which functions as a way of concluding that the Armenians were victimized by the worst possible type of human behavior. And further, that no other word conveys this assessment as definitively as does ‘genocide,’ and hence the Armenian insistence is non-negotiable. Any step back from this posture would be interpreted as a further humiliation, thereby dishonoring the memory of those who suffered and opening the wounds of the past still further.


At present, both sides are locked into these contradictory positions. No way forward is apparent at present. Each side is hardening their positions, partly in retaliation for what they perceive to be the provocation of their adversary in the controversy. Erdoğan’s relatively conciliatory tone of 2014 has been replaced on the Turkish side by a relapse into defensiveness and denial, and the revival of the largely discredited nationalist version of the events in 2015 as a mutual ordeal. The Armenian campaign, in turn, has intensified, taking advantage of the centenary mood, and now given the strongest possible encouragement by Pope Francis. In this setting, it is to be expected that Armenians will mount further pressure on the U.S. Government, considered a key player by both parties, to abandon its NATO-oriented reluctance to antagonize Turkey by officially endorsing the view that what happened in 1915 should be acknowledged by Turkey as genocide. Barack Obama had assured the Armenian community during his presidential campaign that he believed that Armenians were victims of genocide in 1915 but has to date refrained from reiterating this position in his role as president.


The contextualization of this tension associated with the redress of a historical grievance is also an element in the unfolding story. There appears to be an Israeli role in deflecting Turkish harsh criticism of its behavior in Gaza by a show of strong support for the Armenian campaign. Then there is the peril in the region especially faced by Christians, the Yazidis (an ancient syncretist religion drawing on Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam, and believed by many Iraqi to be devil-worshipers) and non-Muslims, especially at risk from ISIS and other extremist groups seeking to ‘purify’ areas under their control in the Middle East. In this picture also is the rise of Islamophobia in Europe, as well as the moral panic created by the Charlie Hebdo incident and other post-9/11 signs that religiously induced violence is continuing to spread Westwards. When Pope Francis visited Turkey last November there was reported an agreement reached with Erdoğan that the Vatican would combat Islamophobia in Europe while Turkey would oppose any persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East.


I have known well prominent personalities on both sides of this Armenian/Turkish divide. More than twenty years ago I endorsed the Armenian position in talks and some writings. In more recent years, partly as a result of spending several months in Turkey each year I have become more sympathetic with Turkish reluctance to apologize and accept responsibility for ‘genocide.’ Among other concerns is the credible anxiety that any acknowledgement of genocide by Turkish leaders would unleash a furious right-wing backlash in the country imperiling social order and political stability. Aside from such prudential inhibitions there are on both sides of the divide deep and genuine issues of selective perception and identity politics that help maintain gridlock through the years, with no breakthrough in sight. Augmenting pressure on Turkey as is presently occurring is likely to be counter-productive, making the Turkish hard line both more mainstream and inflexible. Indicative of this is the stand of the main opposition leader, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu (head of the CHP) who seldom loses an opportunity to oppose the governing party on almost every issue, when it comes to the Armenian question is in lockstep solidarity with Erdoğan.


I see no way out of this debilitating impasse without finding a way to change the discourse. It serves neither the Armenians nor the Turks to continue this public encounter on its present path. The Turkish proposal for a historical joint commission is a bridge to nowhere as either it would reinforce the existing consensus and be unacceptable or the gridlock and be unacceptable. What might be more promising would be a council of ‘wise persons’ drawn from both ethno/religious backgrounds, and perhaps including some third parties as well, that would meet privately in search of shared understanding and common ground. A Turkish columnist, writing in this same spirit, proposes renewing the Erdoğan approach of 2014 by moving beyond sharing the pain to making an apology, coupled with offers of Turkish citizenship to the descendants of Armenians who were killed or diplaced in 1915.[See Verda Özer, “Beyond the Genocide Debate,” Hürriet Daily News, April 17, 2015] One possible formula that might have some traction is to agree that if what was done in 1915 were to occur now it would clearly qualify as ‘genocide,’ and that was done one hundred years ago was clearly genocidal in scale and intent. Perhaps, with good will and a realization that both sides would gain in self-esteem by a win/win outcome, progress could be made. At least it seems worth trying to use the resources of the moral imagination to work through with all possible good will a tangle of issues that has so long seemed intractable.


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