It is with great reluctance that I write about the Armenian genocide, as I know from experience that what I say will infuriate both sides. But it is the hundredth anniversary of the catastrophe this month, and Pope Francis has just declared that the mass killing of Armenian citizens of the Ottoman empire in 1915 was indeed a genocide. Turkey, predictably, has responded by withdrawing its ambassador from the Vatican.
Well, surprise! We’ve been listening to this argument for several generations now, and it rarely gets much further than “Yes, you did!” “No, I didn’t!” Unfortunately, I know a lot more about it than that.
Ages ago, when I was a history graduate student doing research about Turkey’s role in the First World War, I got into the Turkish General Staff archives in Ankara and found the actual telegrams (written in the old riqa script) that went back and forth between Istanbul and eastern Anatolia in the spring of 1915.
Later on I saw the British and Russian documents on their plans for joint action with Armenian revolutionaries in the spring of 1915, so I also know the context in which the Turks and Armenians were acting. And I can say with some confidence that both sides are wrong.
There was an Armenian genocide. Of course there was. When up to 800,000 people from a single ethnic and religious community die from violence, hunger or exposure in a short time, and they are under guard by armed men from a different ethnicity and religion at the time, it’s an open-and-shut case. (Today’s Armenians say 1.5 million died in 1915, but that’s too high. It could be as few as half a million, but 800,000 is plausible.)
On the other hand, the Armenians desperately want their tragedy to be seen in the same light as the Nazi attempt to exterminate the European Jews, and won’t settle for anything less. But what happened to the Armenians was not pre-planned by the Turkish government, and there was provocation from the Armenian side. That doesn’t remotely begin to justify what happened, but it does put the Turks in a somewhat different light.
A group of junior officers called the Young Turks seized control of the Ottoman empire in 1908, and their leader, Enver Pasha, foolishly took the empire into the First World War at Germany’s side in November 1914. He then led a Turkish army east to attack Russia, which was allied to Britain and France.
That army was destroyed in the deep snow around Kars – only 10 percent of it got back to base – and the Turks panicked. The Russians didn’t follow right away – poor generalship – but the Turks had almost nothing left to stop them if they did. The Turks scrambled to put some kind of defensive line together, but behind them in eastern Anatolia were Christian Armenians who had been agitating for independence from the empire for decades.
Various revolutionary Armenian groups had been in touch with Moscow, offering to stage uprisings behind the Turkish army when Russian troops arrived in Anatolia. Learning that the Turks had retreated in disarray, some groups assumed the Russians were on their way and jumped the gun.
Similarly the Armenian revolutionary groups further south, near the Mediterranean coast, were in contact with the British command in Egypt, and had promised an uprising to coincide with planned British landings on the Turkish south coast near Adana. Quite late in the day the British switched their planned invasion much further west to Gallipoli, but once again some of the Armenian revolutionaries didn’t get the message in time and rebelled anyway.
Enver Pasha and his colleagues in Istanbul simply panicked. If the Russians broke through in eastern Anatolia, all the Arab parts of the empire would be cut off. So they ordered the deportation of all the Armenians in the east to Syria – over the mountains, in winter, on foot. (There was no railway yet.) And since there were no regular troops to spare, it was mostly Kurdish irregulars who guarded the Armenians on the way south.
The Kurds shared eastern Anatolia with the Armenians, but the neighbours had never been friendly. So many of the Kurdish escorts assumed they had free license to rape, steal and kill, and between that, the lack of food, and the weather, up to half the deportees died. To the extent that the Turkish government knew about it, it did nothing to stop it.
More Armenians died in the sweltering, disease-ridden camps they were confined in once they arrived in Syria. It was genocide through panic, incompetence and deliberate neglect, but it cannot be compared to what happened to the European Jews. Indeed the large Armenian community in Istanbul, far from the military operations in eastern Anatolia, survived the war virtually unharmed.
If the Turks had only had the sense to admit what really happened fifty or seventy-five years ago, there would be no controversy now. The only duty of the current generation is to acknowledge the past, not to fix it (as if they could). Instead there has been a hundred years of blank denial, which is why the issue is still on the international agenda. It will stay there until the Turks finally come to terms with their past.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 4 and 10. (“Well…that”; “Later…wrong”; and “Similarly…anyway”)
It’s often a good idea, when faced with a really frightening situation, to model the “worst case” outcome and see how bad it could get. That can be quite bad, but it’s rarely as bad as the half-formed fears that build up if you don’t actually analyse the problem. Like Islamic State, for example.
It began with the conquest of parts of eastern Syria by an Islamist group called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in 2011-13. Its founders were almost all Iraqis who had got their start fighting the American occupation of their country. They were allegedly in Syria to help overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, but they actually spent their time conquering territory held by other rebel groups.
Once ISIS had a territorial base in eastern Syria, its fighters surged back across the border into Iraq in June, 2014 and captured Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city. First the hopeless Iraqi army and then the supposedly competent Kurdish army crumbled in front of them. In July ISIS declared the border abolished and proclaimed the foundation of the “Islamic State” in the conquered parts of both Syria and Iraq.
A few days later the leader of ISIS, Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, declared in a sermon in Mosul’s great mosque of al-Nuri that he is the caliph to whom all Muslims owe obedience. It was a bold step – there has been no caliph since 1924 – but it had great resonance among those many Muslims who blamed the collapse of the Islamic world’s power and prosperity on the neglect of its traditional religious institutions and values.
Since then, Islamic State has conquered no more territory. Its one big offensive, against the Kurdish enclave of Kobane along the Turkish border, was defeated after thousands of ISIS fighters died in the attempt to take it. Aircraft from the US, other Western countries, and various conservative Arab countries patrol the skies over Islamic State, bombing anything that looks even vaguely military. Yet it still scares people to death.
One reason is its sheer ferocity and endlessly inventive cruelty. It crucifies people, hacks their heads off, burns them alive and posts videos boasting about it all. It attracts large numbers of recruits from the Sunni Muslims living in the Arab lands now included in Islamic State, but also thousands of eager volunteers from other Muslim countries and from the Muslim diaspora in the West.
Islamic State is now collecting pledges of allegiance from like-minded Islamist fighting groups in other Muslim countries, each of which lends a little more credibility to its claim to be the new caliphate. In November Islamist groups in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia all declared that they acknowledged al-Baghdadi, now calling himself Caliph Ibrahim, as their leader and guide.
Little more has been heard from the Yemeni, Saudi and Algerian groups, but the Egyptian group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, controls parts of the Sinai peninsula, regularly attacks the Egyptian army, and was officially designated a “province” (wilayat) of the Islamic State in November. Libya, where Islamist groups have been gaining ground in the civil war, was carved into three further “provinces” at the same time.
In late January a former commander of the Pakistani Taleban and ten other jihadi leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan also acknowledged al-Baghdadi’s authority , and declared that they constituted the new IS “province” of Khorasan, taking in those two countries and “other nearby lands”.
Then last Saturday Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the militant group Boko Haram, which controls much of northeastern Nigeria, also pledged allegiance to Islamic State: “We announce our allegiance to the caliph… and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity. We call on Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to the caliph.” It’s certainly making progress, but how far can it go?
Probably not much further. All the new “provinces” of Islamic State, like most of the original ones, are in mainly rural areas, often sparsely populated, and with few natural resources (except some oil, in Libya’s case). They are areas that corrupt and autocratic governments, many of them distracted by civil war, can simply abandon for the short term as not vital for their survival.
For Islamic State to seize big metropolitan areas and their resources would require a level of popular support in those areas that is unlikely to emerge. Big cities are full of relatively sophisticated people who have something to lose, and are unlikely to see Islamic State as an attractive solution for their problems.
Without the big cities and their communications facilities – especially airports and harbours – there can be little effective cooperation between the widely dispersed “provinces” of Islamic State. They will have to go on fighting their own wars with little outside help, and some they will lose.
The broader struggle against Islamist extremism will probably continue for at least a decade, and impose heavy costs on the people of the Middle East. But ultra-radical organisations like ISIS and Boko Haram are likely to break up in bitter theological disputes a lot quicker than that.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“One…West”; and “In late…lands”)
Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was in London last week, telling the Western media how helpful Ankara was being in the struggle against the terrorist “Islamic State” that has emerged in northern Syria and Iraq. Turkey is doing everything it can, he said – although, of course, “We cannot put troops everywhere on the border.”
Turkey’s open border has become a sore point with its Western allies, who suspect that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is deliberately allowing a steady flow of recruits and supplies to “Islamic State” because he still wants the Sunni rebels, most of whom are jihadi extremists, to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s Shia ruler. (Erdogan is no jihadi, but he is a devout and militant Sunni Islamist.)
But Erdogan’s motives are irrelevant, because Turkey simply cannot put troops everywhere on its 820-km. border with Syria. Or so says Ahmet Davutoglu, and only an enemy of Turkey (or somebody with a grasp of basic mathematics) would say otherwise.
I am no enemy of Turkey, but I can do basic arithmetic. If you stationed Turkish troops along the entire length of the Syrian border at ten-metre intervals – that’s enough for a machine-gun nest every fifty metres – it would take about 82,000 soldiers to cover the entire 820 km. The strength of the Turkish army (never mind the navy and air force) is 315,000 soldiers.
Maybe Turkey doesn’t have that many machine-guns, but it’s not a poor country, and machine-guns are quite cheap on the international market. Or maybe it would prefer to use some other equipment instead: a good fence and some motion-detectors would help. But the main requirement is manpower, and not very highly skilled manpower at that. The Turkish army has a few other jobs, but not any high-priority ones.
Even if you allow for frequent rotation of the soldiers manning the border, it would take much less than half the strength of the Turkish army to shut the border to foreign fighters. Maybe a few jihadis would still get through, but the vast majority wouldn’t. The only reason Ankara doesn’t shut the border is that it doesn’t really want to.
Cutting off the flow of jihadi volunteers to Syria would not greatly change the local military balance: IS uses them mostly as mere cannon-fodder. The point is that Turkey is not fully committed to the destruction of Islamic State, and indeed will give IS deniable help in order to further the goal of a Sunni victory in Syria, despite being part a “coalition of the willing” that is nominally dedicated to destroying IS.
The same goes for Saudi Arabia, although it has sent some token aircraft to bomb IS. Riyadh tries to prevent any Saudi citizens from going to fight for IS, and it certainly does not want the IS brand of radicalism to come to the kingdom. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has already started building a 900-km. high-tech wall along its border with Iraq to stop IS activists from entering the country.
But it is not a long way from the Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam that is promoted by Saudi Arabia to the “takfiri-salafist” doctrines espoused by the IS militants. Saudi private individuals have been a major source of financing for IS, and until recently Riyadh just turned a blind eye to it. Even now Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Islamic State destroyed if that means Assad gets to stay in power in Syria.
Then there’s Iran. In Iraq, where Islamic State controls half the country’s territory and threatens a Shia-dominated regime, Iran and the United States are fighting almost side-by-side to defend Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government. (They don’t actually talk to each other, but they each tell the Iraqis where they are planning to bomb so there are no collisions over the target areas.)
But next-door, in Syria, it’s different. Iran has sent troops, weapons and money to defend Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while the United States is still pledged to overthrow it. They both see Islamic State (which controls about a third of Syria’s territory) as an enemy, but Washington still believes that it can create some other, more “moderate” army of Sunni rebels that will eventually take Assad down.
And Russia, of course, still supplies Assad with weapons, money and diplomatic support – but despite its own difficulties with jihadi rebels back home in the North Caucasus, Moscow is not participating in the military campaign against Islamic State. Its quarrel with the United States over Ukraine is too fierce to permit that degree of cooperation elsewhere.
And so on, and so forth. Not one of the major outside powers that is opposed to Islamic State in principle has a clear strategy for fighting it, nor are they willing to cooperate with one another.
So IS will survive, at least for some years to come, despite the horrors it inflicts on the innocent people under its control. It may even expand a bit more, though the end of the siege of Kobane shows that it is far from unstoppable.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 12. (“Maybe…ones”; and “And Russia…elsewhere”)
After half a century of stasis, there are big new strategic realities in the Middle East, but people are having trouble getting their heads around them. Take the United States, for example. Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State in President Obama’s first administration, is still lamenting her former boss’s failure to send more military help to the “moderate” rebels in Syria.
“The failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton told Atlantic magazine recently. She’s actually claiming that early and lavish military aid to the right people would have overthrown Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, while freezing the al-Qaeda/ISIS jihadis out. If only.
Clinton travels a lot, but she never really leaves the Washington bubble. There are intelligence officials there who would gladly explain to her that almost all the desirable weaponry sent to the “moderates” in Syria ends up in the hands of the jihadis, who either buy it or just take it, but she wouldn’t listen. It falls outside the “consensus”.
Yet that really is how ISIS acquires most of its heavy weapons. The most striking case of that was in early June, when the Iraqi army, having spent $41.6 billion in the past three years on training its troops and equipping them with American heavy weapons, ran away from Mosul and northern Iraq and handed a good quarter of them over to ISIS.
In fact, that’s the weaponry that is now enabling ISIS to conquer further territory in eastern Syria and in Iraqi Kurdistan. Which, in turn, is why Barack Obama has now authorised air strikes in Iraq to stop ISIS troops from overrunning Irbil, the Kurdish capital.
By now, he has also presumably abandoned his proposal of last June to spend $500 million to train and equip “appropriately vetted” Syrian opposition fighters. (They were then supposedly going to overthrow Assad with one hand while crushing the jihadis with the other.)
But Obama has not yet dropped the other shoe. A LOT of people have not dropped their other shoes yet. They all know that the whole strategic environment has changed. They realise that may require new policies and even new allies. Changing horses in midstream is always a tricky business, so the realignments are only slowly getting underway, but you can see where they are going to go.
The proclamation of the “Islamic State” in eastern Syria and northernwestern Iraq has huge implications for every country in the Middle East, but for most of the great powers – Russia, the United States, China, India, Britain, France and Germany – it is almost the ONLY thing they still care about in the region. They all have Muslim minorities of their own, and they all want the Islamic State stopped, or at the very least isolated, contained and quarantined.
That means that both the Syrian and Iraqi governments must survive, and they will probably get enough outside help to do so (although it will take time for the US and the major European powers to switch sides and openly back Assad). The army of the Iraqi Kurds might hold its own against the Islamic State if it had better weapons, so it will get them (although Baghdad will not welcome a more powerful Kurdish army).
Containing the Islamic State to the north will be a simpler task, because Iran and Turkey are very big, well organised states whose populations are relatively invulnerable to the ISIS brand of Sunni fundamentalism. But to the south of the Islamic State is Saudi Arabia, and that is a country that faces some tough decisions.
The Wahhabi strand of Sunni Islam which is Saudi Arabia’s official religion is very close to the beliefs of the jihadis who now rule the Islamic State to their north. Much of their financial support and even their weapons have come from Saudi Arabia. But the rulers of that kingdom would be extremely unwise to assume that the jihadis regard Saudi Arabia’s current political arrangements as legitimate, or that gratitude would restrain them.
Nor will the long-standing US alliance with Saudi Arabia endure if Saudi ties to the jihadis are not broken. Riyadh will have to decide, and it will be aware that its oil is no longer so vital to the United States that it can have it both ways.
The Iranian-US rapprochement will continue, and the issue of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions will be settled amicably despite Israel’s protests. Indeed, Israel may come under irresistible US pressure to stop whacking the Palestinians or the Lebanese Shias every couple of years, stop the settlement programme, and get on with the two-state deal. Washington would very much like Israel to stop alienating the people it needs as allies.
Further afield, General Sisi’s new regime in Egypt can count on strong American support, and may even be encouraged by Washington to intervene militarily in Libya and shut down the Islamist militias there. Tunisia will be the only remaining flower of the “Arab Spring”, although there has also been a certain amount of progress in Morocco. But in the heartland of the Arab world, war will flourish and democracy will not.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 12 and 13. (“By now…other”; and “Nor…allies”)