Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Armenian Genocide Resolution: An Unlikely Source for Congress’ Potential Legacy

The Democratic majority that stormed to power in the election of the 110th Congress had great expectations to put an end to the tide of President Bush’s controversial policies.

Nearly a year later, though, all the Democrats have to show for their promise is a minimum wage increase, fiery partisan rhetoric, and potentially landmark Iraq policy bills squashed by Bush’s veto.

Now Congress threatens to finally make a real difference, and even they themselves are surprised by it.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee had a largely symbolic objective in mind when it voted to send a resolution to the floor that labeled Turkey’s killing of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide. In light of recent events, though, it appears that this decision will have a lot more practical impact than intended – or sought.

Within a day the Turkish ambassador was recalled from Washington, and within a week the Turkish parliament authorized a potential invasion of Northern Iraq, in defiance of the United States, to round up Kurdish rebels stationed there. Even so, this may only be the beginning: Turkey has the potential to immediately affect U.S. policy, European policy, and the long term stability of the Middle East.

In an America where Iraq remains such a heated issue, it seems astonishing that U.S. politicians would tread so heedlessly on a nation that plays such a critical role in Iraq. For the military, no country plays a more important part than Turkey, which has become the logistical keystone for the U.S. military. Around 70% of air shipments to Iraq are flown across Turkey and that an array of supplies, particularly fuel, passes through Turkey en route to Iraq. Should Turkey stop providing logistical support, the U.S. military would have to resort to longer, less efficient, and costlier routes (as if Americans weren’t paying enough for the war already!)
Another, more destabilizing Turkish action regarding Iraq, though, would soon dwarf any fuss over logistics. The recent vote by the Turkish parliament could precede a move that many in Turkey have deemed necessary in the wake of the growing chaos in Iraq: an invasion of Kurdish Northern Iraq. The fallout of this move could fundamentally alter the stability and geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

In an essence, though, the current boundaries in the Middle East are somewhat arbitrary, which is the underlying cause of the tensions leading up to this drama. Although, some thought was given to ethnic differences, the post-World War I borders, carved out of the domains of the former Ottoman Empire, were designed primarily to further the colonial ambitions of Britain and France in the region. In fact, such reckless boundary making led to meshing of a Kurdish bloc, a Sunni bloc, and a Shiite bloc together into a single country: present day Iraq. U.S. troops are currently witnessing the latest melee in the perpetual cycle of violence/authoritarianism in Iraq.

The Kurds trapped inside the Iraq border were formerly part of a distinctly Kurdish region in the Northern Middle East. The rest of the Kurdish population were encased by the borders of modern Turkey, Iran, and a little bit of Syria. Many Kurds long for a country of their own, in their ancient homeland, free from the oppression they have faced in the countries they were forced into. As the Iraqi Arab sects have engaged in the latest civil war there, the Kurds of Northern Iraq have grown ever more independent from the rest of Iraq, only loosely governed (as if any part of Iraq really isn’t at this point) by the Maliki government. It would seem that the possibility of Northern Iraq attempting to secede from the rest of Iraq to form Kurdistan does not seem so farfetched or far off. Such secession would send shivers up the spine of the Turkish government, since an independent Kurdistan would likely hold great appeal for the Kurds of Turkey, who have long been at the mercy of their Turkish rulers. Indeed, Turkey fears that Southeastern, Kurdish Turkey would in turn try to secede as well and become part of the new Kurdistan. To prevent this security nightmare scenario, Turkey would invade Northern Iraq with the goal of quelling the Kurdish Separatist movement (PKK) and demonstrating the futility of trying to form a Kurdish state.

An invasion of Northern Iraq would burst the security bubbles of the surrounding countries. The Kurdish regions of Iran and Syria would likely try to secede from their respective states and join up with the new Kurdistan, causing great unrest and massive oppression. The Turkish military would be stretched to the limit occupying Northern Iraq while simultaneously trying to prevent the secession of the Kurdish region of Turkey. In the chaos, the remainder of Iraq could split into Sunni and Shiite states that might try to invade Northern Iraq for themselves to capture the oil fields there. The conflict between these new states could spill over into neighboring countries already reeling from the Kurdish shockwaves. Or, neighboring countries could join in on the fray to try to annex the Sunni and Shiite states and to even make a foray into the oil fields of the North as well. Meanwhile, the U.S. military would find itself in a quagmire many times as thick as now, attempting to reunify the shattered elements of Iraq, as they are presently, but with increased intervention by Turkey and potentially other nations. Indeed the U.S. and Turkish militaries might engage each other, causing ugly diplomatic repercussions. The inevitable abuses of Kurds by the Turkish military would most likely lead to Turkey’s expulsion from NATO and may bring about an end to any remaining positive Euro-Turkish relations.

Such diplomatic consequences could ultimately make Turkey the biggest loser of the invasion. Fear of such repercussions have managed to check the Turkish military so far, but should incidents like the Armenian genocide resolution continue to pile up, and should the situation in Iraq continue to spiral out of control, Turkey may feel that it has no choice but to invade.

Even still, it remains relatively unlikely that such a catastrophic scenario will unfold solely as a result of the genocide resolution. Nevertheless, the genocide resolution is the latest source of ever growing tension between Turkey and the West that threatens to fundamentally alter the role of Turkey in the world.

Though Turkey has long had one of the largest Muslim populations and, as the Ottoman Empire, was once the champion of the Muslim world, since the 1920s it has had a tradition of state-enforced secularism, dating back to the rule of Ataturk. Such secular administration and society has made Europeans more willing to work with Turkey. Even as the Muslims of Turkey felt an allure to the political and cultural trends of the nearby Middle East, the policies of the Turkish government would often partially reflect the influences of Europe. Ataturk decided long ago that Turkey would be better off as a secular caterer to Europe, and that continuing trend has arguably been his greatest legacy.

Turkey, as a result, became something of a Western island in the Middle East. Europe and America have generally been able to present enough incentives to maintain a fair degree of such influence in Turkey. Most recently, Europe has considered Turkey as a candidate to join the European Union, and Turkey has taken several Euro-friendly steps necessary to fulfill the requirements for EU membership and to appeal to leaders of the EU, such as France and Germany, to admit it. America, along with its superpower status, sends annual economic and military aid to Turkey, and in turn Turkey has long been a supporter of Israel.

However, tension has started to mount between Turkey and the West. U.S. policy debacles with regards to Iraq, torture, and the “war on terror” as well as the unilateral fashion with which such policies were executed have worked to isolate America from everyone, and Turkey is no exception. In fact, Turkey is feeling particular pressure from the tide of anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East from its large Muslim population. Try as they might to distance themselves from America, Europe has been tarred with the same brush nevertheless (they call it the West for a reason). As a result, association with the West has lost some of its allure of old, and Turkey wonders, for good reason, whether to continue to defy its disgruntled Muslim base to be in league with an increasingly unpopular West.

One resolution condemning genocide will probably not dismantle U.S.-Turkey relations, but it will add to the trend that has been a recent source of tension between the nations. Eventually, should the trend continue, Turkey may distance itself from Western objectives in favor of the objectives of Middle Eastern powerhouses, such as Iran. To be fair, such a shift would not be without consequence for Turkey: they would doubtless lose countless economic and political benefits from the West. But as this trend continues, it becomes ever more likely that Turkey will slowly, but surely cease to be in the sphere of the West.

That being said, it should be reaffirmed that genocide should not be tolerated: there is no greater crime than to wipe a population off the face of the Earth. However, there is a time and a place for everything, and now is not the time to further antagonize Turkey.

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