By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
BERLIN — No one engaged in efforts to have the Armenian Genocide officially recognized — at whatever level and in whatever venue — can suffer under the illusion that it is simply a matter of acknowledging historical facts as truth. It has been, and remains a political football, which is tossed, carried or kicked according to the game plans drafted by the coaches of the opposing teams. Or, as in the case of Germany, it is punted. Instead of following through on the courageous initiatives taken by President Joachim Gauck and the Bundestag (Parliament) last April, to finally formulate and pass a unified resolution acknowledging the Genocide, the political leadership has preferred to put the entire issue on hold.
This in itself is highly regrettable and will raise cries of protest throughout the Diaspora. But there is more at stake than the Armenian issue, narrowly defined. The reversal on this resolution occurs in the context of the most severe refugee crisis since World War II, a crisis generated by the continuing war in Syria and Iraq, in which the barbaric ISIS hordes threaten to wipe out an entire civilization. The German decision made on the genocide question, being tactical, can be corrected with time. But compromises made in assessing the dynamic behind the ISIS onslaught, especially regarding the roles played by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, carry strategic implications.
Genocide Resolution Sacrificed on the Altar of Realpolitik
Der Spiegel, a flagship weekly known for its scoops and scandals, issued a release on October 16, titled “The Bundestag delays Armenian resolution,” which read: “The controversial Bundestag resolution on the Armenian genocide will be put on hold until further notice.” It reported that the governing coalition parties had “quietly agreed to delay the second and third readings of the resolution, which designates the massacres by the Young Turk government 100 years ago as genocide, for as long as possible.” Though the foreign policy spokesmen of the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) “do not want to issue statements on it,” Spiegel writes that according to its information, “what lies behind this is the consideration that one does not want to provoke Ankara unnecessarily at the moment if at the same time one expects help in the solution of the refugee crisis.” It recalls that back in April, when the issue arose, Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier had declined to speak of genocide, “out of consideration for Ankara.”
No one, especially in the US, should be surprised at such a development, in light of the tradition of presidential dancing around the “g” word every April 24. But what lies behind it needs explication. Spiegel mooted that it was part of a German-Turkish deal on the refugee crisis, and this was confirmed just days later by Chancellor Angela Merkel who flew to Ankara for talks with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Tayyip Erdogan. The upshot of the talks was the following agreement: Turkey will act to stem the flow of refugees into Europe, by expanding camps on its territory, repatriating those refugees who are sent back after having failed to gain asylum, and reinforcing controls on its sea borders with Greece. In return Germany and the EU will provide funds for the camps (3 billion Euro), restart accession talks for Turkey to join the EU (by opening a new “chapter” in the process, on economic policy) and relax visa requirements for Turks entering the EU. Ankara would like to eliminate the visa requirements completely, and Davutoglu reportedly demanded Turkey be allowed to participate in EU summits. Discussion also focused on removing the causes of the refugee crisis, i.e. dealing with the Syrian war. Here Erdogan said he had discussed the need to “fight terrorism,” by which he meant in particular the PKK. Though there was precious little detail reported on this crucial theme, it is the crux of the matter, as we shall see below.
Opposition to the deal came from German as well as Turkish politicians. One complaint was that, by visiting Ankara two weeks prior to the Turkish elections, Merkel was lending precious political support to Erdogan and the AKP. Nazmi Gür, of the Kurdish-backed opposition HDP party, accused Merkel of having made a “dirty deal” with Erdogan — “Don’t send us any more refugees … and you get 3 billion Euro for it” — which he called “shameful.” Human rights activists also objected that, since the Turkish government tramples on the human rights of its own citizens, it cannot be expected to respect those of Syrian refugees. As reports carried in the New York Times and elsewhere have detailed, Syrians are confined to the camps, in minimal living standards, and are denied integration, whether through jobs or having children attend school. In fact one reason the refugee flow has increased is that many prefer to leave the camps in hopes of reaching Germany, where they can seek employment and find adequate housing.
Criticism from Germany focused on the timing of her visit. Cem Özdemir, head of the Green Party, had earlier called on the chancellor to freeze all contacts with Turkey until after the elections, to avoid the appearance of an endorsement, a stance shared by spokesmen of other parties.
The Roots of the Crisis: War in Syria
No matter how justified such criticism may be, it misses the main point, which is the need to end the war in Syria. Ironically it was a German intellectual of Iranian descent who actually addressed this, and he did so in a manner that was to deliver a healthy shock to the political class, and not only in Germany. The same day that Merkel was meeting the Turkish leaders, Navid Kermani, a prominent Orientalist and writer, received the Frankfurt book trade peace prize. In his acceptance speech, he raised the call for action to end the conflict.
His address was extraordinary on many accounts. He devoted the first part to the story of Father Jacques Mourad, a Catholic priest leading the Syrian parish in Qaryatein whom ISIS terrorists kidnapped in the Mar Elian cloister in May. Pater Jacques, whom Kermani knew, had succeeded in maintaining peaceful relations among Christians and Muslims in his community, sheltering hundreds or thousands of war refugees, mostly Muslims, and keeping the armed militias at bay. In an email just days prior to his abduction, he had written, “The threat posed by the ISIS, this sect of terrorists which presents a horrible image of Islam, has arrived in our area.” He then wrote of the quandary, whether to stay or flee, and lamented the fact that “the Christian world” had abandoned them, perhaps in hopes of avoiding danger. “We don’t mean anything to them,” he wrote.
Kermani developed these two points at length: first he depicted the conflict in terms of an internal conflict in Islam, whereby ISIS strove to destroy the high culture of Islam, illustrated in its philosophy, poetry and art, and to replace it with a “religious fascism.” Then he addressed the “disinterest of our public opinion in the end-times-like catastrophe” now threatening the region. He presented the degeneration of Islamic culture as a process over centuries, whereby “absolutely nothing exists within the religious culture of modern Islam” that is anywhere near the brilliance of that Islamic culture from the medieval times on, which he had studied with passion. Most significant is Kermani’s explicit identification of the role of Saudi Arabia in this degeneration process. Saudi Arabia is the “main sponsor of jihadism,” he said, and Wahabism is the ideology of ISIS, which has recruited youth in the West under the banner of Salafism.
Regarding the second point, the apparent disinterest of the West in the impending catastrophe, Kermani lambasted the lack of serious political discussion of the causes of the refugee crisis. “We don’t ask ourselves,” he said, “why it happens to be Saudi Arabia who is our closest partner in the Middle East.” And “we have accommodated ourselves to the existence of a new religious fascism, whose land area is as vast as Great Britain and stretches from Iran’s borders almost to the Mediterranean.” Estimating the strength of ISIS at 30,000 armed fighters, Kermani thinks this should not constitute an invincible foe for the international community. What is his conclusion? War? Denying that he, as a peace prize winner is a warmonger, he stated: “I am not calling for war. I am simply saying that there is a war — and that we, as the closest neighbors, have to react, possibly militarily, yes, but above all much more determined with diplomatic and civil society means.” He argued: “For this war can no longer be ended in Syria or Iraq alone. It can only be ended by those powers that are behind the adversary armies and militias, Iran, Turkey, the Gulf states, Russia and also the West.”
Kermani’s high profile intervention has exerted an impact on the political discourse in Germany. Some may perhaps accuse him, an Iranian, of targeting the Saudis out of a regional, geopolitical perspective, but that would be misplaced. Whatever other considerations he may nurture, the fact is that he struck a very sensitive political nerve.
Were powers in the West serious about ending the war, they would exert pressure to halt the support for the ISIS terrorists that continues to flow from precisely those leading allies, Saudi Arabia, the Arab Gulf states and Turkey. If they are to become part of the solution to the problem, as the foreign chancelleries in Europe continue to repeat, these regional governments must be identified first as part of the problem. It is no secret that Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Turkey provide logistical, military, political and ideological support to ISIS and Al Nusra, categorized as the “extremist” terrorists; nor is it a secret that the so-called “moderate” terrorists (or “rebels”) still enjoy the backing of the US, among other Western partners. (Indeed, to understand the origins of the barbarism ravaging the entire region means revisiting the policy of the West beginning with the first Iraq war in 1991.) If the Saudis’ Wahabism is recognizable as the official ideology of ISIS, the compatibility of the AKP’s brand of Islamism with fantasies of a restored Caliphate is not difficult to perceive. Until and unless these open secrets are acknowledged as political facts on the public record there is little hope that the war dynamic can be halted.
Foreign Minister Steinmeier, in fact, came away empty handed from talks he conducted in Tehran and Riyad, parallel to Merkel’s Turkey visit.
From this perspective, the issue of Germany’s shelving the genocide resolution may be more accurately assessed. Recognition per se is not the issue. Postponement here was symptomatic of the Berlin government’s unwillingness to confront the Turkish leadership on its duplicitous behavior in the conflict. The question remains: why should Germany, the leading economic and political force in Europe, acquiesce to the demands of Turkey? Is this merely a manifestation of Realpolitik? Or do the Turkish authorities have an ace in the hole that they can threaten to play, as a sort of blackmail? For example, it is known that there are certain sensitive documents from the First World War, reports by German military to the War Ministry in Berlin regarding the genocide, which were destroyed during the Second World War bombings of Potsdam, but copies of which are kept in the Turkish military archives. Could it be that the German foreign ministry’s reluctance to acknowledge the genocide, to the present day, stems from fears that this material from the Turkish archives could be made public?