Tuesday, April 24, 2012

How to push Turkey to recognize Armenian genocide?

In years, April 24 of 2012 has been one of the calmest anniversary day of World War I-era killings of Armenians in 1915, which Armenians call genocide.

In sharp contrast to previous years, where Turkey invested much diplomatic effort in Western countries to push politicians to avoid uttering the word "genocide" while marking the 1915 tragedy, April 24 this year is silent. In previous years, Armenians worldwide were pushing the issue forward while Turkey was defiant, wasting too much of its energy and time for this. But no doubt Armenians are working tooth and nail to make a massive push in 2015, in the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, that will become a huge headache for Turkey and its allies. 

Armenian genocide is not a certified, proved and commonly accepted axiom like Holocaust or Rwandan genocide. It is also different from deliberate and open genocides such as Chinese mass killings by Japan in 1930s, Nazi Holocaust in Poland or French atrocities in Algeria. In all of these cases, a foreign invading army deliberately and systematically killed their enemies, regardless of their gender or age. 1915 tragedy is different and more light needs to be shed on this particular event to fully understand this piece of history. The primary reason why 1915 tragedy is not openly debated or discussed in public is both Armenia’s and Turkey’s refusal to do so. Turkey instead urges historians, researchers to investigate the matter and pledges to open its archives for such an initiative. It earlier said it is ready to accept whatever historians, also from Armenia, come up with as a result of the research.

Armenia says researching this matter will dilute the issue of genocide and will hurt feelings of relatives of victims. This is astonishing. What about feelings of Khojaly survivors, who have seen men, women and children killed in front of their eyes just only 20 years ago by Armenian forces in Western Azerbaijan? Why do Armenians today deny that such a tragedy even took place? Do Azerbaijanis feelings count when Armenians question one of the worst massacres in the post-Cold War period?

The matter is largely have to do with national pride of both states, much less what really happened in 1915 in eastern Turkey. It is simply unacceptable for Turkey to spin stories it has taught its students about the heroic struggle of its nationals during the War of Independence. Domestic politics also played a key role in blocking the discussion of such a sensitive issue and most nationalist political groups in Turkey are exploiting Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia to block such debates. But what to do?

The road map is simple: Turkey will be more open and compromising if Armenia decides to withdraw its troops from occupied Azerbaijani territories. It will create an unprecedented opportunity for Turkey and Armenia to bury a century-long hostilities and eventually openly debate what happened in 1915. In this case, Turkey won’t face nationalist backlash at home and pressure from Azerbaijan to compromise on this issue.

Turks and Azerbaijanis point to atrocities committed by Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh in early 1990s while they are trying to counter Armenian genocide claims. Occupation in Karabakh remains the biggest obstacle to solve this thorny genocide issue peacefully and rapidly. It should also be remembered that Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process in 2009, which also included the establishing of a commission made up of historians tasked with investigating the tragedy, collapsed due to the brewing nature of Armenian occupation of some 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory.

Unless Armenia ends its occupation of Western Azerbaijan, there is little hope, if any, Armenians and Turks will frankly discuss what happened a century ago and face their truly painful history where everyone suffered to a certain degree.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Why can't Turkey rescue its missing journalists in Syria?

It would definitely be unfair to level criticisms against the Turkish government for failing to spot the whereabouts of two missing Turkish journalists from Turkey's Milat daily and Gerçek Hayat magazine. But Turkey's refusal to talk to Syrian authorities may partially explain why the journalists are still missing.
The journalists went missing a month ago and many rumors surfaced regarding the fate of these journalists. Turkey's state news agency then claimed the journalists were handed down to the Syrian intelligence by Shabiha militias in Idlib. It was not confirmed by the Turkish government. 
It was not smart on the side of journalists to travel to Syria. One of my colleagues told me that one of the missing journalists are known as popular critic of Assad and has been an activist both in Syria and in Turkey for years. It is not surprising that Assad regime categorized him and jailed when they had a chance.
Although Turkish diplomats said 25 days ago that they have contacted their Syrian counterparts regarding the journalists, there have not been any statements in this respect almost for weeks.
Part of the problem -- and I underline the word "part" here -- is Turkey's quick dumping of Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad. It is not surprising that Assad is a liar and very good at deceiving his counterparts and making virtuoso maneuvers that would favor his regime in the face of a 13-month bloody uprising in his country.
But is it really the reason of not talking to him? Is being honest in negotiations an essential and necessary part of diplomatic talks? Diplomacy is itself an art of manipulation and an overture through a range of ways, including deception, to gain a favorable outcome. This is what Assad has been doing all along. Turkey was expecting a different treatment and was offended when Assad didn't honor his promises to Turkey. Instead of blaming itself for being too naive and trusting, Turkey accused Assad of being dishonest.
There is a good saying in Turkey: We are Muslims, we could be fooled but we are never fooling. But should it be applicable to state-to-state relations where a single mistake could lead to a war? Should not be diplomats, with all the intelligence at their disposal, be calculating pragmatists?
Ironically, Turkey even talked to Tehran to spot the missing journalists in Syria.  
In the heyday of conflict in Libya last year, Turkey secured the release of four The New York Times journalists, including late Anthony Shadid who told me he is very thankful for Turkey's help in his release. Another journalist Turkey could rescue from Libya was Guardian reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Abdul-Ahad told me Turkish government was more than helpful and directly involved in the process of his release. Turkey's help was also key in rescuing two German journalists and an American hiker jailed in Iran. It was all possible thanks to Turkey's ability to talk to everybody.
Many in Turkey have started raising serious doubts about Turkey's policies regarding Syria and Turkish diplomats are fiercely countering criticisms, labeling critics as "extensions of Baath regime" in Turkey.
When I inquire government proponents what the essential part of Turkey's Syria policy is, most of the answers include Turkey's shift of policy from standing by Assad to abandoning him. But is it really an effective policy in the case of Syrian regime who is turning a blind eye to sanctions leave alone the diplomatic isolation? This is a survivor regime for four decades that has gone through thick and thin of war, domestic rebellion and international pressure. Defying international community is what it is best at.
In the absence of alternative policies, the most effective way of handling Assad regime would be maintaining dialogue and urging him, no matter what, to stop violence and immediately implement reforms. Turkey is a country which was about to help Israel and Syria strike a historic deal regarding the Golan Heights. All of a sudden, these two countries are now Turkey's enemies. That was of course not Turkey's choice. But Turkey must understand that states may be morally correct in condemning domestic violence but it serves no purpose but severing ties and being unable to help tackle the issue. 
Talking to Syria was Turkey's single most effective and strong weapon and leverage. Turkey used it by throwing it away. 
At least we should be cheerful that the missing journalists are safe and healthy.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Peace in Syria goes through Assad not his departure

What should we do now? This is the most frequently asked question among diplomats who suck at diplomacy are dealing with a-year long violence in Syria that claimed lives of nearly 10,000 people. 

This is what a perfect conundrum looks like. Turkey, the most powerful state in the region critical of Syrian regime, unable to act except harboring Free Syrian Army leadership in southern Turkey, bordering with its former ally Syria. Arab states, worried over Iran’s rising influence in Syria and possible instability spilling over their countries, are uncertain whether or not to arm opposition fighters. The West, without any major stakes in Syria, understands the necessity to act to stop the violence in the country but doesn’t know how this could be realized. While Turkey, Arab nations and the West were counting Assad’s days of tenure last year, they have already abandoned the idea of post-Assad era anytime soon.

No need to blame Russia or China for blocking UN resolutions on Syria in the UN Security Council. Time will show that their malicious act in fact would benefit both Syria and its neighbors.

The chief culprit in this deadlock are states who misread the situation on the ground, underestimated Assad’s power and gave false hopes to the embattled Syrian opposition.

It was clear from the beginning that Assad will wield its army, one of the most powerful one in the region, to crush the uprising. Defeating Syrian army is virtually impossible no matter how well-armed Syrian rebels are and it could only be possible either through foreign military intervention or mass defections from the army. Defections happen when prospective defecting soldiers believe that they will be harbored and supported. But what they faced was undelivered promises and Syria’s killing machine that was turning more merciless every day.

States then claimed Assad’s days are numbered, building on a hope that defections will continue and he will resign under the heat of growing pressure. They definitely could not recall neighboring Iraq’s experience with Saddam. No neighbor, including Iran, gave hand to Saddam’s Iraq and he was defiant until his death. Why would not this be the case in Syria when there are countries ready to help it survive such as Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Russia?

Turkey was the most important actor that could help Syria handle the situation but failed to do so. Turkey blames Assad for not living up to his promises of withdrawing troops from cities. But Assad and Turkey never agreed that he will withdraw troops and end violence. He told Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who spent 6 hours with him on Aug. 9 last year, that he will end military operations once the security in cities are restored. Davutoğlu balked at this idea and said reforms and maintaining security must go hand in hand. Turkey then realized that Assad’s killing machine continued despite 6-hour marathon talks and Turkish leaders were felt betrayed. Turkey behaved prematurely in swiftly abandoning Assad and lost its most important leverage.

Another unfair accusation was when Turkey and Western nations accused Assad of being slow in reforms. But this was not the issue; the discussion should have centered on how to deal with the situation while the killings continue on both sides. Turkey is unable to change its coup-era constitution for almost 30 years and it could only this week bring coup leaders before court. Reforms take time and in the face of violence across the country, it is naivete to expect them to yield any tangible results. And let’s be honest, Assad made many reforms.

Instead of tantalizing armed opposition against Assad, Turkey and world powers could have drafted a road map for Syria and ensure Assad that they will help Syria in its peaceful transition to democracy. By encouraging Syria’s armed opposition, world made a strategic error and basically sent a lamb to fight against a wolf while it repeatedly said it won't intervene. 

But what to do now?

Syria is now under Iran’s influence. This is not because it is an evil regime but because only Iran is backing the Assad regime. Staying engaged with Assad throughout the entire process could have made Syria more cooperative and put it out of Iran’s orbit.

There is still an ample opportunity today to stop violence and push Assad to make sweeping reforms, implement them immediately with real, tangible steps and avoid raging fighting across the country that sits atop sectarian fault lines. UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s plan is promising. If Syria lives up to its promise to cease fighting by April 12, states must rush to Syria’s help in securing peaceful transition to a different political era that will benefit both Syrian authorities and the opposition.

Military intervention should be shelved permanently. Intervening into a country to stop possible civil war is damaging more. War’s death toll is usually more than most of civil wars. Diplomacy is the only viable path to peace in Syria -- and it doesn't include arming rebels or encouraging them to display "brave fighting for dignity." If peace is ever possible in Syria, it will be through talking to Assad not demanding his departure.