Special for the Armenian Weekly
Turkey is no stranger to changes in regime. The administration in Ankara has seen fundamental, abrupt shifts a number of times since the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923. Following the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1938, the military perceived itself as the guardian of the secular, republican order established by one of its own. With that in mind, the army stepped in on three separate occasions—in 1960, in 1971, and in 1980—to remove certain elements from power. Turkey returned to democracy each time.
The last intervention by the army, in 1997, came to be known as “the post-modern coup”: no real bloodshed, no mass, sustained instability, but strong suggestions to remove the Islamist Welfare (Refah) Party from power—the precursor to the Justice and Development (Adalet ve Kalkınma, AK) Party. In the AK Party years since 2002, the back of the Turkish military has been broken, as a “New Turkey” with a new constitution is being slowly but surely ushered in by now-President Erdogan and now-Prime Minister Davutoglu. This has been a new kind of regime change, perhaps a “post-post-modern coup.” Much remains in flux in Turkish decision-making, including the attitudes of the state towards minorities, most notably the Kurds and also the Armenians, as well as key directions of foreign policy.
But Turkey continues its close alliance with the United States, even given an increasingly unclear and volatile geopolitical situation. The civil war in Syria was bad enough. With the appearance and perseverance of “the Islamic State,” however, priorities have shifted in Ankara and in Washington. The international media has been filled with pieces about how the Assad regime is no longer the focus in D.C.—or is at least on the back-burner—whereas the Turkish government has its eye more on its internal and regional Kurdish issue, while still advocating to overthrow the regime in Damascus.
For that reason, matters have come to a head over Kobani – tellingly, a place bearing both a Kurdish and an Armenian stamp. The State Department has been quick to assert, if without specifics, that Washington and Ankara continue to see eye-to-eye on Syria and “the Islamic State.” The story out of Turkey itself might not be as clear as all that.
Whereas there may be disagreements between these two NATO allies about the Assad regime and what to do with the Kurds in and out of Turkey, the narrative in Turkey of the Armenian Genocide does not seem to be a matter of dispute. True, that narrative has changed over the past two decades or so, going from, “Nothing happened. What Armenians? What genocide?” to “There was a great deal of common pain for all who suffered during the First World War, including Turks and Armenians.” But the “gag rule” on U.S. foreign policy with regards to this matter persists. Responses to the Armenian Genocide Centennial in 2015 could include another statement by the Turkish leadership, by Erdogan himself, or perhaps by a recently appointed senior official, an advisor to Davutoglu of Armenian descent.
A lesson to be learned in this case—in hindsight, naturally—is that, had the United States been more decisive about pushing Turkey to face up to its past and address its current state of affairs when it comes to Armenians, Kurds, and other minorities, Turkey’s own position domestically and in the region could have been stronger, and its outlook more clear. The confidence that Turkey lacks today is being propped up at the expense of much time and energy being expended in many capitals around the world. The situation is changing daily, and patience may be wearing thin on more than one front.
In all events, the “gag rule” that Turkey has imposed on at least one aspect of U.S. foreign policy should make little sense in D.C. anymore. The instability and inconsistency of Turkish foreign policy in general, whether vis-à-vis Europe, Russia, the Arab world, or Israel, ought to cause many in Washington and elsewhere to carefully consider whatever strategic partnership there might remain with a post-post-modern Ankara.