What does it mean for Armenians to stand in trans-national solidarity?
Monte Melkonian, an Armenian-American revolutionary, leftist and military commander in the Nagorno-Karabakh War during the 1990s, wrote in his article “The Question of Strategy” regarding the right to national self-determination:
“Such a struggle must be based on the following principles: …Coordinating efforts with other revolutionary forces, especially with the Turkish working class struggle and the Kurdish national liberation struggle in Turkey…” A Critique of Armenian Armed Action, from the Early 1970s through 1983
Monte got it, just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did in his letter from a Birmingham jail:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
He understood that allies exist in spaces that rhetoric forgets. He understood that race and religion were irrelevant and that you did not have to compromise revolutionary fervor to pragmatically dismantle oppressive regimes. All of this is to say simply, our jingoisms cannot get in the way of finding allies in the most unlikely places. Knowing this, Monte called for all ethnic groups to join the Armenian struggle against the State, and by extension the oppression surrounding us.
Trans-National Solidarity Between Armenia and Palestine
I am an Armenian-American who has lived and worked in Palestine for the last five years. I worked with a community program called Health for Palestine. Our work continues at the intersection of justice and health in the form of healthcare provision, trauma support and community organizing.
My goal in writing is to shed light on the injustice that Palestine faces and to show how historical events, such as those that took place in Armenia in 1915 and 2020 and Palestine in 1948 and 1967 and beyond, tend to repeat themselves unless we discover how these narratives coalesce and identify the forces that foment instability and violence.
This piece of writing was finished just after the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh (NKR) between the Armenian-backed semi-autonomous state of Artsakh and the Turkish-backed state of Azerbaijan. Armenian inhabitants, with the help of Armenia, had gained sovereignty over the region in the early 1990s. The conflict has been filled with tragedies, the loss of civilian life and the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees. The Republic of Armenia ultimately surrendered territories in NKR as part of a trilateral ceasefire agreement with Azerbaijan and Russia in November 2020. Thousands died, including soldiers and civilians, as few who sat far away in safety profited.
This most recent episode exists within the greater historical context of the Armenian Genocide. Continuous Turkish nationalist ethnic cleansing initiatives through the 20th and 21st centuries target victim groups of Armenians, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Circassians, Bulgarians and Turks themselves. The Republic of Turkey has a history of oppressing its own peoples in the last century, culminating in prominent elements of an ethno-nationalist oligarchy with extrajudicial detentions, suppression of freedom of speech and the creation of a military police state. One such oppressive example is the January 19, 2007 assassination of free speech champion Hrant Dink, who openly fought for Armenian rights and free speech for all in Turkey. Dink was murdered in broad daylight by a Turkish nationalist teenager, one who was fed lies by a system that promotes the concept that Armenians are violent and evil. Prominent Turkish poets and writers such as Nazim Hikmet and Orhan Pamuk have either been jailed or threatened with incarceration due to their outspokenness against the Genocide. Such history mimics the greater pattern within the modern Turkish state, where freedom of speech is targeted within the ever-present authoritarianism.
Armenia and Palestine Under Dual Threat
The specter of violence is busy and as my roots appreciate what has been going on in Armenia in 2020, connections with those that threaten Palestine reveal themselves. There are links between Israeli’s settler violence and Turkey’s oppression.
Modern ties between the states of Turkey and Israel have come in the form of defense cooperation agreements and Free Trade Agreements championed by former Turkish President and Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel and former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller in the mid-1990s.1 This trend of deepening ties with Israel came in the midst of Turkey’s diverse attempts at forging foreign political and corporate allies both in their region and further abroad. Turkey has remained and bolstered its status as a close ally of Israel in many ways. In his book Erdogan’s Empire Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East, Soner Cagaptay writes that as relations with neighbors deteriorated in the last decade as Turkey began to lose allies in the context of the Syrian Civil War, “Erdogan could not afford to fight everyone in the Levant, and therefore decided to normalize ties with Israel…Accordingly, following five years of intense negotiations between 2011 and 2016, the two countries finally normalized their ties in June 2016, reinstating full diplomatic relations.”2 In 2013, brokered by Obama, Israel and Turkey made up, saw Turkey accept $20 million in the form of reparations to Turkish families, and by 2016 Erdogan stated that the issue was “more or less settled.” The two states have full diplomatic relations again.
Though recent events have harmed defense ties, according to Cagaptay, economic ties are booming. She writes:
Turkish exports of vegetable products remained steady after 2010, and Turkish exports of prepared foodstuff, beverages, and tobacco more than doubled between 2007 and 2011. Even more interestingly at the height of tensions following the Flotilla Incident, from 2010 to 2011, bilateral trade increased by an impressive 30 percent, far surpassing the growth that occurred during the heyday of Turkish-Israeli ties.3
Turkish and Israeli goods and tourism flow freely, creating mutual gain for both parties, despite what often sounds cold and angry on the surface. Largely, Turkish Israeli defense agreements have frozen over since 2011. Still, Israel finds ways to profit from war in the region: specifically, by selling arms to Turkey and its military ally Azerbaijan.
During the last decade, Israel has supplied the Azeri army with Harop drones: a type of loitering munition. These were used during flareups of the NKR conflict multiple times over the last decade and are suicide style drones with a piloted bomb flown directly into a target. Newer versions of stealth suicide drones such as Skystrikers and Orbiter 1k’s have made their way from Israel to Azerbaijan as well. Additionally, Azerbaijan has used its oil revenues to purchase Israeli made LORA ballistic missiles, part of a five billion-dollar deal between the two nations. Azerbaijan gives Israel access to approximately 40-percent of its oil in return – an industry protected by private military contractors employed by the US firm Blackwater, a tale of war profiteering best saved for another article.
This military state, Azerbaijan, with dismal human rights records, free speech records, and representative electoral processes continues to act as a proxy arm for the Turkish military. Its continued antagonizing and disproportionate violence in the wars with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh have been a nidus of trauma. Azerbaijan boasts its relative capacity, spending over five times the amount in billions that Armenia does on military expenditure, with funding and resources coming from sources listed above.
The triadic allegiance born from war-profiteering and the bolstering of a military industrial complex is something that Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel have participated in by means of direct trade and participation in the military industrial complex, as outlined above. They are celebrant in their participation in this disturbing global trend, often in the name of defense. The expansion of settlements, the mass bombing of civilian property, and the edging out by means of structural and physical violence of undesired minorities is a prominent characteristic of their state since before WWI.
Lessons from Palestine
The same mechanisms of injustice that exist in Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia exist in Palestine and Israel.
I have spent the better part of the last decade in a land that fell victim to what Palestinians call the Nakba (النكبة), or catastrophe, the mass violent expulsion of Palestinians from their homes by the State of Israel in 1948. As an Armenian, hearing this translated word, catastrophe, resonated with me; Armenians refer to the Armenian Genocide as Medz Yeghern (մեծ եղեռն) or also The Great Catastrophe.
After three years immersed in Palestinian communities and culture, I had a secondary understanding of the Israeli military masquerading as police forces, forces that regularly perform unprovoked incursions into civilian space and UNRWA run refugee camps. Violence in the West Bank of Palestine comes in many forms: military incursions into refugee camps, unjust detention of children, the physical expansion of settlements at the expense of Palestinian homes and land, movement and access restrictions, forced transfer, home demolition and settler violence. Aida refugee camp, with a population of over 5,000 in less than one square mile, is the most tear gassed space in the world.
I regularly observed soldiers use thuggish intimidation to create a basal rate of anxiety, terror and trauma often specifically aimed at children. The sound of tear gas canisters rattling off playground plastic really sits with you. In Palestine, I witnessed my first stampede of people. I know what tear gas smells like now. I also saw male soldiers harass young women and those lasers that everyone had spoken of being fixed on live bodies of friends as we drove and walked through the neighborhood.
What I saw as a physician were the stabs of trauma that no stitches can ever heal. A colleague told me that deep into her twenties she continued to close the blinds in her room at night because she feared soldiers would look in. The limbs of many of my young friends were a maze of old scars, the results of rubber bullets that catch knees and tear cartilage. This trauma trickled from high, from the for-profit industry that spans every border in the world; a community leader and hero in the community would keep the more preserved gas canisters on his desk for tourists to see. He would point and remind people where they were manufactured: Combined Tactical Systems, Jamestown, Pennsylvania.
As I find myself a new primary care provider working with marginalized communities in the United States, I find my knowledge of trauma and stress to be too seasoned. Its face is ugly and familiar, with industry and violence being a global brand.
Not Parallel Resistance, But Unified Resistance
Further evidence-based historical research and personal experience as above, benefits our understanding of where unity exists and why its power is so important. It also highlights the trauma, stress, and structural violence that damages community and physical health. Unity across cultures has symbolic value, as oppressed peoples can find common ground on which to stand. As stated above, not just symbolic but literal oppressive systems are intertwined between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Israel. Thus, the potential for intertwined resistance is ripe.
Understanding our common histories of resistance, in Armenia, Palestine, Kurdish territories, dissenting Turkish citizens, members of the Jewish Voice for Peace, the Black Lives Matter movement, is a place to start so that unity comes easier in the future.
I conclude with the words of American political activist, philosopher, academic and author Angela Davis from her Hrant Dink Memorial Lecture in 2015 at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, in which she called for genocide recognition in front of Turkish academics and students:
Don’t we want to be able to imagine the expansion of freedom and justice in the world, as Hrant Dink urged us to do—in Turkey, in Palestine, in South Africa, in Germany, in Colombia, in Brazil, in the Philippines, in the US? If this is the case, we will have to do something quite extraordinary. We will have to go to great lengths. We cannot go on as usual. We cannot pivot the center. We cannot be moderate. We will have to be willing to stand up and say no with our combined spirits, our collective intellects and our many bodies.
Injustice that offends Armenians exists in many spaces. To identify them in every corner of the geopolitical spectrum is to grow more resolute in the pursuit of progress and peace. To combine spirits with those facing the same injustice is to resist oppression in the strongest way possible.
1, 2, 3 Çagaptay, S. (2019). Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris & Company, Limited.