Last Friday, I sat down (virtually) with Geoff Shullenberger to record an episode of “Compact Conversations,” Compact Magazine’s podcast series. Geoff and I discussed my recent essay in Compact on Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia–specifically, on how the West’s indifference to the invasion of this aspiring democracy by a dictatorship reflects a combination of hypocrisy, cynicism, and shortsightedness. Here’s the link. Listen in!
In First Things today, I have an essay on President Biden’s recent recognition of the Armenian Genocide of 1915–and why that recognition hasn’t translated into practical help for Armenians suffering ethnic cleansing today. Here’s an excerpt:
Recognition of the Armenian Genocide, suddenly, has become one of the few things on which Democrats and Republicans agree. It would be good if the new willingness to speak forthrightly about history translated into practical help for Armenians facing ethnic cleansing today. That, unfortunately, seems a different story. Shortly after his statement on the genocide, President Biden made another decision that indicates that, when it comes to present-day aggression against Armenia, the United States is prepared to look the other way. . . .
Turkey and Azerbaijan would like very much, in Erdoğan’s words last year, to “fulfill the mission of our grandfathers in the Caucasus”—to remove the obstacle that Christian Armenians place in the way of a unified, pan-Turkish mega-state stretching from Istanbul to Central Asia. American leverage could make Turkey and Azerbaijan think twice about pursuing this strategy. But America’s foreign policy establishment continues to see Armenia as a Russian proxy and therefore undeserving of much assistance. Indeed, neoconservatives have cheered Azerbaijan’s aggression against Armenia as a way to contain Russia and, secondarily, Iran.
This assessment of the situation is wrong and unfair. Surrounded by enemies who would like to make it disappear, Armenia has little choice but to make alliances where it can. Besides, the theory that helping Azerbaijan would weaken Russia has proven spectacularly wrong. As a result of the war, Russia now has military bases both in Armenia and Azerbaijan and wields more influence in the Caucasus than it did before. As for Iran, it voiced its support for Azerbaijan during the war and now hopes to receive Azeri contracts to help with the rebuilding.
The full essay is available here.
For those who are interested, at the Law & Liberty site today, I have an essay on the Karabakh War, now one month old. I argue that the war represents a civilizational clash between democracy and dictatorship and suggest what American can do to ease the crisis. Here’s an excerpt:
America should consider a range of options to help ease the Karabakh crisis, none of which would involve America as a participant in the conflict. First, it can send humanitarian assistance to the region, indirectly if necessary. Second, it can suspend the direct or third-party sale or transfer of military equipment and technology to Azerbaijan. America provided $100 million of military aid to Azerbaijan just in 2018 and 2019, much more than to any other country in the region, ostensibly to help Azerbaijan defend itself against Iran. With Azerbaijan openly purchasing weapons from Iran, that strategy seems counterproductive. America can also suspend military sales and transfers to Turkey while Turkey continues its belligerent policy in Karabakh and elsewhere. If this doesn’t work, America could impose sanctions on both countries.
Finally, America can continue to push Azerbaijan to cease hostilities, return to negotiations, and reach a diplomatic settlement of Karabakh’s status. (After agreeing to one US-brokered ceasefire last weekend, Azerbaijan immediately broke it.) A comprehensive settlement has been in sight for decades: Armenia returns most captured territories to Azerbaijan and allows refugees to return in exchange for some sort of independence for Karabakh. Michael Rubin argues in The National Interest that America should support this idea, which has a precedent in Kosovo: “remedial secession” to protect an endangered minority. After weeks of cluster bombing, not to mention the history of pogroms and other crimes, Karabakh Armenians can never be safe under Azeri rule.
You can read the whole essay here.
For those who are interested, the St. John’s University Institute for International Communication has posted a video of last week’s panel, “The Crisis in the Caucasus,” on the war in Karabakh. I participated, along with Alek Gevorkyan (St. John’s), Artyom Tonoyan (University of Minnesota), and Siobhan Nash-Marshall (Manhattanville College). Kudos to St. John’s Law 2L Isabel Arustamyan for helping to put it all together. The link is below:
The Philos Project, a think tank that promotes positive Christian engagement in the Middle East, hosting a briefing last week on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. I participated, along with the Project’s Founder and Executive Director, Robert Nicholson, Research Fellow Van Der Megerdichian, and Armen Sahakyan, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America. I covered the history of the Karabakh conflict, its religious implications, and why Christians in the West should care. A link is now available:
At the Liberty Law blog this morning, I have an essay on historian Charles Laderman’s fine new book, Sharing the Burden: The Armenian Question, Humanitarian Intervention, and Anglo-American Visions of Global Order. At the turn of the 20th Century, American officials repeatedly voiced support for an independent Armenian state in Anatolia. The state was meant to compensate Armenians for the effects of genocide and offer them protection from hostile forces that surrounded them. Laderman explores why, notwithstanding the best intentions, the US Government ultimately abandoned Armenians and other persecuted Mideast Christians at the end of World War I. In my review, I explain what this history suggests for Mideast Christians today:
Congressional resolutions are very welcome, but history suggests that these Christians should not expect much more from America. Just as in the last century, despite the best intentions, America’s commitment to Christians in the Middle East today is limited: well wishes, exhortations for equality and tolerance, some humanitarian assistance—though nothing like the massive humanitarian campaign that took place in the last century and saved so many lives. Ultimately, nations act in their political and economic interests, and America does not perceive long-term interests that would justify putting at risk the large number of troops necessary to defend Mideast Christians on an ongoing basis. Many private citizens and charities continue to help Mideast Christians, thank God. But the sad lesson of Laderman’s book is this: if Christians in Syria expect the American government to do more to help them, they will find themselves on their own.
The full essay is available here.
On the First Things website, I have an essay on Lindsey Graham’s decision earlier this month to block a Senate measure commemorating the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and how his decision threatens Christians who live in the Middle East today. Senator Graham’s decision was inexplicable, I wrote, given what he has said about Turkey’s aggression in Syria, which has revived ISIS and led to new attacks on Christians, including one that killed a Catholic priest:
What is one to make of Senator Graham? He has expressed outrage at Turkey’s invasion of Syria. He recently suggested that NATO should expel Turkey for threatening the Kurdish militias who helped destroy ISIS. But his comments and his vote to block the Genocide resolution will only embolden Turkey and threaten the region’s Christians even more. Turkey does not see ISIS as a terrible problem and would happily accept the group’s revival, if that means injuring the Syrian Kurds.
That local Christians like Fr. Bidoyan will pay the price for the revival of ISIS is, to put it mildly, not a difficulty for Turkey. What difference would it make? In 100 years, people like Graham will suggest the suffering was all a fantasy, anyway. It won’t be the Armenian Christians who died in 1915 who will pay for Graham’s actions. It will be the dwindling and threatened Christian minority in the Middle East today.
Graham now says he was complying with requests from White House staff, who did not want to scuttle negotiations with Turkey over the placement of a Russian missile-defense system. If that was his reason, he should have said so, rather than accuse the resolution’s supporters of trying to “sugercoat” history. Graham says this was a one-off and he will not oppose the resolution in the future. So now the White House has reached out to other GOP senators to do the same thing. Stay tuned.
Continuing our focus this week on Orthodox Christians, here is a new book from Yale University Press on the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an ethnic cleansing campaign against Armenian Orthodox Christians in Ottoman Turkey that also swept up Greek and Syriac Orthodox Christians, as well as Catholics and Protestants. The Book of Whispers, is by Romanian parliamentarian Varujan Vosganian. Here’s the description from the Yale website:
A harrowing account of the Armenian Genocide documented through the stories of those who managed to survive and descendants who refuse to forget
The grandchild of Armenians who escaped widespread massacres during the Ottoman Empire a century ago, Varujan Vosganian grew up in Romania hearing firsthand accounts of those who had witnessed horrific killings, burned villages, and massive deportations. In this moving chronicle of the Armenian people’s almost unimaginable tragedy, the author transforms true events into a work of fiction firmly grounded in survivor testimonies and historical documentation
Across Syrian desert refugee camps, Russian tundra, and Romanian villages, the book chronicles individual lives destroyed by ideological and authoritarian oppression. But this novel tells an even wider human story. Evocative of all the great sufferings that afflicted the twentieth century—world wars, concentration camps, common graves, statelessness, and others—this book belongs to all peoples whose voices have been lost. Hailed for its documentary value and sensitive authenticity, Vosganian’s work has become an international phenomenon.
Last weekend, Pope Francis made an apostolic journey to Armenia, a small, landlocked country of three million in the South Caucasus, bordering Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The official motto of his journey was “Visit to the First Christian Nation,” a reference to Armenia’s being the first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in 301 A.D., a matter of great national pride. Only a small percentage of Armenians are Roman Catholics; more than 90% belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, a member of the Oriental Orthodox communion. Yet Francis received an enthusiastic reception from the Armenian Church hierarchy, the government, and the everyday people who crowded his public events. It’s worth focusing on the reasons for the warm welcome, and on the diplomatic and ecumenical significance of his journey.
Armenia is in a rough neighborhood. To the east, the country is locked in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim country, over Nagorno Karabakh, a region populated by Christian Armenians that seeks independence from Azerbaijan. A ceasefire has been in effect for about 20 years. In April, Azerbaijan renewed the conflict; Armenians successfully resisted the Azerbaijani attack, and the ceasefire was restored, but nerves remain on edge. To the west, Azerbaijan’s ally, Turkey, another Muslim-majority nation, has closed its border with Armenia, preventing needed economic development. To the north, relations with Georgia are peaceful but mixed; Georgia has its own breakaway regions and leans towards Azerbaijan in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. The only strategic partner Armenia has in the region is its neighbor to the south, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which, somewhat surprisingly for outsiders, cooperates with Armenia on a number of issues. Armenia also has close relations with Russia. Indeed, the US typically thinks of Armenia as Russia’s proxy in the Caucasus. But the situation is more complicated than that. Russia plays both sides of the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh—it sells weapons to Armenia and Azerbaijan–and Armenians increasingly distrust it. As I say, a rough neighborhood.
The pope’s visit was a welcome sign that the outside world, and especially the West, has not forgotten Armenia. Even more, in Armenia, Francis once again went out of his way to use the word “genocide” to describe the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I. Before the visit, the Vatican had suggested Francis Read more
This year, on its 100th anniversary, the Armenian Genocide of 1915 has received unusually prominent and long overdue attention. New, in-depth treatments have appeared from major presses: Thomas de Waal’s Great Catastrophe (Oxford), Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans (Basic Books), and Ronald Suny’s “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else” (Princeton). The fact that current events echo the Genocide–in the last year, hundreds of thousands of Christians in Syria and Iraq, some of them descendants of the victims of 1915, have been displaced or slaughtered–helps explain this new interest. It is hard to see the photographs of the refugees of 2015 without recalling the photographs of Armenian Christians 100 years ag0.
Scholar Ronald Suny’s treatment is an excellent source for readers wishing to learn the history. Suny has provided an exhaustive, dispassionate treatment, situating the Genocide in the centuries-long relationship between Armenian Christians and their Turkish Muslim rulers. In the classical Islamic system of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians were dhimmis–Christians who received toleration in exchange for their willingness to accept a subservient status. Although Armenians could do well in Ottoman society, their situation was always precarious. In the nineteenth century, a secular, national consciousness formed in certain segments of Ottoman Armenian society, encouraged by European revolutionary ideas and European-influenced reforms in the Ottoman government. The Armenian revolutionaries were always a very small minority, but they occasioned brutal, collective punishments from the government, which led to further unrest and resistance from Armenians in Anatolia.
Eventually, during World War I, the Young Turk government decided to solve the Armenian Question once and for all, by “deporting” the entire Armenian population of Anatolia to Syria–through the Syrian desert. (Suny’s title quotes a Young Turk leader’s dismissal of Armenian suffering). Deportation was a euphemism for an extermination campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians–some sources put the number as high as 1.5 million–died in death marches and concentration camps. The government claimed military necessity; some Armenian revolutionaries were fighting with Russia in the hope of eventually gaining an independent state. But observers on the scene, including Turkey’s German allies, attested that the mass of the Armenian population remained loyal. Suny argues that the Young Turk leadership panicked after a military defeat in 1914 and decided that the survival of the Empire required the elimination of Armenians and other non-Muslims, whom the government saw as an existential threat. The Genocide, he writes, was “the pathological response of desperate leaders who sought security against a people they had both constructed as enemies and driven into radical opposition.”
Suny’s account is readable and thorough. The only criticism I have is that he sometimes discounts religion as a motivating factor. To be sure, he repeatedly discusses religious differences between Armenians and Turks. He explains the dhimma and the attitudes it fostered and notes that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were able to preserve themselves during the Genocide by converting to Islam. But, if I understand him right, he sees religion as an epiphenomenon, a marker for other, more relevant factors–tribe, politics, ethnicity. Religion, as such, was not so important.
The Genocide, like all major historical events, had many causes. The leaders of the Young Turk regime were not notably pious; they seem to have been motivated principally by a desire to create a Turkey for the Turks. But for many who did the actual killing, classical Islamic attitudes were an important motivating factor. The fact that Armenian Christians who converted to Islam were spared suggests this, as does the fate of the Assyrians, another Christian group that suffered genocide in 1915, though they posed no credible territorial threat. Besides, eyewitness accounts report that perpetrators proclaimed that they were acting in a holy cause, punishing rebellious infidels. This is not to say that classical Islam compels the genocide of Christians or that all Muslims believe this–obviously not. But religion deserves to be in the foreground of any explanation of the Genocide of 1915, and, indeed, any explanation for what is happening to Christians in the Mideast today.
Notwithstanding this criticism, Suny’s important book, the fruit of a lifetime of distinguished scholarship, is valuable for anyone wishing to learn the story of what happened in 1915. “By the end of the war,” he writes, “90 percent of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire were gone, a culture and civilization wiped out, never to return. Those who observed the killings, as well as the Allied powers engaged in a war against the Ottomans, repeatedly claimed that they had never witnessed anything like it.” Sadly, the ensuing century would provide many further examples.