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What Is Genocide? The Armenian Case

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Shortly after the World War II, genocide was legally defined by the U.N. Genocide Convention as “any… acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such

.”[1] The key word from the perspective of this article is “intent.” For while nobody can deny the disaster wrought on the Armenians by the 1915 deportations and massacres, the question is whether or not it can be defined as genocide—arguably the most heinous crime imaginable.

The Ambiguity of Genocide

The strict international law definition of genocide has not prevented its application to virtually every conflict involving a large number of civilian deaths from the Athenian massacre of the inhabitants of Milos in 416 B.C.E., to the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258, to the fate of the native North American Indians, to Stalin’s induced famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s, to the recent conflicts in Bosnia, Burundi, Chechnya, Colombia, Guatemala, Iraq, Sudan, and Rwanda, which is not to deny that some of these cases do indeed qualify as genocide.

The liberal use of the term has naturally stirred numerous controversies and debates. Israel Charny offers little help by arguing that any massacre constitutes genocide, even the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.[2] At the other end of the spectrum, Stephen Katz views the Holocaust as the only true genocide in history.[3] In between these two polar definitions, Ton Zwaan has attempted to distinguish between “total” and “complete” genocide and “partial” genocides.[4]

Even the U.N. definition suffers from some ambiguities owing to being a compromise among all signatories. Thus, the convention legally protects only “national, racial, ethnic, and religious groups,” not those defined politically, economically, or culturally, giving rise to varying interpretations of its intentions. For example, while the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia convicted seven Bosnian Serbs of genocide for their role in the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims,[5] the International Court of Justice, in its judgment in Bosnia vs. Serbia, focused on Serbia’s “intent” rather than “outcome” regarding the murder of Bosnian Muslims, absolving it of the charge of genocide.[6] Clearly, these contradictory decisions have added to the confusion of what genocide legally constitutes.

Likewise, the debate whether the Darfur events constituted genocide continues apace. U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell characterized Darfur as a case of genocide based on a U.S. government-funded study, which had surveyed 1,136 Darfur refugees in neighboring Chad.[7] By contrast, a study commissioned by U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan concluded that, while the Darfur events should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity, they did not amount to genocide.[8] Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also declined to characterize the violence in Darfur as genocide while the Arab League and the African Union took a similar position, emphasizing instead the civil war aspect of the conflict. For their part EU, British, Canadian, and Chinese officials, among others, have shied away from calling it genocide. Samantha Power, the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning study on genocide, favored the term ethnic cleansing to describe what was occurring.[9]

When in July 2008, ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo accused Sudanese president Omar Bashir of genocide and asked the court to issue an arrest warrant, many in the Arab League and the African Union criticized the genocide charge as biased against their region.[10] It remains to be seen how wise the ICC has been in bringing genocide charges in this case. Clearly, there was a lack of agreement on what did or did not constitute genocide in Darfur. Such a situation illustrates the ambiguity surrounding the concept of genocide.

In an attempt to alleviate these problems, scholars have offered such additional detailed concepts as “politicide” to refer to mass murders of a political nature, “democide” to describe government-perpetrated mass murders of at least one million people, ethnocide, Judeocide, ecocide, feminicide, libricide (for the destruction of libraries), urbicide, elitocide, linguicide, and culturicide, among others.[11] In addition we now have such concepts as crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.

Why this semantic disarray? Henry Huttenbach has argued, “Too often has the accusation of genocide been made simply for the emotional effect or to make a political point, with the result that more and more events have been claimed to be genocide to the point that the term has lost its original meaning.”[12] Jacques Semelin has similarly explained: “Whether use of the word ‘genocide’ is justified or not, the term aims to strike our imagination, awaken our moral conscience and mobilise public opinion on behalf of the victims.” He adds: “Under these circumstances, anyone daring to suggest that what is going on is not ‘really’ genocide is immediately accused of weakness or sympathizing with the aggressors.” Thus,

The term genocide can be used as a propaganda tool by becoming the hinge for a venomous rhetoric against a sworn enemy. Given the powerful emotional charge the word genocide generates, it can be used and re-used in all sorts of hate talk to heap international opprobrium on whoever is accused of genocidal intent. … The obvious conclusion: The word is used as much as a symbolic shield to claim victim status for one’s people, as a sword raised against one’s deadly enemy.[13]

Intent or premeditation is all important in defining genocide “because it removes from consideration not only natural disasters but also those man-made disasters that took place without explicit planning. Many of the epidemics of communicable diseases that reached genocidal proportions, for example were caused by unwitting human actions.”[14] Although some would disagree, the fate of the North American indigenous people is a case in point as they died largely from disease, not intent. Therefore, a large loss of life is not in itself proof of genocide. Ignoring intent creates a distorted scenario and may lead to incorrect conclusions as to what really occurred.

The Armenians

What then of the Armenian case? Unfortunately, as the well-known journalist and scholar Gwynne Dyer concluded more than thirty-five years ago, most Turkish and Armenian scholars are unable to be objective on this issue resulting in a situation of “Turkish falsifiers and Armenian deceivers.”[15]

The main purpose of this discussion, therefore, is not to deny that Turks killed and expelled Armenians on a large scale; indeed what happened might in today’s vocabulary be called war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or even crimes against humanity. To prove genocide, however, intent or premeditation must be demonstrated, and in the Armenian case it has not. It must also be borne in mind that what occurred was not a unilateral Turkish action but part of a long-term process in which some Armenians were guilty of killing as many Turks as they could in their attempt to rebel. Christopher de Ballaigue argues that “what is needed is a vaguer designation for the events of 1915, avoiding the G-word but clearly connoting criminal acts of slaughter, to which reasonable scholars can subscribe.”[16]

Arnold Toynbee, the renowned historian who coedited the Blue Book compilation of Turkish atrocities during World War I,[17] later wrote: “In the redistribution of Near and Middle Eastern Territories, the atrocities which have accompanied it from the beginning have been revealed in their true light, as crimes incidental to an abnormal process, which all parties have committed in turn, and not as the peculiar practice of one denomination or nationality.”[18] Indeed, in his final statement on the subject, Toynbee declared: “Armenian political aspirations had not been legitimate. … Their aspirations did not merely threaten to break up the Turkish Empire; they could not be fulfilled without doing grave injustice to the Turkish people itself.”[19] In addition, Adm. Mark Bristol, U.S. high commissioner and then-ambassador to Turkey after World War I, wrote in a long cable to the State Department in 1920: “While the Turks were all that people said they were, the other side of the coin was obscured by the flood of Greek and Armenian propaganda painting the Turks as completely inhuman and undeserving of any consideration while suppressing all facts in favor of the Turks and against the minorities.”[20]

More recently, Edward J. Erickson, a military historian, concluded after a careful examination: “Nothing can justify the massacres of the Armenians nor can a case be made that the entire Armenian population of the six Anatolian provinces was an active and hostile threat to Ottoman national security.” This said, Erickson added: “However, a case can be made that the Ottomans judged the Armenians to be a great threat to the 3rd and 4th [Ottoman] Armies and that genuine intelligence and security concerns drove that decision. It may also be stated that the Ottoman reaction was escalatory and responsive rather than premeditated and pre-planned.”[21]

On the other hand, Taner Akçam, a Turkish sociologist who has prominently broken with his country’s official narrative, concluded after compiling weighty evidence that the “Ottoman authorities’ genocidal intent becomes clear.”[22] This conclusion was challenged by Turkish researcher Erman Sahin who accused Akçam of “dishonesty—which manifests itself in the form of numerous deliberate alterations and distortions, misleading quotations and doctoring of data—casts doubt on the accuracy of his claims as well as his conclusions.”[23] In a later critique of Akçam’s subsequent work, Sahin concluded: “These are substantive matters that raise serious concerns as to the author’s theses, which appear to be based on a selective and distorted presentation of Ottoman archival materials and other sources. … Such errors seriously undermine the author’s and the book’s credibility.”[24]

More recently, Akçam claimed that despite Turkish attempts to “hide the evidence” through systematic “loss” and destruction of documents, his new work in the Ottoman archives “clearly points in the direction of a deliberate Ottoman government policy to annihilate its Armenian population.”[25] Maybe, but maybe not. Equally likely is that any destruction of documents at the end of World War I was simply designed to protect military secrets from falling into enemy hands, something any government would want to do. More to the point, Akçam also states that “the clearest statement that the aim of the [Ottoman] government’s policies toward the Armenians was annihilation is found in a cable of 29 August 1915 from interior minister Talat Pasha” in which he asserted that the “Armenian question in the eastern provinces has been resolved. … There’s no need to sully the nation and the government[‘s honor] with further atrocities.”[26] This document, however, does not prove genocidal intent except to those determined to find it. Rather, Talat’s statement might simply mean precisely what it states: The Armenian deportations, although resulting in many atrocities and deaths, have solved the issue.

In a carefully nuanced study, historian Donald Bloxham concluded that what happened was premeditated and therefore genocide.[27] Though stating in an earlier article “that there was no a priori blueprint for genocide, and that it emerged from a series of more limited regional measures in a process of cumulative policy radicalization,”[28] he, nevertheless, used the term genocide because of the magnitude of what happened and because “nowhere else during the First World War was revolutionary nationalism answered with total murder. That is the crux of the issue.”[29] At the same time, he wondered “whether recognition [of genocide] is really going to open the door to healing wounds and reconciliation, as we are often told, or whether it is a means of redressing nationalist grievances. Is it an issue of historical truth, morality and responsibility, or of unresolved political and material claims?”[30]

Finally, it should be noted that the Armenian claims of genocide are encumbered by intrinsic legal and philosophical problems. This is due to the fact that any finding under international law of genocide in the Armenian case at this late date would constitute a legally untenable ex-post-facto proclamation, namely: Make a crime of an action which, when originally committed, was not a crime. The concept of genocide did not even exist until it was formulated during World War II by Raphael Lemkin, while the genocide convention only entered into force in 1951.

The Manifesto of Hovhannes Katchaznouni

Hovhannes Katchaznouni was the first prime minister (1918-19) of the short-lived Armenian state following World War I. It is useful to turn to his April 1923 address to the Armenian revolutionary and nationalist Dashnak party congress, held in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. While not gainsaying “this unspeakable crime … the deportations and mass exiles and massacres which took place during the Summer and Autumn of 1915,”[31] Katchaznouni’s speech constitutes a remarkable self-criticism by a top Armenian leader. No wonder that many Armenians have done their best to remove this telling document from libraries around the world. It is, therefore, useful to cite what Katchaznouni had to say at some length:

In the Fall of 1914, Armenian volunteer bands organized themselves and fought against the Turks because they could not refrain themselves from fighting. This was an inevitable result of psychology on which the Armenian people had nourished itself during an entire generation. … It is important to register only the evidence that we did participate in that volunteer movement to the largest extent. …

We had embraced Russia wholeheartedly without any compunction. Without any positive basis of fact, we believed that the Tsarist government would grant us a more or less broad self-government in the Caucasus and in the Armenian vilayets liberated from Turkey as a reward for our loyalty, our efforts, and assistance.

We overestimated the ability of the Armenian people, its political and military power, and overestimated the extent and importance of the services our people rendered to the Russians. And by overestimating our very modest worth and merit was where we naturally exaggerated our hopes and expectations. …

The proof is, however—and this is essential—that the struggle began decades ago against the Turkish government [which] brought about the deportation or extermination of the Armenian people in Turkey and the desolation of Turkish Armenia. This was the terrible fact![32]

K.S. Papazian’s Patriotism Perverted

A decade after the publication of Katchaznouni’s speech, but still much closer to the events of World War I than now, Kapriel Serope Papazian produced a most revealing critique of the Dashnaks’ perfidy, terrorism, and disastrous policies that had helped lead to the events in question. Written by an Armenian who bore no love for the Turks, but hushed up, ignored, and virtually forgotten by many because its self-critical revelations do not mesh with the received Armenian thesis of innocent victimization, Papazian’s analysis[33] calls for close scrutiny.

Authored just after the notorious Dashnak murder of Armenian archbishop Leon Tourian in New York City on Christmas Eve 1933,[34] Papazian began by expressing disdain for the group’s “predatory inclinations” before examining the “terrorism in the Dashnaks’ early [1892] program,” which sought “to fight, and to subject to terrorism the government officials, the traitors, the betrayers, the usurers, and the exploiters of all description.” Having analyzed the movement’s ideological and operational history, Papazian explored what actually transpired during World War I:

The fact remains, however, that the leaders of the Turkish-Armenian section of the Dashnagtzoutune did not carry out their promise of loyalty to the Turkish cause when the Turks entered the war. … Prudence was thrown to the winds … and a call was sent for Armenian volunteers to fight the Turks on the Caucasian front.

Thousands of Armenians from all over the world flocked to the standards of such famous fighters as Antranik, Kery, Dro, etc. The Armenian volunteer regiments rendered valuable services to the Russian Army in the years of 1914-15-16.

On the other hand, the methods used by the Dashnagtzoutune in recruiting these regiments were so open and flagrant that it could not escape the attention of the Turkish authorities … Many Armenians believe that the fate of two million of their co-nationals in Turkey might not have proved so disastrous if more prudence had been used by the Dashnag leaders during the war. In one instance, one Dashnag leader, Armen Garo, who was also a member of the Turkish parliament, had fled to the Caucasus and had taken active part in the organization of volunteer regiments to fight the Turks. His picture, in uniform, was widely circulated in the Dashnag papers, and it was used by Talat Paha, the arch assassin of the Armenians, as an excuse for his policy of extermination.[35]

What then should be made of Papazian’s Patriotism Perverted? Without denying that the Turks played a murderous role in the events analyzed, his long-ignored and even suppressed revelations indicate that the Armenians were far from innocent victims in what ensued. Indeed, Papazian’s text makes it clear that incompetent but treacherous Armenians themselves were also to blame for what had befallen their cause. It is unfair to fix unique blame upon the Turks.

Guenter Lewy’s Critic

A major contribution to the debate over the Armenian atrocities, Guenter Lewy’s The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey,[36] rejects the claim of a premeditated genocide as well as the apologist narrative of an unfortunate wartime excess, concluding that “both sides have used heavy-handed tactics to advance their cause and silence a full and impartial discussion of the issues in dispute.” In his view, “the key issue in this quarrel is not the extent of Armenian suffering, but rather the question of premeditation: that is, whether the Young Turk regime during the First World War intentionally organized the massacres that took place.”

Lewy questions the authenticity of certain documents alleged to contain proof of a premeditated genocide as well as the methods of Vakhakn N. Dadrian,[37] one of the foremost current Armenian scholar-advocates of the genocide thesis, whom he accuses of “selective use of sources … [which] do not always say what Dadrian alleges” and “manipulating the statements of contemporary observers.”

As for the argument that “the large number of Armenian deaths … [offers] proof that the massacres that took place must have been part of an overall plan to destroy the Armenian people,” Lewy counters that it “rests on a logical fallacy and ignores the huge loss of life among Turkish civilians, soldiers, and prisoners-of-war due to sheer incompetence, neglect, starvation, and disease. All of these groups also experienced a huge death toll that surely cannot be explained in terms of a Young Turk plan of annihilation.”

So how does Lewy explain what happened to the Armenians? “The momentous task of relocating several hundred thousand people in a short span of time and over a highly primitive system of transportation was simply beyond the ability of the Ottoman bureaucracy. … Under conditions of Ottoman misrule, it was possible for the country to suffer an incredibly high death toll without a premeditated plan of annihilation.”[38]

Lewy’s book was reviewed prominently and positively in two leading U.S. journals of Middle East studies. Edward J. Erickson noted the finding that “both camps have created a flawed supporting historiography by using sources selectively, quoting them out of context, and/or ignoring ‘inconvenient facts,'” concluding that “simply having a large number of advocates affirming that the genocide is a historical fact does not make it so.”[39] Robert Betts, while claiming that “for the Turkish government to deny Ottoman responsibility for the Armenian suffering makes no sense,” also stated that “what emerges from Lewy’s study is the dire state of the empire and its population in 1915 and its inability to protect and feed its own Muslim citizenry, let alone the Armenians.”[40] Moreover, such distinguished scholars of Ottoman history as Bernard Lewis,[41] Roderic Davison,[42] J. C. Hurewitz,[43] and Andrew Mango,[44] among others, have all rejected the appropriateness of the genocide label for what occurred. On May 19, 1985, sixty-nine prominent academics in Turkish Ottoman and Middle Eastern studies (including Lewis) published a large advertisement in The New York Times and The Washington Post criticizing the U.S. Congress for considering the passage of a resolution that would have singled out for special recognition “the one and one half million people of Armenian ancestry who were victims of genocide perpetrated in Turkey between 1915 and 1923.” Instead, they argued that such questions should be left for the scholarly community to decide.

Indeed, the Armenian massacres of 1915 did not come out of the blue but followed decades of Armenian violence and revolutionary activity that elicited Turkish counter violence. There is a plethora of Turkish writings documenting these unfortunate events, just as there are numerous Armenian accounts.[45] The Armenians, of course, present themselves as freedom fighters in these earlier events, but it is possible to understand how the Ottomans saw them as treasonous subjects.

Moreover, throughout all these events, the Armenians were never more than a large minority even in their historic provinces.[46] Yet they exaggerated their numbers before World War I and their losses during the war. Had the Armenian fatality figures been correct, very few would have survived the war. Instead, the Armenians managed to fight another war against the nascent Turkish republic in the wake of World War I for mastery in eastern Anatolia. Having lost, many Armenians claimed that what transpired after World War I was a renewed genocide. As Christians, the Armenians found a sympathetic audience in the West whereas the Muslim Turks were the West’s historic enemy. Add to this the greater Armenian adroitness in foreign languages—hence their greater ability to present their case to the world—to understand why the Turks consider the genocide charge to be grossly unfair, especially since the Armenians have adamantly rejected any culpability on their part in this tragic event.

Conclusion

Without denying the tragic massacres and countless deaths the Armenians suffered during World War I, it is important to place them in their proper context. When this is done, the application of the term “genocide” to these events is inappropriate because the Turkish actions were neither unilateral nor premeditated. Rather, what transpired was part of a long-continuing process that in part started with the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, which triggered an influx of Balkan Muslims into Anatolia with the attendant deterioration of relations with the indigenous Christian Armenians.[47]

To make matters worse, Patriarch Nerses, an Ottoman subject and one of the leaders of the Armenian community, entered into negotiations with the victorious Russians with an eye to achieving Armenian autonomy or even independence. This was followed in coming decades by continued Armenian nationalist agitation, accompanied by the use of terror, aimed at provoking retaliation, which they hoped would be followed by European intervention. When World War I broke out, some Armenians supported the Russian enemy. Kurdish/Muslim-Armenian animosities also played a role in this process.[48]

As for the necessary attribute of premeditation to demonstrate genocide, there are no authentic documents to such effect. Although there are countless descriptions of the depravations suffered by the Armenians, they do not prove intent or premeditation. The so-called Andonian documents that purport to demonstrate premeditation are almost certainly a fabrication.[49] And in response to the Armenian contention that the huge loss of Armenian lives illustrates premeditation, what then should be said about the enormous loss of Turkish lives among civilians, soldiers, and prisoners-of-war? Were these Turkish deaths also genocide or rather due to sheer incompetence, neglect, starvation, and disease? And if the latter were true of the ethnic Turkish population, they were all the more so in respect to an ethnic group that had incurred upon itself suspicion of acting as a fifth column in a time of war.

Even so, Armenian communities in such large Western cities as Istanbul and Smyrna were largely spared deportation probably because they were not in a position to aid the invading Russians. Is it possible to imagine Hitler sparing any Jews in Berlin, Munich, or Cologne from his genocidal rampage for similar reasons? If, as the Armenians allege, the Turkish intent was to subject their Armenian victims to a premeditated forced march until they died of exhaustion, why was this tactic not imposed on all Armenians? Therefore, without denying outright murders and massacres that today might qualify as war crimes, it seems reasonable to question the validity of referring to the Armenian tragedy as genocide.

Michael M. Gunter, professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University, was senior Fulbright lecturer at the Middle East Technical University in Turkey.

[1] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 78 U.N. Treaty Series (UNTS) 277, adopted by the General Assembly, Dec. 9, 1948, entered into force, Jan. 12, 1951.
[2] Israel W. Charny, “Towards a Generic Definition of Genocide,” in George J. Andreopoulos, ed., Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), pp. 64-94.
[3] Stephen Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
[4] Ton Zwaan, “On the Aetiology and Genesis of Genocides and Other Mass Crimes Targeting Specific Groups,” Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Amsterdam/Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Nov. 2003, p. 12.
[5] David Rhode, Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre since World War II (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), p. 167; Jacques Semelin, Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 34-5, 65-6, 138-9, 195-8, 213-20, 245-6; “Report of the Secretary General Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 53/35: The Fall of Srebrenica,” U.N. doc. no. A/54/549, Nov. 15, 1999.
[6] The Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina vs. Serbia and Montenegro), case 91, International Court of Justice, The Hague, Feb. 26, 2007.
[7] “Documenting the Atrocities in Darfur,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., Sept. 2004.
[8] The Guardian (London), Feb. 1, 2005.
[9] Scott Straus, “Darfur and the Genocide Debate,” Foreign Affairs, Jan.-Feb. 2005, pp. 128, 130.
[10] Public Radio International, July 28, 2008; Voice of America, July 22, 2010.
[11] Semelin, Purify and Destroy, pp. 319-20.
[12] Henry R. Huttenbach “Locating the Holocaust under the Genocide Spectrum: Toward a Methodology of Definition and Categorization,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 3 (1988): 297.
[13] Semelin, Purify and Destroy, pp. 312-3.
[14] Kurt Jonassohn, “What Is Genocide?” in Helen Fein, ed., Genocide Watch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 21.
[15] Gwynne Dyer, “Turkish ‘Falsifiers’ and Armenian ‘Deceivers’: Historiography and the Armenian Massacres,” Middle Eastern Studies, Jan. 1976, pp. 99-107.
[16] Christopher de Ballaigue, Rebel Land: Among Turkey’s Forgotten Peoples (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), p. 104; M. Hakan Yavuz, “Contours of Scholarship on Armenian-Turkish Relations,” Middle East Critique, Nov. 2011, pp. 231-51.
[17] James Bryce, compiler, “The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-16,” Parliamentary Papers Miscellaneous, Great Britain, no. 31 (London: Joseph Cavston, 1916).
[18] Arnold J. Toynbee, The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A Study in the Contact of Civilizations (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1922), pp. vii-viii.
[19] Arnold J. Toynbee, Acquaintances (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 241.
[20] Laurence Evans, United States Policy and the Partition of Turkey, 1914-1924 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965), p. 272.
[21] Edward J. Erickson, “The Armenians and Ottoman Military Policy, 1915,” War in History, no. 2, 2008, p. 167.
[22] Taner Akçam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2006), p. 187.
[23] Erman Sahin, “Review Essay: A Scrutiny of Akçam’s Version of History and the Armenian Genocide,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Aug. 2008, p. 316.
[24] Erman Sahin, “Review Essay: The Armenian Question,” Middle East Policy, Spring 2010, p. 157.
[25] Taner Akçam, The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), pp. 19, 27.
[26] Ibid., p. 203.
[27] Donald Bloxham, The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Ronald Grigor Suny, “Truth in Telling: Reconciling Realities in the Genocide of the Ottoman Armenians,” American Historical Review, Oct. 2009, pp. 930-46.
[28] Donald Bloxham, “The Armenian Genocide of 1915-1916: Cumulative Radicalization and the Development of a Destruction Policy,” Past & Present, Nov. 2003, p. 143.
[29] Ibid., pp. 143, 186.
[30] Ibid., p. 232.
[31] Hovhannes Katchaznouni, “The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnagtzoutiun) Has Nothing To Do Anymore,” Arthur A. Derounian, ed., Matthew A. Callender, trans. (New York: Armenian Information Service, 1955), p. 2.
[32] Ibid., pp. 2-3.
[33] Kapriel Serope Papazian, Patriotism Perverted: A Discussion of the Deeds and the Misdeeds of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the So-Called Dashnagtzoutune (Boston: Baikar Press, 1934).
[34] See Christopher Walker, Armenia: The Survival of a Nation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 354; Maggie Lewis, “Armenian-Americans,” The Christian Science Monitor (Boston), Nov. 18, 1980.
[35] Papazian, Patriotism Perverted, pp. 7, 13, 15, 21, 38-9.
[36] Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2007.
[37] For examples of Guenter Lewy’s critiques of Dadrian’s writings, see “Revisiting the Armenian Genocide,” Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2005, pp. 3-12; idem, The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus (Providence and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1995); idem, Warrant for Genocide: Key Elements of Turko-Armenian Conflict (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1999).
[38] Lewy, The Armenian Massacres, pp. ix, 47, 51, 83-6, 250, 253, 258, 282.
[39] Edward J. Erickson, “Lewy’s ‘The Armenian Massacres,'” Middle East Journal, Spring 2006, p. 377.
[40] Robert Brenton Betts, “The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide/The Armenian Rebellion at Van,” Middle East Policy, Spring 2008, p. 177.
[41] See, for example, Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 356.
[42] The New York Times, May 19, 1985.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Andrew Mango, Atatürk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey (Woodstock and New York: The Overlook Press, 1999), p. 161.
[45] See, for example, Louise Nalbandian, The Armenian Revolutionary Movement: The Development of Armenian Political Parties through the Nineteenth Century (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963); Garegin Pasdermadjian (Armen Garo), Bank Ottoman: Memoirs of Armen Garo (Detroit: Armen Topouzian, 1990); James G. Mandalian, ed. and trans., Armenian Freedom Fighters: The Memoirs of Rouben der Minasian (Boston: Hairenik Association, 1963).
[46] See Justin McCarthy, Muslims and Minorities: The Population of Ottoman Anatolia and the End of the Empire (New York: New York University Press, 1983), p. 115.
[47] M. Hakan Yavuz with Peter Sluglett, eds., War and Diplomacy: The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011), pp. 1-13.
[48] See Janet Klein, The Margins of Empire: Kurdish Militias in the Ottoman Tribal Zone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), pp. 50, 131, 183.
[49] Aram Andonian, ed., The Memoirs of Naim Bey: Turkish Official Documents Relating to the Deportations and Massacres of Armenians (London: 1920. Reprinted, Newtown Square, Pa.: Armenian Historical Research Association, 1964). For the case against the authenticity of these documents, see Sinasi Orel and Sureyya Yuca, The Talat Pasha Telegrams: Historical Fact or Armenian Fiction? (Nicosia: K. Rustem and Bros., 1986). For the counterclaim that newly found Ottoman archival source material vindicates the Adonian documents see, Akçam, The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity, p. xviii, fn. 22.

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Middle East

The Middle East Rush to Bury Hatchets: Is it sustainable?

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How sustainable is Middle Eastern détente? That is the $64,000 question. The answer is probably not.

It’s not for lack of trying. Gulf states and Egypt have ended their debilitating 3.5-year-long economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar. The UAE has moved at lightning speed to establish formal ties with Israel and repair relations with Iran and Turkey. Saudi Arabia is moving in the same direction, albeit in a more plodding manner. Meanwhile, Turkey is also seeking to repair its long-strained relations with Egypt and Israel.

Recently, Saudi Arabia granted visas to three Iranian diplomats to represent the Islamic Republic at the Jeddah-based, 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In 2016, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after its embassy in Tehran was attacked in protest against the execution of Saudi Shia activist and cleric Nimr al. Nimr. The recent granting of visas is expected to be followed by visits by officials to the two countries’ shuttered embassies.

Despite this, Ali Shihabi, an analyst with close ties to the Saudi leadership, said: “I understand that no real progress has been made, so there’s no need to read too much into this. It was a goodwill Saudi gesture, particularly since the OIC is a multilateral organisation and they will (be) accredited to OIC, not Saudi.”

To be sure, Middle Eastern states need a dialling down of tensions to be able to focus on reform, diversification, and growth of their economies. To achieve that, they need to project an environment of regional stability conducive to domestic and foreign investment.

Lack of confidence

An equally, if not more critical driver, is uncertainty and fear about the United States’ future commitment to Middle East security, with no obvious replacement for the region’s long-standing guarantor. The uncertainty is compounded by a fundamentally unchanged regional insistence on the need for a foreign security underwriter. The Gulf states lack confidence in their own capabilities and fear that a strong military could threaten the survival of dynastic regimes, giving countries like Turkey and Iran a strategic advantage.

“Those regimes do not necessarily want very robust and very capable armies and militaries that become centres of power,” said Middle East scholar Yasmine Farouk.

If history is any indicator, Gulf uncertainty about US intentions may be exaggerated. A review of the last 50 years suggests that the Middle East has been there before, and nothing much has changed.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan brings to mind the American withdrawal from Vietnam, after which South-east Asia and the Middle East fretted about the possibility of the United States walking away from its commitments. Similarly, the toppling in 1979 of the Shah of Iran, an icon of regional US power, caused heartburn in autocratic Gulf regimes – much like the popular Arab revolts in 2011, which toppled US allies such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as Washington kept its distance.

To be sure, that was then, and this is now.

When America was defeated in Vietnam, and the Shah was overthrown, the Cold War had long settled in as a fact of life, unlike today’s US-China rivalry, which has yet to find its moorings and guardrails.

In some ways, what has changed is positive. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and China sought to weaken and undermine US allies in the Middle East and supplant it as the dominant regional power. Today, they seek cooperation and share the goal of lowering tensions and introducing some degree of stability. The competition is economic, focussing on technology, arms sales, oil, and investment. There is little interest – if any – in Beijing and Moscow to go much beyond that.

Like the United States, neither China nor Russia wants to see a nuclear arms race in the region. ‘”The only player who can be effective and bring about progress in the Vienna debates is the only player we do not hear his position on the Iranian issue, and that is China… China’s influence on Iran’s policy is probably the biggest influence a foreign power has over Iran. At no point in history did China (have the opportunity to) make such a contribution to world stability as it has today in Vienna,” said Efraim Levy, the former head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service. He was referring to talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.

Détente in the Middle East would be fortified in an environment where the United States and China find common ground in their regional approaches. “There is considerable divergence between Chinese and US approaches to the Gulf, but the interests of the two powers are largely compatible. Both want a stable region that supports their strategic and economic concerns. Given their deep cooperation with the Gulf monarchies and China’s influence in Iran, there is an opening for Washington and Beijing to coordinate their policies in working toward a less turbulent Gulf region,” said China-Gulf scholar Jonathan Fulton, writing in Middle East Policy.

Academic and former Lebanese culture minister and United Nations negotiator Ghassan Salameh argues that “America cannot leave the Middle East only because it concentrates on China… Paradoxically…you need to be in the Middle East if you want to concentrate on China as a strategic rival, because if you look at where oil and gas is going, it’s going East.”

Inevitable arms race

Nevertheless, Beijing’s efforts to moderate Iran’s tougher negotiating stance since hardline President Ebrahim Raisi took office have not stopped it from enabling a ballistic arms race in the Middle East, in what Chinese scholars have described as a calibrated effort to maintain a regional balance of power. Iran has rejected US, Saudi, and Israeli demands to expand talks in Vienna to include ballistic missiles. US intelligence believes that recent satellite images show Saudi Arabia manufacturing ballistic missiles at a site constructed with the help of China.

Saudi officials said the Kingdom had built the manufacturing facility with the assistance of the Chinese military’s missile branch, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. China has insisted that “cooperation in the field of military trade” did not violate international law or involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” The United States has long refused to sell ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia.

Iran described the test-firing of 16 ballistic missiles of different classes during a military exercise in late December as a message to Israel. It was a response to Israeli threats to strike at Iranian nuclear facilities if the Vienna talks fail or produce a result that Israel deems sufficiently unsatisfactory to justify unilateral action. “Sixteen missiles aimed and annihilated the chosen target. In this exercise, part of the hundreds of Iranian missiles capable of destroying a country that dared to attack Iran were deployed,” said armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri.

Beyond ballistic missiles, a breakdown in the Vienna talks with Iran could also ignite a nuclear arms race. Already, Israel has begun to imagine a Middle East inhabited by a nuclear Iran. “Even if global powers manage to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, diplomacy may only delay the inevitable… Given how resilient the Islamic Republic has proven to be, it seems that the world may eventually have to tolerate an Iranian nuclear bomb, just as it has learned to live with the Indian and Pakistani arsenals,” said former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has left no doubt that the Kingdom would develop a nuclear weapons capability if Iran did the same. Media reports last year suggested that Saudi Arabia had constructed, with the help of China, a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium. Saudi Arabia denied the reports, but insisted that mining its uranium reserves was part of its economic diversification strategy. The Saudi energy ministry said it cooperated with China in unspecified aspects of uranium exploration.

Cooperation on nuclear energy was one of 14 agreements worth US$65 billion signed during Saudi King Salman’s 2017 visit to China. The nuclear-related deals involved a feasibility study to construct high-temperature gas-cooled (HTGR) nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia,  cooperation in intellectual property, and the development of a domestic industrial supply chain for HTGRs to be built in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has signed similar agreements with France, the United States, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, and Argentina.

To advance its pre-pandemic goal of constructing 16 nuclear reactors by 2030, Saudi Arabia established the King Abdullah Atomic and Renewable Energy City, which is devoted to research and application of nuclear technology.

Concern about Saudi intentions has been fuelled by Riyadh’s hesitancy in agreeing to US safeguards that would require it  to sign the Additional Protocol of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), even though it has not ruled it out, among other things.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that it is unacceptable that nuclear-armed countries are preventing his nation from developing nuclear weapons.

The odds are stacked against avoiding a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. To do so would require agreement on a regional nuclear-free zone. For that to happen, Israel would have to acknowledge its possession of nuclear weapons, something it has refused to do.

While some Israelis have suggested that the reality of a nuclear Iran could persuade Israel to change course, there is no indication that the government is seriously considering doing so. A nuclear-free zone would also demand a restructuring of security arrangements in the Middle East to include a security pact that would include all parties, as well as an arms control regime. So far, that looks more like wishful thinking than anything parties would be willing to contemplate genuinely.

More likely, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Tukey will continue developing their domestic defence industries briskly. Moreover, any revival of the Iran nuclear accord would likely lift the ban on Iran’s acquisition of conventional weapons, which in turn would accelerate the arms race as the Islamic Republic rushes to modernise and upgrade its military capabilities, which harsh sanctions have long hampered.

Analysts and policymakers have so far focused on Gulf states’ efforts to diversify their sources for arms acquisition, but largely overlooked their endeavour to expand the number of countries with bases in the region. So far, that has been limited to French, British, and Turkish bases, and a Chinese facility in Djibouti.

In a potential setback, Sudan’s military chief, General Mohamed Othman al-Hussein, has said his country was reviewing an agreement to host a Russian naval base on its Red Sea coast. Meanwhile, various Gulf states are quietly looking at Asian countries like India, South Korea, and Japan to establish a more active presence in the region.

Some analysts suggest that a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran could alter the dynamic of a Middle East in which Israel has diplomatic relations with the Gulf and other Arab states. These analysts argue that Israel may see the détente as a threat to its emerging role as an anti-Iranian bulwark that would allow it to expand military and intelligence operations in countries from which it was either barred or limited in the deployment of its capabilities.

“While (former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin) Netanyahu used the notion of ‘containing Iran’ as a primary justification for the Abraham Accords, the simultaneous warming of ties between Iran and Gulf states will ultimately dilute Israel’s role, undermining its argument that Iran is a rogue state and regional destabiliser,” said scholars Mahjoub Zweiri and Lakshmi Venugopal Menon.

Walking a tightrope

The UAE has sought to counter the potential threat of Iran disrupting the Emirates’ rapprochement with Israel by pledging that it would not allow the Jewish state to build security-related installations on its territory.

The Emirati pledge, in a suggestion that some elements of Middle East détente may be more sustainable than others, did not stop UAE air force commander General Ibrahim Nasser al-Alawi from visiting Israel, or the Emirati navy from participating in a joint naval exercise with Israeli, Bahraini, and US vessels.

Similarly, speaking at a conference in November 2021, Major General Amikam Norkin, the commander of the Israeli Air Force, suggested, in reference to the UAE and Bahrain, the possibility of cooperation in anti-drone and ballistic missile defence. Israel could “become a key player and asset for the countries that are under threat of Iranian drones, along with developing needed strategic depth in the continuing campaign against Iran,” Major-General Norkin said. He appeared to be proposing the deployment of Israeli detection systems in the Gulf that would also work against ballistic missiles.

Also, the UAE pledge did not disrupt UAE-Israeli cooperation to counter alleged Iranian hacking. ClearSky, a cybersecurity company, reported that a cyber group operated by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, had hacked the Emirates’ Etisalat telecommunications company, as well as companies in Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the United States, and Britain.

Nevertheless, Emirati nationalists and surrogates for the government painted the UAE’s suspension of talks to acquire the F-35, America’s most advanced fighter jet, because of conditions the Biden Administration wants to impose on the sale as evidence of their country’s newly-gained clout and an assertion of sovereignty.

Buried under the bravado was the fact that close relations with Israel apparently did not exempt the UAE from a US-Israeli understanding to maintain the Jewish state’s qualitative military edge. The administration’s conditions reflected Israeli suggestions designed to prevent the sale from putting the Jewish state’s edge at risk.

At the same time, closer ties with Israel potentially complicate not only the UAE’s burgeoning improved relations with Iran but also its long-standing partnership with Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom fears that the relationship could give the UAE an edge and a degree of greater independence from Saudi Arabia and enhance its ability to play one off against the other. 

Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully sought the cancellation of a UAE-brokered energy and water deal between Israel and Jordan, the largest cooperation agreement between the two countries since they signed a peace treaty in 1994, last November. Riyadh wanted to replace the deal with one that would include it while excluding Israel.

Defiance and dissent

A burgeoning arms race and concerns that a failure by the United States, Europe, China, Russia, and Iran to agree in Vienna could significantly heighten regional tensions and provoke a military conflagration are just two of the powder kegs that could make Middle Eastern détente falter.

In a review of 2021, Middle East scholar Ross Harrison noted that wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen have created “security dilemmas and conflict traps that made the hurdles to getting to cooperation insuperable, even for actors who might be predisposed to cooperate… Transitioning from where Syria is today to a more stable, inclusive, and de-militarised country free of outside actors seems years, if not decades, away.” Mr. Harrison noted that two decades after ripping itself apart, Lebanon risked slipping back into civil war.

The years from 2011 to 2021 and the civil strife they witnessed were shaped by revolution and counterrevolution. Leaders of eight of the Arab League’s 22 member states – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan – were toppled by popular uprisings. Possible political change was reversed or stymied in most if not all of the initially successful revolts by counter-revolutions.

The counter-revolutions were often supported by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt after general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in a military coup in 2013 backed by the two Gulf states. While the bloody civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen were the most extreme consequence, there is no suggestion that détente in the coming decade would give the counter-revolution pause.

Add to that Palestine’s grey swan. Israel may believe that it has successfully pushed the resolution of the Palestinian problem to the margins with the help of the UAE and Bahrain. But the question is not whether but when Palestinian aspirations will come to haunt Israel and push themselves higher up the Arab and Muslim agenda.

The question is how Israel will deal with the facts that occupation is unsustainable, demographics are certain to threaten the Jewish character of the state, and civil unrest stretching beyond the West Bank into pre-1967 borders remain a constant possibility. How Israel responds to these issues is likely to influence Arab and Muslim public opinion. So far, public opinion has been one reason for Saudi Arabia and others not to follow the UAE in recognising Israel, even if the public expression of critical sentiments is severely curtailed, if not harshly repressed.

Nevertheless, the quest for detente has not prevented countries that do not have diplomatic relations from being more overt in their contacts with Israel. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held talks in Neom, his US$500 billion pet project for a futuristic city, with Mr Netanyahu when he was still prime minister despite the Kingdom’s refusal to recognise Israel.

Qatar, which already helps Israel fund public salaries and relief operations in the blockaded Gaza Strip, concluded a diamond trade agreement with the Jewish state. The deal enables Qatar to join a select group of countries authorised to trade in diamonds. In return, it will allow Israeli diamond merchants to travel to the Gulf state even though the two countries have no formal relations.

The deal took on added significance because of UAE acquiescence. The Emirates have cooperated with Israel on diamonds for several years, and long opposed Qatari attempts to join the exclusive gemstone club.

Meanwhile, differences in attitude towards popular revolts, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is widely held responsible for war crimes that cost half a million lives, lie just under the surface despite the lifting in January 2021 of a 3.5-year-long economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar. Doha has quietly asked members of the Brotherhood who live there to relocate, but has not further tweaked its support for Islamists.

A potential watershed could occur when the ageing Egyptian Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is based in Qatar, passes on. Mr. Al-Qaradawi, 95, has been a major influence in shaping Qatari policies since the country’s independence in 1971, including the advocacy of greater rights for others that are not necessarily recognised at home. An autocracy, Qatar has supported the aspirations of protesters across the Middle East and North Africa and opposed the return of President Al-Assad to the Arab fold in the hope that it would encourage Russia to help roll back Iranian influence in the country. Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 at a time that Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia all funded groups opposed to the Syrian regime.

There is no indication that those hopes have any base in reality. Iranian ground forces in Syria, together with Hezbollah fighters and Foreign Legion-type units populated by Pakistani and Afghan Shiites, have ensured that the Russian intervention has so far been possible without inserting large numbers of regular troops. It has made the Russian intervention relatively risk-free and low cost.

For now, détente in the Middle East appears to have shifted rather than removed the battlefield on which regional rivalries play out. The UAE, widely seen as a leader in reducing tensions, has adopted a selective approach towards rapprochement.

The UAE’s diplomatic initiatives focused on Iran, Turkey, and Syria targets countries with which the risk of escalation outstrips the cost of reconciliation. Yet, plans by Emirati companies to invest in energy projects in Iran and Syria threaten to violate US sanctions. Detente has not persuaded the UAE to stop supporting insurgents in Yemen, surrogates in Libya, or supplying arms to Ethiopia in its war against Tigray.

Shaky ground

The long and short of it is that the rush to dial down tensions in the Middle East and North Africa rests on shaky ground. Except for Iran, which sees the frenzy of diplomatic and economic outreach as reaffirming its position as a major regional power, Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are driven by uncertainty and fear. Their moves are efforts to buy time to put their house in order and be prepared for a potential next round of differences not an attempt to craft a baseline standard for a shared vision of the region’s future.

The moves are also aimed at keeping the United States engaged, and an attempt at navigating the risky waters of big-power competition that is necessarily ad hoc and short-term and risks turbocharging a regional arms race with no underlying realistic long-term strategy. Saudi Arabia and the UAE see detente as a hedge to limit the fallout of a potential failure of the Vienna talks and a possible military confrontation between Iran and/or Israel and the United States.

Gulf hedging reflects a failure to recognise that perceptions of the US commitment rested on a misreading of the 1980 Carter Doctrine that successive US administrations opportunistically allowed to fester. The doctrine committed the US to defending the region against attack by an external power, read the Soviet Union. That threat fell by the wayside with the demise of the Soviet Union. In the minds of several Gulf states, post-revolutionary Iran replaced the Soviet Union as an existential threat. The perception was reinforced by mounting hostility between the US and the Islamic Republic; US, Israeli, and Gulf opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme; and Israel’s changing threat perception, which viewed Iran rather than the Palestinians and the Arabs as its foremost existential challenge.

The current situation is also a result of the US’ failure to couple its security presence with policies to address the issues faced by the region’s population – education, income distribution, public health, climate change, and basic rights. The frenzy to reduce tension offers the United States a second chance to broaden its security and stability outreach to address issues that concern broad swaths of Middle Eastern populations and have forced themselves onto the agenda in recent years.

Is the US getting it right?

Summing up the US policy dilemma in the Middle East in the words of the English punk band, The Clash – “if I stay there will be trouble, if I go there will be double” – Middle East scholar Jon Alterman suggested that the United States’ failure to ensure that the Gulf States had realistic expectations and did not misread the Carter Doctrine encouraged them to act more aggressively and take bigger risks in the false belief that Washington would have their backs.

The misperceptions persuaded the Gulf states to misread the Carter Doctrine as a guarantee that the United States would ensure the survival of their regimes and protect them against Iran unconditionally. Multiple US actions, or lack thereof, put paid to this interpretation, rattled the Gulf states, and persuaded them to become reckless at times.

The US’ refusal in 2011 to prevent the toppling of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak; secret negotiations that led to the 2015 international Iranian nuclear agreement; President Barack Obama’s notion of a Middle East that Saudi Arabia and Iran would share as hegemons; and the failure of the US to respond in 2019 to Iranian attacks on shipping in the UAE and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, were among the markers that were laid down. President Donald Trump’s description of the 2019 strike against Abqaiq’s oil facilities as “an attack on Saudi Arabia and (not) an attack on us” constituted a wake-up call.

Many analysts suggest that the Biden administration’s refusal to spell out an unambiguous Middle East policy has had a positive effect. It produced the rush to dial down regional tensions. “From an administration standpoint, this is a sign that US strategy is actually working,” Mr. Alterman said.

That may be true in the short term. However, the United States will have to spell out an unambiguous, clearly articulated policy that outlines what commitments it envisions sooner rather than later. A clear policy could help Middle Eastern rivals manage their differences and focus on economic cooperation and trade. While the debate over US policy continues to rage in Washington, common ground is starting to emerge between proponents of the current US military posture and advocates of a withdrawal from the region.

In the words of Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow with the Arab Gulf States in Washington (AGSIW) think tank, this common ground involves a “rethink (of) the distribution of (US) assets to make them more effective  and, where appropriate, smaller, leaner and more flexible, while at the same time recognising that long-term deployments of US forces in the Gulf region remain essential to the interests of the United States, and those of its regional and global partners, and for regional security and stability.”

Placing a bet

Mitigating in favour of détente in the Middle East is the fact that it was not just uncertainty about the US commitment that prompted Saudi Arabia and the UAE to adopt a more conciliatory approach. The fact of the matter is that assertiveness, with few exceptions, such as the 2013 coup in Egypt, backfired. The UAE was forced to recognise that its ability to project military power beyond its borders was limited.

A cost-benefit analysis produced a clear verdict. Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent the UAE, are trapped in a disastrous war in Yemen that has dragged on for almost seven years. Syria’s Mr. Al-Assad has the upper hand in a decade-long brutal civil war. Iran is encountering headwinds in Iraq, but remains a force there. The same is true for its ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

Moreover, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon have demonstrated Iran’s ability to achieve its objectives militarily rather than diplomatically with the help of non-state actors, despite international isolation and harsh US sanctions.

There is also a question mark over the sustainability of efforts to reduce tensions, since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the weaker parties in negotiations with Iran. Perceptions of US unreliability and suspicions that Washington may turn its back on the Middle East further weaken their position. This is compounded by the fact that Saudi and Emirati officials fundamentally do not believe that real accommodation with Iran is possible, “There’s a keen sense in the Gulf that the Iran problem never goes away. It’s not about the Islamic Republic; it’s about Iran,” Mr. Alterman said.

Furthermore, dialogue has yet to produce more than a temporary lull at best, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran. “This pattern of dialogue has been underway for two years, or we’ve been leading up to it for two years. And yet it has not created anything meaningful in terms of outcome,” said Iran scholar Sanim Vakil. “The underlying and fundamental tensions between Iran and the Gulf Arab states, and that between Iran and its external actors in the region, remain unresolved.”

The Saudi and UAE strategy amounts to a bet that detente, against the backdrop of sustained social unrest in Iran driven by economic hardship, will spark a policy change in Tehran. They are also hoping that Iran will accept that regime survival cannot be ensured via stepped-up security and repression x exclusively.

“What we’re hoping for is regime moderation…where we’re dealing with Iran as another state that we can deal with, and through which they can benefit from.  So, if they need leverage, they can get leverage, but it doesn’t have to be through the military aspects… That’s the type of change that has not been explored a lot,” said Mohammed Baharoon, Director-General of b’huth, a public policy research centre..

Conclusion

Efforts by Middle Eastern rivals to dial down tensions and manage rather than resolve conflicts are fragile at best. Moreover, they raise the question of what the end goal is. For now, that appears to be primarily an endeavour to buy time, put their own houses in order, diversify their economies, and ensure that they remain competitive in the 21st century.

The sustainability of détente in the Middle East will ultimately depend on support from the United States and other major powers, including China, Russia, Europe, India, Japan, and South Korea. It will also be contingent on economic cooperation and trade, raising the cost of a return to conflict to the point that it outstrips the benefits of confrontation.

Author’s note: A version of this article was published by the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore

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Ukraine crisis could produce an unexpected winner: Iran

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 Iran potentially could emerge as an unintended winner in the escalating crisis over Ukraine. That is, if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border and talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement fail.

An imposition of tough US and European sanctions in response to any Russian incursion in Ukraine could likely make Russia more inclined to ignore the fallout of violating US sanctions n its dealings with Iran.

By the same token, a failure of the talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and Britain to revive the accord that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program would drive Iran closer to Russia and China in its effort to offset crippling US sanctions.

US and European officials have warned that time is running out on the possibility of reviving the agreement from which the United States under then-President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018.

The officials said Iran was weeks away from acquiring the know-how and capability to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb quickly. That, officials suggested, would mean that a new agreement would have to be negotiated, something Iran has rejected.

No doubt, that was in the back of the minds of Russian and Iranian leaders when they met last week during a visit to Moscow by Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi. It was the first meeting between the leaders of Russia and Iran in five years.

To be sure, the road to increased Russian trade, energy cooperation, and military sales would open with harsh newly imposed US sanctions against Russia even if restrictions on Iran would remain in place.

That does not mean that the road would be obstacle-free. Mr. Putin would still have to balance relations with Iran with Russia’s ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

If anything, Russia’s balancing act, like that of China, has become more complicated without the Ukraine and Vienna variables as Iranian-backed Houthis expand the seven-year-long Yemen war with drone and missile strikes against targets in the UAE.

The Houthis struck as the Russian, Chinese and Iranian navies started their third joint exercises since 2019 in the northern Indian Ocean. The two events were not related.

“The purpose of this drill is to strengthen security and its foundations in the region, and to expand multilateral cooperation between the three countries to jointly support world peace, maritime security and create a maritime community with a common future,” Iranian Rear Admiral Mostafa Tajoldini told state tv.

US dithering over its commitments to security in the Gulf has persuaded Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to hedge their bets and diversify the nature of their relations with major external powers.

However, a Russia and potentially a China that no longer are worried about the fallout of violating US sanctions against Iran could put Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on notice that the two US rivals may not be more reliable or committed to ensuring security in the Gulf. So far, neither Russia nor China have indicated an interest in stepping into US shoes.

This leaves Saudi Arabia and the UAE with few good choices if Russia feels that US sanctions are no longer an obstacle in its dealings with Iran.

Russia is believed to want the Vienna talks to succeed but at the same time has supported Iranian demands for guarantees that the United States would not walk away from a revived deal like it did in 2018.

Against the backdrop of talk about a proposed 20-year cooperation agreement between the two countries, Russia appears to want to negotiate a free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, alongside Russia.

Iran has signed a similar 25-year cooperation agreement with China that largely remains a statement of intent at best rather than an action plan that is being implemented.

Like in the case of China, the draft agreement with Russia appears to have been an Iranian rather than a Russian initiative. It would demonstrate that Iran is less isolated than the United States would like it to be and that the impact of US sanctions can be softened.

“We have a document on bilateral strategic cooperation, which may determine our future relations for the next 20 years. At any rate, it can explain our prospects,” Mr. Raisi said as he went into his talks with Mr. Putin.

For now, Mr. Raisi’s discussions in Moscow appear to have produced more lofty prospects than concrete deals.

Media speculation that Russia would be willing to sell Iran up to US10 billion in arms, including Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile defense systems, appear to have remained just that, speculation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would view the sale to Iran of such weapons as particularly troublesome.

By the same token, Iranian officials, including Finance Minister Ehsan Khanduzi and Oil Minister Javad Owji, spoke of agreements signed during the Moscow visit that would revive a US$5 billion Russian credit line that has been in the pipeline for years and produce unspecified energy projects.

It’s unclear if these are new projects or ones that have been previously discussed and even agreed to, such as the one Lukoil stopped working on in 2018 after the US pulled out… Lukoil was concerned about being targeted by US sanctions,” said international affairs scholar Mark N. Katz.

Theoretically, the dynamics of the Ukraine crisis and the prospects of failed Vienna talks could mean that a long-term Russian Iranian cooperation agreement could get legs quicker than its Chinese Iranian counterpart.

Negotiating with a Russia heavily sanctioned by the United States and Europe in an escalated crisis in Ukraine could level the playing field as both parties, rather than just Iran, would be hampered by Western punitive measures.

Tehran-based Iranian scholar and political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that it was time for the regime to retire the 43-year-old Iranian revolution’s slogan of “neither East nor West.” The slogan is commemorated in a plaque at the Foreign Ministry.

Asserting that Iran has long not adhered to the motto, Mr. Zibakalam suggested that the plaque be removed and stored in the basement of a hardline Tehran newspaper. “It has not been used for a long time and should be taken down,” he tweeted.

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Unified Libya will come only via ballot box, ‘not the gun’-UNSC

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A boy runs in the ruins of the Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, Libya. © UNICEF/Giovanni Diffidenti

Libya is at a “delicate and fragile juncture in its path to unity and stability”, the UN Political Affairs chief told the Security Council on Monday, urging the international community to remain united in supporting national elections postponed last month. 

In welcoming positive developments across three different tracks of intra-Libyan dialogue, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, also recognized the challenges that must be overcome.  

“So many Libyans have told us, the way towards a stable and united Libya is through the ballot box, not the gun”, she said. “We must stand with them”. 

Postponed elections 

Growing polarization among political actors, and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process, led to the postponement of long anticipated elections on 24 December.  

The High National Commission for Elections (HNEC) cited shortcomings in the legal framework along with political and security concerns. To address this, the House of Representatives has established a Roadmap Committee to chart a new political path that defines an elections timetable and process. 

New Special Adviser 

Last month, Stephanie Williams was appointed Special Adviser on Libya, having served as acting Special Representative and head of the UN Support Mission, UNSMIL, last year.  

To date, she has undertaken wide-ranging consultations, including with members of the Government of National Unity (GNU), the High National Election Commission, the House of Representatives, and candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections.  

Oil-rich Libya has descended into multiple crises since the overthrow of former rule Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, which in recent years saw the country divided between rival administrations – a UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli, and that of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.  

Ms. Williams has reiterated that the focus of the political process now, should remain on holding “free, fair, inclusive and credible national elections” in the shortest possible timeframe. 

“In all her meetings, the Special Adviser highlighted the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote”, said Ms. DiCarlo, adding that she also called on everyone to respect the will of the Libyan people and to adhere to the timeline agreed to in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap, which was endorsed by the Security Council

Welcomed developments 

The UN political affairs chief said ongoing dialogue among political, security and economic actors from across the country was key. 

“We have seen reports of consultations between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the High State Council, as well as among presidential candidates from western and eastern Libya”, she said.  

On the security track, there have been meetings among various armed groups, as well as the Chief of General Staff of the Western Military Forces under the GNU and the acting General Commander of the rival LNA, with the participation of military chiefs and heads of military departments from both sides.  

Turning to the economy, further steps have been taken to reunify the Central Bank of Libya.  

Moreover, renewed efforts continue to advance national reconciliation based on the principles of transitional justice.  

Security situation 

While the ceasefire has continued to hold, “political uncertainty in the run up to the elections has negatively impacted the overall security situation”, the political chief informed the Council, including in Tripoli. 

It has resulted in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates, she added. 

Similarly, unfulfilled demands made to the GNU by the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in western Libya resulted in the shutdown of oil production, causing the National Oil Corporation to declare in December, force majeure – a clause that removes liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes. 

Following negotiations between the PFG and the GNU, Oil production was restored on 9 January. 

To implement the ceasefire agreement, last month military representatives from opposing sides, called the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), discussed with Turkish and Russian authorities, an Action Plan to gradually withdrawal mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.     

At the same time, despite serious logistical and security challenges, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) continued its work to establish a ceasefire monitoring hub in Sirte, pending the GNU’s approval on accommodation and office facilities. 

Human rights concerns 

“The human rights situation in Libya remains very worrying”, said Ms. DiCarlo, noting “documented incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation”, which she described as obstacles toward a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections. 

“We are particularly concerned that women and men working to protect and promote women’s rights continued to be targeted by hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence”, she stated. “Some of the disturbing social media posts that posed a threat to the safety and security of these persons were removed after UNSMIL brought them to the attention of social media platforms”.  

Meanwhile, arbitrary detention by State and non-State actors continued across the country, with many detainees subjected to serious rights abuses. 

Migration management  

The situation of migrants and refugees is also highly concerning.  

“Large numbers of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya continue to be detained in inhumane and degrading conditions with restricted humanitarian assistance. Thousands are unaccounted for”, the UN official said.  

Ms. DiCarlo pointed out that hundreds of foreign nationals were expelled from Libya’s eastern and southern borders without due process, with some “placed in extremely vulnerable situations across remote stretches of the Sahara Desert without sufficient food, water, safety and medical care”. 

“The United Nations remains ready to work with Libyan authorities on a long-term national response to migration and refugee management in line with international law to include addressing human rights concerns”, she assured. 

Accountability  

To ensure political progress, Elham Saudi, Co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, said that all who commit abuses must be held accountable, including mercenaries. 

She noted that without law, revenge would be the only winner.  

Ms. Saudi also maintained the importance of an enabling environment for all rights advocates, especially women, and expressed hopes for a human-rights based approach in how Libya is governed, going forward. 

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