Monday, 22 October 2007

Meanwhile, out there in the big bad world

Words have been exchanged on EUReferendum (not on the forum – those do not count as WORDS) and I can report that the Great Leader is displeased with his humble acolyte (that’s me) probably because she is not ‘umble enough.

Nevertheless, said not very ‘umble acolyte insists on posting about the big wide world out there, which, oddly enough, continues to exist and have its own problems while we all wring our hands and have hysterics about the Constitutional Reform Lisbon Treaty, just as we did after all the previous treaties. Been there, done that, unlike, I suspect, a very large number of our forum members.

How many, I wonder, of all those people who are having the vapours now sat through the Maastricht debates in Parliament or campaigned actively for a referendum on that rather ghastly treaty?

Anyway, that was not what convinced the Great Leader to let his not so ‘umble acolyte to write what she thinks is of some interest but a threat to have hysterics of her own. Nobody wants that, I am sure.

So, the big bad world. Firstly, ladies and gentlemen, we have Turkey, a country of some importance to Britain, those who fight against terror and the EU. Two problems have agitated that country and its allies: Kurds and Armenians.

The two problems are very different as I shall try to analyze in this posting but there is are certain vague parallels. Both groups appear to be eternal victims of their various neighbours.

Armenian history is considerably more tragic and horrific than that of the Jews (no slouches when it comes to inducing justified guilt) and the Kurds appear to be uniformly oppressed by all the countries within which they find themselves: Iraq, Iran, Turkey and, I now discover, Syria.

The second strand that runs through both problems is the continuing development of Turkish national identity that began as the Ottoman Empire fell and the new Turkish Republic was proclaimed. Though, of course, as every school child knows, the Armenian massacre of 1915 was carried out under the Ottoman Empire, its importance and the number of Armenians murdered or ethnically cleansed, as we call this ancient practice nowadays, appears to be of importance to those who argue that what is now Turkey has always been largely populated by Turks, in itself a hard to define ethnic group.

I have no desire to discuss the actual rights and wrongs (mostly wrongs) of the Armenian massacre or genocide, as this is a matter for historians who know more about it than I do. Nor do I understand precisely what the word genocide is supposed to mean. Instead I shall focus on the ongoing rumpus that might have severe consequences for the alliance against terrorism and, of course, for the EU as it turns once again to the discussion of what to do about Turkey.

It is, of course, possible that one look at the Constitutional Reform Lisbon Treaty will shake the Turks into an understanding that they are better off outside the walls of this benighted entity.

An article in the International Herald Tribune quoted Can Paker, a member of Turkey’s biggest employers’ group.
The road to accession - democracy and human rights - is much more important than accession itself. Who knows what will happen in fifteen years? Turkey may not even want to join Europe anymore.
These are comments that have been heard for some time and while it may sound jolly to the ears of those who are terrified of Turkey’s membership, others in the EU are a little worried. As we have pointed out before, if the European Union is serious in its desire to have a functioning military force, it more or less has to have Turkey as a member.
Turkey has the second-biggest army in NATO and is a regular contributor to EU peacekeeping operations. Some 250 Turkish soldiers are in Bosnia as part of an EU force and Paris has asked Ankara to join an operation that will go to Chad. A Muslim country that is an ally of Israel, Turkey is also crucial to uniting the countries around the Mediterranean.
As the Wall Street Journal says, Turkey is crucial to any kind of a reasonable settlement in the Middle East and the country’s views have to be taken into consideration from time to time.

The other issues, dear to President Sarkozy’s heart (when he can spare time from his own and France’s domestic issues), investment by French firms in Turkey do not, actually, need Turkey’s membership. All of that can be negotiated. Indeed, the most useful negotiations would be for a series of genuine free-trade agreements but that is unlikely to happen.

Let’s take the Armenian issue first as it is more convoluted, though as the Wall Street Journal points out, the PKK, the Marxist terrorist Kurdish organization, which has been responsible for a large number of Kurdish as well as Turkish deaths, is no slouch at using it for its own purposes.

Across-border PKK attacks were carefully timed to coincide with various stages of Congress discussing the non-binding resolution to call the Armenian massacre of 1915 a “genocide”. There is nothing the PKK would like more than ensure a division between the United States and Turkey. Europe, I suspect, they care less about as both the EU and its member states have shown themselves to be rather soft on the PKK.

The latest attack was reported today. 12 Turkish soldiers were killed in an ambush.

What has triggered off the Armenian row once again, as I said above, was the ongoing attempt to pass a non-binding Resolution through Congress making it non-bindingly compulsory to refer to the events of 1915 as “genocide”. We have been here before, both in France and in the United States.

Seven years ago a Republican Speaker of the House, J. Denis Hastert, tried to introduce a very similar Resolution and backed down minutes before it was due to be voted on under pressure from President Clinton, who used very similar arguments to the ones President Bush is using now:
In a telephone call late Wednesday and in a letter today, Mr. Clinton urged Mr. Hastert to withdraw the measure, saying it could inflame tensions in the Middle East, embolden President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and interfere with American efforts to stabilize the Balkans.

In addition, Turkey had threatened to ground American warplanes that fly out of Turkish air bases to patrol northern Iraq, and cancel a $4.5 billion deal to buy 145 attack helicopters made in Texas. Angry crowds have protested outside the United States Embassy in Ankara.
So this is not a question of Democrats leaning one way and Republicans another but Representatives responding to lobbying from Armenian-American groups and the Executive pointing out certain unwelcome truths.

James Taranto’s summary of the issues cannot be bettered in my opinion.
This is a very odd debate. For one thing, it is ultimately about nothing: Congress is not proposing to pass any law, merely to issue a nonbinding resolution--a statement of opinion. Congress issues such resolutions all the time, but usually they are either uncontroversial ("recognizing the 90th birthday of Ronald Reagan") or intended to put lawmakers on the spot by forcing them to take sides on some contentious question (such as whether to repudiate's McCarthylike tactics). In this case, the statement itself is the point of the resolution.

Another odd aspect to the debate is the asymmetry between the two sides. The strongest proponents of the resolution are Armenian-American groups and congressmen with many constituents of Armenian extraction. There is little domestic opposition, but the Turkish government is vehemently against the resolution--so much so that it recalled its ambassador from Washington last week merely because the House Foreign Affairs Committee gave the resolution the nod, and it is making noises about evicting America from the Incirlik air base, which is crucial to the Iraq effort. For this reason, the White House strongly opposes the resolution.
He is also right, in my opinion, in the conclusions he is drawing about the whole brouhaha. Firstly, it is time Turkey started coming to terms with the complicated history of the pre-Ottoman period, the Ottoman Empire and the post-Ottoman republic.

Mr Taranto is a tad cavalier in his dismissal of Turkish problems of identity and does not show any real understanding of the history. To say that well, America puts up with all sorts of insults and lives with them, is not sufficient. Turkey is not the United States and the two histories are very different. Also, let us face it, Americans get rightly upset at the never-ending avalanche.

I think there are signs that the Turks are moving in the right direction, though the Armenian issue remains a major stumbling block. It was marvellous to see in Istanbul that there are serious attempts to study and correlate the Byzantine and Ottoman parts of the city’s history and architecture, the latter being quite similar. There are half-hearted attempts to preserve the spectacular monuments of both historical periods.

Although there are continuing trials and threatened trials of Turkish and Armenian writers and historians who insist on saying the unsayable about 1915 (Mr Taranto is right about that being a more relevant issue for Congress to tackle) it is notable that each time there is a huge outcry in the country. In other words, there are many Turks who are not afraid to face the truth.

At the same time, it is no business of any political body to pass laws or resolutions about historical events and their interpretation. As readers of the blog (one of the blogs – I get confused) know we strongly oppose making Holocaust denial illegal. We also strongly disagree with those who deny the Holocaust but that is a separate issue. In our opinion, even Germany and Austria have progressed far enough down the democratic route to be in a position to repeal that post-WWII piece of legislation. Instead, of course, there are endless proposals to extend the ban throughout the EU.

The last time a legislative body outside Turkey took it upon itself to pronounce on whether the events of 1915 constituted genocide or not was in France last year when the National Assembly passed a Bill, which made it illegal to call those events anything but genocide.
Ankara circulated unofficial guidelines discouraging business with French companies after Parliament here passed a first Armenia bill in 2001; exports plunged by nearly 40 percent. When a second bill - which would make it illegal to deny that the Armenians suffered genocide - was drawn up last year, the Turkish government cut off military relations with Paris, scrapping automatic overflight rights and port access.
Relations are beginning to warm up because it has been made clear to Turkey that the Bill will not go through the second and final vote in the Senate. As it was a political move by the Assembly, the aim being to prevent Turkey’s accession to the EU at any time in the next fifty years (assuming the EU survives that long), it is not unreasonable for the Turkish government to respond with political actions.

Mindful of those contracts, France blinked first. Tant pis.

The other big issue is the PKK that seems to have established itself in the semi-autonomous Kurdish area of Iraq. This is one of those occasions that one must admit the Americans have rather mismanaged matters.

The idea that the PKK could simply go on operating out of Iraqi Kurdistan, without any hindrance from the Kurdish authorities (the Iraqi government has next to no power in the area) and possibly even with some support and the Turks will do nothing about it was fatuous to put it mildly.

No country can tolerate constant attacks across the border by an openly Marxist and historically terrorist organization. Four days ago the Turkish Parliament voted with overwhelming majority “to authorize sending troops into northern Iraq to confront Kurdish rebels in hideouts there”.

What is astonishing is Turkey’s patience so far. Even after the vote they proclaimed that they would not act unless they really had to.

It is interesting to note that clearly the froideur between the army and the AKP dominated Parliament has been laid aside. On this matter the Turks are united, whether it be secularists or Islamists and, really, one cannot blame them.

The vote provoked frantic activity with promises by the US and Iraqi leaders that something will be done very very soon. And not a moment too soon, as the Wall Street Journal wrote yesterday:
The PKK also reads the papers, and its leaders timed their attacks on consecutive weekends this month as the resolution moved through the House. The Marxist separatist group, whose 20-year war has claimed almost 40,000 lives, would love to divide the U.S. from Turkey. Unless managed right, the Turkish response this week also imperils improving bilateral ties between Ankara and Baghdad; the countries had only recently signed a counterterrorism pact. In Turkey itself, PKK support is dwindling, and Mr. Erdogan's ruling party swept the Kurdish-majority areas in July's elections.

To avoid the trap set by the PKK, the U.S. needs to press the Iraqi Kurds to act against them. This doesn't have to hurt America's friendly dealings with the Kurds. But someone has to remind Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's Kurdish region, that the PKK poses a grave threat to the economic boom and stability of northern Iraq. His aggressive rhetoric toward Turkey, and the
Kurdish peshmerga militia's disinterest in cracking down on the PKK, gives the wrong impression of complicity with the terrorists. With typical bluster, Mr. Barzani yesterday said he'd fight the Turks--hardly helpful.

Short of declaring war on the PKK, the peshmerga could easily cut off supply lines of food and arms into the Qandil mountains. The Turks want the U.S. to nab a few big PKK fish, which is easier said than done. But Ankara isn't unreasonable to expect to see more of an effort. In return, its troops can stay on their side of the border.
Sadly, those promises made four days ago have so far produced no results. To the contrary, there was another ambush and another 12 Turkish soldiers killed with, apparently, some taken hostage. The Turkish government may well have its hand forced. I suspect American and Iraqi negotiators are scurrying round the region even as I write this. If so, better late than never, though one must admit neither Massoud Barzani’s smugness nor Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s bland statements about terrorist acts being against Iraqi constitution fill one with any kind of optimism.