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A young veteran reminded me of the truly ancient roots of conflict in the Middle East, pointing to lines we do not even see on the sand and soil. This prompted me to return to a summary sketch I laid aside months ago, after fleshing out an account of what we now call Iran. Then the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution condemning the Ottoman Empire for committing the first genocide of the 20th Century…and 12 Republicans joined Rep. Ilhan Omar in opposing the resolution! What? Why? What follows is a single summary of the other three big players, historically, now known as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Egypt can point to the most ancient civilizations, as their progenitors were contemporary regional powers. The clash between them was captured in the ancient Hebrew texts, as the Jewish people were caught in the middle. Saudi Arabia comes next, with claims to punching far above their weight with armies fired by the fervor of a new faith, and more recently of being the secular and religious guardians of the faith. Finally, the Turks can claim to have been the most successful and latest power to rule the region for centuries after imposing final defeat on the (Christian) Eastern Roman empire.
The Saudi claim is oldest of the Muslim claims, as armies swept out of the desert around 600 years after the birth of Christianity, and notably conquered both Egypt and Persia:
In the seventh century AD the weakening Eastern Roman empire, which had inherited [Egypt], lost control to the Islamic empire when the latter’s fervently enthusiastic forces swept through in 639-640, taking Libya at the same time. For the next century the region was governed directly by the Umayyad caliphate to the east, restoring a situation that had existed periodically between the rise of the Assyrian empire until the division of Alexander the Great’s Greek empire.
Over the centuries, the Arabian dynasties were battered, weakened, and lost the appearance of uncontested divine blessing, as Christians stopped and rolled back some of the conquests, and as the Mongols ravaged kingdoms Christian and Muslim alike. From this arose a non-Arab, and yet not ethnically North African, movement that set its headquarters in Egypt. Under the Mamlūks, Egypt became the cultural center of Islam for almost two centuries, a status it would reclaim in the 20th Century, with universities and modern media, movies, radio, and television broadcast content:
During the Mamlūk period [1250–1517] Egypt became the unrivaled political, economic, and cultural centre of the eastern Arabic-speaking zone of the Muslim world. Symbolic of this development was the reestablishment in 1261 under the Mamlūk rulers of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate—destroyed by the Mongols in their sack of Baghdad three years earlier—with the arrival in Cairo of a youth claiming ʿAbbāsid lineage. Although the caliph enjoyed little authority, had no power, and was of dubious authenticity, the mere fact that the Mamlūks chose to maintain the institution in Cairo is a measure of their determination to dominate the Arab-Islamic world and to legitimize their own rule. It is curious that the Mamlūks—all of whom were of non-Arab (most were Turks and, later, Circassians), non-Muslim origin and some of whom knew little if any Arabic—founded a regime that established Egypt’s supremacy in Arab culture.
Mamlūk legitimacy also rested on the regime’s early military successes, particularly those against the Mongols, who were seen by many contemporaries as undefeatable and as a threat to the very existence of Islam as a political culture.
With the Ottomans’ defeat of the Mamlūks in 1516–17, Egyptian medieval history had come full circle, as Egypt reverted to the status of a province governed from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). Again the country was exploited as a source of taxation for the benefit of an imperial government and as a base for foreign expansion. The economic decline that had begun under the late Mamlūks continued, and with it came a decline in Egyptian culture.
It was the Revolutionary French who, by seizing and holding Egypt as a threat to English global ambitions, triggered a long chain of administrative and governing changes, together with a mix of secular and Islamic learning spread by new educational institutions and printing presses. The old domination by regional foreigners gave way to local faces negotiating sovereignty with contenting Western European powers as well as Ottoman Turks and rival North African peoples.
With the onset of the Cold War and the fading of British and French empires, Middle Eastern states started aligning with Moscow or Washington. A secular pan-Arab movement imagined an alliance of modernizing states getting military technology from Moscow. It was expressed as Baathism in Syria and Iraq, and Nasserism in Egypt. Nasser led a coup against the last king of Egypt, starting the long reign of military officers who went through the form of popular election to be president–for life.
Under Nasser and his successor Anwar Sadat, Egypt achieved cultural dominance in the region, producing movies, television, and books. To this day, if you take an Arabic language class, it will likely be Egyptian Arabic, just as Spanish classes tend to be based in Castilian Spanish. It would take until the turn of the 21st Century for the original Arabs to mount their own international influence campaign through funding of mosques, religious schools, and broadcast.
Yet, the Egyptian generals’ rode a tiger that the former Ottoman, militantly modern secular Turkish state did not face. When Sadat made peace with Israel, he signed his own death warrant. Sadat was assassinated by soldiers who were influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood:
President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt was shot and killed [6 October 1981] by a group of men in military uniforms who hurled hand grenades and fired rifles at him as he watched a military parade commemorating the 1973 war against Israel.
A devout Moslem, Mr. Sadat was harsh toward fundamentalist groups, such as the Moslem Brotherhood and the Islamic Association. He banned both groups, calling them illegal. He said that he would not tolerate mixing religion and politics and that these groups were using mosques to denounce him.
Hosni Mubarak, Sadat’s successor, managed an uneasy domestic balance, aligned with Washington instead of Moscow. He did not break the peace treaty with Israel, but he allowed the country to become more fundamentalist, with Egyptian women’s rights severely eroded, driven back under the headscarf and out of anything approaching equal civil status in reality. The current strongman, President al-Sisi, is the first in Egypt to plainly say that Islam must reform itself and stop blaming outsiders, but this has, so far, not resulted in significant change on the street or in external influence.
The capital of Turkey was established as the capital of the Roman Empire, and then the Eastern Roman Empire, when the empire split to solve the problem of excessive complexity in an increasingly effective threat environment. After Rome fell in 410 AD, less than 400 years after the birth of Christianity, Constantinople, named after the first Roman emperor to worship Christ, remained an obstacle to Islam’s advance until Sunday of Pentecost, 29 May 1453. Yes, that is over a millennium of withstanding threats from all sides, even the sack of the city by a Roman pope’s minions in 1204.
You can see, then, that Constantinople would be a great jewel in the crown of Muslim conquerors, a prize beyond all others because everyone else had failed to take and hold the city. It finally fell to a young Ottoman Turkish commander, with the technical assistance of a Hungarian Christian named Orban. Conquering Constantinople took a massive siege cannon, Chinese technology rapidly advanced with European metal founding, to finally reduce the impenetrable walls.
In a thousand years the city had been besieged some 23 times, but no army had found a way to crack open those land walls.
Accordingly, Orban’s arrival at Edirne must have seemed providential. The sultan welcomed the master founder and questioned him closely. Mehmed asked if he could cast a cannon to project a stone ball large enough to smash the walls at Constantinople. Orban’s reply was emphatic: “I can cast a cannon of bronze with the capacity of the stone you want. I have examined the walls of the city in great detail. I can shatter to dust not only these walls with the stones from my gun, but the very walls of Babylon itself.” Mehmed ordered him to make the gun.
Freed at last, Islam almost snuffed out Christianity, until the miracle before the gates of Vienna, where Polish lances arrived just in time to save Christian Europe. John III Sobieski, the King of Poland, led the Winged Hussars, who fell on the Ottoman army like an army of avenging angels. When was this? Pay attention to the date: September 11, 1683. While that date was purged from American education, others most certainly did not forget it, even if Bush the Second and his minions desperately denied this by diversion.
The Ottoman Empire persisted, even flourished, then fell further and further behind Western Europe. Yet, they were never in position to project influence like the series of European states through the Age of Discovery, the naval exploration race started over two centuries before the Ottomans were permanently outmatched as a land force. Oh, they could hold their own on their own turf, but in the end they needed (German) European equipment and advisors to give the British a bloody nose in World War I.
In the dying days of the empire, from the outset of World War I until 1923, when a young Army officer named Ataturk put an end to the remains of the Ottoman regime, the last two sultans presided over the industrial-scale murder of ethnically Armenian Christian populations, who had persisted under Muslim dhimmitude for four and a half centuries.
Disgusted with the complete helplessness of the late Ottoman empire against late Christian Europe, competent Turkish Army officers seized power, led by the Turkish hero of Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He forcibly instituted a program of secular modernization which held until the rise of Erdogan.
Under the Ataturk model, urban Turkey became the Germany of the Middle East. As Germany struggled to recover from the self-inflicted man shortage of World War II, they invited Turkish men in as Gastarbeiter, guest workers. I met such men in the mid-1980s settled in small towns as “Greek” gasthaus proprietors and employees. It was from this relatively successful model that the foolish political class projected success when they opened the flood gates to Muslim migrants from very different cultures.
However, the Eurocrats had contempt for the Turks’ relatively conservative beliefs, and repeatedly refused EU membership on the excuse that Turkey refused to ban capital punishment. Apparently the Turks were good enough to die to protect Europeans’ homelands from Russian tanks thrusting into their underbelly, but not to be part of the European club. This was not headed in a good direction.
With the end of the Cold War and the temporary collapse of the Russian Empire, the logic of NATO was severely strained. Why should Turkey not cooperate with Russia against other players in regions of mutual interest? The rise of computerized, networked weapons eventually meant that choosing one major arms producing country’s equipment would expose other countries’ equipment to data collection readily transmitted back to the producers. So, when it came time for bids for the next generation of equipment, there was going to be a tension between allies. Buying S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems necessarily conflicts with F-35s and other semi-stealthy aircraft.
By the same token, cooperating with large U.S. military force movements through Turkey places the Turkish government on the opposite side of rural, more religiously devout Muslim Turks, and reinforces the old image of decadent Ottoman rulers dominated by European military powers. Just as Bush the Second and his entire team of diplomatic, intelligence, and military “experts” were blind to the meaning of September 11, so too were they blind to the implications of planning to send a large military ground force attacking out of eastern Turkey into northern Iraq, to catch Saddam Hussein’s regime in a pincer move.
Look, this was not just spaghetti on the wall theory, I personally know soldiers, units, that were mobilized from their civilian home communities and then left sitting at military bases in the continental United States as the august experts, who we are supposed to trust more than President Trump, gawped, shuffled, and then hastily re-planned how to get the troops into theater and how to open that second front.
Bottom line, the American forces all came in through Kuwait, and only civilian contractor forces ran limited logistics out of Turkey and Jordan. Oh, but when we needed quality, I mean Western European/American/NATO quality construction on a petroleum fuel quality control laboratory that would be our liquid logistics soldiers’ ticket out of the Iraqi theater, I was not at all surprised to see a Turkish crew.
This is a photograph taken near nightfall. This construction crew took internally timed breaks. All the equipment would stop, one worker would be seen running with a tray of coffee or tea around a semi-circle of the other workers. Five minutes later, the dude ran back to the coffee/tea urn with the empty cups, and the cutting and welding sparks flew. Nobody sauntered or lazed about, nobody. The Turks definitely hold themselves above the Arabs and are prepared to demonstrate the difference.
At the same time, within Turkey, the divide between urban and rural populations grew as it did in America. The more rural Turks were more traditional, more devout, less secularized. These Turks finally got an effective voice in the party that Erdogan rode to power. It was the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which voters swept into power in 2002, that stood up against President George W. Bush, refusing to allow the movement of U.S. troops and supplies through Turkey in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Erdogan’s hand was not directly on that decision, because he had been temporarily banned from office, but he was clearly the party leader and became prime minister in March 2003.
Since then, Erdogan has consistently moved to consolidate power, including breaking the previously independent military, that had acted repeatedly to preserve the Ataturk secular reform system. Even as Erdogan has redefined the presidency into a strong executive office, he has ridden popular support from the forgotten people of Turkey, mobilizing enough voters to overcome major urban population preferences. These moves, and his speeches, have raised the image of Erdogan as the sultan of 21st century Turkey:
On July 9,  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will take his oath of office in parliament. Turkey will thus officially move from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. Just 13 years have passed since Turkish officials started EU accession negotiations. At the time, it seemed that democracy, freedom of expression and social harmony were growing.
Now, however, Turkey is preparing to endow its increasingly Islamist, nationalist and authoritarian president with an unprecedented amount of power. The abolition of parliamentary control gives Erdogan sole power over the executive branch of government. And, through his power to appoint important judges, he will also control the judiciary.
President Erdogan has been characterized as the first 21st-century populist, and critics point to a turn from reform to “New Sultan:”
Erdoğan’s speeches since he assumed the presidency, particularly after an attempted coup in 2016, have been the most consistently populist of his career. Much of his fury has been directed at perceived enemies within. But Erdoğan has also sharpened his critique of foreign adversaries, complaining Turkey has been betrayed by the international order.
Analysis of Erdoğan’s speeches leading up to his re-election [in 2018] put him in league with uber-populists in Latin America such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
The two-year state of emergency the president imposed after the attempted coup has cemented his power. More than 160,000 members of the judiciary, academics, teachers, police and civil servants have lost their jobs in the government’s purges and critical media outlets have been shuttered. Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country in the world and plummeted in Transparency International’s democracy rankings; the watchdog now classifies the country as “not free”. Erdoğan’s constitutional changes mean he could remain in office until 2029.
So now we come to the latest U.S. House of Representatives’ consideration of a non-binding resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. It is not generally a good look for 11 Republicans to be the only ones to vote “No,” and for two Republicans to join Rep. Ilhan Omar in a “Present” vote. A bit of research shows that the sponsor, Adam Schiff, was also the sponsor back in 2007, when Speaker Pelosi killed the resolution, refusing a floor vote. That is, a Democratic Party majority chose not to snub a president who they considered illegitimate (“hanging chads,” Gore 2000, Bush v. Gore).
Rep. Schiff introduced House Resolution 296 in April 2019, long before the pivot to attacking the president on Turkey and the Kurds. So, Orange Man Bad or mere partisanship is not a sufficient explanation for the change leading to the passage of H. Res. 296, a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide:
H. Res 296, a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide passed today, with a vote of (405 to 11 with 3 present ) on Tuesday.
This is the fourth time such a resolution was introduced to Congress since 2000, but the first time it received a House vote. The previous three times the various resolutions were pulled due to pressure from the executive branch.
As Slate correctly notes, the decision to change the House policy position on Turkey and the Armenians is inherently political, as was the old position:
Turkish pressure is often cited as the reason the U.S. government has been reluctant to use the G-word in recent decades, though blaming Turkey lets several U.S. administrations off the hook. These administrations, for understandable reasons, didn’t think a fight over a century-old event was worth alienating a NATO ally and key security partner. George W. Bush lobbied against an American genocide resolution in 2007. Barack Obama called the Bush administration out for this as a senator and then did the exact same thing as president, using terms like “difficult and tragic history.”
So what changed? Lawmakers didn’t suddenly have an epiphany about the events of 1915 to 1923 or the definition of genocide. And this issue has long been a priority for Armenian American voters. What changed is Turkey’s image in Washington. Members of Congress have little patience for arguments about the importance of the U.S.-Turkey alliance after Turkey’s recent offensive against the Syrian Kurds, U.S. allies, a campaign that has itself been referred to as ethnic cleansing.
President Donald Trump’s role in facilitating that offensive and his enthusiastic embrace of authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan likely made this an easy vote for many Democrats. But a government that held an American evangelical pastor as a hostage for two years isn’t all that popular with Republicans either.
Never mind that President Trump used the far more effective real tool of economic sanctions to squeeze Erdogan into releasing the American evangelical pastor without “quid pro quo.” This was a long popular position finally seen as politically useful in the context of President Trump and a NATO ally now under the near dictatorial control of the man who would be sultan. Note well that there was no visible effort by the State Department deep state, or Secretary of State Pompeo, or President Trump to stop this resolution. The real adults in the room are under no illusions now about the current leadership of Turkey, nor of the electoral base supporting Erdogan.
Because a House resolution is not an expression of American government policy, unlike a joint resolution signed by the president, President Trump can use this gesture in negotiation. After all, everyone knows the House is in conflict with both the Senate and the president. If President Erdogan says he must act to represent his electorate, President Trump can point to the “people’s house” also reflecting feelings of their districts, and so suggest that both nations should find some way forward acceptable to both populations.
On the other hand, we might use the failure of Turkey to take responsibility for its direct predecessor state’s actions as a reason to take further negative actions. The closest comparison would be West Germany taking ownership for Nazi Germany’s genocidal policy. As German reunited, they have not cast off historical responsibility, in contrast to Turkey’s consistent failure to acknowledge Ottoman actions were genocidal, even as their leader aspires to revive some portion of Ottoman era influence.
Meanwhile, Republicans are in no position to weaponize the House vote against Rep. Omar, since only Republicans joined her in not voting for the resolution. Instead, this is an issue within the Democratic Party coalition, as reflected in the disappointed, disingenuous, or ducking comments inside Minnesota. As the Star Tribune reported, “abstention on Armenian genocide vexes Omar supporters:
Omar’s decision to abstain and the subsequent explanation she gave has triggered another round of intense criticism for the freshman Democrat, in Minnesota and across the nation. Many members of the Twin Cities Armenian community expressed shock and deep dismay.
Omar’s defense also drew rebukes from some leading Minnesota Democrats, who argued the current conflict in Syria makes the resolution all the more important. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, called the vote “deeply troubling.”
“The current Turkish regime is a dictatorship and is bent on destroying the Kurdish people in what could be a genocide in present time. …[All] Americans, especially progressive Americans, should be speaking with one voice against Turkish genocide historically and currently,” said Winkler, who lives in Omar’s district.
DFL Gov. Tim Walz, who sponsored a similar resolution as a member of Congress, tweeted that “the Armenian Genocide is historical fact, and the denial of that fact is a continuation of the genocide.” Both Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who is the highest-ranking American Indian woman serving in elected office nationwide, declined to comment further.
Jaylani Hussein, who leads the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, defended Omar’s track record on human rights. Hussein argued that as a refugee, Omar is uniquely qualified to understand the complexities of such issues.
The latest controversy also appeared to further strain relations between Omar and members of the local Jewish community concerned about her support for sanctions against Israel and her past criticism of pro-Israel lobbying groups in Congress, which some interpreted as anti-Semitic. “Our local Armenian and Jewish communities celebrate together, commemorate together, learn together and now we are appalled together by this manifest example of suborning Armenian Genocide denial,” said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
As resolutions go, this one was very clear and not at all tinged with partisan overtones. Both President Wilson and President Reagan are approvingly acknowledged. America is praised for large private fundraising for relief efforts between 1915 and 1930. The House urges that the good things America did should be taught when facts of the genocide are taught. Here is the official text [links added]:
In the House of Representatives, U. S.,
October 29, 2019.
Whereas the United States has a proud history of recognizing and condemning the Armenian Genocide, the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923, and providing relief to the survivors of the campaign of genocide against Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Arameans, Maronites, and other Christians;
Whereas the Honorable Henry Morgenthau, United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916, organized and led protests by officials of many countries against what he described as the empire’s “campaign of race extermination”, and was instructed on July 16, 1915, by United States Secretary of State Robert Lansing that the “Department approves your procedure * * * to stop Armenian persecution”;
Whereas President Woodrow Wilson encouraged the formation of the Near East Relief, chartered by an Act of Congress, which raised $116,000,000 (over $2,500,000,000 in 2019 dollars) between 1915 and 1930, and the Senate adopted resolutions condemning these massacres;
Whereas Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” in 1944, and who was the earliest proponent of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, invoked the Armenian case as a definitive example of genocide in the 20th century;
Whereas, as displayed in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Adolf Hitler, on ordering his military commanders to attack Poland without provocation in 1939, dismissed objections by saying “[w]ho, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”, setting the stage for the Holocaust;
Whereas the United States has officially recognized the Armenian Genocide, through the United States Government’s May 28, 1951, written statement to the International Court of Justice regarding the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, through President Ronald Reagan’s Proclamation No. 4838 on April 22, 1981, and by House Joint Resolution 148, adopted on April 8, 1975, and House Joint Resolution 247, adopted on September 10, 1984; and
Whereas the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018 (Public Law 115–441) establishes that atrocities prevention represents a United States national interest, and affirms that it is the policy of the United States to pursue a United States Government-wide strategy to identify, prevent, and respond to the risk of atrocities by “strengthening diplomatic response and the effective use of foreign assistance to support appropriate transitional justice measures, including criminal accountability, for past atrocities”: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that it is the policy of the United States to—
(1) commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance;
(2) reject efforts to enlist, engage, or otherwise associate the United States Government with denial of the Armenian Genocide or any other genocide; and
(3) encourage education and public understanding of the facts of the Armenian Genocide, including the United States role in the humanitarian relief effort, and the relevance of the Armenian Genocide to modern-day crimes against humanity.