How the Armenian Genocide’s Legacy Explains a Conflict on Pause

An Armenian soldier stands guard at fighting positions on the front line during a military conflict against Azerbaijan’s armed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, October 20, 2020. (Stringer/Reuters)
For far too long, the West has turned a blind eye to Turkey’s egregious behavior.

For Armenians around the world, the recent one-sided peace deal to end the conflict involving the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh must be seen through the lens of history. And that history is stitched together by widespread persecution and mass suffering over hundreds of years. It is a history that includes the first genocide of the 20th century, when more than 1.5 million Armenians were systematically exterminated by the Ottoman Turks, an event Turkey still denies to this day. Framing today’s conflict over land gravely misses the point.

Armenians see these latest acts of aggression by Turkey vis-à-vis Azerbaijan as a continuation of genocide and a threat to their very existence. In some ways, history is repeating itself. Regardless, these events further underscore why recognition of the Armenian genocide and the war over Nagorno-Karabakh are not mutually exclusive.

To fully understand why this decades-old conflict suddenly reignited, one must examine the rise of authoritarianism in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During his rule, Erdogan has sought to increase Turkey’s regional influence and on many occasions has glowingly talked about resurrecting the Ottoman Empire, all while styling himself as a modern-day sultan.

During the Trump administration, Erdogan has tried to stretch that influence from the Aegean Sea to the South Caucasus. It is one of the reasons that Turkey has been a staunch supporter of Azerbaijan in the latter nation’s efforts to retake Nagorno-Karabakh. With the two nations bound by strong cultural, ethnic, and historic ties, Turkey has vowed to help Azerbaijan on the battlefield or at the negotiating table. However, Erdogan’s belligerent and hostile behavior has only reminded Armenians of their terrible past.

Since the conflict erupted last month, Turkey has armed and sent Syrian mercenaries, including Islamic terrorists, into the region to help Azerbaijan fight Armenians where there have been confirmed reports of war crimes and atrocities. We’ve seen this before. A hundred years ago, Ottoman Turks enlisted the help of Kurds, who participated in massacres of Armenians and played a vital role in the Armenian genocide. It is as if Erdogan has turned to the Ottoman Empire’s playbook.

There’s no denying Turkey’s role in fueling the fire in Nagorno-Karabakh through its reckless actions and rhetoric. But Ankara’s ongoing campaign to deny the Armenian genocide has also helped it there. Denial has helped establish a level of insouciance from countries such as the United States, Great Britain, and Israel, thereby allowing Turkey to continue to act with impunity. Thus it can, for example, provide Azerbaijan with drones that are indiscriminately killing innocent civilians and destroying cultural centers and churches that have stood since long before Azerbaijan became a country.

For far too long, the West has turned a blind eye to Turkey’s egregious behavior. There is a reason that more journalists sit in Turkish prisons than anywhere else in the world, and that Ankara regularly tops the annual lists of human-rights violations. Turkey’s considerable success in refusing to acknowledge its historical role in the Armenian genocide makes Ankara today believe that it can do what it wants without consequences. It is why Erdogan felt compelled to challenge the United States to impose sanctions on his country for its involvement over Nagorno-Karabakh and launched a personal attack on French president Emmanuel Macron.

These recent actions by Erdogan did not happen overnight. Ankara has been trying to shape U.S. foreign policy for years concerning Turkey and the Armenian genocide. As part of an effort to sow doubt about the veracity of the Armenian genocide, Turkey has embarked on a years-long campaign to block any U.S. legislation that formally acknowledges it. For the most part, Turkey has successfully used the cover of NATO and realpolitik to convince lawmakers that recognizing the Armenian genocide is not in the political interests of the United States. When Congress finally passed a nonbinding resolution last year that formally affirmed recognition, Ankara officially responded by calling the bill political theater. There were even multiple reports that President Trump tried to thwart the resolution on the Senate floor to appease Erdogan.

It should not surprise us, then, when we see Turkey’s wanton disrespect for the rule of law and aggressive behavior in its actions in Nagorno-Karabakh. In many ways, we have allowed it to happen, and have even encouraged it. We have only ourselves to blame.

It is often said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It is also often said that denial is the last stage of genocide. That is why recognition of the Armenian genocide goes hand in hand with a real resolution of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians know all too well what happens when this type of aggression goes unchecked. Until Turkey comes to terms with its past, we can expect Ankara to continue its quixotic quest to revive the Ottoman Empire.

Stephan Pechdimaldji is a public relations professional who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s a first-generation Armenian American and grandson to survivors of the Armenian Genocide.


The Latest