Pursuing the Just Cause of Their People
By Michael M. Gunter
(Excerpts from Pursuing the Just Cause of Their People)
The growth of the incidence and importance of terrorism in the contemporary international system has been mirrored by a prodigious outpouring of literature on the subject. Precious little, however, has appeared about the Armenian terrorist attacks against Turkish diplomats and property, a campaign recently termed by United States Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Fred Ikle as “one of the most dangerous and most neglected of all terrorist movements…” and by a journalist who interviewed one of the terrorist leaders as “the most mysterious and best-organized armed formation operating in the Middle East and Europe.”
Outraged over the alleged genocide of some 1 1/2 million Armenians by the Turks during World War I and the resulting loss of their ancestral homeland, Armenian terrorists in the past decade have murdered 30 Turkish diplomats or members of their immediate families, including 4 in the United States. In addition, some 34 non-Turks have been murdered and over 300 wounded because they happened to be in the terrorists’ line of fire.
When the terrorists have been apprehended, however, some Armenian apologists have implied that the terrorists have a right to murder and should not be prosecuted. After Hampig Sassounian was found guilty of assassinating Kemal Arikan, the Turkish consul general in Los Angeles in 1982, for example, some Armenians in Boston announced: “What occurred throughout Hampig’s trial was a mockery of justice, an attempt to stop the Armenian people from actively pursuing their cause… We are outraged by the…guilty verdict…”
“Armenians protest misuse of judicial system,” proclaimed another article in the same Armenian-American newspaper. Referring to the trial of two other Armenian terrorists, who had murdered the Turkish ambassador to Yugoslavia in March 1983, the same publication declared: “To consider it a criminal act distorts the selfless struggles of the Armenian Youth, who are pursuing the just cause of their people.”
Embassies of Turkey in such disparate locations as Athens, Beirut, Belgrade, Berne, Brussels, Lisbon, Madrid, Ottawa, Paris, The Hague, and Vienna, as well as the Turkish delegation to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Turkish Center at the United Nations also have come under attack. The Turkish Consulate in Geneva has been bombed on two separate occasions, the consulates in Los Angeles and Lyons once, and the Paris Consulate seized and occupied.
The Turkish Airlines (THY) offices in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Geneva, London, Milan, Paris, and Rome have been bombed too, making good a terrorist threat against “any Turkish institution that lies within its striking limits.” Foreign governments have been cautioned to “lift the protection thus far accorded” to Turks and Turkish property or else be “held responsible for the innocent victims within their own personnel [sic],” while travelers have been advised against using any form of Turkish transportation “because they might become the innocent victims of our rage.”
Furthermore, non-Turkish air-lines or their offices, such as Air France, Alitalia, British Airways, El Al, KLM, Lufthansa, Pan Am, Sabena, Swissair, and TWA, have been hit because of their commercial relations with Turkey.
Indeed, even foreign governments such as Canada, France, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland have been threatened because they tried to apprehend Armenian terrorists within their jurisdictions. After seriously wounding Kani Gungor, the Turkish commercial attache in Ottawa, Canada, for example, a message from ASALA menacingly declared: “We warn the Canadian authorities against all initiatives against our compatriots as well as the utilization of any kind of force or violence against them.” In another overt threat, this time to French authorities, ASALA warned that unless political asylum was granted to four terrorists who seized and occupied the Turkish Consulate in Paris, “there is no doubt there will be a confrontation between them and us.”‘ ASALA also threatened to attack “all Swiss diplomats throughout the world” unless that government released two Armenians held after a bomb they were preparing exploded prematurely in their hotel room in Geneva. Lufthansa offices in Rome were bombed “as a punishment for the German government which helps Turkish fascism.” Even the Vatican and the Pope specifically have been threatened with a “hit” because of their support of Ansha, an affiliate of the World Council of Churches that helps Armenians emigrate from Soviet Armenia and thus, in the words of ASALA, aids in “the traffic of Armenian emigrants.”
In the United States the Turkish State Folk Dance Ensemble performances in California were canceled because of threats and a bombing, the Ataturk Centennial night organized by the American-Turkish Association of Houston was disrupted, and in January 1982 Armenian extremists broke up a Turkish history class at the University of California – Los Angeles being conducted by Stanford J. Shaw, a prominent professor of Ottoman studies. In addition, Professor Shaw’s home was bombed, his office at the university broken into and ransacked, and frequent verbal and written threats of violence hurled at him. Finally, he was forced to cancel his regularly scheduled classes and go into hiding. The apparent reason for this harassment was the pro-Turkish views he expressed in his History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, 1977. Replying to an inquiry concerning this matter, William D. Schaefer, the executive vice chancellor at UCLA, wrote: “Because an international terrorist organization is involved, the University’s power to remedy the situation is limited.”
On August 7, 1982, striking for maybe the first time on Turkish soil itself, Armenian terrorists indiscriminately slew ten passengers at the Ankara (Esenboga) International Airport, while wounding seventy-one others. Illustrative of the hatred motivating them, Levon Ekmekjian, one of the terrorists captured during the Ankara raid, declared, “It wasn’t enough,” when police told him how many had been killed and wounded. In reference to the massacres of Armenians by the Turks in 1915, one of the gunmen yelled, as he fired at his victims: “More than a million of us died! What’s the difference if 25 of you die?”” As Michael J. Arlen, Jr., a measured Armenian critic of the present terrorist campaign has explained elsewhere: “It was as if a particular poison had entered the Armenian system several generations back, and had remained within it: a poison that one might up to a point live with but that caused the limbs suddenly to twitch, or the mouth-perhaps in mid-sentence to grimace grotesquely.”
Although their present terrorist activities began only in the 1970s, Armenian terrorism itself is nothing new. Neither is the strategy behind it or even the international support it has elicited. To decipher the roots of the current Armenian terrorist movement, it is necessary to analyze briefly its historical origins in the nineteenth century as the “Armenian Question” and the deportations and massacres that the Armenians suffered during World War 1.
Then, with this necessary background understanding, the main analysis can commence. Specific attention will be given to the beginnings, in the 1970s, of the current terrorism, the terrorist ogranizations involved, their modus operandi, transnational connections, the question of Turkish harassment and counterterror, and finally the conclusions that can be drawn and the recommendations that can be made for terminating the terrorism. It is hoped that what follows will help everyone to better understand objectively an issue which has for too long been wrapped in subjective polemics.
The Armenian Question
Can these two diametrically opposed interpretations be reconciled? Given the understandable passions they stiff evoke and the ossification of positions that has occurred, it will be very difficult. Gwynne Dyer, for example, concluded that most Turkish and Armenian scholars are unable to be objective on this issue and described the situation as one of “Turkish falsifiers and Armenian deceivers.”
The disparity in the number of Armenians who died during the years in question is only one example. As cited above, the Turks would have us believe that only “some 100,000 Armenians may have died,” while the figure of 1,500,000 is the one most frequently given by the Armenians. Both are probably gross exaggerations. After a careful study and necessary adjustment of Ottoman census statistics, plus a consideration of the number of Ottoman Armenians who safely reached exile, Justin McCarthy has concluded that approximately 600,000, or 40 percent, of the Ottoman Armenians perished due to starvation, disease, and outright murder. Given the quality of McCarthy’s work compared to others, his figure is probably the most accurate accounting we have.
The Turkish government has further maintained: “The territory in which the Armenians lived together for a time never was ruled by them as an independent, sovereign state. The fact of the matter is, of course, the Armenians lived in their historic homeland “for a time” that lasted more than 2500 years, until they were virtually eliminated during the tragic events of World War I. Furthermore, although the Armenians spent much of their history as a buffer or subjected nation, it is simply not true that the land they lived in “never was ruled by them as an independent . . . state.”
In the course of their 2500-year history, independent Armenian states existed in one form or another for several hundred years, ranging in size from the Armenian Empire of Tigranes the Great (c. 94-55 B.C.) through the eras of the Arsacids (A.D. 53-429), the Bagratids of Ani (886-1045), and the Artsruni principate of Van in the ninth century, among others. After the arrival of the Turks, a New (Cilician) Armenia lasted for nearly three centuries (1080-1375). Indeed, under the provisions of the aborted Treaty of Sevres, Turkey itself initially recognized the short-lived Armenian Republic (1918-20) immediately after World War I.
On the other hand, there are Armenian publications that similarly fail to muster the requirements of historical accuracy – for example, those that explain how, “out of the East came a foe unequalled in his barbarity-the slit-eyed, bow-legged Turkic nomads. . . . The Seljuks and Ottomans with their ferocious customs were determined to annihilate the whole Armenian race,”‘ or vilify “the Mongol Turk terroristic state which acquired Armenia’s ancient land by genocide. Such racist slanders stereotype an entire nation that even at its worst has usually been respected by its most bitter foes as tough, but honorable. The grudging respect the West granted Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) during the famous Gallipoli campaign in 1915 is an example. Armenians are virtually alone when they attempt to compare the founder of modern Turkey and statesman, honored for his courage and wisdom by practically the entire world, with Adolf Hitler.
What is more, Armenian diatribes against the Turks totally ignore the fact that this so-called “Mongol Turk terroristic state” allowed the Armenians and other Christian minorities to exist and even flourish for hundreds of years within a multinational empire, and that for much of its history the Ottoman Empire was also a haven for Europe’s persecuted minorities such as the Jews. Even today the fact that there is a Greek Christian majority on the island of Cyprus, which the Ottomans ruled for 300 years until 1878, illustrates the racial and religious tolerance manifested by them throughout most of their history. What, however, happened to the Muslims in Spain once the Christians reconquered the peninsula? Or for that matter, what happened to the large Muslim minorities that inhabited the Balkans into the nineteenth century? When we ponder such questions, it is not always clear who was “determined to annihilate whom.”
Where then lies the truth in this ancient and bitter dispute? Is the truth even possible to locate after all these years and so many previous attempts? While recognizing the inherent difficulties, even impossibilities, here, I feel I have an obligation to offer, at least, my tentative judgments. Admittedly, I have not experienced these events firsthand, as have the Turks and Armenians. Precisely because I am removed from the immediate passions that would have thus arisen, however, I hope to be able to view what happened with a more dispassionate, and therefore accurate, perspective. Without claiming a monopoly on definitive wisdom, based on the above, I see the truth as situated somewhere between the diametrically opposed positions of the two antagonists.
First of all, there is no doubt the Armenians suffered a great wrong. No matter what the Turkish apologists argue, the fact remains that the Turkish Armenians virtually ceased to exist in their ancient homeland after World War I. Although the numbers of Armenians who died at this time are greatly exaggerated by the Armenians – and, in addition, many of the Armenians who were killed during this era died because the Armenians waged war against practically every nation they were physically able to come in contact with, including not only the Turks but also, after 1918, the Russians, Georgians, and Azerbaijanis – there is still no doubt that several hundred thousand Armenians perished during 1915. That even more Turks also died during World War I is both true, but largely irrelevant to the argument here because most of the many Turkish deaths resulted from hostilities against the Allies, not the Armenians. Gallipoli, the Russian invasion in the East, the English drive from the South, and the starvation and disease resulting from wartime conditions in general were the main factors contributing to the Turkish deaths.
The Armenian claim that they were victims of a premeditated genocide does not ring true, however. Rather, what appears more likely is that there was an honest, though inaccurate belief among the Turkish leaders that they were faced with a widespread and coordinated Armenian uprising from within at the very time their state was in mortal danger from without. Decades of what the Turks saw as Armenian provocations and even treason during previous wars, armed revolutionary activity between the wars, the creation of Russian-Armenian guerrilla groups in the invading Russian army during the present war, the defection of certain Ottoman Armenians to the enemy, the armed resistance to conscription on the part of Armenians in Zeytun, incidents of revolutionary acts and sabotage in the countryside, and the Armenian uprising in Van in reaction to the unjustified but probably unofficial policies of the local governor-all led the Turks to conclude they were in real danger from a fifth column. (Similarly, a much better organized U.S. government unjustly interned its citizens of Japanese descent at the start of World War II.)
Indicative of the Turkish confusion here is a report at the start of the war in 1914 that “the Russians have provoked Armenians living in our country, by promises that they will be granted independence in territories to be annexed from Ottoman land…that they have stored arms and ammunition in many places to be distributed to Armenians and moreover, the…Russian General Loris-Melikov went to the Van region for the same purpose.” Turkish fear of the famous Russian-Armenian commander in the War of 1877-78 is understandable but misplaced, since he had been dead since 1888.
In addition, of course, the Ottoman Empire in 1915 was a badly decaying institution nearing the end of its long existence. In the throes of fighting a losing war, it was pushed beyond its capacities and lost control of the situation. Much of the gendarmerie who implemented the deportation orders, for example, were simply poorly trained substitutes for the original force, which was now enrolled in the regular army. Indeed, some of these replacements were probably nothing more than brigands themselves. Discipline among them was certainly lax. Furthermore, under such widespread conditions of wartime disorganization, the nomadic Kurds were able to attack the deportation columns with relative impunity or even connivance on the part of the gendarmerie. An unpopular minority whom the Muslim majority considered traitors, the Armenians received little sympathy from the local population, which itself was suffering grieviously from the wartime conditions. Given such circumstances, then, it is understandable how the deportations led to widespread massacres, disease, and starvation, all of which together cost the lives of several hundreds of thousands of Armenians.
In Constantinople, however, where the government’s capacities were stronger, the vast majority of the Armenian population continued to exist throughout the war. In fact, their descendants still live in Istanbul today. Could anyone conceive of Hitler allowing the Jews to continue living in Berlin while he implemented his genocide against them elsewhere?
For those determined to “prove” genocide, of course, anything the Turks do indicates their guilt. In this case, it is argued that the Armenians in Constantinople were not killed, since too many foreigners lived in the Ottoman capital, and thus there would be witnesses. Therefore, the survival of the Armenians here also “proves” the overall genocidal intentions elsewhere.
Certainly, however, it should be clear from the above analysis that there have been two sides to the question, and we in the West have largely heard only the Armenian. Attempts to demonstrate the Turks committed premeditated genocide have proven either likely forgeries (such as the oft-cited Andonian telegrams and the apocryphal quote by Hitler, “Who remembers the Armenians?” when he allegedly assured his associates their genocidal assault on the Jews would not one day bring down retribution on them) or declarations based on mere faith. To accuse the Turks of genocide in 1915 and a cover-up in the 1980s is to ignore these elementary facts. Even more, to justify today the murder of Turks and the dismemberment of their country in the name of a one-sided version of history -as do the contemporary Armenian terrorists and implicitly many from the broader, transnational Armenian community- is to make a shambles out of the very justice the Armenians claim they seek. Although in no way excusing the massacres that did occur, these facts put the events of World War I in their proper context.