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Friday, April 24, 2015

Armenian Genocide centennial draws large demonstrations outside Turkish Embassy


1915 was one hundred years ago, but the tensions that grew out of the events of those days in what is today Turkey are alive and well. 

On April 24, Armenians around the world commemorate what they call the "Medz Yeghern" or "Great Crime", a genocide of their people by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923. Some 1.5 million Armenians perished between 1915 and 1923. 2015 marks the centennial anniversary of the Great Crime. 

The Ottoman Empire is long gone, but the country that was established not long after in its place, the Republic of Turkey, does not believe the events of 1915 qualify as genocide, a claim that has earned Ankara waves of criticism and blind fury from many Armenians.  

The reasons for this are many. The Medz Yeghern began on April 24, 1915 and lasted into 1923. During that time period, Turks fought in World War I and their own war for independence, and in 1923, the modern Republic of Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose last name fittingly means "Father of the Turks". Atatürk is revered in Turkey today for his ideology of Kemalism, a sort of liberal, secular democracy with a strong peppering of civic nationalism. 

To admit to the genocide means negative consequences to many Turkish people. Turkish people are often fervently patriotic, even nationalistic towards their country. Admitting the genocide to many Turks means to turn their backs upon many of those who founded their country, and reparations towards Armenians who may believe it is their right to take back the lands they once inhabited hundreds of years ago. Whether Yeveran would demand that Ankara cede modern Turkish lands is unclear, but the sentiment is not fabricated. 

Most of the nations in the European Union recognize the Medz Yeghern as a genocide. Much of South America also believes it to be a genocide. Canada recognizes the events as genocide, but its southern neighbor the United States is in a peculiar limbo when it comes to recognition. While on the campaign trail in 2008, President Barack Obama claimed he would recognize the genocide as such. Seven years into his presidency, he has balked on that promise, as the risks of angering Turkey, a NATO member and ally, are considered too high. Forty-three states out of fifty recognize the Medz Yeghern as a genocide, and there are considerable lobbying groups that advocate for both the genocide's recognition and the status quo. 

The controversy surrounding the events of 1915-1923 is far from over, something tangibly visible on Massachusetts Avenue this afternoon. 

Two demonstrations were organized in front of the Turkish embassy on the sunny spring afternoon. On the left side of the street facing the embassy, Armenians numbered somewhere into the hundreds waving their crimson, blue, and orange flag. Many wore purple flower pins in their lapels. Signs read "Turkey, admit your guilt!" "We want justice!", "Recognize the genocide!" "Erdoğan supports terrorism!" "Genocide denied is genocide repeated!" 

Perhaps the most chilling sign on the Armenian side referenced a quote by none other than Adolf Hitler. "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" it read. 

Many wore shirts that said "I want my home in Western Armenia", a nod to the area of modern-day Turkey where Armenians were exiled from. 

Yet Armenia's unique flag was not what I first noticed first in my trek up to the Turkish Embassy. It was the sea of crimson red on the other side, mirroring the flag fluttering above. 

In front of the Turkish embassy, facing the Armenian demonstration was a comparably-sized counter-demonstration of Turkish people. Signs abounded on their side as well, reading "I Stand with Turkey!" "Let History Decide!" "Reconciliation, not Accusation!" A couple Turks were taking pictures with a large picture of their President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Car horns blared nearly constantly, and there was a considerable police presence, only amplified by the proximity of the Japanese Embassy, as Shinzo Abe, Japan's Prime Minister, is visiting the United States. As the demonstrations exchanged chants, many supporters of both sides ambled by in cars on the congested avenue, simultaneously cheering their countrymen and jeering the opposing side. 

The Armenians I talked to were, to say the least, unappreciative of what the Turkish signs claimed. "Let History Decide!" to them was merely an excuse for Turks to continue their perceived lies. "Reconciliation, not accusation!" avoided responsibility. 

President Obama's lack of acknowledgement was a grave insult as well. It is often argued that President Obama has shied away from calling the Armenian Genocide a genocide for fear of further straining relations with Turkey, who is a vital American ally in the Middle East. Those Armenians said that hardly mattered compared to doing what was right, namely, calling the genocide as it was and properly respecting the 1.5 million who'd perished. 

The Turks' flag-waving across the street was puzzling to put it lightly. What people would say if Germans waved their flag and sang Das Deutschlandlied, their national hymn, on the anniversary of the Holocaust? Germans have much to be proud of historically, but today they also possess the sense to not display that pride at the wrong time. 

Turkish people have reasons to be proud of their country as well. Despite some mounting problems under Erdoğan, they still possess one of the most advanced, modern, and democratic countries in the region, a regional powerhouse where many nearby countries are tearing themselves apart. 

"They can repent and still be proud." Ara, an Armenian I conversed with at the demonstration, claimed. A man next to him vigorously nodded. 

Now, many Turks admit what happened to Armenians in those days, and there are voices within Turkey that believe the genocide should be recognized. Turkish-Kurdish newspapers such as 
Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda) and Azadiya Welat (Freedom of the Country)  featured sympathetic headlines to the Armenian tragedy, as did the popular center-left leaning daily Cumhuriyet (The Republic) whose headline today declared "Never Again" in Armenian. 

Above the chest-thumping and the trash-talk being shouted back and forth across Mass Ave, hope was also in the air. Ara went on to tell me he was hopeful that younger generations of Turks would be receptive to coming to terms and repenting for a sad and awful point in their history while retaining pride in their country, as does Germany. He was visibly happy when I mentioned the Turkish newspaper headlines of the day and affirmed that that was a strong step forward. 

We can only hope the steps continue forward. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

An In-Depth Look into Savchenko's Fate

This article was originally published on the 17th of April at the Free Russia Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC which I am now a contributing writer for. Learn more about them here!

On April 16, representatives of Free Russia Foundation met only a stone’s throw from the White House to discuss the legal situation now facing Nadezhda Savchenko.

At the meeting was Jeff Goldstein, Senior Policy Analyst for Eurasia at the Open Society Foundation, Natalia Arno, President of the Free Russia Foundation, Mark Feygin, a member of Savchenko’s legal defense team, and Richard Jackson, a professor of international law at Georgetown University, often considered the most prestigious of universities in Washington. The event was co-organized by Open Society Foundations, Center for Human Rights of the American Bar Association and the Free Russia Foundation.
Nadezhda, commonly known by her nickname Nadya, was a pilot in Ukraine’s Armed Forces, the first woman to train as a pilot. She was the only woman to participate in Ukraine’s peacekeeping mission in Iraq. She was also an active figure during Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution between 2013 and 2014. When the conflict in Ukraine started, Savchenko went to fight for her country against the separatists in Eastern Ukraine that many believe to be aided by the Kremlin.
While serving in the far eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk she was captured by pro-Russian forces.
Her lawyer, Mark Feygin, speaking through an interpreter, recounted in great detail Savchenko’s time in captivity, and how she became a war hero for Ukrainians.
According to Mr. Feygin, Savchenko was captured on June 17th 2014, in a town north of Luhansk, by armed men loyal to the Luhansk People’s Republic. She was taken to a military center in Luhansk where she was beaten and taken captive by armed guards. Simultaneously, two Russian journalists moved from Luhansk’s city center to its outskirts, specifically to a town called Metallist. They were caught in the crossfire of shelling from forces loyal to both Kiev and to Russia, specifically the Aidar and Zarya battalions. One journalist was killed immediately in the shelling, the other died of his wounds on the way to receive medical treatment. Savchenko was taken as a hostage by men loyal to Igor Plotnitsky, who is now the acting president of the Luhansk People’s Republic. She was then transported to Voronezh, a town due north of Luhansk in Russia. In Voronezh, Savchenko was taken to the Hotel Euro and placed in a room under heavily armed guard. An investigative committee in Russia charged her with complicity to murder of the Russian journalists in Eastern Ukraine, which she denied, claiming she had never heard of the journalists previously and would not know how to target the mortar attack that killed them as she was never trained to carry out such an operation. The second Savchenko’s charge is even more laughable – illegal crossing of the Russian border though she was brought to Russia forcefully, blindfolded and handcuffed.
Feygin went on to describe the cornerstone of the evidence that would prove Savchenko’s innocence: phone bills. Savchenko’s cell phone billing indicated she had her phone when she was captured by LPR forces and showed no overlap between her capture and the tragic death of the journalists. Unfortunately, he went on to also claim that Russia’s judicial system is not truly independent from the influence of the Kremlin, and that the Russian authorities had violated both international and domestic law in their detaining and abducting Nadya.
During the brief question and answer session, Mr. Feygin also stressed that the case of Nadya Savchenko likely did not go the way that the authorities intended. He speculated that they’d expected Savchenko to capitulate early on account on her gender in a bout of arrogance and ignorance. This, of course, turned out exactly the opposite, as Nadya retains her innocence.
So why Savchenko? Mr. Feygin speculated during the discussion session that the Kremlin’s insistence on capturing and detaining her comes from a desire to work on wider political goals. Also, Savchenko is the one in the spotlight but she is hardly the only Ukrainian in this situation. There are other Ukrainian officers and soldiers in Russian prisons. And she is just a part of a bigger case against at least 62 Ukrainian individuals including Igor Kolomoisky, former Dnepropetrovsk region governor, Arsen Avakov, Ministor of Interior of Ukraine, and many others. According to Mr. Feygin, and the decision in Savchenko’s trial would set a strong precedent for better or for worse.
Professor Richard Jackson, from Georgetown University’s School of Law, offered a broad and grim perspective on Savchenko’s quagmire by speaking about how international organizations can help Savchenko. While there exist many different institutions in Europe to hold the prosecutors of Savchenko accountable and acquit her of her supposed crimes, the Kremlin’s insistence (reaffirmed today by President Putin) that Russia is not involved in Ukraine’s war makes things infinitely more complicated. With Putin’s insistence on Russia’s lack of involvement and an uneasy ceasefire persisting, the fate of Savchenko may be in serious trouble. While there is a global campaign to free Ms. Savchenko, her status in Russia is that of a bloodthirsty villain. During the discussion, it was stressed that most Russian media has described her as a guilty woman fighting for a fascist junta.
The Savchenko case is a poster child of Russia’s willful violations of international norms, but her case is a tip of an iceberg, a part of a larger story about Russia. The Kremlin routinely violates international agreements at every opportunity; to the sovereignty of its neighbors, to military treaties, to economic agreements, and even violations of basic human rights. The Russian leadership has no reservation about violating its own constitution and the rights afforded its people. It’s necessary to bring Russia back to acting as a peaceful and honorable world citizen. The case for Nadya’s freedom gives an opportunity to force Russia to adhere to international law and indeed, basic human rights. Helping to free Savchenko can be a turning point in Russia’s return to sanity. And this is what is called justice.

Friday, April 10, 2015

After ISIS

Since the summer of 2014, news media around the world has been preoccupied with possibly the most vile and evil Islamic fundamentalist group in the world.

They've forced thousands under their oppressive rule in Syria and Iraq and are salivating over the chaos in Libya. They were responsible for Tunisia's horrific museum massacre. They have sold hundreds of women into sex slavery. They go by many names...ISIS. ISIL. Islamic State. الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام‎. Dae'sh. 

The group seemingly came out of nowhere and rampaged through most of Iraq and much of Syria before an international coalition responded with limited airstrikes to assist the forces fighting to keep ISIS out of their territory. While ISIS still controls a large amount of territory in Iraq and Syria, it does seem to have lost its momentum that once struck fear into the world.

A map of the current situation from Wikipedia. 
Green represents the Free Syrian Army. 
Pink represents Syrian government forces. 
Yellow represents Kurdish controlled areas. 
Gray represents ISIS. 
Maroon represents areas still under the control of Baghdad. 

Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga in Iraq, control large swaths of land in Northern Iraq and have some strongholds in Northern Syria as well. Tikrit, the birthplace of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, has recently been recaptured by Iraqi forces. While ISIS still controls large cities like Mosul and their de facto capital Ar-Raqqah in Syria, they seem to be losing this war. 

It's not much of a topic of discussion at the moment, but as the forces against ISIS keep it up, it will enter the forefront: What happens after ISIS is defeated?

Unfortunately, lasting peace might not be the answer to this question.

Syria is still engaged in a civil war that started in 2011. The Free Syrian Army controls enclaves in the northwest and south, but most of the country is under the control of either forces loyal to Assad or Islamic State. Thousands have died in this brutal conflict that the international community has only minimally tried to stop, and Islamic State's demise likely won't mean the end of violence.

It seems more likely that the brutal dictator Bashar Al-Assad may be tolerated in favor of the disjointed Free Syrian Army and Islamic State, but his country has suffered to an extent that it will likely take years, possibly decades, to rebuild. While Assad may not have popularity among the Syrian people, he wields the military might. That alone may assure his staying in power.

The chances Assad is deposed were considerably diminished with the rise of Islamic State. Though Assad would have to mount a major offensive. His army is exhausted and will only further suffer as it attempts to retake territory from Islamic State and the FSA. If he does emerge from this war clinging to power, he will have done so at enormous cost to his people and his country.


Iraqi forces, derided for their desertion early in the conflict, seem to have turned the tide with the aid of American airstrikes. Tikrit, the home of the late Saddam Hussein, is once again under the red, white, and black flag of Iraq rather than ISIS's black banner. 

Iraq will likely advance slowly but surely north towards the areas controlled by the Kurds, who have somewhat of a de facto independent state at the moment. This brings us to the most intriguing dyamic at the possible end of this conflict: Is this Kurdistan's now or never moment for independence? 

On the above map, Kurdish forces control the yellow areas of Syria and the large yellow-green area that is currently part of Northern Iraq. Kurds received international acclaim when they fended ISIS off from their border town of Kobane with a stubborn Turkey standing by. After the victory, pictures of victorious Kurdish forces hanging an enormous ribbon-like Syrian Kurdish flag hanging from a TV tower in Kobane surfaced on the file-sharing website Reddit (These are not my pictures, they were uploaded by courtesy of a reddit user called "
  The Kurdish areas of Syria are small and disjointed, but with a weakened ISIS and an exhausted force from Damascus, Kurdish forces may be able to establish a thin border through Syria to connect with Iraqi Kurdistan. 

This is all well and good, but the main question on the minds of those who await it this, at long last, the beginning of an Independent Republic of Kurdistan? 

It may not, at the end of the day. It's possible the Iraqi Kurds decide to preserve their autonomy and stay with Iraq, as they were alloted a large amount of autonomy under the still-relatively-new Iraqi government. The Syrian Kurds may be more likely itching for independence as they were not afforded the same privileges as their Iraqi counterparts gained after the deposing of Saddam Hussein. 

It's a long road ahead, obviously, and even a Kurdistan in Syria and Iraq would not encapsulate the large areas where ethnic Kurds are a majority or even a plurality as the idea of an independent Kurdistan often extends well into the present-day borders of Turkey and Iran, neither of which are likely to allow Kurdish populations independence. 

One could argue that a small Kurdish Republic would be better than no Kurdish Republic, though, and with an exhausted Syrian Army that still has the Free Syrian Army to fend off, and an Iraqi government that granted the Kurds considerable autonomy, it's possible that a declaration of independence could be on the horizon for the Kurds in Iraq and Syria.

Large powers such as the United States and European Union would likely choose to stay neutral for fear of the reprocussions of the United States attempting detente with Tehran and Turkey's position in NATO. For Kurdish sympathizers this comes as a disappointment but is probably the most realistic option considering the powers that be. Ankara will likely respond negatively to the news but serious military action will likely bring much worse consequences for the Erdogan Administration than a border shared with the Kurds. If Turkey was to act against Kurds outside of Turkey, they run the risk of Kurds in Turkey mounting a serious revolt which, in a worst-case scenario, would lead to Turkish isolation and the possibility of a large loss of territory. 

Iran also has a large Kurdish population, and it will likewise have to tread carefully if it is to keep the status quo. There's also an interesting dynamic to be explored here in regards to the United States. If Iran and the United States are able to strike a nuclear deal later this year, which Washington and Tehran (and the other members of P5+1) have hammered out the framework for, it will have to be careful not to undermine the work of its diplomats. Kurds and Iranians are unique in the Middle East as they are both relatively pro-American peoples. Many pundits have described Iranians as being the most pro-American people in the Middle East save for Israel, and Kurds have long seen America in a positive light as well. 

While open revolt against Tehran or Ankara is, by all accounts, extremely unlikely even if an independent Kurdistan comes about, Kurds in Turkey and Iran may take it upon themselves to act if Tehran and Ankara decide to act maliciously against their ethnic minority communities in response to an  independent state carved out of Iraq and Syria. Both governments will likely prefer to act cautiously towards their Kurdish populations. There's also the appeal of economic stability in Turkey and Iran as both countries are much richer and more stable than Iraq and Syria.