The Japan Times, Japan
June 29 2014

Great War seen as root of conflict in Middle East, Armenian genocide

'First genocide of the century' still divides Turkey and West; Levant
remains religiously riven

by Philippe Alfroy


ISTANBUL - A century later, World War I casts a haunting shadow far
from the trenches of Western Europe, having spawned two crises that
still strain international relations: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
and the Armenian genocide.

When Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V declared "holy war" on Britain, France
and Russia on Nov. 24, 1914, his five-century-old empire was already
in decline and had lost most of its European territory.

Convinced that Germany, an ally, was destined for a speedy victory,
the empire's governing "Young Turks" movement saw the war as a chance
to consolidate its grip on power, block the economic rise of London
and Paris, and reclaim Central Asia.

The Ottoman Army inflicted a brutal defeat on British and French
forces on the strategic Gallipoli Peninsula during the Dardanelles
campaign in 1915, but its war turned into a nightmare on the eastern
front against Russia.

Tens of thousands of soldiers died in battles that drew in Armenian
fighters who fought alongside Russian troops in a bid to cast off
Ottoman rule.

Defeated by Russia in Armenia and the Caucasus, the Ottomans responded
by attacking the Armenian minority in their midst.

The Armenians: 'us or them'

"There are two alternatives: either the Armenians will liquidate the
Turks, or the Turks will liquidate them," an Ottoman official, Mehmed
Resid, wrote in his memoirs. "Faced with the need to choose, I did not
hesitate long. Before they do away with us, we will get rid of them."

The arrest and massacre of 2,000 Armenian leaders in Istanbul on April
24, 1915, began what is described as the first genocide of the 20th
century -- although modern-day Turkey categorically refutes the term.

In less than a year, hundreds of thousands were forcibly displaced and
their possessions were seized. Many of them were killed. A century
later, the mass killings continue to fuel a bitter controversy,
regularly upsetting relations between Turkey and the West.

Armenians, backed by many historians and a growing number of foreign
parliaments, say up to 1.5 million of their kin were systematically
killed in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey admits large-scale massacres took place, but says they were
perpetrated in self-defense against the Russian threat. Overall, it
says, 500,000 died in fighting and of starvation.

The Armenian academic Rouben Safrastian rejects the Turkish arguments.
"Massacres of Armenians took place well before World War I," he
argued. "The war was simply a good excuse to carry out a criminal
plan."

"For us, the question is just as painful as it was 100 years ago,"
said the vice president of the Armenian national assembly, Eduard
Sharmazanov. "Turkey needs to end its policy of denial and apologize
to the Armenian people."

There have been gradual signs of change in Turkey. During a trip last
year to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, Foreign Minister Ahmet
Davutoglu called the events of 1915-16 a "mistake" and an "inhuman
act."

"In recent years, there have been commemorations in Turkey, university
conferences. It's a small revolution," said Turkish analyst Burcu
Gultekin Punsmann. "A pretty deep process of revision is underway in
Turkish society, even if it is not yet obvious at the political
level."

Conflict in the Middle East

World War I also redrew the map of the entire Middle East, sowing the
seeds of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In 1916, Ottoman forces, led by German generals, quickly gained the
upper hand over British troops in Palestine and Mesopotamia, an area
that covers modern-day Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria.

But British forces proved highly adept at mobile warfare in the
desert, one of the few places where fighting on horseback was still
possible.

They were assisted by the actions of T.E. Lawrence, the fabled British
archaeologist who rallied Arab nationalists in revolt against Turkish
rule and sultans.

His hit-and-run attacks on Turkish supply lines were a marginal part
of the campaign, but the legend of "Lawrence of Arabia" had dramatic
propaganda value, and his writings on insurgency tactics remain highly
influential.

By 1917, the British had turned the tide of the campaign, taking
Baghdad and Jerusalem. By the following year, Allied forces had
occupied Damascus and Beirut and had effective control over the entire
region.

The Arabs who supported them had bought into promises from Britain and
France that they would win independence after the war, but they were
to be bitterly disappointed. Behind the scenes, Britain and France had
already carved up the region between themselves under the Sykes-Picot
Agreement of May 1916: Lebanon and Syria to France; Jordan, Palestine
and Iraq to the British.

Adding to the confusion, and cutting across their agreements with both
the French and the Arabs, the British had also announced the infamous
Balfour Doctrine in 1917, in which Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour
had promised a homeland for Jewish people in Palestine. The doctrine
formed the basis for the creation of the Israeli state three decades
later, and a conflict that continues to tear apart the region to this
day.

The armistice signed at Mudros in Greece on Oct. 30, 1918, marked the
final dissolution and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Five
centuries of imperial rule was at an end.

But the fighting was not over for Turkey, which spent another four
years in a war of reconquest to regain lost lands in Anatolia,
particularly against the Greeks. It was these battles that allowed
Mustafa Kemal, who later took the surname Ataturk, to lay the
foundations of modern-day Turkey.

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