Since the 1980s, Ankara has drawn on the usage of counter-terrorism. More specifically, Ankara used this discourse to undermine Armenian diaspora claims for genocide recognition.
The Sunday morning reports about clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh were described by correspondents as new rhetoric used by Ankara to justify a new crisis and involvement in the Caucasus, potentially recruiting Syrians. As noted, Ankara has used this rhetoric against the Republic of Armenia strongly condemning Yerevan, saying that it is “playing with fire” and alleging that Armenia has recruited “terrorists” to attack Azerbaijan. It was also stated by Turkish officials that PKK is helping the Armenians in their fight against Azerbaijan.
This is not the first clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan in recent years. The Caucasus region experienced several rounds of conflict after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, and the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is one of the most notable disputes.
While the analysis that argues that Yerevan was allegedly recruiting “terrorists,” to justify Turkish involvement in the new crisis is compelling indeed, it is definitely not a new trend in Turkey’s foreign policy.
And here is why:
To put this in historical perspective, since the 1980s, Ankara has drawn on the usage of counter-terrorism. More specifically, Ankara used this discourse to undermine Armenian diaspora claims for genocide recognition. In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Turkey was facing severe terrorist attacks on Turkish embassies, diplomats, and their family members. Two Armenian extremists diaspora groups were leading the attacks: the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), which operated out of Lebanon. Their competitors operated mainly out of North America and Western Europe under the name the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG).
Both groups aimed to achieve three absolute goals: first, Turkey’s recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide; second, pay reparations to the descendants; third, the return of territory in eastern Anatolia to the Armenians. Yet, as with many transnational armed groups of the second half of the Cold War, both ASALA and JCAG were primarily interested in drawing international attention and used the violence as a means for political change.
However, it should be noted that both ASALA and JCAG were a minority among the Armenian diaspora. Back at in the 1970s and 1980s, in the late Cold War period, Armenian diaspora sought to bring their forgotten genocide to the world’s attention also in peaceful methods such as academic conferences, lobbying, and more traditional commemorative work. Nevertheless, for Turkey’s ministry of foreign affairs and the military elite, all diaspora Armenians were labeled as terrorists.
Set against these attacks from both ASALA and JCAG, in the late 1970s, Turkey was facing its worst crisis since it was established in 1923. The substantial financial, political, and social crisis ended on 12 September 1980, in a violent military coup. In the meantime, the wave of Armenian terrorism peaked and Turkey’s military junta led by Kenan Evren, chief of the general staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, formulated a new foreign policy strategy: embedding counter-terror discourse as a means for stopping the chaos at home and undermining the Armenian cause abroad.
Evren retired from the Turkish Armed Forces to become president in November 1982. His official role has changed but the counter-terrorism discourse has remained. In late 1983, Turgut Özal was appointed to Turkish prime minister after winning parliamentary majority in the 1983 general election and forming the first civil government after the 1980s military coup. And even when Armenian terror wave declined in mid-1985, Evren and Özal still used the counter-terrorism rhetoric in 1987 and 1988, in the Armenian genocide resolutions in the European Parliament and US Congress “as rewarding the terrorists”. It was also asserted by Evren and Özal that a reward to the Armenian terrorism encouraging further violence against Turkish targets by other minorities such as the Kurdish PKK that have territorial and national aspirations.
The paradoxical message was: protection of minorities rights and genocide prevention by the European Parliament and US Congress will achieve the opposite outcome. According to Evren and Özal, it would encourage further violence and terrorism against Turkish targets worldwide.
In conclusion, back in the 1980s, counter-terrorism rhetoric was used by Turkey’s military elite to embed the denial of the Armenian genocide in international forums by claiming that Armenian terrorists were unilaterally “provoking” violence against the Turkish state. Turkey’s counter-terrorism rhetoric is at least a 40 years old, and while Armenian terror of the 1970s and early 1980s has declined a long time ago, it is re-used now as a means to justify Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy in the Caucasus for possible intervention in the renewed conflict in Nagorno Karabakh and Turkey’s dispatching of 300 jihadi terrorists from Syria into Azerbaijan.
The writer is a lecturer at Leiden University at the Institute for Area Studies. He is a historian of international relations who specializes in the field of modern Middle East studies and the region’s diplomatic history during the Cold War. He is currently completing writing his book on Israeli-Turkish-American relations at key moments in the last decade of the Cold War as seen through the prism of the Armenian genocide.