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Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds Opening Borders
Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds Opening Borders
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Report 199 / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds Opening Borders

Turkey and Armenia are close to settling a dispute that has long roiled Caucasus politics, isolated Armenia and cast a shadow over Turkey’s European Union (EU) ambition.

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Executive Summary

Turkey and Armenia are close to settling a dispute that has long roiled Caucasus politics, isolated Armenia and cast a shadow over Turkey’s European Union (EU) ambition. For a decade and a half, relations have been poisoned by disagreement about issues including how to address a common past and compensate for crimes, territorial disputes, distrust bred in Soviet times and Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani land. But recently, progressively intense official engagement, civil society interaction and public opinion change have transformed the relationship, bringing both sides to the brink of an historic agreement to open borders, establish diplomatic ties and begin joint work on reconciliation. They should seize this opportunity to normalise. The politicised debate whether to recognise as genocide the destruction of much of the Ottoman Armenian population and the stalemated Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh should not halt momentum. The U.S., EU, Russia and others should maintain support for reconciliation and avoid harming it with statements about history at a critical and promising time.

Turks’ and Armenians’ once uncompromising, bipolar views of history are significantly converging, showing that the deep traumas can be healed. Most importantly, the advance in bilateral relations demonstrates that a desire for reconciliation can overcome old enmities and closed borders. Given the heritage and culture shared by Armenians and Turks, there is every reason to hope that normalisation of relations between the two countries can be achieved and sustained. 

Internal divisions persist on both sides. Armenia does not make normalisation conditional on Turkey’s formal recognition as genocide of the 1915 forced relocation and massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. But it must take into account the views of Armenians scattered throughout the global diaspora, which is twice as large as the population of Armenia itself and has long had hardline representatives. New trends in that diaspora, however, have softened and to some degree removed demands that Turkey surrender territory in its north east, where Armenians were a substantial minority before 1915. 

Over the past decade, Turkey has moved far from its former blanket denial of any Ottoman wrongdoing. Important parts of the ruling AK Party, bureaucracy, business communities on the Armenian border and liberal elite in western cities support normalisation with Armenia and some expression of contritition. Traditional hardliners, including Turkic nationalists and part of the security services, oppose compromise, especially as international genocide recognition continues and in the absence of Armenian troop withdrawals from substantial areas they occupy of Turkey’s ally, Azerbaijan. These divisions surfaced in events surrounding the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007. That the new tendencies are gaining ground, however, was shown by the extraordinary outpouring of solidarity with Armenians during the Dink funeral in Istanbul and a campaign by Turkish intellectuals to apologise to Armenians for the “Great Catastrophe” of 1915. 

The unresolved Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh still risks undermining full adoption and implementation of the potential package deal between Turkey and Armenia on recognition, borders and establishment of bilateral commissions to deal with multiple issues, including the historical dimension of their relations. Azerbaijan has strong links to Turkey based on energy cooperation and the Turkic countries’ shared linguistic and cultural origins. Ethnic Armenian forces’ rapid advance into Azerbaijan in 1993 scuttled plans to open diplomatic ties and caused Turkey to close the railway line that was then the only transport link between the two countries. For years, Turkey conditioned any improvement in bilateral relations on Armenian troop withdrawals. Baku threatens that if this condition is lifted, it will restrict Turkey’s participation in the expansion of Azerbaijani energy exports. While Azerbaijani attitudes remain a constraint, significant elements in Turkey agree it is time for a new approach. Bilateral détente with Armenia ultimately could help Baku recover territory better than the current stalemate.

Outside powers have important interests and roles. The U.S. has long fostered Armenia-Turkey reconciliation, seeking thereby to consolidate the independence of all three former Soviet republics in the south Caucasus and to support east-west transit corridors and energy pipelines from the Caspian Sea. Washington was notable in its backing of efforts that kick-started civil society dialogue between Turkey and Armenia. The Obama administration is working hard at repairing the damage done to U.S. relations with Turkey by the war in Iraq. Although Obama repeatedly promised on the campaign trail to formally recognise the 1915 forced relocation and massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as genocide, he should continue to steer the prudent middle course he has adopted as president. The U.S. Congress, which has a draft resolution before it, should do the same. At this sensitive moment of Turkish-Armenian convergence, statements that focus on the genocide term, either to deny or recognise it, would either enrage Armenians or unleash a nationalist Turkish reaction that would damage U.S.-Turkish ties and set back Turkey-Armenia reconciliation for years.

U.S. support for Turkey-Armenia reconciliation appears to be mirrored in Moscow. Russian companies have acquired many of Armenia’s railways, pipelines and energy utilities and seek to develop them; Russian-Turkish relations are good; and Moscow is looking for ways to mitigate the regional strains produced by its war with Georgia in August 2008. If sustained, the coincidence of U.S.-Russian interests would offer a hopeful sign for greater security and prosperity in the South Caucasus after years of division and conflict. All sides – chiefly Armenia and Turkey but potentially Azerbaijan as well – will gain in economic strength and national security if borders are opened and trade normalised.

Istanbul/Yerevan/Baku/Brussels, 14 April 2009

Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Originally published in Valdai

Last weekend, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Ankara to discuss, among other things, the latest developments in Syria amid Turkish concerns over the consequences of a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel enclave, Idlib. 

The Russian-backed offensive against that last opposition enclave is aimed at keeping the rebels at arm’s length from the Russian air base in Latakia, re-opening the Damascus-Aleppo highway and eventually retaking the city of Idlib, the provincial capital that has been held by the rebels since 2015. As such and for the past six months, much of Idlib and its environs have been under intense attack from the Syrian Arab Army on the ground and Russian warplanes in the air. The government forces have been able to seize strategic villages, including the medieval fortress town of Qalaat al-Madiq, a major crossing point into Idlib, and the towns of Kafr Nabudah and Khan Shaykhoun. The long-dreaded offensive has left 1,089 civilians dead and 600,000 displaced.

In September 2017, the three Astana guarantors, (Turkey, Iran, and Russia), negotiated a partial ceasefire in Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement, monitored on the opposition side through twelve Turkish military outposts deployed along a blurry deconfliction line between the rebels and government forces. A year later, a deal between Turkey and Russia, announced in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, headed off a seemingly imminent Syrian army offensive and reinforced the earlier deal. The Turkish-Russian agreement tacitly committed Turkey to oversee the withdrawal of jihadis along with all heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars held by all rebel groups from a 15-20 km “demilitarised zone” bordering government-controlled areas, and allowed the re-opening of the Latakia-Aleppo and Damascus-Aleppo highways, which pass through Idlib.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio.

Ankara and Moscow, however, remain at odds over the interpretations of the Sochi deal and its implementation. Moscow has made clear that a de-escalation arrangement is by no means a permanent alternative to the eventual return of the state to north west Syria. On the other hand, Turkey views the deal primarily as a tool to prevent a Syrian offensive on Idlib, and preserve a “de-escalation zone” out of Syrian government control until a broader political settlement can be reached for the eight-year old Syria crisis. As such, Turkey has agreed that moderate rebel groups would be separated from radicals and the latter would lay down arms and move out of a defined demilitarised zone. However, Moscow and Ankara remain at loggerheads over which rebel groups in Idlib should be designated as terrorists. When the agreement was announced, Hai’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group formerly linked to al Qaeda, controlled around 50% of Idlib Governorate; today they control almost all of it. Ankara believes that much of HTS is fundamentally pragmatic and a potential ally for eliminating radical transnational jihadists, while Russia treats HTS uniformly as a terrorist group, and describes the Sochi ceasefire as conditional upon HTS’s removal from the demilitarised zone and “separation” from the armed opposition. In terms of implementation, Turkey claims that they have successfully rolled back jihadis and cleared the demilitarized zone of all heavy weaponry. On the other hand, the Russian Ministry of Defence has stated that HTS attempted to attack Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase twelve times in April 2019 using unmanned aerial vehicles.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio. It is no secret that if Russia greenlights an all-out offensive, an opposition-led infantry ground force will not be able to stop it. Nonetheless, a military solution in Idlib would still be exceptionally costly for all parties, Russia included. Retaking Idlib militarily would strain Moscow’s relations with Turkey and would require force levels that could only inevitably lead to a bloodbath in the densely-populated province. More significantly, capturing Idlib militarily would risk scattering jihadi militants now inside Idlib across Syria, and globally, including into post-Soviet states. If Russia hopes to avoid that, it needs to consider an alternative to a catastrophic military victory.

Today, a return to the existing Sochi understanding will do little good, in part because – to acknowledge an uncomfortable reality – any agreement that is to prove sustainable needs to address the divergent views between Russia and Turkey over some of the key actors in Idlib, including HTS. Russia can help the Syrian government crush Idlib, if it so chooses, and if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory, including thousands of jihadis scattered across Syria and beyond. If it hopes to spare itself that cost, however, it needs to consider alternatives to a military victory, which would have grave security consequences.