Today, April 24th 2015, is being commemorated as the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, in which over a million Armenians from what is now Eastern Turkey died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, directed by the leaders of the Turkish nationalist party. Since modern Turkey continues to deny the 1915 genocide – in the triple sense of denying the scale and character of the violence, the state’s responsibility and above all the applicability of the word ‘genocide’ – much commentary will, in addition to commemorating the victims, repeat the necessity of ‘recognising’ this, one of the largest genocides of the often-genocidal twentieth century.
I want to suggest a different line. I think that the worst thing about the situation today is the fact that, in the very region in which so many Armenians died a hundred years ago, local Armenians are among those dying as result of the genocidal civil war in modern Syria. It was into the deserts of modern Syria and Iraq that Ottoman forces drove the Armenians – mainly the old, women and children, since most younger men had already been killed – to face robbery, rape and death through starvation and thirst.
Across these deserts today the armies of the Syrian and Iraqi governments as well as militias which include a self-proclaimed new Caliphate (would-be successor to the Ottoman empire overthrown after the 1915 genocide), are engaged in a ferocious new war. Many of the forces involved, not just ISIS, are committing genocidal atrocities. More people have died, or been made homeless, as a result of the targeted violence of the Syrian regime than of the Islamist killers.
The Armenian Genocide occurred before the era of ‘humanitarian’ intervention, although in the pleas of the Armenian victims to the Western empires we can see precedents for the desparate cries of help of Christians, Yezidis and others threatened in Iraq and Syria today. Some see the current US intervention against Islamic State as an advance on yesterday’s indifference, but since it comes at the price of accepting Bashar al Assad’s atrocities, I find it difficult to join them.
After 1915, most of the surviving Ottoman Armenians made their way eventually to Western Europe and the United States. It is a striking comment on our lack of progress that when today’s fleeing Syrian refugees try to make it to Europe, they face not only official barriers but perilous sea-crossings after which, should the boats carrying them capsize, Europe has even tried to evade the elementary duty of rescue.
The new denial of the scope of genocide and suffering in 2015, and of the responsibilities which arise from it, is even more shocking than the old Turkish denial of the meaning of 1915