The neo-Ottomans are back. How should Lebanese Armenians respond?

Pro-Turkish demonstrators in Tripoli, north Lebanon voice support for Turkish military operation in northern Syria.

OPINION: by Yeghia Tashjian

Lebanese resilience is being severely tested by the ongoing financial crisis. Economic and social costs are overwhelming, and the middle class is disappearing as poverty spirals out of control. The Lebanese currency has almost lost 60 percent of its value compared to US dollars in the black market. Unemployment has reached 55 percent. Poverty has exceeded 65 percent, and we have an uncertain and unpredictable political environment. The roaring but essentially non-violent civilian protests, which have swept through Lebanon for several months, have conveyed a compelling demand for change. However, during the last two months, protesters took a violent path, looting and burning banks and stores. On a regional level, the Sunni-Shia conflict has been intensified from Yemen to Syria where institutional decay has further inflamed the region. Amid these uncertainties, Turkey has started to spread its tentacles and mobilize its proxies in Lebanon.

Davit Hirst in his book “Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East” argues that Lebanon is a reflection of the geopolitical developments in the Middle East. Sometimes, the political developments in Lebanon reflect on the region. I would say both the political shifts in the country and the region are interdependent due to the sectarian infrastructure that had shaped the region after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The fall of Saddam inflamed a Sunni versus Shia conflict whose roots go back to 632 AD following the death of Prophet Mohammad. The conflict was later regenerated with the political vacuum that Americans left with the ousting of the Baathist regime in Iraq. Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli would have advised otherwise, that instead of dissolving the Iraqi army, which was playing the role of “check and balance” to Iran’s influence, the US would have used this army to contain the Iranian expansion and preserve the regional status quo. However, President George W. Bush’s administration unleashed more chaos in the region.

In recent years, the Sunni-Shia relations have been increasingly marked by conflict, particularly the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict. Sectarian violence persists to this day from Pakistan to Yemen and is a major element of friction throughout the Middle East. Regionally, Saudi Arabia, once the champion of the Muslim cause in the region, is in retreat. The Saudis are unable to win a war they started in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, they failed in isolating tiny Qatar, they failed to prevent the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, and finally, they are no more the main players in Syria and Lebanon. All these developments created a power vacuum in the Sunni street. It was within this geopolitical context that Turkey under President Erdogan engaged in strategic opportunism and spread its influence in the region. Turkey wanted to replace moderate Islam with an ideology based on the beliefs of Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, which is recognized as a terrorist organization by many Muslim countries, has been directly funded by Turkey and Qatar and consolidated its network in many Arab countries. Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions spread all over the region and expanded even towards the oil-rich Libya. By supporting the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated al-Sarraj’s government, Turkey and Libya agreed to draw the maritime border between both, and hence, Turkey gained the biggest share of the oil and gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. This action alarmed the Egyptian leadership which mobilized its troops along the Libyan border. Turkey’s main goal was to use the Muslim Brotherhood to its benefit in becoming a pivotal regional energy and political hub. Therefore, it is important to understand and analyze Turkey’s involvement in Lebanon from a purely geopolitical and geo-economic context.

Turkey started to play the chessboard in Lebanon too, where last week’s small incident can be recorded as the beginning of its political influence in Lebanon. It all started when Nishan Der-Haroutunian, the host of a popular Lebanese television program on Al Jadeed TV, received a social media message from a spectator calling him “a refugee and insidious foreigner.” In response, Der-Haroutunian confronted the messenger and stressed that Erdogan, Turkey and the Ottoman Turks are insidious, and those who think otherwise should study Ottoman and Lebanese history. This type of rhetoric has become commonplace against the Armenian community in Lebanon. It started after the centennial of the Armenian Genocide when a group of pro-Turkey Muslim clerics in Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli announced in 2015 that they no longer will accept the “insults towards the grandchildren of the Ottomans.” It is not surprising that many Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated websites and social media pages spread fake publications about “Armenians committing genocide against Muslims.” Such anti-Armenianism and genocide denial also spread in mosque sermons and conferences were organized “exposing the Armenian lies.”

In a viral video, Mounir Hassan, president of the Lebanese-Arab “Mardinli” organization, made direct threats to Der-Haroutunian and the Lebanese-Armenian community. He threatened to slaughter Armenians in Bourj Hammoud calling Ottomans “his ancestors” and saying they did a good job slaughtering Armenians and calling Armenians stupid, traitors, evil, disrespectful, and making other obscene remarks toward Der-Haroutunian. Mounir was no longer denying the Genocide, but justifying it. Such justifications were present even in the speeches of many Islamist clerics during the early phase of the Syrian civil war. Usually, justification of a crime instigates new crimes and opens the path to the repetition of crimes against a community that has been demonized over time. After all, wasn’t the justification of crimes against Yezidis and Assyrians in Iraq justified by ISIS through religious doctrines?

On June 11, a demonstration was staged in parts of Beirut’s western quarter, where the Muslim Sunni majority lives, with slogans directed against Armenians, accompanied by the waving of the Turkish and Lebanese flags. For me, this was not a surprise outburst against the Armenians, since it had long been anticipated within the perspective of geopolitical shifts in the region and Turkey’s increasing soft power in Lebanon and beyond. However, what was surprising was the level of coordination and the effectiveness of such a movement. It was clear Turkey and its proxies were on the offensive.

TIKA distributing aid packages to needy Turkoman and Mardinli families in Lebanon. (Turkish embassy in Beirut Facebook, May 23, 2020)

Turkey’s soft power in the region has many components and Lebanon is not immune to them. The Turkish embassy, similar to the embassies of other regional actors, started sending political messages through its proxies on the ground. Who are those proxies? It is unknown the exact number of Turkomans, Turks and Mardinlis are in Lebanon. Some estimate it is in the thousands. Turkomans are located in the northern regions of Akkar; they settled in northern Lebanon centuries ago and used to collect taxes from local peasants. Turks, who are descendants from the Ottomans of the island of Crete, are located in Tripoli, and during the last parliamentary elections were supporting a political block funded by Turkey and Qatar. Mardinlis are located in Beirut. The most significant waves of Mardinli immigrants came in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s, when many Arabs and Kurds from the city of Mardin escaped Kemalist persecution, and later economic crisis, and arrived in Lebanon. Politically, they were isolated; however as Turkey’s AKP “discovered” this community in Lebanon in the mid-2000s, Turkey started to invest in educational, hospitalization and cultural fields. Even many Lebanese of Turkish origins pursued their higher education in Turkey for free. In 2017, Turkish former ambassador Çağatay Erciyes announced in a gathering that it is time to think of the political role of the community. This announcement was made one year before the Lebanese parliamentary elections in 2018. The community had two candidates, one in Akkar and the other in Tripoli, however both lost. Therefore, it is not surprising that Lebanese of Turkish origin will be further organized, and the Turkish embassy will do its best to organize the community, not just to balance the Armenians but also to exert influence in the Sunni community. Already, the community is represented in the Beirut and Tripoli municipalities.

This is just the beginning…

Turkey’s role was also significant during the anti-government protests in Tripoli. In October 2019, during the beginning of anti-government protests that spread in the country, some protesters raised Turkish flags to show solidarity with Erdogan. Activists prevented them and the flags were taken down, however I believe that a political landscape is being prepared to welcome a Turkish intervention in the city. If political instability continues in Tripoli and the community becomes a “target,” then I would not be surprised to hear Erdogan call for Turkish intervention “in defense of the Ottoman descendants in Tripoli.” Let’s not forget such announcements were made before the Turkish military involvement in Syria and Libya.

How should the Lebanese-Armenians respond to Turkey’s intentions?

—The Lebanese Armenians must not be drawn into sectarian provocations. The community is one of the seven largest communities in the country and are complete citizens who do not need a “loyalty test” from any Lebanese. Armenians gained citizenship like most Lebanese did in 1923. Unlike others, in times of crisis the community has shown absolute loyalty to the state. The recent anti-Armenian provocations once again showed that the main idea behind these provocations was to drag the entire community into uncertainty. Such uncertainty would only further push Turkey to intervene in Lebanon and pursue its neo-Ottomanist interests. 

—Armenia cannot remain isolated from the regional dynamics. Like other communities, Lebanese-Armenians too will be impacted from the regional dynamism and Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy. Thus Armenia may play a dynamic foreign policy to prevent any threat to the Armenian communities in the region by containing Turkish aspirations in the Middle East. Given the geopolitical shifts that are occurring in the MENA region, there is a new axis that is being formed. With Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, and Haftar’s Libya are forming an “anti-Turkish” coalition. Added to this there is the Syria-Hezbollah-Iran axis where the interests of these two axes are intersecting on a common goal which is to push Turkey outside its current spheres of influences. As non-state actors, Hezbollah and PKK are indirectly part of this grand coalition, despite the ideological differences. Armenians cannot remain silent or indifferent amid these geopolitical shifts.

—Armenia must engage in proactive foreign policy and engage in a cultural and political dialogue between various communities that historically have been oppressed by the Ottomans and later Turkey. Such groups include the Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Greeks, and Pontic Greeks, Yezidis and Kurds. This “civilizational diplomacy” aims to build a common front to preserve these communities against Turkish military aggressions in Northern Syria and Iraq.

—Engage in media war. Lately, many Saudi, Emarati and Egyptian television programs and political talk shows have highlighted Turkey’s responsibility and its denial of the Armenian Genocide. Such media outlets are important in order to directly engage with Arab viewers and highlight the importance of Armenian-Arab historical brotherhood against Ottoman policies. Notably, Armenian volunteers were one of the main regiments that liberated Palestine from the Turkish yoke, and they fought side-by-side with Arabs against the Ottoman occupiers.

—Finally, on a local level, the Lebanese-Armenian youth and student associations must have an active role in universities and academic centers and engage in dialogue and discussions with various youth groups to build a common front against any future Turkish political intervention. On June 12, the ARF-affiliated Lebanese Youth Federation and the Zavarian Student Association together with other Armenian and non-Armenian youth and student associations formally denounced the recent racist and xenophobic attacks against the community. It was worth mentioning that alongside Christian parties, many Muslim parties took part in this announcement.

Pro-Turkish/Ottoman rally in Tripoli after President Michel Aoun denounced the starvation policy of the Ottoman Empire in Mount Lebanon (1915-1916), where around 200,000 Lebanese perished, mostly Christians
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