In an article published by Real Clear Defense, Turkey’s top defense official Hulisi Akar argues that the mass killing and deportation of ethnic Armenians in the early 20th century Ottoman Empire was not an act of genocide.
Akar’s article was posted on April 21, three days before Armenian Remembrance Day was marked on April 24 and before Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to use the phrase “Armenian genocide” in an official statement.
“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” Biden said.
According to Reuters, Biden told the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on April 23, that he “intends to recognize” the massacres of Ottoman Armenians as genocide in his Remembrance Day statement.
Turkey, officially a U.S. ally and member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, does not recognize the Armenian genocide, and Erdogan responded in a nationally broadcast TV speech on April 26, that Biden had taken a “wrong step,” and that his comments were “groundless and unfair.”
In the past, Erdogan has denounced the accusation of genocide during World War I as “slander” against his country.
In his article, Akar argued that he was writing from the perspective of a history professor whose doctoral research was on a 1920 U.S. report on the Armenian situation titled “Conditions in the Near East. Report of the American Military Mission to Armenia.” His piece in Real Clear Defense has been translated into Turkish and republished by all major media in Turkey with praise for its expert knowledge.
Akar's article, headlined “Lessons from General Harbord,” claims that the deaths of Armenians were an unfortunate consequence of the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution but not a unique one, and that many other groups besides the Armenians suffered similarly during the war.
He also blamed the “controversy” around the issue on “propaganda” and a “smokescreen” created by the “pro-Armenian lobby.” Armenians in the U.S. and elsewhere have for decades pressed for the events to be recognized as genocide.
But the Harbord report, Akar wrote, “managed to see through the propaganda and the smokescreen and demonstrated objectivity along with intellectual honesty in its approach to the war-time relationship between the Ottoman Empire and its Armenian subjects.”
Yet while praising the Harbord report’s “objectivity,” Akar cherry-picked it to suit his argument, even contending that the “report and its annexes also help us in establishing the atrocities committed by the Armenians against other subjects of the empire.”
That is misleading.
As Akar tells it, Harbord’s report showed that "massive humanitarian crises” took place inside the Ottoman Empire “and in neighboring geographies” during its final period, “as was the case during the disintegration of other empires.”
“In fact, Ottoman Armenians lost their lives under the harsh conditions of the First World War, which is when relocation took place," he wrote. "Other Ottoman citizens also died because of epidemics and migrations, as well as acts of sedition spearheaded by gangs and armed groups that escalated as a result of the weakening of state authority."
Harbord could not have used the word genocide in the report: The term only came to international use after WWII, when the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948.
However, the Harbord report recounted the displacement and killing of hundreds of thousands, stating that Armenians were targeted for their race and Christian faith.
From the report:
In 1895, 100,000 perished. At Van in 1908, and at Adana and elsewhere in Cilicia in 1909, over 30,000 were murdered. The last and greatest of these tragedies was in 1915. Conservative estimates place the number of Armenians in Asiatic Turkey in 1914 over 1,500,000, though some make it higher.
Massacres and deportations were organized in the spring of 1915 under definite system, the soldiers going from town to town. The official reports of the Turkish Government show 1,100,000 as having been deported.
Young men were first summoned to the government building in each village and then marched out and killed. The women, the old men, and children were, after a few days, deported to what Talaat Pasha called “agricultural colonies,” from the high, cool, breeze-swept plateau of Armenia to the malarial flats of the Euphrates and the burning sands of Syria and Arabia.
The dead from this wholesale attempt on the race are variously estimated from 500,000 to more than a million, the usual figure being about 800,000. ...
Driven on foot under a fierce summer sun, robbed of their clothing and such petty articles as they carried, prodded by bayonet if they lagged; starvation, typhus, and dysentery left thousands dead by the trail side.
The ration was a pound of bread every alternate day, which many did not receive, and later a small daily sprinkling of meal on the palm of the outstretched hand was the only food. Many perished from thirst or were killed as they attempted to slake thirst at the crossing of running streams.
The report went on to describe the selling of young Armenian girls and other abuses. Armenian genocide scholars cite the Harbord report as evidence of genocide.
Armenia’s deputy foreign minister Avet Adonts praised Biden’s move, the Washington Post reported, while the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu firmly rejected it on Twitter.