The attack on Nagorno-Karabakh is just the latest in a series of imperial moves by Turkish president Erdogan.
For the past four weeks, the people of the Armenian republic of Artsakh, more commonly known as Nagorno-Karabakh, have been indiscriminately shelled by Azerbaijan, which is militarily and politically backed by Turkey, a NATO member and a European Union candidate.
Some 50 percent of Artsakh’s population has been forced to flee, the region’s rights ombudsman Artak Beglaryan told the AFP news agency on October 7.
Why are these two nations, whose total population is 100 million, targeting Artsakh and Armenia, two blockaded, landlocked, and genocide-survivor states with a total population of around three million?
For us, the Red Apple means great and strong Turkey. It is the sacred march of our nation that made history from Manzikert to July 15. The Red Apple is a great plane tree that provides shade for the downtrodden to refresh. The Red Apple is what the entire humanity has longed for from Gibraltar to Hedjaz and from the Balkans to Asia.
The video presents the Turkish military and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan as heirs to the medieval Turkic Seljuk dynasty, as well as to the Ottoman Empire, and portrays Turkish conquerors praying in the “Hagia Sophia mosque,” a historically Greek Christian cathedral/museum reconverted into a mosque on July 10.
The video also glorifies the Turkish invasion of the then-Armenian city of Manzikert (today’s Malazgirt) in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire during the 11th century. Turkic military leader Sultan Alparslan, originally from Central Asia, invaded Manzikert and massacred the Christian locals there.
This blood is Sultan Alparslan, who reared up at Manzikert, Osman I, at the founding. The Sultan of the world, who was given good news of conquests and the child heroes at Gallipoli. This same blood comes from the ancestors. It is writing legends again in resurgence. The world is waiting for “There is no God but Allah.” The destination is the Red Apple, we will not despair. Like Alparslan who reared up at Manzikert, like our ancestors, who wrote history with victories, like our grandfather, who closed one age and opened another, our goal is the Red Apple. Forward march!
The video also includes the recital by Erdogan of the first verses of the Surah al-Fath. Erdogan says: “Indeed, we have given you a clear conquest… And Allah may grant you a mighty victory.”
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) explains:
The lyrics mix religious and nationalistic imagery and refer to the Kızıl Elma (“Red Apple”), a concept from Turkish mythology that has sometimes been used to refer to world domination and at other times has referred to a particular military goal by a Turkish state and, once that goal has been achieved, some other goal becomes the “Red Apple,” making it ever-elusive.
A month after the government video was publicized, Azerbaijan, an ally of Turkey, targeted another Armenian territory: Artsakh, a historically Armenian (yet diplomatically unrecognized) country in the South Caucasus.
Since September 27, Azerbaijan has launched a massive military offensive against Artsakh, targeting civilian populations in the region’s capital, Stepanakert, and other towns. This is the largest military assault by Azerbaijan since a ceasefire was signed between it and Armenia following the 1991-1994 war.
Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s violent claims on Artsakh are unsubstantiated: Artsakh is one of the provinces of historical Armenia and has retained an ethnic Armenian majority throughout the centuries. It has mostly remained a semi-independent entity and was never part of independent Azerbaijan. As author Ruth Kupeian notes:
Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabagh) is part of historical Armenia, inhabited by Armenians even from before Roman times. It has often experienced invasions and wars and massacres over the centuries. But the historical monuments, churches and manuscripts which have been excavated, discovered and restored attest to the resilience of these people who continued to cultivate and care for their land in spite of all opposition and strife.
Artsakh fell under the rule of the Russian Empire with the 1813 Gulistan treaty. In the early 1920s, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin arbitrarily annexed it to Soviet Azerbaijan despite the fact that the majority of the population consisted of ethnic Armenians who voted to reunite with Armenia. Under Azeri control, Armenians of Artsakh and Azerbaijan were subject to political pressures and physical attacks.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Artsakh declared independence. Azerbaijan rejected Artsakh’s right to self-determination and launched a violent war against it that lasted until 1994 and cost the lives of an estimated 30,000 people.
As of October 18, 710 members of the Artsakh military have lost their lives, according to the Armenian media. Azerbaijan does not disclose its military casualties. The International Committee of the Red Cross said, “Civilian deaths and injuries, including of children, have been reported on both sides of the line of contact, and in Armenia.”
“Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh are facing an existential threat,” Armenian prime minister Nichol Pashinyan said on October 16 in an interview with France 24, urging the international community to recognize the region’s right to independence. “Turkey returned to the South Caucasus a hundred years later to continue the genocidal policy against the Armenians,” he added.
Pashinyan was referring to the 1913-23 Christian genocide by Ottoman Turkey, which targeted Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks. Objective historians, including the International Association of Genocide Scholars, agree that this genocide is a historic fact. Turkey, however, still aggressively denies or excuses it.
For instance, at a symposium in Ankara on April 24 of last year—the 104th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide—Erdogan described it as a “reasonable relocation.” He added: “The relocation of the Armenian gangs and their supporters who massacred the Muslim people, including women and children, in eastern Anatolia, was the most reasonable action that could be taken in such a period.” That quote was then posted on the official Turkish presidency Twitter feed.
Turkey not only denies the genocide but frequently engages in hate speech against Armenians. A report prepared annually by the Hrant Dink Foundation found that Armenians were the group most frequently targeted by hate speech in Turkish media in 2019.
The situation in Azerbaijan is equally alarming, if not worse. The Office of Artsakh Republic Human Rights Defender (ombudsman) issued a report in 2018 entitled Armenophobia in Azerbaijan: Organized Hate Speech and Animosity Towards Armenians. It documented instances in which Azerbaijani government officials were themselves involved in fueling anti-Armenian hatred, calling for violence against Armenians and referring to them as a “cancerous tumor,” a “disease,” and “parasites,” among other epithets. Some other examples include:
President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliev: “If you do not want to die, then get out of Azerbaijani lands. …We must and we do wage a more active struggle with Armenia. We have isolated it from all international and regional projects.”
Elnur Aslanov, head of the Political Analysis and Information Department: “Armenia has turned into ‘a cancer tumor’ in the region.”
Ziyafat Asgarov, first deputy speaker of parliament: “Unless this disease is not treated, its complications gradually become more serious and it will harm only Armenians. The so-called genocide is groundless from historical, legal or spiritual point of view. Simply, Armenians live with this fantasy and disease.”
Armenophobic statements are also uttered frequently by political leaders, scholars, and journalists, among others. A few examples from the report:
Amrali Ismailov, an Azerbaijani scholar: “If an Armenian does not lie, then it is not an Armenian before you. The Armenians lie, sham, steal, betray. Despite them being cut from loathsome fabrics, there are still many sincere, honest, and decent people in the world who believe in the Armenians, who can see also a human in an Armenian.”
Farid Teymurkhanli, an Azerbaijani journalist: “The inherent meaning of the word Armenian is clear to everyone but the Armenians of course. It is meanness, it is cowardice, it is treachery. Apparently, God was in bad mood when creating them, as he has rewarded them with the most abominable qualities.”
Habil Aliyev, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Gundelik Baku newspaper: “I consider the Armenians my eternal enemies. Wherever I see Armenians, I will cut their tongues off and will call them perverts. Even if I am torn into pieces, I will always hate them. …If I go to war again, I will not pity even the Armenian children.”
Kemal Turan, the Azerbaijani National-Socialist movement leader: “The Armenians are our enemies. No peace is possible with them! …The Armenians are not the type of a nation with whom peaceful talks could be held. They are a nation of parasites!”
Part of the problem, according to the report, appears to be the Azeri educational system, which says: “Anti-Armenian xenophobia is also deeply embedded in Azerbaijani educational materials and literature, ensuring that anti-Armenian sentiments are injected and nurtured with the population from early childhood.”
Many Azerbaijanis proudly display their murderous aspirations towards Armenians even outside of Azerbaijan. On October 16, Azeris protested in Washington D.C. for war, playing loud music calling for “jihad.”
This hateful indoctrination is evident in the actions of many Azeris. During the ongoing war, on October 16, Azeris beheaded an Armenian soldier, posted the photo on social media, and called the dead soldier’s brother to taunt him, as reported in the Armenian media.
Turkey is actively involved in the war against Artsakh. Turkey and Azerbaijan refer to their bond as “one nation, two states.” Azerbaijan is a Turkic Shiite-Muslim country that has close linguistic, cultural, and historical ties to Sunni Muslim Turkey. Erdogan said on October 5 that “Turkey is committed to using all its means” to support Azerbaijan. On October 19, Azerbaijan’s president Aliyev said “his brother” Erdogan’s support was “a clear message to the world.”
Political analyst Akshay Narang explains the reason behind Turkey’s intense involvement in the war:
What is Turkey doing in Azerbaijan? It is following the same neo-Ottoman ambitions which go as far as claiming Jerusalem. For Turkey, the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict has a Central Asia link. Turkey lacks a direct link to Central Asia, and the only roadblocks are Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. Attacking Armenia and taking control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region is, therefore, a part of Erdoğan’s dreams to unite the Turkic world from Central Asia to Turkey under Ankara’s leadership.
It is no secret that Erdogan’s government aims to revive some sort of reincarnation of the Ottoman Empire by expanding Turkey’s territory. Some maps of Turkey that have circulated on social media in recent years have themselves reclaimed some of the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire.
MEMRI reported that in a speech on August 26, Erdogan said:
In our civilization, conquest is not occupation or looting. It is establishing the dominance of the justice that Allah commanded in the [conquered] region…. Turkey will take what is its right in the Mediterranean Sea, in the Aegean Sea, and in the Black Sea… This is why we are determined to do whatever is necessary politically, economically, or militarily. …We want everyone to see that Turkey is no longer a country whose patience is to be tried or whose determination, capabilities, and courage are to be tested. …If there is anyone who wants to stand against us and pay the price, let them come.
Erdogan’s statements are not only for “domestic consumption.” The Turkish government has been actively working to expand its territory. It has been violating Greece’s and Cyprus’s territorial waters in an attempt to search for oil and gas. It has deployed military personnel and Syrian fighters to Libya to take over the country even as Egypt and other Sunni Arab states have pushed back. It has already invaded Syria, which the international community ignores. And now it is supporting Azerbaijani aggression against Armenia and Artsakh.
“[Erdogan] pursues a very concrete pragmatic purpose,” Armenian prime minister Pashinyan said in an interview on October 16. “Because Armenians in the South Caucasus are the last obstacle to his expansionist policy…. If this fact [Turkey’s expansionist aspirations] is not properly assessed, Europe should wait for Turkey near Vienna.”
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in The Washington Times, The American Spectator, The Christian Post, and The Jerusalem Post. Her work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics and history, religious minorities in the Middle East, and antisemitism. Follow her on Twitter: @bulutuzay_.