Activist David Phillips Talks Turkey — and Armenia

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NEW YORK – David L. Phillips has been going around the country, and, in fact, a good part of the world, speaking out against the dictatorship of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He just published a book on this issue (see last week’s Mirror-Spectator), and recently has even spoken at Armenian Genocide commemorative events. He has a long history of working both in academia and in advisory positions for the US State Department on human rights issues and Track II diplomacy, including on the Armenian Genocide.

Phillips entered this career path in part due to his family background. He said, “My family came to the US at the turn of the twentieth century from Eastern Europe as refugees. Our shtetl in Minsk was burned to the ground, and my ancestors fled and came to New York to build a new life. They set up a business which turned into a successful shirt manufacturer and clothing conglomerate [the Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation].”

Phillips recalled that “One of the things that was always a tenet in our family required giving back and remembering our humble origins. Each successive generation was involved in some kind of humanitarian endeavor. My great-grandfather founded Beth Israel Hospital in New York, my grandfather was principally involved in the School of Nursing, and my father founded the American Jewish World Service.”

Consequently, Phillips said, “I was raised with a strong conviction to do good in the world. I was the first generation not to go into the family business, so that created opportunities for me to work fulltime helping others.”

Phillips studied political science and international relations in college, but he also studied Sanskrit poetry and got to know the Dalai Lama. He worked in India with Tibetan refugees, and, he said, these contacts helped awaken his humanitarian instincts. Since then, he said, “I have been committed to helping victims of violence, human rights victims, and those displaced, throughout my career.”

He was fortunate to have the means to act independently, and declared, “I am not really the kind of personality who works well in a bureaucracy.” He was interested in working with the US government, he said, because “I always believed that the US government is a force for good in the world, and by harnessing its capabilities in service of the greater good, I thought we could accomplish things in the world.”

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He was never a direct employee of the State Department, but was on various occasions given a special status as a consultant through senior people in different American administrations. Phillips worked with Ambassador Marc Grossman in the European Affairs Bureau on post-conflict issues in the Balkans, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke on Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau and Bill Burns on the Future of Iraq project, and most recently, during the Obama administration, with the South and Central Asia Bureau on post-conflict reconciliation issues in Sri Lanka.

Phillips said that he only would work with the government when he felt it was consonant with his principles, and in fact resigned in protest after the Iraq post-war fiasco when his concerns about stabilizing the country were ignored. Phillips stressed: “I am always going to do what I think is right, and if someone in the US government asked me to do something that was inconsistent with my beliefs or values I simply would not execute those instructions.”

He has worked with both Republican and Democratic administrations, and defines himself as a “principled pragmatist,” not a partisan. Yet in some ways he does seem to be an optimist concerning clashes between state interests and moral principles, as when he declared: “I think that fostering human rights, promoting freedom and democracy and open markets are good for humankind and advance US interests. I don’t think there is any separation between those principles and US interests and global interests.”

As far as US relations with Turkey are concerned, Phillips declares that despite Turkey’s being a “serial violator of human rights” under past governments, “there was always a hope that Turkey would change for the better, that the US-Turkey relationship could harness Turkey as a force for good.” Nevertheless, Phillips says that Turkey only “went through the motions of being friendly to US interests,” and “was always clever in portraying itself as an indispensable partner.” However, he declares, “it was not until the elections of 2002 and the rise of Islamism under the AKP [Justice and Development Party] that Turkey’s true colors were fully revealed.”

In turn, changes in Turkish politics are affecting the US relationship with Turkey. Phillips said, “I think both in Congress and the US government there was a fundamental shift about Turkey after [the 2013 protests in] Gezi Park. … Increasingly there is a critical mass of truth tellers who are speaking truth to power.” Phillips classifies himself as in the vanguard of that group, declaring, “I am saying things that everybody knows are true but they haven’t said it themselves.”

He has been writing extremely critically of Turkey over the past few years. In a September 2014 paper prepared by his Columbia research program, Phillips wrote of “allegations” of Turkey-ISIS ties. When asked why he used the word “allegations” he replied, “The report is not based on primary sources. … We also make clear in the report that we are documenting credible secondary sources, presenting that information and leaving it to the reader to make conclusions. It is abundantly clear that those are not allegations, they are revelations. But for the purpose of presenting the data, I did not want to prejudge the readers’ reactions.”

Topics: Armenia, Turkey

Phillips sees some vital issues forthcoming in the US-Turkey relationship involving red lines drawn by Erdogan. The first is the latter’s demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. Phillips like many others said, “That is not a political decision. It is a legal decision. I don’t think there is legal justification for it. Even if the Trump Administration decides to give away Gulen it still has to be determined by a court of law, and Gulen will have the right to appeal. I am sure he has a lot to say about Erdogan which Erdogan does not want said before a judge.”

The other red line concerns US support for Syrian Kurds during the campaign against ISIS. Phillips said, “After the Turkish referendum I expect we will announce our close cooperation with the YGP [People’s Protection Units of the Syrian Kurds] including the provision of heavy and offensive weapons. Of course, the goal is to end Syria’s war.”

Phillips is confident that the US will promote a decentralized Syria including a Kurdish autonomous zone which Turkey will oppose. He said, “We all know what Syria will look like in the future. Over Turkey’s objections power will be decentralized from Damascus. There may be autonomy for Rojava which would include a contiguous territory in the provinces of Kobani, Afrin and Jezira. Erdogan will strongly object but the only way you can achieve sustainable peace in Syria is to decentralize and to devolve power.”

As far as Turkey’s own Kurds are concerned, Phillips said that integration into Euro-Atlantic structures previously might have ameliorated their condition, but such integration seems unlikely now. He said that “because Erdogan has become a serial abuser of Kurds in Turkey, their hope of finding remedy through European integration is increasingly unlikely, and the Kurds in Turkey may in turn seek autonomy or independence.”  However, when asked whether the US would support that movement, he replied, “Not under current conditions. Turkey would have to really go into the tank before the US would abrogate relations. There will be and should be a consistent effort to bring Turkey back into the tent.”

Phillips exclaimed that despite Erdogan’s problematic nature, “The important point is that Erdogan is not Turkey. Turkey is a deeply divided society. Even though it is hard to envision today, there will be a period post-Erdogan. When we reach that point the US can revive its constructive relations with Turkey based on the values that the two countries share.”

The situation between Israel and Turkey has changed for the negative just as in the case of the US. Phillips says that though Israeli-Turkish relations have been patched up somewhat, “the reconciliation between the Israeli and Turkish governments is purely transactional. It is a shallow reconciliation based on interests rather than affinities.”

When asked whether knowing what he knows now about Turkish president Erdogan he would have run the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC, 2001-2004) differently, he replied that when it was conceived and implemented “conditions in Turkey were different. There was an opportunity for dialogue and reconciliation based on truth-telling around the Armenian Genocide.” Today, he said, Turkish civil society cannot operate freely due to the oppressive government.

Phillips said that he has been using the word genocide to describe the events of World War I concerning the Armenians consistently after the analysis of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) study was issued, and said, “I always identify with the victim, and in the case of the Armenian Genocide, the Armenians were victimized, up to 1.5 million were killed. Mediation only works when it is founded on truth and based on reality.”

While he adheres to the ICTJ interpretation that the United Nations Genocide Convention cannot be applied retroactively to seek reparations, he said that “there are other international legal instruments that could be used for this purpose.”

As far as efforts at new intergovernmental dialogue are concerned, he added, “I am not sure that at an official level there is much room today for Turkey and Armenia to have any constructive interaction. Turkey’s idea of reconciliation today is to humiliate and subordinate Armenians and Armenia and to put its boot on the neck of Armenians, until they relinquish their campaign to gain greater global recognition of the genocide.”

Phillips squarely placed the failure of the Protocols of 2009 to normalize official relations between the two countries on Turkey, saying “The protocols did not go forward simply because Erdogan did not submit them to the Parliament for ratification. And that raises questions about his sincerity towards Armenia in general.”

He criticized the stance of the current Turkish regime concerning the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, saying, “The Erdogan government is insidiously trying to control the election of a new Armenian Church patriarch. There had been recent efforts towards objective education of the 1000-year history of Armenians in Turkey, but the Erdogan government is undermining that education. Historically, the Armenian Church owned thousands of institutions and places of religious worship. I don’t know the exact number but I think the total is now down to about 50 or less.”

Phillips calls for concrete US action on a number of issues pertaining to Armenians. He said, “The US Congress should recognize the Armenian Genocide, and just as Ronald Reagan did in 1981, the US government should do the same today. That would help level the playing field and create better conditions for reconciliation despite the foreseeable response of Turkey, as part of its denial campaign.”

As far as the Karabakh issue goes, “More effort should be made by the US through the Minsk Group to try to mediate an end to the conflict, there should be international monitors to verify actual conditions on the ground, and any effort to expand Turkey’s role in the mediation should be shot down because Turkey is not an objective party, it is a party to the conflict… A sustainable peace can be achieved by recognizing conditions as they are and enshrining those conditions in international agreements.”

Phillips concluded: “To the Armenian people never again means something because of their experience as victims of the Genocide. We do not want to see another genocide of Karabakh Armenians by an aggressive government in Azerbaijan.”