A year ago, the Azerbaijani army, supported by Turkish special forces and Syrian jihadists acting as Turkish mercenaries, carried out a surprise attack on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Although Azerbaijan justified its actions by the fact that the international community recognized this territory as Azerbaijani, the situation was more complicated, writes Michael Rubin in the National Interest.
From a legal point of view, at least from the point of view of Washington, the case of Azerbaijan is not as straightforward as its supporters claim. First, the United States continues to consider the Republic of Armenia an occupied country after Joseph Stalin violated its borders and incorporated it into the Soviet Union. Moreover, when Azerbaijan reaffirmed its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its parliament did so based on the borders of the first independent Azerbaijan Republic, and not on the territory of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Thirdly, the population of the autonomous region voted to get out of the control of Azerbaijan, which was constitutionally legitimate.
Baku, within the framework of the Minsk Group process, pledged to settle the territorial dispute through diplomatic means. While Azeri diplomats said progress was futile, this was a lie: there was a broad consensus in the Minsk Group on the dispatch of peacekeepers, probably from Scandinavian countries, and the possible return of Azeri regions by Armenia as confidence grew. However, six months before Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev ordered the attack, the State Department extended the suspension of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which allowed the US to provide aid to Azerbaijan. The reason for the refusal was Azerbaijan's commitment to the diplomatic process.
"That Azerbaijan surprised not only Armenians but also Americans remains an intelligence failure that both Congress and the broader U.S. intelligence community have so far failed to investigate. Nor can any honest analyst ignore the fact that the invasion coincided with the one-hundredth anniversary of the Ottoman invasion of independent Armenia against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide. This was not a coincidence but deliberate. Simply put, Azerbaijan and Turkey’s move constituted an opening salvo in what both countries’ leaders hoped would amount to an Armenian Genocide version 2.0," he wrote. "In the aftermath of the invasion, the State Department under both Secretaries of State Mike Pompeo and then Antony Blinken recommitted the United States to diplomacy. Andrew Schofer, the Minsk Group’s American co-chair, returned to the region to try to jumpstart diplomacy."
Unfortunately, Blinken and President Joe Biden made a mistake. Biden was right to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. However, the next day, Blinken again extended the suspension of amendment 907, effectively rewarding Azerbaijan for its aggression. Blinken's move violated US law, although Congress was too busy to prosecute him and force him to reverse the decision. While National Security Advisers Jake Sullivan and Blinken may have thought the olive bough was good for keeping Azerbaijan at the table, it ended up stripping America of everything and telegraphed to Aliyev about the weakness of the United States, he added.
A brief review of the past six months shows that American passivity is contributing to the intensification of Azerbaijan's aggression. On March 25, 2021, Azerbaijani soldiers threw stones at Armenian civilian vehicles on the Sarushen-Karmir-Shuka road in the Askeran region of Artsakh. Three days later, Azerbaijani troops ambushed an Armenian vehicle carrying the bodies of Armenian soldiers killed in the 44-day war. Despite Azerbaijan's diplomatic promises to respect freedom of religion, on April 26, three Azerbaijani soldiers beat up an Armenian priest in the village of Aravus. Two days later, eight to ten Azerbaijanis in plain clothes infiltrated the buffer zone between the two sides before being driven out by Armenian forces. In fact, Azerbaijan's constant probing and attempts to infiltrate appear to be drawn from North Korea's policy towards South Korea.
"In May 2021, such violations increased. Azerbaijan began a show trial for Lebanese Armenian Vicken Euljekjian, kidnapped by Azerbaijani forces after the November 9, 2020, ceasefire; he remains in prison. On May 12, 2021, Azerbaijani forces moved two miles into Armenian territory in the Syunik region to seize Sev Lich. Such unilateral “border adjustments” continued over subsequent days. On May 14, for example, Azerbaijani Armed Forces advanced another 300 to 400 meters toward Vardenis in Armenia proper. Azerbaijani forces have also continued to fire across the border at Armenian soldiers in Armenia’s Gegharkunik Province. A similar attack on Artsakh’s Sos village injured a civilian. The lack of any serious American diplomatic pushback simply caused Aliyev to become more aggressive. At around 9:10 pm on May 20, several Azerbaijani soldiers entered Armenia. Armenian soldiers intercepted and, in the resulting brawl, almost a dozen were injured. Less than a week later, Azerbaijani forces killed Armenian Sergeant Gevorg Y. Khurshudyan near the village of Verin Shorzha, in Armenia proper. Two days later, Azerbaijan kidnapped six Armenian soldiers doing engineering work near the Gegharkunik border. Once again, Aliyev appeared to take a page from the North Korean playbook. And, once again, Blinken was silent. Up to 1,000 Azerbaijani troops remain in Armenia proper, according to Artak Davtyan, Armenia’s chief of the General Staff," he noted.
According to the author, the absence of any serious diplomatic resistance from America made Aliyev more aggressive.
In June, the aggression intensified again. Azerbaijani soldiers, possibly starving due to the appropriation of military equipment by Azerbaijani officials, began shooting at shepherds in Armenia and stealing their livestock. Armenian soldiers thwarted another attempt to steal horses from a shepherd in Gegharkunik. And the Armenians are not the only victims. In June 2021, Azerbaijani soldiers threatened to execute Spanish journalists reporting from the Armenian side of the border. As the Biden administration remained silent, Azerbaijan intensified its attacks. For example, small arms sniper fire turned into mortar fire across the border, and the ceasefire was short-lived. In August, Azerbaijani forces adopted Islamic State tactics in Iraq and Syria and began setting fire to Armenian crops and meadows.
Both the Artsakh ombudsman's office and the Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights have begun collecting evidence documenting such attacks. The Armenian Ministry of Defense also announces the deaths of its soldiers as they are committed.
However, perhaps the biggest insult to Azerbaijan is the continued detention and torture of Armenian prisoners of war. While the State Department may call for them to return from time to time, Azerbaijani officials reject these calls as readily as the Taliban. After all, when Blinken waives sanctions on Azerbaijan by allowing American funding to flow to Baku, why should Aliyev take American claims seriously?
Neither can Biden or Blinken expect Russia or Turkey to take them seriously when Blinken does not require Russia to publish its peacekeeping and monitoring reports, which, as a member of the Minsk Group, it is obligated to do. Biden has yet to take serious action against Turkey for using American components in unmanned aerial vehicles, which it uses against not only Armenians, but also Kurds and possibly even Christians in Tigray.
"Biden and Blinken may not care about American prestige, but this is not the only thing at issue in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan and Turkey launched their assault on Nagorno-Karabakh to continue the Ottoman project of more than a century ago. Silence encourages them and others. The precedent of ethnic cleansing that they undertake—and the lack of any serious response to it—could destabilize areas far beyond the South Caucasus. So too is American silence regarding the Turkish and Azerbaijani use of Syrian jihadis, some with previous service in the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. It behooves Biden and Blinken to show that this is a red line. Nor does it make sense to reward Azerbaijan financially when it is no longer the stable, tolerant ally Washington once believed it to be, but rather does increasing business with both Russia and Iran. It is time to sanction Azerbaijan until Aliyev returns the last Armenian POW, pays compensation for his aggression, and holds accountable every Azerbaijani soldier on video torturing Armenians or destroying cultural heritage," the author concluded.