A Crisis in the Caucasus

For a month in the South Caucasus, Turkey and Azerbaijan have been waging war on Armenia. The war concerns Karabakh, a disputed region with a Christian Armenian population inside Muslim Azerbaijan. The war already has killed thousands. In violation of international law, Azerbaijan repeatedly has dropped cluster bombs on Karabakh’s main city, specifically targeting churches and cultural sites. Civilians huddle together in basement shelters where Covid easily spreads. As the noose around the region tightens, 90,000 people have fled their homes and a refugee crisis in the dead of winter seems a possibility. In a world accustomed to horror, the situation in Karabakh retains its capacity to shock.

Americans, who have our own problems, might be inclined to ignore the situation. And Azerbaijan, flush with petrodollars, spends millions on lobbying that creates misperceptions about the conflict. But Americans should pay attention. The Karabakh war is a civilizational clash between democracy and dictatorship. It also reflects Turkey’s growing ambitions in the Caucasus and the Near East generally, which could spark a much wider conflict. America can do something to help end the unfolding catastrophe before it gets even worse—without committing to another foreign adventure. Indeed, America can help by ending its own inadvertent involvement in the conflict, which consists of military support for the aggressors.

The Conflict Over Karabakh

Karabakh has had an Armenian Christian identity since the country’s conversion in the fourth century. Some of the Armenian Church’s oldest monasteries still function there today. Karabakh has had many rulers down the centuries—Mongols, Persians, and Russians, to name a few—but it has always maintained an Armenian Christian majority, including 100 years ago, during World War I, when the Ottoman and Czarist Empires fought each other for control of the Caucasus.

Armenians, who lived in large numbers on both sides of the border, found themselves in the middle of the conflict. An exaggerated concern that Armenians would fight alongside Christian Russia—some Armenians did join the Russians, but others fought for the Ottomans—led Turkey to undertake an ethnic cleansing campaign known as the Armenian Genocide. The Genocide eliminated the once-sizable Christian population of Anatolia—not only Armenians, but Greek and Syriac Christians as well.

When the Turks invaded the Caucasus toward the end of the war, Azeris treated them as liberators. Azeris are a Turkic people (though they are Shia, not Sunni, Muslims) and they fought against Armenians, including in Karabakh, where horrible massacres occurred. The Turkish invasion failed, however, and, following the war, the new Soviet government divided the Caucasus among the resident ethnic groups. At the time, Karabakh was more than 90 percent Armenian, and the Soviets initially promised it to the new Armenian SSR. But Stalin, who was then commissar of nationalities, reversed this decision and placed the region in Azerbaijan as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy.

When the Soviet Union collapsed 30 years ago and Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent states, Karabakh Armenians requested union with Armenia. Azerbaijan responded with anti-Armenian pogroms throughout the country, including in the Azeri capital, Baku, where, with government support, mobs murdered Armenians and looted and burned Armenian properties. A three-year war followed in which 30,000 people died and hundreds of thousands became refugees on both sides. At the close of the war in 1994, Armenians had successfully defended Karabakh, which they proclaimed an independent state, and seized some surrounding territories as a buffer. Negotiations over the ultimate resolution of the conflict have been proceeding off-and-on ever since.

Azerbaijan has been spending its great oil wealth on sophisticated weapons for years and the government’s incessant anti-Armenian propaganda has primed its people, many of whom suffer in poverty, for a reconquest of Karabakh. Azerbaijan paints Armenians as the aggressors, an absurd claim, especially when one considers the geography—Armenians occupy the high ground—and the huge disparity in numbers. Taken together, Azerbaijan and Turkey have a population of around 90 million; Armenia, maybe 3 million. For Armenia to provoke an unnecessary conflict would be extremely foolish.

But the key explanation for the current crisis is Turkey. Turkey has instigated the war as part of a larger geopolitical strategy that involves military action in Syria and Libya, as well as threats against Greece and Israel. Turkish President Erdogan wishes to re-create the Ottoman Empire, a project that includes, in his own words, “fulfilling the mission of our grandfathers in the Caucasus.” This means, presumably, eliminating Armenia and Armenians altogether. As French commentator Alexandre Del Valle told the National Catholic Register, if Turkey could today eliminate Armenians in the Caucasus, as it did 100 years ago in Anatolia, “there would no longer be any Christian people left to represent a civilizational obstacle to the unification of Turkish brothers.” Azeri President Aliyev has stated publicly that Armenia itself rightfully belongs to Azerbaijan.

After weeks of cluster bombing, not to mention the history of pogroms and other crimes, Karabakh Armenians can never be safe under Azeri rule.

Turkey has instigated and abetted Azerbaijan’s campaign in numerous ways. It has transported thousands of Islamist terrorists from Syria to fight in Karabakh. It has sold Azerbaijan large amounts of high-tech weaponry, $100 million worth just this summer, including combat drones. It has supplied F-16 fighters that can cover Azeri troop movements. This assistance has allowed Azerbaijan to make significant battlefield gains, though not as many as it might have hoped after a month of fighting.

Against all this, Armenia fights alone. Many Westerners assume Russia will come to Armenia’s assistance. Russia has a military base in Armenia and a defense treaty as well, but in a speech last week President Putin publicly signaled Russia’s neutrality. While noting that the crisis began 30 years ago with “brutal crimes” against Armenians in Baku, and that Armenians suffered greatly in the last century, he maintained that Russia has partnerships with both countries. (Indeed, Russia has sold weapons to both sides for years). Iran, another country the West assumes tacitly favors Armenia, has publicly stated its support for Azerbaijan. In fact, President Aliyev recently announced that Iran sells Azerbaijan weapons.

American Interests at Stake

America has little interest in taking sides with a country that imports Islamist terrorists to fight for it and purchases weapons from Iran. It likewise has little interest in encouraging Turkish belligerence and opportunism, which ultimately threaten close allies like Greece and Israel. (Israel has supported the Turkish campaign in Karabakh by selling combat drones to Azerbaijan; perhaps it should reconsider that strategy in light of President Erdogan’s claim last month that Jerusalem is “our city”.) And Turkey has signaled that it values its relationship with America lightly. Last week it tested a newly-purchased Russian missile defense system, capable of countering American fighter jets, over strenuous American objections.

America does have an interest in supporting Armenia, a genuine democracy that has tried in recent years to improve ties with the West. In 2018, in a free and fair election, Armenians voted out an unpopular government and elected Prime Minister Pashinyan, who has tried to reform the country while maintaining necessary links with Russia. (Indeed, some analysts say Russia remains passive for the moment precisely to teach Pashinyan a lesson: Armenia needs Russia.) Armenia has a free press and has allowed journalists access to the conflict zone to see what is happening. Azerbaijan, by contrast, is a by-the-book dictatorship whose government has been run by the same family for 30 years. It lacks a free press and excludes journalists from the combat zone, for good reason: journalists could report Azeri war crimes.

But it is not simply a matter of helping a fledgling democracy. First, America, and Western civilization generally, has an interest in stopping the use of imported Islamist terrorists as rapid-deployment shock troops to destabilize conflicts and change facts on the ground. (Last week, the US embassy in Baku warned of possible terrorist attacks on American interests inside the country, no doubt fueled by the presence of these Islamist fighters.) If Azerbaijan’s employment of Syrian mercenaries is successful in Karabakh, other countries will surely take notice and replicate the tactic. Second, settling the long-standing conflict in Karabakh will increase America’s soft power and influence in the Near East generally, much as the recent Abraham Accords have done. Finally, there is a need to curb the increasingly erratic behavior of President Erdogan, who, in addition to purchasing that Russian missile defense system, has insulted important American allies in Europe and baited America itself.

America should consider a range of options to help ease the Karabakh crisis, none of which would involve America as a participant in the conflict. First, it can send humanitarian assistance to the region, indirectly if necessary. Second, it can suspend the direct or third-party sale or transfer of military equipment and technology to Azerbaijan. America provided $100 million of military aid to Azerbaijan just in 2018 and 2019, much more than to any other country in the region, ostensibly to help Azerbaijan defend itself against Iran. With Azerbaijan openly purchasing weapons from Iran, that strategy seems counterproductive. America can also suspend military sales and transfers to Turkey while Turkey continues its belligerent policy in Karabakh and elsewhere. If this doesn’t work, America could impose sanctions on both countries.

Finally, America can continue to push Azerbaijan to cease hostilities, return to negotiations, and reach a diplomatic settlement of Karabakh’s status. (After agreeing to one US-brokered ceasefire last weekend, Azerbaijan immediately broke it.) A comprehensive settlement has been in sight for decades: Armenia returns most captured territories to Azerbaijan and allows refugees to return in exchange for some sort of independence for Karabakh. Michael Rubin argues in The National Interest that America should support this idea, which has a precedent in Kosovo: “remedial secession” to protect an endangered minority. After weeks of cluster bombing, not to mention the history of pogroms and other crimes, Karabakh Armenians can never be safe under Azeri rule.

President Aliyev cynically assures outsiders of his willingness to welcome Armenians as fellow citizens. But when they are for domestic consumption, his words and actions belie such claims of tolerance. One famous example: In 2012 an Azeri participant in a joint NATO exercise in Hungary murdered his Armenian counterpart while he slept; Aliyev obtained the culprit’s extradition and declared him a national hero when he returned home. Aliyev’s longstanding anti-Armenian rhetoric, as well as the destruction he has unleashed now, make clear that were Azerbaijan to regain control of Karabakh, the result would be ethnic cleansing of its Armenian Christian population.

None of these options is perfect—neither Azerbaijan nor Turkey seems inclined to listen to reason at the moment—but there are still good reasons for America to try. One hundred years ago, after the Armenian Genocide, America refused to accept a mandate for Armenia and reluctantly abandoned Armenians to their fate. At the end of World War I, America did not have the stomach for a long-term military commitment in the region. But today it can help Armenia, a genuine democracy in a region where America has important interests. And it can assist without committing to another foreign adventure. By doing so, America would make clear that it will not abandon Armenians a second time.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on October 28, 2020 at 09:42:23 am

This is heart-rending! Will life ever be other than a vale of tears for Armenia's Christians?

While campaigning in Pennsylvania in September, President Trump stated that the U.S. would seek to use its influence to stop the fighting. At a campaign rally in New Hampshire last week, Trump said of doing so, "That's an easy one." Trump is prone to doing what to a politician (which he's not) is heresy: keeping his promises.

Trump may yet win that Nobel Peace Prize. Perfect justice would be for the Nobel Committee to retract the award and retrieve the medal given Obama (awarded, surely, in irony or in jest in 2009 and, as it would quickly turn out, for making the world far more dangerous) and then, after cleaning and polishing it, to present that very medal to Donald J. Trump.

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on October 28, 2020 at 12:03:34 pm

Crisis in the Caucuses? Hell, we're on the verge of the general election!

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Image of nobody.really
on October 28, 2020 at 12:48:49 pm

Nice and timely, notwithstanding the humorous (????) aside from nobody, really!

I would add that the EU, that upright body of commissars with grandiose visions of their own weight in geopolitics, could also exert pressure on Turkey by first refusing admission to the EU and using the weight of its combined economies to moderate Turkey's positions, if not turkey's own grand vision of the re-establishment of the Caliphate.

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on October 28, 2020 at 13:09:25 pm

US leverage will be with Azerbaijan and, maybe, Russia.
Erdogan's death is all that will fix Turkey.

Re: Nobody's humor? at the prospect the US handling (merely) two crises simultaneously, ours and Armenia's, Trump seems historically-adept at responding to multiple crisis he did not create. Indeed, not since Lincoln has a president shown such statesmanship and skill in successful crisis management.

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Image of paladin
on October 28, 2020 at 13:36:38 pm

BTW: Reports coming out late yesterday imply that a historic agreement between Saudia Arabia and Israel is in the works.

Yeah, The Great and Wise Obama, Nobel Prize winner accomplished SOOOO MUCH in the way of Middle East peace.

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Image of gabe
on October 28, 2020 at 17:12:41 pm

I kind of wondered why this "geopolitical" essay was in L&L but then noted in the related essays list two more essays by Mr. Movsesian on 5/14/15 and 1/23/20.
In today's other essay I considered El Roam's concept of measuring racism as a form of measuring "error". How do we measure the error of the Ideology of Islam (in particular its political and jihadist component)? And then reduce it?

However irrational it might be, my emotional reaction was, for only 3 million people, let's just bring them to America and resettle them here! Even Biden and the Dem's might favor that and consider the Armenians as potentially liberal voters. If we can allow Somoli's and Ilhan Omar in Minnesota and 11M illegal immigrants in via Mexico, then we can handle 3M more, especially as they might be more grateful than some others, quickly learn English, become productive persons and eventually citizens, etc. I suspect thousands of churches would also step up with assistance and assimilation support. In the end might not cost the taxpayers much at all beyond travel costs. Would be very tough to leave land you have history going back centuries, but if the alternative is death? And destroy all of the existing Armenian infrastructure on your way out and leave the wasteland for the hate filled Muslims to gloat over.

I have had similar thoughts when learning about pogroms against the Christian Yazidis in northern Iraq (500K) and the Copts in Egypt (8M?), but each of these groups has special issues that may be insurmountable. Nations don't have friends, they have interests. But if neither Azerbaijan nor Turkey have Armenians to kill or kick around anymore, then they won't need weapons from Iran (or Israel?), but might then need weapons against Iran? Irony? Justice? [OK, there is a connection to L&L after all.]

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on October 28, 2020 at 21:01:20 pm

Interesting but...
I think Erdogan would want weapons to move further westward with a penultimate aim of Vienna as previous Turk Emirs have demonstrated. Most of us may recall that the Muslim hordes swarmed across Northern Africa, while assimilating Cyprus, Crete and Sicily, penetrated Europe via the Iberian Peninsula, only to be stopped at Tours. BUT, there was also a centuries long thrust into Eastern Europe culimnating in the defeat of the Islamists at Vienna.
Erdogan has his eyes on more than Armenia as evidenced by his claim that Jerusalem is "ours." This actually means the restoration of the "rightful" (in Islamist's eyes) control of all those lands previously conquered by Islam.

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on October 30, 2020 at 08:35:36 am

The drumbeats of war dominate Law & Liberty essays of this October 2020. Mark Movesian writes of A Crisis in the Caucasus while Clifford Humphrey speaks to the Uncivil Wars of Civil Religion. Although the public believes that ISIS is dead, they are Syrian Mercenaries fighting in Libya, Syria, and Armenia. Extremely well trained, stateless ISIS troops are in the pay and service of Turkey. Turkey has bookended an Israeli-Greek finding of large natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean. By extending Turkey's, Syria's, and Libya's shorelines, Turkey moves into new disputed natural gas areas and potential war. Turkey is also poised to allow ISIS to move again into the oil fields of Syria and Iraq in which ISIS has supported oil poor Turkey in the past. Turkey also moves against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and other Muslim leaders, attempting to build a Greater Ottoman Turkish Muslim Empire with model leadership as Saladin, the de facto Caliph of the Muslims who once ruled after capturing Jerusalem.
The Turkish government does not trust its military with its secular history of rule after World War I with President Kemal Ataturk and a sense of Democracy. By NATO moving into European Turkey to block Syrian refugees' movement into Europe, initial moves may bring the President of Turkey down to earth. One remembers how Hitler retook the Rhineland peaceably. If the Allies acted, Hitler told his generals he would have retreated.
The Civil War in America has worried some that President Trump will act through the Insurrection Act of 1807 to delay the elections or their results. The President can use emergency powers to call upon the Federal Military or the State National Guard to protect the election. One letter to a national magazine asked for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, to announce free elections' military support.
Generals are either politicians or warriors. President Trump has not gotten along with Northern born Generals acting as politicians whose individualism and desire to justify and write their memoirs leads to high levels of friction. American warrior generals since the Revolution have routinely been born in the South. Douglas McArthur in Arkansas and Dwight D. Eisenhower in Texas. In World War II, American breakout units were led by Virginia-born George Patton's armor and Virginia-born Mathew Ridgway's Paratroopers. I know of only one superior Northern born general, George Marshall, who went to Virginia Military Institute and was frequently at the Robert E. Lee Crypt at Washington and Lee College across the street. Marshall was a direct descendent of Chief Justice John Marshall of Virginia and a Revolutionary War officer. George Marshall is the only American Officer to win a Nobel Prize. The Southern-born general believes in his community, his country, and his Constitution. These Southerners would often wait a long time to fight in wars after years of service. Their loyalty has been unquestioned.
American exceptionalism shows the separation of political rights from a religious opinion that allowed a republican political solution. This statement is somewhat misleading as religion's natural rights were also read as religions reasoned rationally during the great American Awakening. In addition, America's Washingtonian Constitution of 1787 was a product or copy of Augustus Caesar's Constitution for the Roman Republic of 27 A.D.. Various religions in Revolutionary America almost universally supported the American Revolution. The pacifist Baptists of Rhode Island filled Washington's army with its clergy. The Lutheran Pastors would throw off their clerical garb to show an officers uniform to join with their men on the highways of America. Presbyterians were the intellectual firepower of the Revolution like James Madison, Light-horse Harry Lee, and Aaron Burr with their knowledge of Latin and Greek, which would have helped Washington understand the Roman Constitution. After the Revolution, the clergy of the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists moved west with the immigrants as teachers and pastors of the new settlements. Virginian Episcopals and Connecticut Methodists split from the English Church to follow the American Revolution. One must be amazed to find the Churches on Independence Day no longer read the Declaration of Independence. Once their reasoned rationality found a home in America, religions will no longer be a political factor until they regain their Revolutionary religious voice.
We now think of the conflicting secular ideas of 1619 and 1776. Massachusetts men returned to England after 1641 to fight against King Charles I in the English Civil War. They would have been part of what Bernard Bailyn called the Atlantic Civilization. Like model John Winthrop, merchantmen would have dealt with his sons in Antigua and his family of 11 brothers and sisters in England. These men cried for Peace and Profit, and a constitution called The Agreement of the People from 1647 to 1649. John Winthrop wrote a Body of Liberties for the Bay Colony, presaging the Commonwealth period of English history. In 1776 Thomas Jefferson wrote part of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and Benjamin Franklin wrote the Constitution of Pennsylvania's Commonwealth. With John Adams, the later author of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, they were the majority of the Committee to write the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Franklin, a tradesman author, perhaps aided by his protégé Thomas Paine, another tradesman author, was the Editor for the second draft of the Declaration and made almost 50 corrections.
Only in America has the business of America be business, with an appeal to the small businessman. Since 1968 the burning of small businesses is the new normal. 1968 Revolutionaries include the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, the Chicago Seven, and others. This year in forty cities, the small businessman was still being looted and burned out. Recently the Chinese Communist Party has funded Black Lives Matter and Antifa from Vancouver on the West Coast to Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. In addition, Fentynl has come into this country from China for distribution. With the Pandemic, millions of people will lose their businesses as half the businesses now closed are estimated not to reopen. This is the Marxist Class War in destroying the inventiveness of America through its small businesses. Does anyone believe the Indian in Hotels, or the Chinese in restaurants, or the Jews in clothing stores were subverting other minorities? Without the Middle Class, the Constitution's support will be gone, and a serious split in the glue that binds will become permanent. 0ur Atlantic Civilization will dissolve. Political figures talk of the letter K as the evolutionary picture of our time. The arms indicate the rich are growing wealthier, and the poor are growing poorer. Meanwhile, the middle class is disappearing. Charles Hill in Grand Strategies shows how diplomats will take great literature and turn the insights into statecraft. Short stories during Pre Soviet years by Fyodor Dostoevsky describe Russian Revolutionaries by referring to his short story Demons, which has been described by our authors.

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Leonard Friedman
on October 28, 2020 at 13:49:30 pm

[…] Read more! […]

on October 28, 2020 at 17:51:40 pm

[…] Contract Law and co-directs our Center for Law and Religion. This article published originally at Law & Liberty on October 28, […]

on October 29, 2020 at 01:10:19 am

[…] ISSUE: France Must Refuse to Play the Islamists’ Game – Alaa Al-Ameri at Sp!ked A Crisis in the Caucasus – Mark L. Movsesian, Ph.D., at Law & Liberty The Case for an American Alberta – […]

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