Op-Ed: The world should not ignore the deadly attacks in the South Caucasus
A crowd protested Tuesday in front of the Los Angeles Times in El Segundo against the coverage of the conflict in the South Caucasus. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
For nearly two weeks, civilians across Artsakh - an Armenian-populated region in the South Caucasus - have suffered a relentless and deadly barrage from rocket, artillery and drone attacks from Azerbaijan. Most recently, a cathedral in Artsakh known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh was attacked twice, injuring journalists inspecting the damage.
What is so different and dangerous about this new attack is the open and aggressive support from Turkey, which is encouraging the leaders of Azerbaijan and arming the military. Armenians believe that this Turkish support, combined with an international community distracted by the coronavirus and the US elections, has prompted Azerbaijan to launch attacks now. The conflict threatens to lead to a regional war - if not a much larger one - if the United States and other world powers do not intervene.
Artsakh is slightly larger than Rhode Island and has been inhabited by Armenians for thousands of years. Artsakh is an early cradle of Christianity and home to holy sites from the 1st century. Today Artsakh is a modern democratic and de facto state with its own president, its own legislature and its own self-defense power. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it has been vying for self-determination.
We Armenians view this current attack as an attempt to continue the 1915 Armenian Genocide, started by the rulers of the Ottoman Empire who decided to eliminate the Armenians because we had disrupted the Empire's pursuit of ethnic contiguity. As a result, the Armenian population in the region was exterminated and 1.5 million people died in the genocide.
Like other groups that experienced the horrors of the genocide, Armenia and Artsakh stand firm and committed to the idea of “never again”. Long-time Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made no secret of his vision of a role for Turkey that corresponds to the historical significance of the Ottoman Empire, which was focused on Turkey. Just last week Erdogan even claimed: "Jerusalem is ours." In this quest for expansion, he is said to see the South Caucasus as his next prize and Azerbaijan as his closest ally.
Turkey is providing active diplomatic and military support to Azerbaijan, including hardware, training and instructors, to attack Armenian civilians in Artsakh's capital, Stepanakert. The Turkish F-16 jets attacked civilian and military positions in Artsakh and Armenia. The governments of France and Russia have accused Turkey of recruiting fighters and paying and transporting thousands of jihadist mercenaries from Syria to Azerbaijan.
It seems that Turkey is trying to provoke an all-out war in the South Caucasus. For Erdogan, who has already managed to meddle in the civil wars in Syria and Libya, meddle in Lebanon and the Aegean, and amass an army of militant Islamist recruits to wage their proxy wars, this conflict is the latest test of inexcusable action Turkey's western allies will tolerate it.
In this sense, Turkey and Azerbaijan have declared their partnership as "one nation, two states". Apart from Armenia and Artsakh, this “vision” stands in the way. Turkey has pledged its full support for the use of force by Azerbaijan, which NATO allies condemned and pushed back.
Meanwhile, the 1.5 million-strong Armenian-American community - nearly 1 million of them in the Los Angeles area - has been stimulated by the conflict to draw attention to the violence. This includes demonstrations that have taken place across Southern California in the past few days. Many of the demonstrators are descendants of survivors of the Armenian genocide. In spirit they joined Armenians in their homeland who defend their right to live in a free, peaceful, prosperous and safe homeland.
The world must neither stand by nor look away. As a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey has an obligation to behave as a responsible international actor, certainly not as an actor who promotes ethnic hatred and regional wars. Membership is not a passport to go to war.
The United States could step in by pressuring Turkey to stay out of the Artsakh conflict and tame Turkey's ambitions for a fuller role in the South Caucasus. This could also include urging Turkey to lift its diplomatic and economic blockade on Armenia, grapple with its genocidal past and repair its relations with Armenia.
The US is also co-chair of the OSCE-Minsk group, which was established to promote a negotiated solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Therefore, the United States should urge Azerbaijan to resign and resume negotiations on a peaceful solution to the conflict on the basis of a mutually acceptable compromise. Until then, all American security and military aid - especially the sale of weapons and sensitive technology to Azerbaijan - must be suspended.
There is no viable alternative to diplomacy in Artsakh or any other problem in the South Caucasus. The United States should lead the international community in controlling Azerbaijani aggression and curtailing Turkey's ambitions.
Varuzhan Nersesyan is the Armenian Ambassador to the United States.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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