Op-Ed: America Must Pay Attention to Nagorno-Karabakh Before It’s Too Late


Bulent Kilic/AFP

A woman stands amid the destruction caused by the most recent flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Sarah Bryden, Co-Editor-in-Chief

When the heavy metal group System of a Down disbanded in 2006, it seemed unlikely that fans would ever get new music: band members claimed they were at a standstill, facing vast creative differences and a lead singer who hadn’t even wanted to make the last two albums. But to the surprise of fans, the Armenian-American group released two new singles in November, putting an end to a 15 year hiatus. Yet System of a Down’s reunion was not motivated by money, fame, or even music; instead, it was war in Nagorno-Karabakh that brought the group back together.

The roots of this territorial dispute stretch back for centuries, with Christian Armenians and Muslim Azeris competing for dominance in Nagorno-Karabakh during the times of the Ottoman Empire. In 1823, the Caucasus fell under Russian rule, and in 1923, Stalin made a fateful decision: even though 94% of the region was ethnically Armenian at the time, he reversed an old decision and declared Nagorno-Karabakh an autonomous administrative region of the Azerbaijan SSR. Notoriously intolerant of ethnic nationalism, the Soviet Union ignored the protests of Armenians.

When the USSR disintegrated in the late 1980s, the long-simmering tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh boiled over: ethnic Armenians in the enclave petitioned to become part of the Republic of Armenia, and Azerbaijan responded with violence. When both countries declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, these regional clashes escalated into full-blown war. More than a million people became refugees, and 30,000 people were killed, including civilians. 

In 1994 both countries signed the Bishkek Protocol, a Russian-brokered ceasefire which declared that Nagorno-Karabakh would stay with Azerbaijan. Since then, the conflict has been mostly frozen but with frequent skirmishes, most notably in 2016. Meanwhile, a dramatic arms race has begun between the two nations; in 2013, the territory was dubbed the world’s third most heavily militarized border, and the Council on Foregin Relations has repeatedly expressed concerns that “there is a high risk that inadvertent military action could lead to an escalation in the conflict.” 

In September of last year, heavy fighting broke out yet again in the region, escalating significantly when both sides switched from cross-border shelling to heavy weaponry like long-range artillery. Numerous countries intervened in an attempt to stop the conflict: in early October, Russia negotiated a ceasefire, as did France in coordination with Russia and the United States, and ultimately the United States alone. Every one of these ceasefires collapsed almost immediately and the clashing continued, with many reports of violations by both sides.

On November 9th, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia signed a ceasefire agreement intended to finally bring peace to the tumultuous territory. Yet though the guns are now silent in Nagorno-Karabakh, with Russian peacekeepers patrolling the border, the conflict is far from over. In fact, in the wake of the most recent skirmish, which cost thousands of lives and displaced even more, the conflict is arguably more relevant to US interests than it ever has been. As distant as it seems, America should view the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a top foreign policy priority for three key reasons: it could easily erupt into a wider conflict, Turkey seems to have ulterior motives in its involvement, and allegations of human rights abuses run rampant on both sides of the conflict.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, peace is fragile at best. Both sides claim that the ceasefire has already been broken: Azerbaijan asserts that four of its soldiers were killed by Armenian troops, and the nation’s Defense Ministry has issued a statement claiming that “Armenian armed groups… committed acts of terror and sabotage against Azerbaijani civilians and servicemen in the area.” Meanwhile, Armenia’s Foreign Ministry has accused Azerbaijan of “gross violations” of the ceasefire, including attacking positions held by Armenian forces near Hadrut.

In fact, although Azerbaijan was effectively declared the winner, Armenia does not believe that war is over: proponents of the “Armenian Cause”– the conviction that Armenia should regain control over its historic territories– continue to dominate public opinion. There is a mood of celebration and finality in Azerbaijan, but in Armenia, the loss has sparked a domestic crisis: thousands of protestors took to the streets after the ceasefire was announced and beat the speaker of the Armenian Parliament, who is now hospitalized, accusing him of being a traitor. Some have even questioned the legality of the Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s signature, and there have been calls for his resignation. Many countries were dissatisfied with the ceasefire agreement, but none more than Armenia, and as the International Crisis Group writes, “a deal that Armenians view as capitulation will not be a reliable foundation for more sustained peace.” 

When the conflict does erupt again, the possibility of escalation into a major war is quite high. Given the sophisticated weaponry on both sides, it could easily become a proxy war between Russia and Turkey, also drawing in Georgia and Iran. In fact, Iran has already warned of a potential regional war, noting that rockets and shells often land within its borders, but its alliances are difficult to pin down. At just 1,700 square miles, Nagorno-Karabakh may be small, but the geopolitical stakes are high, especially considering its proximity to key oil and gas pipelines. 

Additionally, the US should emphasize this conflict because Turkey’s role in it has been troubling, at best. In the past year, Turkey has grown increasingly aggressive in the Mediterranean, and though the nation’s state aim is still accession to the EU, the EU Council noted in June that “Turkey has been moving further away from the European Union.” Other decisions have proven controversial as well, including Turkey’s military incursion into Syria. 

In Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan was terrifyingly familiar for Armenians living in the wake of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, which was perpetratued by Ottoman Turks. Today the genocide is recognized by fewer than three dozen countries; Turkey is not one of them. Additionally, the ceasefire agreement was presented as a fait accompli, produced through secret backroom dealings between Turkey and Russia; the two even reached a joint peacekeeping agreement. As Turkey moves away from America and the EU and into the pocket of Russia, growing increasingly aggressive and posing a threat to neighboring countries, it becomes critical that the US adopts a stronger presence in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Finally, the issue stretches beyond politics and into the realm of humanitarianism. On both sides, there are numerous allegations of international law violations. Armenia and Azerbaijan both used cluster munitions, which are banned in 100 countries because of the indiscriminate damage they cause. Amnesty International set the total number of civilian deaths at 146, and it called on both countries to investigate the use of “notoriously inaccurate and indiscriminate weapons.” Armenian forces also used inaccurate ballistic missiles, heavy artillery, and launched unguided multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). Meanwhile, Azerbaijan deployed unguided artillery and MLRS. The fighting also created a refugee crisis, made all the worse by the ongoing pandemic. There are claims that the fighting was truthfully a genocide, which also makes it even less likely that the peace will hold. Ultimately, the political concerns are secondary to the humanitarian issues, and if nothing else, the tombstones reading 2002-2020 should motivate the US to pursue greater engagement. 

In spite of the clear importance of this conflict to Americans, many argue that the conflict is almost solved, and that even if fighting breaks out again it will remain concentrated in a remote region of the world. Given its multitude of domestic struggles, many claim, the US should keep Nagorno-Karabakh and the bottom of its priority list. Yet historical precedent suggests that territorial disputes typically are not solved with a simple ceasefire agreement. In fact, they often escalate into war or genocide, as when Serbian atrocities prompted Western intervention in Kosovo in 2008. Kosovars argue that Serbian aggression amounted to genocide, but Serbia has ignored these statements and continues to contest Kosovo’s existence. Like Nagorno-Karabakh, Kosovo is a small territory caught between two powers of different religions and histories who have been fighting for centuries; the likelihood that a simple ceasefire agreement would work is about the same in both places, which is to say incredibly unlikely. From Israel and Palestine to North and South Korea, territorial disputes are easily amplified into full-scale wars and can have major ramifications around the world.

Additionally, the US was seemingly caught off guard by the outbreak of fighting last September: on March 26, 2020, the US signed a waiver to Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, effectively agreeing that Azerbaijan was committed to resolving this conflict diplomatically. Clearly, the US has ignored the conflict for far too long; it’s time for America to change the narrative and take action in Nagorno-Karabakh, before it’s too late. 

Ultimately, the US cannot afford to keep the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict at the bottom of its priority list. Though the conflict seems distant, in reality it has major bearings on US interests because of the potential for escalation, Turkey’s aggressive involvement, and the humanitarian concerns. To quote System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian, “the international community is mostly distracted with COVID and elections in the US… but that doesn’t mean that we should not deal with the issue and allow innocent people to die and injustice to prevail.”