And Then They Marched Off to War: Azerbaijan and Armenia on the Precipice

For over twenty years, Armenia has occupied huge swathes of Azerbaijan, in violation of written and customary international law. For over twenty years, Armenia’s war crimes and atrocities, its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding provinces, its ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijani refugees — all have stagnated, festering and all but unnoticed by the world. When the international community deigns to act — by an international resolution (including numerous UN Security Council Resolutions), by a peace process — Yerevan has yawned.

Today, at long last, the two nations stand at the brink of a revived war. Azerbaijan’s demands that international law be respected, its engagement in an interminable peace process that has only allowed Armenia to further sink its claws into Azerbaijan’s territory, its patience as it is told again and again to work within toothless institutions — all may be for naught. And only today, with Baku and Yerevan finally at the edge of violence, has the international community roused itself.

Or rather, the international community is telling Baku, once again, to remain calm. This is not a recipe for peace.

As reported here nearly two weeks ago, the infrequent fighting at the edge of Armenia’s occupation flared up over the weekend starting August 1, with at least 15 dead. A situation the world long assumed would simmer forever seemed in danger of boiling over. With the West’s clumsy handling of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and attempt at de facto annexation of the Donbass region of Ukraine (and the deteriorating situations in Syria and Iraq, and the fighting between Israel and Hamas, and…), this was wildly unacceptable. Scrambling with all due speed, diplomats the world over sent each other emails, calls were made, and important conferences were scheduled.

Deciding that no absurdity in the region could be complete without him, Russian Leader for Life and President When He Feels Like It Vladimir Putin intervened, arranging a summit between Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s President and former head of the killing squads responsible for Khojaly Serzh Sargsyan. Putin’s possible motivations ranged from reminding Azerbaijan that Armenia belongs to Russia’s defense pact; tamping down the conflict while he was dealing with Ukraine; reminding both that the West is shamefully absent from their fight; and just reminding them that Russia is the region’s hegemon.

Whatever the intent, the effect has not been to stand down the situation. Putin is more concerned with his adventures in Ukraine and tweaking Japan’s nose over some disputed islands than helping its client state of Armenia or its wary neighbor Azerbaijan resolve this dispute. The fact that twenty years of Russian diplomacy have yielded an unending stalemate was not going to reverse itself with one well-choreographed series of photo-ops.

The time has come to end this farce. Armenia is illegally holding twenty percent of Azerbaijan. Over a million Azerbaijanis are internally displaced as a result. The tension that has built for two decades is not abating, and this so-called frozen crisis is not merely thawing, it is rapidly in danger of boiling. Azerbaijan has a productive economy and a well-educated citizenry; its military modernization program is one of the best the world over. Armenia is an economic basket case, the population of which is inexorably self-deporting for places where the opposition isn’t shot in the streets and the economy is better than Madagascar’s. In any conflict, Baku will quickly take the upper hand, drawing Moscow openly into the fray; and from there, there will be blood.

Young men are dying, and very soon, many more of them may be. The West must now pressure Armenia to come back to the table and accept the inevitable. If this is really about Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-determination, then Armenia will accept allowing Nagorno-Karabakh a plebiscite after the displaced and their families return to take part. If the West values the numerous international bodies it built to bulwark against war, it must enforce those bodies’ resolutions.

Because when all is done, they will either be words backed with steel that ended a war; or they will be an insignificant, ironic chapter in a bloody conflict.

Image Copyright Wikimedia Commons