White House Endorses Return of Azerbaijani Provinces to Baku

The United States has called for Armenia to end its illegal occupation of Azerbaijani provinces surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, something it has tried not to do for years. This is a significant event, even though Washington — one of the chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, the international body pretending to mediate the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh — was studiously vague on the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Yerevan has been illegally occupying for over two decades. Today, it is at least on-record demanding an end to much of the occupation.

And it was all because of a petition.

As we reported nearly six months ago, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe at long last formally recognized that Armenia is illegally occupying upward of a fifth of Azerbaijan, including the province of Nagorno-Karabakh; demanded that Yerevan’s aggression and violation of international law end; and recognized the failing condition of the Sarsang Reservoir, a potential humanitarian catastrophe Armenia has done nothing to alleviate. It was a great moment for Baku, a reward for decades of tireless effort.

Washington pretended not to notice. Under former President George W. Bush, there was at least a sense that the United States appreciated Azerbaijan’s role as an ally and bridge in a turbulent and dangerous region; under Barack Obama, especially over the last couple of years, it appears American foreign policy is on an indifferent and decaying auto-pilot course.

While there is little hope that this will change before the next Administration, hundreds of thousands across the globe were clearly not ready to give up hope. A petition launched on WhiteHouse.gov demanded that the United States “support PACE Resolution 2085, … [and] assist in the liberation of the Azerbaijani territories occupied by Armenia and the prevention of a humanitarian catastrophe in the region.” The petition required 100,000 signatures to garner a response; it drew over 330,000.

Finally, the Obama Administration responded, stating that the United States supports “negotiation on a comprehensive settlement, which would include the return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan’s control and a determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status.” So: Yes to Armenia ending its occupation of the seven surrounding provinces, and careful non-commitment on Nagorno-Karabakh. The Sarsang Reservoir — the collapse of which could lead to drought and death on an enormous scale — merited little more than a sentence.

It’s a start — a half-measure, and overdue, but a start. That it is a half-measure, grudgingly extracted, is obvious from what it omits: Teeth to enforce those words.

Russia snatches up Crimea and de facto invades the Donbass, and the U.S. springs to sanction Moscow and Vladimir Putin’s cronies. Armenia openly and brazenly occupies another sovereign country for over two decades, occupying the Azerbaijani province of Nagorno-Karabakh and snatching up seven extra Azerbaijani provinces for good measure, and it takes all of those two decades to get a carefully-parsed handful of paragraphs committing America to almost the bare minimum required of the international law America has pledged itself to uphold. It cannot be that Washington is more frightened of Armenia — constantly among the worst economies on Earth, with a military to match — when it levels sanctions, however mild, on Russia. It is instead a moral cowardice, a hope that Armenia and Azerbaijan will work all of this out and spare the United States any more headaches.

America’s foreign policy in the former Soviet Union has become a shambles and an embarrassment to a power dedicated to the rule of law. On its watch, Ukraine has been carved up; Yerevan has become a member of Moscow’s Eurasian Customs Union instead of the European Union; the European consensus is breaking down in much of the former Soviet Union; and the only real check on Moscow’s power has been the fall of oil and natural gas prices. This, despite knowing that any settlement must at least end Armenia’s illegal occupation of much of Azerbaijan.

But today, prompted by Azerbaijan’s unwillingness to yield in the face of an aggression no less illegal than Moscow’s in Crimea and the Donbass, Washington has grudgingly offered hope that this terrible conflict is finally approaching an end — one that reinforces battered international law; that perhaps prevents a catastrophe on the failure of Sarsang; and at long last, sees Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding provinces returned to Azerbaijan, where they belong.

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