When Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan spoke to President Trump’s national security adviser on Thursday by phone, he raised a sensitive topic: Why nothing is being done to prevent a longtime ally of the United States, Turkey, from using American-made F-16s -To use jets? against ethnic Armenians in a disputed mountain region?
Mr Pashinyan’s call to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien followed an outbreak of heavy fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a remote area at the center of one of the most persistent and toxic of the “frozen conflicts” left by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s Years.
The breakaway enclave, which legally belongs to Azerbaijan but has been controlled by Armenians for the past three decades, has seen many military outbreaks over the years. But the current fighting, Mr Pashinyan said in a telephone interview, has taken on a far more dangerous dimension due to Turkey’s direct military intervention in support of Azerbaijan, its ethnic Turkish ally.
The armed forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former Soviet republics, reportedly exchanged rocket fire on Sunday, with rockets falling on Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, Ganja, and the Armenian-controlled capital, Nagorno-Karabakh. Each side accused the other of attacking civilians, while denying that they attacked residential areas themselves.
The conflict has raised alarms about the risks of a major war and has left the United States, with its large and politically influential Armenian diaspora, in the uncomfortable position of allowing Turkey, a key NATO ally, to deploy F-16s to support Armenia watch enemies.
“The United States,” said Pashinyan, “needs to explain whether it has allowed these F-16s to bomb peaceful villages and peaceful populations.” He said Mr. O’Brien “heard and recognized” his concerns and promised to have a phone call between the Armenian leader and President Trump.
That opportunity to bring the United States to Armenia’s side disappeared just hours later when President Trump announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
However, according to analysts, Mr Trump’s health issues have only resulted in his administration pulling away from a conflict that does not offer easy diplomatic victories. It has disrupted decades of efforts to settle a dispute in which the Armenians retained not only control of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also large parts of Azerbaijani territory outside the breakaway enclave.
Mr Pashinyan declined to say whether Armenia could be ready to surrender occupied Azerbaijani land under a possible peace settlement, insisting that it was not because of him but because of the leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh, a nominally independent entity that is ruled by ethnic Armenians.
Turkey announced on Sunday that Azerbaijani forces had retaken Jabrail, the youngest in a series of villages previously occupied by Armenia. After the fighting last week, they are said to be under Azerbaijani control again. The claim could not be independently confirmed.
The Trump administration, distracted by other larger issues such as China, “just wasn’t paying attention and was completely incapacitated,” said Thomas de Waal, a British expert on the region and author of a book on Nagorno-Karabakh: “Black Garden : Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war. “
For Armenia, Pashinyan said the current fighting, which began on September 27 after months of mounting tensions, poses an “existential threat” as Turkey, whose forerunner the Ottoman Empire, killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians at the end World War I The US Congress and many countries have declared slaughter to be “genocide,” a label Turkey vigorously opposes.
Armenia also has selective memories of the past when Mr. Pashinyan dismissed the worst atrocity of the Karabakh War 1991-1994 – the murder of hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians by Armenian fighters near the city of Khojaly in 1992 – as a “propaganda trick”. ”
Armenia and Azerbaijan have a long tradition of downplaying or ignoring each other’s past traumas. This tendency has made it next to impossible for either side to accept legitimate grievances and has thwarted outside efforts to resolve their Nagorno-Karabakh feud.
“Each side focuses solely on its own trauma and diminishes the other side’s,” said De Waal. “This conflict will last for at least another generation unless it can be stifled by an international security operation,” as put down the war in the Balkans in the 1990s. That, added de Waal, “is highly unlikely in the current international situation.”
Azerbaijan, Pashinyan said, had long hoped to regain Nagorno-Karabakh by force, but was “encouraged” by Turkey to launch its latest offensive against the Armenian-controlled enclave.
“This is a continuation of Turkey’s genocidal policy against the Armenians,” he said. He accused Turkey of not only providing air support but also of recruiting Syrian fighters, whom he called “mercenaries and terrorists”, to strengthen the Azerbaijani armed forces on the ground.
Turkey has denied Armenia’s allegations, including unfounded claims that a Turkish F-16 shot down an Armenian jet last week. Instead, she has attributed the violent violence to Armenia. The Foreign Ministry in Ankara said on Sunday: “Armenia is the biggest obstacle to peace and stability in the region.”
Although the conflict is obscured by a fog of propaganda on all sides, it has clearly expanded beyond a local ethnic dispute into a larger struggle as an increasingly assertive Turkey flexes its muscles in a traditionally Russian-dominated region.
Russia has a military base in Armenia, and with the United States lagging behind, Moscow has taken the lead in unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to calm the fighting while avoiding a direct confrontation with Turkey, with which it is already waging proxy wars in Syria and Libya .
Mr Pashinyan described the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan as a “civilizational front line” and said the dispute was “not about territory” but about much larger and more important interests.
“The Armenians in the South Caucasus are the last remaining obstacle to Turkish expansion north, south and east,” he said.