As the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq approaches, the War on Terror has all but receded from public memory. It’s hard to blame ordinary people in the West for forgetting the wreckage left behind by their leaders. But the war’s victims can’t afford such amnesia. Among the most aggrieved are the Middle East’s Christians, who saw their ranks thinned by the instability created by the pro-democracy wars of an earlier age.
Now, another indigenous Christian community, this time in the South Caucasus, faces similarly bleak prospects. I’m speaking of the Armenians, who increasingly find themselves on the wrong side of the same with-us-or-against-us mentality that animated Washington hawks in the post-9/11 era; who are learning, too, that the European Union will happily cashier its loftiest claims about democracy and human rights when cold realpolitik demands it.
As I write, some 120,000 Armenians, including 30,000 children, have spent the best part of two months under a blockade imposed by Azerbaijan’s president-for-life, Ilham Aliyev. Food, medication and other critical necessities can’t reach the Armenians, except in meager amounts transported by the Red Cross. Amid freezing temperatures, the Baku regime periodically shuts off their gas supply, while threatening to shoot down aircraft attempting to bring humanitarian aid.
The victims inhabit Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory inside Azerbaijan’s borders. It’s where the Armenian alphabet was developed, where ancient churches attest to centuries of Armenian presence in the region, and where the movement for Armenian independence inside the Soviet Union was born. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Karabakhi Armenians took control of the territory and declared itself a republic that hasn’t been recognised by any other state, not even by Armenia proper; both sides expelled populations and committed other atrocities.
Having partially retaken the territory in a 2020 operation, the Azerbaijanis now seem determined to squeeze the rest of it into submission. The geopolitical winds are at the Azerbaijanis’ backs. Armenia’s historic protector, Russia, has its hands full in Ukraine. Europe is desperate for natural gas, which Azerbaijan offers, though the size of its reserves and its capacity to deliver are frequently overstated.
In the United States, meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s lobbyists and hawkish think tanks like the Hudson Institute have worked double-time to frame the Baku regime as a pro-Israel bulwark against Iran. Democratic Armenia, meanwhile, can do no right in the hawks’ eyes because it’s part of a “Russian bloc” (which, by the way, has barely assisted it amid its current troubles).
The result was that, in 2020, when Azerbaijan launched an operation to expel Armenians from parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Trump administration’s response was decidedly mute; footage of Christians singing farewell hymns to their ancient churches elicited scant sympathy from a White House otherwise known for tub-thumping about “Christian persecution” at home and abroad. Likewise, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Baku last summer and heaped praise on Aliyev’s graftocracy (“you have always been reliable”).
Armenian officials blame such Western opportunism for encouraging Baku’s aggression. Sure enough, a few weeks after Von der Leyen’s visit, Azerbaijan made its boldest move yet: a military assault inside Armenia proper (as opposed to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh) that killed more than 100 and displaced thousands. As the Armenian deputy foreign minister Paruyr Hovhannisyan complained to me in October, “Why go to Azerbaijan and present it as ‘our most reliable partner’, without mentioning human rights and the war?”
To their credit, the Biden administration and the Democratic foreign policy establishment have proved more balanced in their approach. The then House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia during the September flash point last year, a symbolic gesture that nevertheless forestalled still greater Azerbaijani violence. Nor has Biden’s team insisted that Armenia leave the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation as a condition of US support – a Washington-hawk demand that would leave Armenia even more friendless in its neighbourhood than it is currently.
Still, American diplomacy has failed to restrain Baku from blocking the single road that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, known as the Lachin Corridor. As an indicator of Azerbaijan’s new-found PR savvy, the blockade began as an “environmental protest” against the Karabakhi Armenians’ mining activities. I use scare quotes because Azerbaijan isn’t, to put it gently, a protest society. If an Azerbaijani version of Extinction Rebellion sprang up to challenge the country’s own carbon and mining industries, it would quickly face the business end of Aliyev’s authoritarian state.
The blockade raises the all too real danger of humanitarian catastrophe. Nagorno-Karabakh boasts supplies of dried goods and can produce its own meat. But children, especially, can’t live on dried goods and meat alone. They need fresh vegetables and fruits. Schools are closing down for lack of supplies.
The Karabakhi Armenians, moreover, are ferocious about their independence and refuse to accept Baku’s offer of becoming “ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan”. Not after the three decades of virulent ethnic animus that has been injected into their would-be Azeri neighbours, and not after the torture videos of Nagorno-Karabakh’s captured soldiers periodically leaked by the regime to intimidate them and their backers in Yerevan. They would sooner die than submit en masse.
The West as a whole must change course if it is to avert the potential catastrophe. Two decades ago, George W Bush declared a war for democracy and against dictatorship, and declared that “you’re either with us or against us”. Some of the Middle East’s most vulnerable communities, including indigenous Christians, found themselves on the wrong side of his Manichaean line-drawing, and paid the price in the form of sectarian cleansing. A repeat of that dismal turn of events now threatens the Armenians – the world’s oldest Christian nation and victims of the first modern genocide – thanks to similar West vs Russia framing.
[See also: As an Armenian, I see history being repeated in the actions of Azerbaijan]