Armenia and Azerbaijan are in the news again, as the normal low-level hostility in the region has flared into hot war. This round of the never ending conflict began in mid-summer, when the Armenians accused the Azerbaijanis of bombing them with drones, which Azerbaijan denies happened. Since September 27th, the conflict has escalated to the point that both sides are using bombs, missiles and heavy artillery, to ‘liberate’ or defend, land in the region known as Nagorno-Karabach.
Dr. Harold Rhodes, who, for 28 years served as the Advisor on Islamic Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, explained ithis Thursday, that this flare up is an inevitable bye product of semp eternal enmity between the Christian Armenians, backed by Russia, Iran and India, and the Shi’ite Azeris, backed by Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel. He traces the longstanding conflict to Ottoman policies, which included the massacres of Armenians during World War I. Later, as Stalin pulled the entire region into the Soviet Union, he deliberately chose to exacerbate tensions by mixing populations together to keep hatreds festering, in order to solidify control by the central government.
Starting in 1988, a low intensity war began between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As the Soviet Union fell apart, the two new nations fought a hot war, mostly over the contested province of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is located inside of Azerbaijani territory, but has a majority population of Karabakh Armenians, who demanded that their province be transferred to Armenia. That conflict escalated into full scale war in the early 1990s. The war was ended with a peace treaty in 1994, after Armenia had won clear control of Nagorno-Karabakh. That ‘froze in place,’ peace lasted more or less until now, with small periods of conflict in between.
Dr. Rhodes, who frequently emphasizes deeper culture over momentary politics in analyzing behavior in the region, believes that this problem, like others in the region, suffers from a cultural aversion to making real peace, and moving on. There is no way, in Turkish or Azeri culture, he says, to say “let bygones be bygones.” For that matter, Rhodes notes, no Islamic language has words that denote “taking responsibility.” They all default to “blame,” which makes serious resolution to real conflicts problematic.
“Americans like solutions. Muslims like problems,” he said, in the course of a video webinar for the Jewish Policy Center. “There are no solutions” in the region, he notes. “You just have to manage the problems.” He made the analogy to the ongoing issues with Palestinians, who seem to feel that they benefit from keeping problems festering, rather than solving them. In a case like this, Americans point to population exchanges and the possibility of reconfiguring borders, but there is no local support for such policies.
The entire region has taken sides. Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, supports Azerbaijan, a fellow Turkic, and Muslim culture, for traditional reasons.
Dr. Rhodes noted that Israel, which has previously supported Azerbaijan materially, says that they are not involved in this war. Their support for Azerbaijan is in part based on the fact that Iran, Israel’s enemy, supports the Christian Armenians. (Though Shi’ite, Azerbaijan is run by a secular dictator.) The Iranian regime is afraid that its own large internal population of ethnic Azeris might wish to break away and unite with their counterparts in Azerbaijan, which would be massively destabilizing to Iranian national integrity.
For now, the United States is remaining a bystander to the conflict. “We are not meddling, or arming either side,” Rhodes said. He regards this as ‘a win,’ for us. Coincidentally, the New York Times ran an op-ed the same day, arguing that this standoff can only be solved with U.S. intervention, (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/opinion/nagorno-karabakh-armenia-azerbaijan.html). The writer suggested dispatching senior U.S. Diplomats to the region to revive a peace process put in place during the last major conflict between the two countries, in the 1990s, as the Soviet Union dissolved.
Post Script: The two sides have agreed to a temporary cease fire, as of Friday morning, for at least long enough to collect dead bodies from the field, and exchange prisoners. The negotiation is being conducted by the Russian Foreign Minister, and does not appear likely to produce any sort of peace. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin threatens to support Armenia actively in a larger war.