When Nikol Pashinyan, the Prime Minister of Armenia, spoke by phone Thursday with President Trump’s National Security Advisor, he raised a sensitive question: why nothing is being done to prevent a longtime ally of the United States, Turkey, to use American-made F-16 jets against ethnic Armenians in a disputed mountainous 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 territory at the center of the most enduring and poisonous of the “frozen conflicts” left. from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1
The separatist enclave, legally part of Azerbaijan but controlled by Armenians for the past three decades, has seen many military flare-ups over the years. But the current fighting, Mr. Pashinyan said in a telephone interview, has taken on a much more dangerous dimension due to Turkey’s direct military intervention in support of its ethnic Turkish ally Azerbaijan.
On Sunday, according to news reports, forces from Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former Soviet republics, exchanged rocket fire, with missiles falling on Azerbaijan’s second largest city, Ganja, and the Armenian-controlled capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Each side accused the other of targeting civilians, while denying personally carrying out attacks on residential areas.
The conflict has raised alarms about the risks of a wider war and has put the United States, with its vast and politically influential Armenian diaspora, in the awkward position of watching Turkey, a vital NATO ally, deploy F-16 jets in support of enemy Armenians.
“The United States,” said Mr. Pashinyan, “must explain whether they gave those F-16s to bomb peaceful villages and peaceful populations.” He said Mr. O’Brien had “listened and acknowledged” his concerns and promised to strike up a telephone conversation between the Armenian leader and President Trump.
That opportunity to rally the United States alongside Armenia vanished hours later when President Trump announced he tested positive for the coronavirus.
But Trump’s health problems, analysts say, have only accentuated his administration’s disengagement from a conflict that offers no easy diplomatic victories. It has confused decades of efforts to resolve a dispute that has left the Armenians in control not only of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also of large areas of Azerbaijani territory outside the separatist enclave.
Mr. Pashinyan declined to say whether Armenia could be ready to cede any occupied Azerbaijani land as part of a possible peace agreement, insisting that it was not up to him, but a matter for the leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh, a is a nominally independent entity ruled by ethnic Armenians.
Turkey said on Sunday that Azerbaijani forces have recaptured Jabrail, the latest in a series of villages previously occupied by Armenia that are now said to have returned to Azerbaijani control following last week’s fighting. The request cannot be confirmed independently.
The Trump administration, distracted by other larger issues such as China, “simply paid no attention and was completely disengaged,” said Thomas de Waal, a British expert in 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, represents an “existential threat” due to the role of Turkey, whose precursor, the Ottoman Empire, has killed about 1.5 million Armenians at the end of the First World War. The US Congress and many countries have declared the massacre a “genocide”, a label that Turkey strenuously rejects.
Armenia also has selective memories of the past, with Mr. Pashinyan rejecting the worst atrocity of the 1991-1994 Karabakh War – the 1992 killing of hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians by Armenian fighters near the town of Khojaly – as a “pure propaganda trick”. . “
Armenia and Azerbaijan have a long history of minimizing or mutual ignorance of past traumas, a trend that has made it nearly impossible for both sides to accept legitimate grievances and frustrated external efforts to resolve their feud over Nagorno-Karabakh.
“Each side focuses exclusively on their own traumas and belittles those of the other side,” said Mr. De Waal. “This conflict will go on for at least another generation unless it can be quelled by an international security operation” like the one that suppressed the war in the Balkans in the 1990s. This, added de Waal, “is highly unlikely in the current international situation”.
Azerbaijan, Pashinyan said, has long harbored hope of recovering Nagorno-Karabakh by force, but has been “encouraged” by Turkey to launch its recent offensive against the Armenian-controlled enclave.
“This is a continuation of Turkey’s genocidal policies 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 bolster Azerbaijani military forces on the ground.
Turkey has denied Armenia’s allegations, including unsubstantiated claims that a Turkish F-16 shot down an Armenian jet last week. Instead, he attributed the spiral of violence to Armenia, with the Foreign Ministry in Ankara saying on Sunday that “Armenia is the biggest obstacle to peace and stability in the region”.
Although overshadowed by a haze of propaganda from all sides, the conflict has clearly escalated beyond a local ethnic dispute into a larger struggle such as a An increasingly assertive Turkey flexes its muscles in a region traditionally dominated by Russia.
Russia has a military base in Armenia, and with the United States pulling back, Moscow has taken the lead in the hitherto unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to calm the fighting by avoiding a direct confrontation with Turkey, with which it is already fighting. proxy wars in Syria and Libya.
Describing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan as a “front line of civilization”, Pashinyan said the dispute “is not about territory” but involves much larger and more important stakes.
“The Armenians in the South Caucasus are the last remaining obstacle in the way of Turkish expansion to the north, south and east,” he said.