How Biden Can Promote Peace in the South Caucasus
As the Biden administration moves to place global human rights at the forefront of its foreign policy, it should reverse nearly three decades of disastrous U.S. policy that allowed the conflict to fester and erupt.
Since the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan was signed in November, the international community has been struggling to find a constructive long-term solution to what has long been viewed as one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. While the general consensus is that the new status quo makes the future outbreak of violence inevitable, there is little agreement on how to secure a lasting peace.
In order to get to that point, we must move beyond the narrative of conflict that revolves around what former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once described as “a piece of real estate.” While on the surface the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan may resemble a territorial dispute, this superficial analysis has long obscured the pathway to the conflict’s resolution.
The roots of the conflict itself trace back to the Armenian genocide, when the Ottoman Empire enlisted the support of Turkic nationalists in the South Caucasus in their systematic efforts to destroy the Armenian nation. With the backing of the Ottomans, the nascent Azerbaijani nation turned its attention towards the historically Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh), where it engaged in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Armenians in the service of pan-Turkism—a supremacist movement that sought the establishment of a contiguous Turkic state from Anatolia to Central Asia, predicated on the eradication of non-Turkic minorities throughout the region.
With the defeat of the Ottomans at the end of the First World War and the conquest of the South Caucasus by the Bolsheviks shortly thereafter, then Commissar for Nationalities Joseph Stalin placed Artsakh under the administrative control of Soviet Azerbaijan in an attempt to seduce the fledgling Turkish Republic by honoring the Ottoman Empire's desire to ensure Turkic primacy in the region. Over the course of seventy years of Soviet rule, the region’s indigenous Armenian inhabitants were subject to the severe deprivation of basic cultural, economic, and political rights at the hands of Soviet Azerbaijan. When Armenians began to protest their mistreatment—demanding reunification with Armenia—they were met with organized pogroms in Sumgait, Baku, and Kirovabad, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Armenian civilians.
In response, as the Soviet Union entered a state of collapse, the people of Artsakh declared their independence in 1991—which Azerbaijan responded to with full-scale war. By 1994, the Armenians had achieved a hard-fought victory with the signing of a ceasefire that secured their de facto independence.
Since then, it has fallen to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) “Minsk Group” and its co-chairs Russia, France, and the United States to find a lasting solution to the conflict. These efforts, however, were soon revealed to be largely ineffectual as the co-chairs proved increasingly incapable of holding Azerbaijan to account for its repeated violations of the ceasefire along both the line of contact with Artsakh, as well as its internationally recognized border with Armenia.
The Minsk Group also consistently underestimated the very real existential threat Azerbaijan posed to the Armenians of Artsakh, even in the face of Baku’s destruction of Armenian cultural monuments, institutionalized dehumanization of Armenians in public discourse, and the incitement of anti-Armenian hate crimes. Negotiations, for example, were long predicated on the withdrawal of Armenian forces in exchange for little more than a promise by Azerbaijan to allow a status-determination process at an unspecified date. Given the Azerbaijani government’s track record not only with regards to the conflict but on human rights, generally speaking, it’s not hard to see why these proposals were not taken seriously.
U.S. policy towards the region also played an important role in drastically altering the balance of power at Armenia’s expense by enabling Turkey and Azerbaijan’s adventurism.
In 1992, the U.S. Congress adopted Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act—restricting military assistance to Azerbaijan due to its aggression against Armenia. In 2002, however, the law was watered down to grant the president the authority to waive the provision in an effort to enlist Baku in the war on terror—which as recently as 2020 yielded $100 million in security assistance to the oil-rich Caspian dictatorship.
Simultaneously, as relations with Russia soured, the United States began to position Baku as an alternative energy provider to Europe to bypass the continent’s dependence on Moscow.
With Azerbaijan’s newfound geopolitical relevance came total impunity for its unilateral aggression and worsening human rights record. For Armenia, however, this meant the country found itself in an increasingly vulnerable position due to its deepening economic isolation and security imbalance vis-à-vis Azerbaijan.
The United States has also actively enabled the Erdogan regime throughout the course of its democratic backsliding and regional adventurism—particularly with regards to Armenia. In addition to upholding Ankara’s denial of the Armenian genocide, Washington has actively advocated for Turkey’s participation in the OSCE Minsk Group; with the one-time ambassador to the OSCE under the Obama's administration—who recently penned a proposal on how the Biden administration could help promote peace in the South Caucasus—going so far as to argue Turkey had a “valuable” role to play in negotiations, tacitly reinforcing Azerbaijan’s position in the conflict through the absurd suggestion that Baku’s steadfast ally Ankara could be a “neutral” mediator.
This proved to be a fatal miscalculation, as Turkey actively fueled Azerbaijan’s war machine and participated directly in the recent invasion of Artsakh by openly providing sophisticated weaponry, military training and support, strategic advice, and thousands of mercenaries illegally transported from northern Syria to the front lines.
As the Biden administration moves to place global human rights at the forefront of its foreign policy, now is the perfect opportunity to reverse nearly three decades of disastrous U.S. policy towards the region that allowed the conflict to fester and erupt.
First, the Biden administration must recognize the Armenian genocide. The failure to hold Turkey accountable for its perpetration and denial of this crime against humanity has emboldened Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Azerbaijani ally Ilham Aliyev’s regional aggression for decades. Erdogan’s praise of one of the chief architects of the genocide—Enver Pasha—during a victory parade in Baku following the military conquest of Artsakh underscores the dangerous rhetorical and ideological continuity between the Ottoman-era genocide and Turkey’s contemporary geopolitical aspirations. If the United States is to confront Turkey’s egregious human rights record today, it must begin by holding it accountable for its historic atrocities.
Second, the Biden administration can play a role in addressing the region’s immediate human security needs. This includes urging Azerbaijan to immediately release the hundreds of Armenians currently being held as prisoners of war, where they are suffering severe mistreatment and torture as documented by Human Rights Watch. As of now, the United States Embassy in Armenia has refused to designate these captives as prisoners of war—instead referring to them as “detainees”—undermining their status under international law and emboldening the regime in Baku.
The United States can also play a role in guaranteeing the Armenians of Artsakh access to potable water reserves captured by Azerbaijani forces, ensuring continued support for humanitarian demining operations after Azerbaijan’s use of cluster munitions against civilian populations, and demanding UNESCO be given full access to Armenian lands now under Azerbaijani occupation to ensure the preservation of cultural heritage sites facing the imminent threat of erasure and destruction. The United States must also provide emergency humanitarian relief to assist in the housing and resettlement of the tens of thousands of displaced, as well as development assistance to ameliorate the toll the conflict has had on Armenia’s economy.
Third, the United States must curtail the prospect of future aggression by Azerbaijan by immediately implementing Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act to prevent the provision of further military assistance to Azerbaijan. This should be coupled with sanctions on both Azerbaijan and Turkey pursuant to Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 as it pertains to serious abuses of human rights; noting the reports of war crimes, Turkey’s illegal transport and deployment of Syrian mercenaries, and the rampant propagation of anti-Armenian racism by Azerbaijan.
Finally, the United States must spearhead a status-determination process for the people of Artsakh that ensures their legitimate right to self-determination. Just as the United States took a principled stance in its support for Kosovo’s independence on the grounds of the clear and present danger the region’s Albanian population faced under Serbian rule, so should it apply that precedent to Artsakh—where it has become exceedingly obvious that Armenians will not be able to live freely under Azerbaijani domination.
We can only speculate as to the long-term consequences of the new status-quo and Turkey’s policy of expansionism—but what we do know for certain is that by abandoning the Armenian people in their time of need, the United States has emboldened and empowered the forces of authoritarianism at the expense of one of the region’s only democracies.
As Turkey continues on its path of regional destabilization in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Cyprus, and the East Mediterranean—and its ongoing assault on the rights of Christian and Kurdish minorities at home—it is clear that the implications of a continued policy of inaction towards Armenia will extend far beyond the borders of the South Caucasus.