Imagine, for a moment, the backlash that United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken would have experienced if he met with Israeli leaders but not with Palestinian Authority (PA) officials during his Mideast visit, this week. Naturally, he would be roundly condemned for taking an unbalanced and biased approach to diplomacy.
But when US diplomacy in Eurasia’s South Caucasus region skews toward the interests of Armenia over those of Azerbaijan, the public reaction is deafening silence.
Last week, upon meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blinken said that it is important that the government and people of Israel know that America’s commitment to their security remains ironclad. The following day, he told PA President Mahmoud Abbas that the Biden administration is working to strengthen our own relationship with the Palestinian people and to help to improve their lives.
However, America’s top diplomat has made no attempt at evenhandedness in his remarks on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. On January 23, Blinken demanded that Azerbaijan reopen the Lachin corridor – the road connecting Armenia with Karabakh, the territory that Azerbaijan liberated in its 2020 war with the Armenians – to commercial traffic. He also underscored that the risk of a humanitarian crisis in the Lachin corridor undermined prospects for peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
By contrast, in a conversation with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan five days earlier, Blinken welcomed the prime minister’s commitment to peace and made no demands of Armenia.
The Israeli government understands the importance of Azerbaijan’s role in Eurasia, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant tweeting last week, following a conversation with his Azerbaijani counterparts, that deepening Israel-Azerbaijan cooperation will have a positive impact on regional peace and stability.
As of late, the American foreign policy establishment has not demonstrated the same understanding. Instead, Washington’s one-sided diplomatic approach has blatantly ignored the broader context surrounding the conflict in the South Caucasus.
Following three decades of Armenian occupation in the area, Azerbaijan has, since November 2020, undertaken comprehensive efforts to rebuild Karabakh, which four UN resolutions affirm is Azerbaijani territory. Under the Russian-brokered agreement that ended the 2020 war, Azerbaijan agreed on Armenia’s rights to use the Lachin corridor solely for humanitarian purposes and commissioned a new road for Armenian residents in less than two years.
Yet Armenian provocations in the area have persisted. Armenia uses the Lachin road to transport landmines and plant them in the territory of Azerbaijan, posing threats to the post-war reconstruction work in Karabakh, to the civilian population working in the area and to the return of Azerbaijani internally displaced persons to peaceful life in their homes.
Endless provocations and continued violence
Since the end of the war, 46 Azerbaijanis (including 35 civilians) have died in Karabakh and 230 more have been injured from explosions of Armenian-made landmines, according to Azerbaijan’s government. In November 2020, when Armenians had several weeks to withdraw from Karabakh in accordance with the Russian-brokered ceasefire following their surrender in the war, they used the time to plant difficult-to-detect explosives that have complicated Azerbaijan’s redevelopment of the liberated territories.
ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES have also tested Azerbaijan in its initiative to redevelop Karabakh. What had been a lush green area with vineyards, as well as thriving wheat and cotton production prior to the Armenian occupation was decimated by ecocide. For three decades, Armenian inhabitants blocked springs to divert water for military purposes.
Karabakh is also typified by seemingly endless stretches of looted homes, mosques and cemeteries whose roofs were burnt off and whose stones were resold by Armenians in the construction business. Vandals also sold marble from gravestones and golden teeth from corpses, while the mosques were frequented by livestock rather than worshipers.
And so, in December, Azerbaijanis decided that they had finally seen enough. After Armenians prevented Azerbaijani officials’ attempt to visit areas in Karabakh that have been rife with the exploitation of natural resources, environmental activists and others from Azerbaijan who have now become known as “ecoprotesters” took to the Lachin road to launch demonstrations against the illegal Armenian activities in the area.
Across the Western world since December 10, media reports and government statements surrounding the closure of the Lachin road and the humanitarian crisis in the area have failed to acknowledge the longtime, multifaceted and ongoing Armenian abuse of Karabakh.
In actuality, Azerbaijan has honored its commitments from the 2020 ceasefire, including its construction of the road connecting Karabakh with Armenia – a corridor which, contrary to popular belief, remains open to Armenians for humanitarian purposes.
One-sided actions. such as Blinken’s January 23 statement, serve to hinder an already fragile peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Unfortunately, when it comes to the South Caucasus, such remarks from high-ranking American leaders are hardly surprising.
Last September, amid an uptick in violence in the area, now-former House speaker Nancy Pelosi led a Democratic congressional delegation to Armenia without making a corresponding visit to Azerbaijan. Pelosi’s delegation then proceeded to introduce a House resolution that exclusively blamed Azerbaijan for that month’s hostilities, as well as the 2020 war.
Moving forward, it is incumbent upon US leaders and policymakers to seize the present opportunity to bring a lasting peace to the South Caucasus – an opportunity that America’s chief rival on the global stage, Russia, has squandered. As a staunch ally of Armenia, Russia cannot be trusted as an honest broker in this conflict. Rather than continuing to exhibit a one-sided posture that parrots the Russian position, the US must genuinely work with both Armenia and Azerbaijan in the pursuit of peace and regional stability.
Otherwise, the persistence of Washington’s unbalanced approach will cast doubt on the credibility of American leadership far beyond the South Caucasus.
Jacob Kamaras is the managing editor of the San Diego Jewish World, the former editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) and the founder of Stellar Jay Communications, a PR firm representing Azerbaijan.