As the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan rages in the South Caucasus, an army of lobbyists is being paid millions to make sure the United States picks a side.
Most Americans know little about the conflict between the two post-Soviet republics, which flared up again on September 27 after a years-long ceasefire broke down. But a well-paid Azerbaijani and Turkish lobby is facing off against a well-organized Armenian diaspora to push the United States to back their side.
And their battles have led to a contradiction in U.S. policy: Congress leans towards Armenia, while the executive branch continues to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Azerbaijan.
The two countries have been in conflict since the fall of the Soviet Union, when the newly-independent nations went to war over the Armenian-majority Azerbaijani province of Karabakh. Both sides committed war crimes; around 257,000 Armenians and 1 million Azeris had to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
Armenian forces eventually won control of Karabakh. The conflict has been frozen since 1994, with decades of diplomatic negotiations punctuated by violent outbursts along the line of contact. Large-scale fighting resumed last month, as Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev vows to conquer Karabakh “either via peace or by war.”
Both sides have appealed to Americans for help over the years, especially as the United States (along with France and Russia) is overseeing the international peace process.
“There’s one side that is more democratic than the other side,” Armenian National Committee of America executive director Aram Hamparian told Responsible Statecraft. “The same is true, we think in terms of corruption. The same is true in terms of commitment to the peace process.”
Azerbaijani Ambassador Elin Süleymanov disagrees.
“Armenia today is the last relic of the Soviet Union. It’s not really an independent country,” he said in a Thursday speech to the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. “Azerbaijan is not necessarily that different from Israel or the United States.”
Azerbaijan has long sought to portray itself as a pro-Western, pro-Israel, oil-rich Muslim outpost in the former Soviet Union. This public relations campaign is backed by big money: the Azerbaijan government spent nearly $1.3 million on U.S. lobbyists last year, as first reported in The American Conservative yesterday.
Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan and rival of Armenia, also boasts many friends in Washington, particularly among Russia hawks who see Turkey as NATO’s easternmost flank. The Turkish government spent $3.6 million on lobbying last year, according to the FARA records.
Armenia spent zero dollars on lobbying in the same period of time.
Instead, the Armenian-American community is “deploying the cultural, social, and political capital” they have accumulated over decades, Hamparian said. “The Armenian-American community has been here for a hundred years. My family has been here for a hundred years.”
Armenian-American celebrities such as the singer Cher, the Kardashian family, and the rock band System of a Down have drawn attention to the Armenian narrative. It is a compelling one indeed: Armenia is a scrappy underdog, a nation of genocide survivors who have prevailed against large empires to forge a young democracy.
Azerbaijan has had much more success with the executive branch.
“The two ways you move a member of the House on foreign policy is one, by having a large diaspora in their district, or two, by creating a sense of moral black and white,” a staffer for a progressive Democrat who asked not to be named told Responsible Statecraft, but “the State Department — they respond to different pressures than us.”
Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act restricts U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan, but the President has waived those restrictions every year since 9/11. Azerbaijan continues to receive over $100 million per year in U.S. security aid, while Armenia has received almost none in recent years.
One of the biggest drivers is Azerbaijan’s geographic position in between Russia and Iran, which became especially important for the so-called “War on Terror,” when Azerbaijan opened up a supply route to Afghanistan for U.S. forces.
Azerbaijan has also allowed Israeli forces access to its bases — alarming U.S. military planners concerned with an Iran-Israel war — and accuses Iran of fomenting terrorist attacks on Azerbaijani soil.
Israel, in return, buys Azerbaijani oil and sells weapons to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani forces have been deploying Israeli-made Harop “suicide drones” against Armenian forces to devastating effect, much to Armenia’s chagrin.
The Azerbaijani lobby uses this relationship to harness the energies of the pro-Israel lobby. Süleymanov had been invited to speak on Thursday by a right-wing, pro-Israel think tank, and his pitch leaned heavily on the Israeli-Azerbaijani relationship.
The ambassador emphasized that Azerbaijan has the “largest Jewish community in the Muslim world,” and repeatedly compared Armenia’s propaganda and military tactics to those used against Israel.
Despite some disconcerting statements — Süleymanov ended his speech with a tirade about internet trolls conspiring to “to push Armenian propaganda under Jewish names” and “create a misperception that Jews [are] somehow upset about Azerbaijan” — his speech seemed well-received.
Armenian advocates like Hamparian warn their pro-Israel counterparts that Turkey was also once seen as a Muslim ally of Israel, and has since turned against it.
“If they wonder where the relationship with [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev will go, they only need to look at what happened with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan,” he said.
But for now, the Azerbaijani lobby continues to lean on the pro-Israel lobby.
A staffer for a progressive member of Congress who asked not to be named showed Responsible Statecraft an email from registered Azerbaijani lobbyist Mark Tavlarides. The email simply quotes a Twitter thread by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee emphasizing Azerbaijan’s role in the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Now that the violence has erupted again, Azerbaijani and Armenian lobbying efforts have become even more urgent.
The unnamed staffer showed Responsible Statecraft several other letters their office has received over the past few days, including letters from the American Chamber of Congress in Azerbaijan and the Turkish Embassy in Washington supporting the “territorial integrity of Azerbaijan,” and an email from the Armenian National Committee of America asking for “crippling sanctions” against Azerbaijan.
Their appeals have landed in predictable ways over the past few weeks.
Members of both parties in the Senate and House of Representatives have condemned Azerbaijani actions and called for an end to military aid for Azerbaijan.
The State Department has not entertained that idea.
“We’ve urged everyone to just stay out of this other than to urge that there be a ceasefire and that dialogue be the methodology by which order is restored, peace is restored,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on October 2. “We’ve certainly communicated that to both the Azerbaijanis and Armenian leaders, and to the Turks as well.”