After more than three decades of conflict and several bloody wars, the Republic of Azerbaijan recaptured the Armenian-inhabited enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh on September 28. Azerbaijan’s lightning victory followed a nine-month blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the only link between the Karabakh region to mainland Armenia, effectively depriving the roughly 120,000 Karabakh Armenians who lived there of food and other necessities.
Following Azerbaijan’s victory, there was a mass exodus of Armenians from Karabakh and the creation of a severe humanitarian crisis that reminded some of the Armenians’ flight from the Ottoman Empire during 1915-16 when as many as a million people died or were killed — considered a genocide by Armenians and part of World War I’s tragic collateral damage by the Turks.
Many factors contributed to Azerbaijan’s final victory in its long-simmering conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Some factors are rooted in the South Caucasus’ complex history as part of the Iranian state until 1813, followed by the Russian and Soviet empires, the USSR’s nationalities policies and its practice of using various ethnic groups as levers of influence, and finally the messy breakup of the USSR beginning in 1988. Other factors relate to the disparity in Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s size, population, and resources. Unlike Armenia, which has few natural resources, Azerbaijan is an energy-rich country and thus capable of spending large sums on arms.
Additional factors include Armenia’s persistent internal political differences on the country’s foreign policy orientation, as well as rivalries and disagreements between Armenian and Karabakh political elites.
Since gaining independence after the Soviet collapse, Armenia has mostly depended on Russian support. But largely due to the 20-month-old war in Ukraine, Moscow’s priorities have changed. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan became more important for Moscow, and its failure to adequately support Armenia, particularly by deploying its peacekeeping force to dismantle the blockade, sealed last month’s outcome.
Unfortunately for Armenia, Azerbaijan also became more important for the West in light of the Ukraine war. This meant that neither Europe nor the United States was willing to take major risks to restrain Baku.
Lastly, international and regional geopolitical rivalries and Armenia’s vulnerable geopolitical position contributed to its ultimate defeat. Among these factors were the larger Russia-West rivalry for control of Eurasia and Washington’s 30-year-old efforts to contain and isolate Iran by denying Tehran any role in the emerging post-Cold War economic and security structures of the Southern Caucasus, most importantly in the construction of pipelines to transport oil and gas from Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia to Western markets.
To accomplish this aim, the U.S. and Europe effectively assigned a leading role to Turkey in the Caucasus and Central Asia both as a model to be emulated by the Central Asian states and as the West’s major regional partner. Perhaps, at the time, Armenia should have seen the writing on the wall and aligned itself more closely with the West while seeking some form of accommodation with Turkey. But given Armenians’ history with the Ottomans and Turkey, this was not easy to do, and Yerevan chose to align itself more closely to Russia instead.
Armenia did, in fact, retain ties with the West and even joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Yet, despite religious and cultural bonds with the West and a politically active Diaspora community, particularly in France and the U.S., Yerevan’s closer ties to Moscow resulted in a lingering Western distrust. And, as time went on, the lure of Azerbaijan’s energy resources became too strong for the West to resist.
Surrounded by Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia saw Iran with which it built a constructive relationship after independence, as a potential counterweight to Azerbaijan. But Iran, fearful of antagonizing its own Azeri population concentrated in the northwestern part of the country and concerned about antagonizing a fellow Muslim and mostly Shi’a country, was limited in its response. At the same time, Moscow worked to enhance Armenia’s dependence on Russia, making it more difficult for Yerevan to develop closer economic and energy ties with Tehran. In short, U.S. containment of Iran and Russia’s desire to control Armenia deprived Yerevan of alternative sources of support.
The regional involvement of Israel, the Middle East’s most important military power and a sworn enemy of the Islamic Republic, has further complicated matters. As a minority state in the Muslim world that was itself born in part as a result of the Nazi genocide against the Jews in Europe, Israel should theoretically have felt a natural affinity for Armenia. But a desire to expand its diplomatic relations with Muslim states (long before the 2020 Abraham Accords), the lure of energy resources and markets, and its hostility toward Iran have pulled Israel ever closer to Azerbaijan.
Over time, Israel became a key supplier of weapons for Baku, providing it with as much as 69 percent of its total arms imports, including some of its most advanced weapons systems, between 2016 and 2020, a trend that intensified significantly as Azerbaijan prepared its offensive to take Karabakh. Moreover, Baku’s principal patron and mentor, Turkey, which has its own regional ambitions, supplied additional weaponry and assistance, even to the extent of reportedly providing Syrian mercenaries for Baku to fight in Karabakh during the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
Since Ottoman times, Turkey has coveted what is now the Republic of Azerbaijan, as well as the Iranian province of Azerbaijan. Pan-Turkist and neo-Ottoman forces, with which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is identified, have long wanted to create a land bridge between, first, Turkey and Azerbaijan, and subsequently through northern Iran to Central Asia. In this way, Turkey hopes to realize a direct land route to link all Turkic peoples.
Azerbaijan’s conquest of Karabakh marks the first step towards this goal. Now, Turkey is insisting on the creation of a land corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhicevan, an Azerbaijani exclave bounded by Armenia, Iran and Turkey. This would amount to the incorporation of what the Armenians call Syunik and the Azerbaijanis call Zangezur into Azerbaijan, thus bypassing Iran. In a demonstration of Turkey’s aims, Erdoğan himself visited Nakhichevan for a meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on September 25, two weeks before Baku’s Karabakh offensive, and talked about the opening of the so-called Zangezur Corridor.
Iran is understandably concerned by all of these developments. While relations between Baku and Tehran have oscillated between warm and cold since Azerbaijan’s independence, they have grown more tense in recent years, particularly as Israel became increasingly critical to Baku’s military buildup, possibly in exchange for oil and reportedly also for access to Iran for Israeli intelligence operations. Iran has long been concerned that Azerbaijan may serve as a launch pad for an Israeli, U.S., or joint attack on its territory.
As for Turkey’s ambitions, it should be noted that the Nakhicavan exclave lies only 90 miles from Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan, which Baku claims is occupied territory it refers to as Southern Azerbaijan. Erdogan appears to share that sentiment; in 2020, his recitation of a poem that claimed that Iran had usurped the region provoked protests in Tehran.
Iran has said clearly that it opposes any other territorial changes in the region, especially the creation of a corridor that would eliminate its common border with Armenia. In early October, Iran’s president, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, expressed this view to Armenian and Azerbaijani officials who met with him. Earlier, members of parliament had warned that Iran would not tolerate any changes to its border with Armenia, while an article that appeared in Tehran’s influential “Iran Diplomacy” even suggested that Iran unilaterally create a 20-mile buffer zone within Karabakh, Nakhichevan, and Syunik in order to prevent any incursions into Iranian territory. A year ago, Iran held large-scale military exercises along its Azerbaijani border, signaling its determination to resist further territorial changes to its detriment.
Against this background, the steady rapprochement between Turkey and Israel since last year’s exchange of ambassadors — Erdogan was reportedly preparing to host Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu later this month or in November before the latest Gaza war broke out last weekend – has done little to calm Tehran’s concerns. Earlier this year, 30-plus members of Israel’s Knesset also called for international support for “the national aspirations of the peoples of South Azerbaijan.”
Thus, the latest Caucasus conflict is not finished, and larger clashes may lie ahead, especially if Azerbaijan pursues its irredentist claims against Iran with the backing of Turkey and Israel. In the last few days, there have been reports that Baku and Tehran are now trying to normalize bilateral relations and even discuss opening a new transit route through Iran to Nakhicevan, which could alleviate some of Tehran's key concerns. However, the deep-rooted sources of tension between Iran and Azerbaijan are unlikely to be quickly resolved, and thus the risk of possible conflict remains high, especially if Iran's rivals pressure Baku.
Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.
Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh region arrive in the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, September 29, 2023. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East and to get the real culprit — Iran — and to start building a state for Palestine, was for the normalization process between Arab States and Israel to continue, with the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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In half a century of public life, U.S. President Joe Biden has demonstrated unwavering support for Israel. In this photo Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo
Of all the foreign policy challenges President Joe Biden faces, most difficult is the war in Gaza. That is not because of the apparent geopolitical stakes; as Biden often says, China poses the most important long-term challenge and Russia is next. But while important, what happens between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, has not been in the same league.
Yet because of the war in Gaza, with its linkage to overall Israeli-Palestinian relations and risks of escalation to other parts of the region, there may soon be an explosion dwarfing all other concerns facing Biden and his team.
There is also another important reason that the war in Gaza now occupies center stage for the Biden administration: America’s attitudes towards and relations with Israel. Since Israel’s creation in the wake of World War II, most Americans have considered U.S. ties with the Jewish state as special, both because of its founding as a democracy committed to values similar to America’s and a shared perspective of “never again” stemming from the Holocaust. Even when Israel has fallen short, as for many years in its treatment of Palestinians, most Americans have given Israel the benefit of the doubt. Except on a handful of occasions, Washington consistently “has had Israel’s back” in Middle East crises and conflicts.
For both interests and values reasons, therefore, it was natural that immediately following the horrendous October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 240 more taken hostage, Biden declared total support for Israel’s military retaliation. His position was initially supported by most Americans, largely on a bipartisan basis.
But then the toll of destruction in Gaza mounted — as of this past week, more than 16,000 Palestinians have been killed, at least 40,000 more wounded, and more than 85 percent of the Strip’s population of more than two million has been rendered homeless with no safe place to go. All of this has been vividly displayed on U.S. television and cable media. Thus, the Biden administration began to rethink its hands-off support for Israel’s military campaign — but only with respect to its tactics, not its overall policy of destroying Hamas.
Washington worked through intermediaries, principally Qatar, to obtain a ”pause” in the Gaza fighting in order to get Hamas to release some hostages and increase the flow of humanitarian assistance from Egypt into Gaza. Following the end of the pause, however, U.S. appeals to Israel have been limited to try to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza, or, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, "taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians.” But so long as Israel continues to pursue the extirpation of Hamas, significantly limiting civilian casualties is impossible, as the Biden team must recognize. Notably, the world sees that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has essentially rebuffed Biden, which impacts on U.S. credibility elsewhere, especially since the United States is universally seen as Israel’s sole patron. Certainly, America’s reputation for promoting humanitarian concerns has been severely damaged.
Both factors argue for the president to press Israel immediately to declare a cease-fire, not just a temporary “pause,” but one designed to end the war. Indeed, if we are to believe Israel’s own estimates, Hamas’s military capacities have already been heavily degraded, and the possibility of it again being able to mount a serious attack on Israel is low.
The gravity of risks in the Levant and potentially throughout the region means that the United States (and others) cannot once again return to indifference when this war ends. Biden has shown he is aware of this, and has recommitted himself to pursuing the so-called “two-state solution.” For years, however, it has been largely a mantra; and while it is the best outcome, its prospects are now even more remote given renewed Israeli fears provoked by the October 7 attack and its attendant atrocities, as well as increased Palestinian bitterness over the massive destruction and loss of life in Gaza.
Yet time is not on the side of “orderly diplomacy” that for a half-century has been the usual course. There is already a major risk of a new intifada on the West Bank, as most Palestinians have lost any hope of Israel’s willingness to recognize their basic human rights, much less permit a Palestinian state. They also see that Israel will not stop West Bank settlers from displacing and even murdering Palestinian civilians. The Palestinians also cannot count on support from Arab states. No Arab leader really cares for the Palestinians and none has even called into question their existing treaties with Israel or the so-called Abraham Accords.
Nor is it conceivable that, to do the necessary diplomatic work, the U.N. or countries other than the U.S. can lead or have any chance of success. Nothing will be possible unless Washington takes charge and makes clear to Israel that, as the occupying power, it must change its policies and practices toward the Palestinians.
On December 6 , U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated his “appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared.” In the U.N. Security Council Friday, the United States vetoed the resolution and was joined only by Britain’s abstention. The Biden administration thus tied itself even more to Israel’s slaughter in Gaza, carried out in major part with U.S.-supplied bombs. The veto further cheapened U.S. political and moral standing and made it harder for Biden to be seen as credible as a diplomatic leader once the war ends.
Until October 7, President Biden and his team gave Israel-Palestinian relations short shrift. So far, everyone has been lucky that the crisis has not spread across the region, with the possibility of wider war. Even so, Israel and Hezbollah have come to blows; Yemen has taken some pot-shots; and while Iran has been careful not to get directly involved, its proxies in Iraq and Syria have been engaged in some incidents.
But luck is not a policy. The president must know that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can’t again be pushed aside when this war ends. He needs to rebuild trust in the United States for strategic competence and then as an honest broker. He needs to show that the United States will place its own interests first, not anyone else’s. He needs to augment his foreign policy inner circle with outside experts in strategy and regional dynamics, but free from biases. And he needs to be prepared to run risks in American domestic politics.
It's a difficult agenda, but nothing less will enable President Biden to protect and promote U.S. strategic, political, and moral interests.
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”