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Nagorno-Karabakh's Haunting Parallels to the Nakba, and Israel's Role

Azerbaijan’s assault on Armenians in the autonomous region is being fought largely with Israeli arms. Yom Kippur may be over, but Israel has profound questions to ask about culpability for past and future events

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, Armenian refugees fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh, and a protester holding a sign saying "Israeli weapons kill Armenian civilians." [ | Emil Salman | Felix Light | Reuters | Vasily Krestyaninov | AP | Artwork by Anastasia Shub]

If Russia’s war on Ukraine, the violence in Israel-Palestine or civil war in Sudan have left us saturated with horror, there’s no choice but to make yet more room in your heart. The terrible events unfolding in the oft-forgotten South Caucasus region should weigh on everyone’s conscience – especially Israelis and Jews. Yet it seems we are poised to draw precisely the wrong lessons.

On September 19, Azerbaijan began a sweeping military assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies within its sovereign borders but which Azerbaijan never truly controlled; Karabakh was de facto ruled by the Armenian majority there for most of the last 32 years. The Armenian community in Karabakh goes back centuries – some say 2,000 years.

Azerbaijan captured parts of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 in a six-week war. Last week, it bombarded the region with artillery and drones, forcing a rapid surrender of local Armenian forces, and seized control over the entire territory. Hundreds were killed or wounded, including dozens of civilians. Homes were destroyed, supplies and electricity slashed – and people began to flee for their lives.

The situation is developing hourly. Based on the most recent reports, more than 66,000 have fled for Armenia – over half of the territory’s estimated Armenian population. Knowing that Armenia, whose population is under 3 million, will likely be overwhelmed by the influx, some are already begging for refuge elsewhere.

Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno Karabakh heading in a convoy toward Armenia on Tuesday. Over half of the region's Armenians have now fled their homes. [Vasily Krestyaninov | AP]

Because Karabakh is situated within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan, the international community broadly views the events as Azerbaijan recapturing its own sovereign territory, albeit through brute military force (it labeled last week’s bombardment an “anti-terrorist” operation).

But the Armenians of Karabakh, which was once a more mixed Azerbaijani-Armenian region, had been agitating for unification with Armenia for much of the 20th century. They were permanently aggrieved at the Bolshevik leadership’s decision in 1921 to designate the enclave part of the Azerbaijani republic.

Like the quest for recognition of the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century, the Armenian reverence for Karabakh is essential to national identity. It can be hard to convey in words, other than by comparison: Just as Serbs view Kosovo as their Jerusalem, so Karabakh is to Armenians. But unlike Serbs in Kosovo, Armenians were the majority in Karabakh.

By the waning days of the Soviet Union, rising tensions between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the region led to violence – including a horrible four-day pogrom in 1988 against Armenians displaced within Azerbaijan. Violence escalated against Azerbaijanis too, and burst into a full-scale war from 1991 as the Soviet empire fell.

Over three years of war, Armenians gained the upper hand in Karabakh, captured seven adjacent territories in Azerbaijan and became fairly self-governing. This was largely due to the involvement of Armenia, and with Russian support. Up to a million people, mostly Azerbaijanis but also Armenians, were displaced (including from both Armenia and Azerbaijan). Ever since, Azerbaijan has longed to conquer the territory, which it never truly controlled as an independent state.

Some of the 66,000 refugees in Armenia after fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh this week. The enclave will cease to exist as a self-governed region at the start of 2024. [Alain Jocard | AFP]

Since the 1990s, the conflict has been stubbornly intractable, and violent. The international community has theoretically backed fruitless negotiations for decades, even as violence simmered regularly around what was called the “line of contact” between Karabakh and Azerbaijan.

In April 2016, a limited escalation marked a new geopolitical phase in the region, including Israel’s involvement. At the end of that year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Azerbaijan and began ramping up Israeli arms sales to the region. Flush with oil money, Azerbaijan now armed itself to the teeth by purchasing cutting-edge military equipment, especially Israeli drones. By the time the six-week war began in September 2020, Azerbaijan was ready.

The factors prompting last week’s attack grew out of the 2020 developments. Russia helped broker a cease-fire and sent peacekeepers. But by 2022, Russia, traditionally a cultural, religious and political ally of Armenia, had become distracted and depleted by its war in Ukraine.

Lately it has been sidling up to Azerbaijan, and relations with Armenia have frayed. As the longtime Karabakh expert and Carnegie fellow Thomas de Waal said in an interview last week on Open Caucasus media, Azerbaijan is a more natural ally for Russia – a hard-line autocratic, authoritarian state run by dynastic dictator Ilham Aliyev. Turkey, a key Azerbaijani ally, also wields considerable power in the region.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attending a welcoming ceremony in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan, on Monday. [Murat Cetinmuhurdar | PPO | Reuters]

For Armenians, Azerbaijan is often seen as an extension of Turkey – with whom their primary association is the 1915-16 genocide. Azerbaijan, for its part, fears Armenia’s ties to Iran. Israel has expressed little historic solidarity for Armenians; the anti-Iran axis is far more important, feeding Israel’s support for Azerbaijan – while knowing full well that its arms would end up on the battlefield of Karabakh.

Last week’s assault appears to have been methodically planned. Since December, Azerbaijan has been choking off the thin Lachin land corridor connecting Armenia to Karabakh, cutting off food and medicine and practically starving the people there. It was a brazen violation of the 2020 cease-fire agreement, but neither Russian peacekeepers nor anyone else did anything. The issue got scant attention in international media.

With the people of Karabakh weakened and demoralized, Azerbaijan seemingly waited for the pretext – which came when a mine killed six of its soldiers. It swooped in and snatched all remaining territory, forcing a surrender of the local Karabakh Armenian military forces – Armenia itself hardly had any real presence by this time – and the exodus of civilians began. As people lined up for fuel to flee, a huge gas depot exploded on Monday night. By the last known count, 68 people were incinerated; local hospitals lacked the medicine to treat hundreds of people with agonizing burn wounds.

The dream of unification among Karabakhi Armenians has long since died. Now the aim of independence or even autonomy has been crushed too. Azerbaijan demanded that the Armenian leadership dismantle all of its hard-built political institutions, and on Wednesday, the erstwhile Armenian Karabakhi leader Samvel Shahramanyan announced he was dissolving the de facto state. The region’s historic Armenian-Christian cultural heritage will now be lost to them too as they scatter.

Russian peacekeepering forces heading toward Nagorno Karabakh at the weekend. [Irakli Gedenidze | Reuters]

Azerbaijan, a predominantly secular Muslim state, has said its aim is “integration” – a word that sounds Orwellian in this context. While the situation is still highly fluid, Azerbaijan has conveyed its aims: the Karabakhi people are welcome to integrate (into its de facto dictatorship), but there is no indication of any remaining autonomy other than vague cultural and religious rights. They are also welcome to leave. “Voluntarily,” of course.

It’s not precisely a Nakba. For one thing, unlike the Palestinians, Armenians have an ethnic kin state and should not become stateless orphans without a homeland. But the parallels are haunting.

It’s a bitter irony to consider Israel’s role in both these events. All Jews should reckon with the fact that Israel has abandoned even a pretense of solidarity with Armenians due to the shared history of horrible persecution. Israel didn’t commit the assault on Karabakh last week, but it is widely presumed to be the largest supplier of arms to Azerbaijan. Flights to and from Azerbaijan spiked in the months ahead of the assault. Eyal Zamir, director general of Israel’s Defense Ministry, visited Azerbaijan’s defense minister literally the day before the offensive began.

Yom Kippur is over but Israel – and, I daresay, the world – must ask myriad profound questions about sins, mistakes and responsibility, for the past and the future.

What happened last week was an example of resolving conflict through crushing force, exposing the failures of a postwar, rules-based order that many already see as a farce. Can this system survive, and how? As predicted, Russia’s war of destruction on Ukraine has emboldened new aggressors; there is now a credible fear Azerbaijan will invade Armenia itself, ushering full-on war. Can anything be done?

What happened to protection of civilians? For nine months Azerbaijan starved the civilians of Karabakh, as if the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law protecting civilians in conflict zones didn’t exist. Will Azerbaijan face consequences for ethnic cleansing?

A refugee from Nagorno Karabakh looking through a window as his bus arrives in Armenia on Wednesday. [Irakli Gedenidze | Reuters]

The thorny issue of state borders competing with self-determination has never gone away. International law recognizes Azerbaijan’s sovereign right to the territory, but does the history of Armenians there, their status as a majority, combined with the violence they’ve suffered over the years and again now, confer moral and historic rights to decide their fate despite international law?

With the failures of international conflict resolution in places like Karabakh and Israel-Palestine as numerous as the few, often troubled successes, is peacemaking a failed prospect? Do ultranationalist authoritarian autocrats like Aliyev – and those closer to home – ultimately prove to be the geopolitical winners in today’s world? And will Israel remain on the wrong side of history when it comes to answering these questions?

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