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Last week, Azerbaijan reignited its long-simmering war with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The region, known in Armenian as Artsakh, has a Christian Armenian population of about 150,000, which makes it a minority territory in Muslim Azerbaijan (population 10 million).

Thirty years ago, in response to discriminatory treatment and outright pogroms against Armenians, the region declared independence. Armenia (population 3 million) supported Karabakh—though it has never formally recognized its independence—and a bloody war followed, in which 30,000 people died and hundreds of thousands on both sides became refugees. Against all odds, Armenia and Karabakh prevailed and established a buffer zone comprising perhaps 20 percent of Azeri territory. 

An unstable ceasefire has held since 1994. But last week, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive against Karabakh and Armenia itself. This is more serious than past Azeri efforts to break the stalemate. Flush with petrodollars, Azerbaijan has purchased a large stockpile of heavy weapons, which it now employs against Armenia. Moreover, Turkey (population 80 million), which borders Armenia on the other side, is supporting Azerbaijan. Azeris are a Turkic people, though they are Shia, not Sunni, Muslims, and the Erdogan government sees the conflict as a way to pursue its goal of pan-Turanism. Turkey has supplied Azerbaijan with military advisers and equipment, including drones and fighter jets and thousands of Islamist soldiers from Syria, who fight for Azerbaijan on the front lines. 

Americans have other crises on their minds. But it’s important to understand what is happening in the South Caucasus, and to do that, one must appreciate the history of the region and avoid some misimpressions about what is happening. 

One needs to go back at least a century, to the collapse of the Ottoman and Czarist Empires. The two empires had long contested the border between them, which ran to the southwest of the Caucasus. Armenians, an ancient Christian people who lived on both sides of the border, found themselves in the crosshairs. During World War I, fearful that Armenians on the border would rise up and side with Russia—some Armenians did fight with the Russians, but many others fought with the Ottomans, and the Armenian threat was always exaggerated—the Ottoman government undertook an ethnic cleansing campaign, killing millions of Armenians and other Christians in the Armenian Genocide. 

The Genocide eliminated Turkey’s once sizable Christian population. It likely would have eliminated the Armenian population on the other side of the border, too, except that a hastily-organized Armenian militia stopped a Turkish army in 1918 at the Battle of Sardarabad, which took place just outside the city of Yerevan, today Armenia’s capital. Sardarabad is unknown in the West, but the image of a small group of Christian Armenians fighting, alone, to stop a Muslim Turkish army bent on their annihilation is a powerful part of Armenian consciousness today.

When the war ended, the Soviet Union quickly settled the border dispute with Turkey, giving up some historic Armenian lands around the city of Kars, and took over the Caucasus and divided it among the region’s ethnic groups. The Soviets initially promised to place Karabakh, whose Armenian identity dated back many centuries and whose population was more than 90 percent Armenian, in the new Soviet Republic of Armenia. But Stalin, as commissar for nationalities, decided to place the region in Azerbaijan instead, as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy. Armenians never accepted the decision and, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the nations of the Caucasus gained independence, the conflict over the region resumed. 

For Armenians, then, the Karabakh conflict is part of a long, existential struggle. When they hear the U.N. and foreign governments talk about the inviolability of borders, they wonder why Stalin-era decisions that refused to account for their concerns, and which expose them to grave danger, should have such purchase today. They are willing to reach a negotiated solution; it would be in Armenia’s interests, since the war is a drain on the country’s development. But they remember the Genocide and fear what would happen to Christian Armenians if they agreed to evacuate and return Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Given past history, foreign assurances of protection ring hollow.

And here it is necessary to clear up some misimpressions. As the history shows, there is a religious component in the conflict. But this is not simply about Christians vs. Muslims. (There sometimes seem to be two kinds of Western analysts of the Mideast, those who argue that religion explains everything and those who argue that religion explains nothing; both are wrong.) Many in the West assume that Russia supports its fellow Christians in Armenia. That’s true to a point; Russia has military bases in Armenia and a defense treaty with the country. But, just as was the case 100 years ago, Russia is a very uncertain ally. Russia sells weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and so far has stated it will remain neutral in the conflict. It’s not inconceivable that Russia will look to make a deal with Turkey at Armenia’s expense, as it did 100 years ago. 

Then there is Iran. Armenia’s fifth-century struggle against Iran to preserve its Christian identity plays a large role in the nation’s self-image, but Armenia enjoys reasonably good relations with its neighbor, notwithstanding the absence of religious ties. Outsiders should not be quick to judge Armenia for this. The Caucasus is a bad neighborhood and a small, landlocked country needs friends where it can find them. Besides, as of this writing, Iran, like Russia, has signaled its neutrality in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Finally, the Azeri claim that Armenia started the current conflict is not credible. Armenia occupies an advantageous position, militarily; there would be no reason for Armenia to upset the situation. Plus, Armenia is outnumbered and cannot count on outside assistance. Picking a fight with Azerbaijan in these circumstances would be foolhardy. At this writing, Azerbaijan is shelling civilians in Karabakh with cluster bombs, which shows that Armenians cannot count on Azeri restraint.

One hopes for a just and peaceful solution. Too many are dying and a wider regional conflict in the South Caucasus, which could disrupt energy supply lines for Europe, would be a disaster. For now, though, Christian Armenia finds itself fighting for its existence, more or less on its own, against long odds. It’s a precarious situation, but Armenia has been there before. Remember Sardarabad. 

Mark L. Movsesian co-directs the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion.

Photo by Joaoleitao via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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