CNEWA Canada

Renewed Fighting Between Azerbaijan and Armenia Raising Fears of Ethnic Cleansing

This story was originally published in America magazine.

Update: Azerbaijan and Armenian forces reached a cease-fire agreement on 20 September to end two days of fighting in the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region, officials on both sides said. Azerbaijani authorities said they halted the military operation launched a day earlier once separatist officials announced laying down arms. Talks between Azerbaijani officials and the region’s ethnic Armenian authorities on its “re-integration” into Azerbaijan were scheduled to begin on 21 September. Despite warnings to remain in bombs shelters, ethnic Armenians have been gathering at the airport in Stepanakert, seeking to flee the region. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said his government was not involved in the ceasefire negotiation. On 19 September he accused Azerbaijan of “ethnic cleansing” in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Reports of renewed fighting in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan raise concerns that a full-scale war in the region could soon resume between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The two former Soviet republics have faced off for more than three decades over control of the mountainous territory and engaged in two major conflicts to try to resolve the disputing claims. Now many fear an endgame in the region will mean widespread loss of life and ethnic cleansing of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh unless global attention can be redirected to the crisis.

Humanitarian aid into Artsakh, as the enclave is known to the 120,000 ethnic Armenians who have lived there for centuries, finally began moving on 17 September when two routes into the region were simultaneously opened. One, the Lachin corridor, begins in Armenia and the other route in Azerbaijan, recognizing a long-standing demand of Azeri officials who have been seeking to drive home Azerbaijan’s territorial claim to the region.

The breakthrough on aid shipments this month aimed at relieving hunger and humanitarian need inside Artsakh, but that effort has been quickly complicated by renewed fighting between Azeri and Armenian forces on 19 September.

Officials in the self-declared republic of Artsakh reported that scores of soldiers and civilians have been killed after Azerbaijan’s military rained artillery on Armenian positions around the breakaway region’s capital of Stepanakert. Azerbaijan military justified the renewed fighting as a response to attacks and land mine detonations they blame on Armenian forces.

Ethnic Armenian authorities in the breakaway region urged Azerbaijan to sit down for talks toward restoring a ceasefire, but Azerbaijan’s presidential administration said that its “anti-terrorist operation” would continue until “illegal Armenian military formations” surrender and the separatist government of Nagorno-Karabakh dismantles itself.

Although Azerbaijan said the operation was limited to military targets, the Defense Ministry said “humanitarian corridors” had been created to evacuate the population.

Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank, said the military operation could be part of a plan by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to get ethnic Armenians to leave the area.

Although he said it was still early to assess, it could be “a kind of limited military action which will try to coerce thousands of Armenians to flee to Armenia. And then Aliyev can achieve his objective of taking over Karabakh with not so much bloodshed,” Mr. de Waal said.

The renewed conflict came just hours after stores of flour and medical supplies began to trickle into Artsakh, where a separatist militia and elements of the Armenian army are standing against Azeri forces. Red Cross officials had staged tons of relief supplies just outside the Lachin corridor but had been prevented from delivering the aid since last December. Ethnic Armenians within the enclave have been completely cut off from supply lines and reports have been surfacing of starvation and increasingly desperate conditions inside the enclave.

Speaking just hours before the fighting began afresh, Ariane Bauer, the regional director for Europe and Central Asia for the International Committee of the Red Cross, had been expressing relief that the Lachin corridor had finally been reopened.

Inside the ethnic Armenian enclave of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh, she said, “Health structures are lacking medical supplies. People are queuing hours for bread. They urgently need sustained relief through regular humanitarian shipments. This consensus has allowed our teams to resume this life-saving work.”

Last week a Caritas Internationalis official, speaking in Freiburg, Germany, urged the reopening of the Lachin corridor. “The supply situation is extremely difficult and deteriorating by the day. The people urgently need help,” the official said, adding, “Hunger is obviously being used as a weapon here.”

During recent congressional testimony in Washington, the Azeri effort to isolate ethnic Armenians in Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh was called “genocide by starvation.”

Now that the conflict has turned hot again, it is unclear if any humanitarian aid will get through to the embattled community where many are already extremely weakened by hunger. Michael La Civita, the director of communications for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, described acute need on the ground in Artsakh, with some elderly Armenians and others suffering from chronic health problems already succumbing to starvation.

Renewed fighting in 2020 ended with Azeri forces reclaiming territory that had been held for decades by Armenia. The standoff has prevented farmers in the region from working their fields since then and now with winter coming the threat of many more deaths from hunger is looming, Mr. La Civita warned. His agency, CNEWA, supports the work of Caritas Armenia, a Catholic humanitarian agency that has been assisting refugees and wounded soldiers from the conflict zone since the fighting flared anew.

The Armenians of Artsakh find themselves the victims of historical injustices and contemporary regional and great power struggles. The community is literally in the way of Azeri territorial claims and Turkish ambitions for an expanding sphere of influence at the same time larger players like the Russian Federation and the United States have become distracted by the war in Ukraine.

Mr. La Civita noted that both Georgia and Armenia, largely Christian nations, have emerged as unfortunate focus points in a new competition for territory and influence in the Caucasus.

He said clear efforts have been made throughout the region to “erase” the history and presence of Armenian Christians, with many religious sites and artifacts destroyed or defaced as Azeris reclaimed territory lost to Armenian forces. He acknowledged that Azeris made similar charges after Armenians took control of their communities at the conclusion of the first war for Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994.

The Caucasus, he said, is a “center of commerce historically; it’s where East and West and North and South meet.”

“Mosul [in Iraq] is only 300 miles away. Tehran is only 1000 miles away…. There’s this great confluence of culture there, and there are two Christian pockets in a world around them that is largely hostile.”

“The church there,” he added, “has an important role to play, working with all of the communities but particularly with those that are most vulnerable. That’s our focus.”

Some Russian forces are still on the ground in Armenia but have not performed a promised role to keep the Lachin corridor open and the peace protected. Analysts say recent signs of cooperation with the United States, including a joint military exercise with U.S. forces on 11 September, have jeopardized Armenia’s relationship with Russia, its only protector in an increasingly threatening region.

In recent years, Azerbaijan, flush with new oil and natural gas wealth, has been able to greatly modernize and expand its military with purchases of hi-tech weapons, including combat drones, from Russia, Turkey and Israel. In a second war for the territory that began in late September 2020, the Azeri army easily swept Armenian forces out of larges tracts of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Speaking before a Senate committee in Washington on Sept. 14, Yuri Kim, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, sought to reassure Senate leaders that the Biden administration had not forgotten Artsakh’s calamity. She told Senate leaders that the State Department has been working intensely to address the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“We are deeply concerned by the continued closure of the Lachin corridor and the impacts this closure is having on the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Ms. Kim said, noting that the Biden administration considered the status quo “completely unacceptable.”

“We have consistently said the corridor must be open to commercial, humanitarian and private traffic. We have conveyed this message both publicly and privately to all levels of the government of Azerbaijan on numerous occasions. Access to food, medicine, baby formula, and energy should never be held hostage.”

Ms. Kim added: “I want to be clear about a critical issue: the United States will not countenance any action or effort—short-term or long-term—to ethnically cleanse or commit other atrocities against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. The current humanitarian situation is not acceptable. Humanitarian access through the Lachin corridor and other routes must be made available now.”

Cars damaged by Azerbaijan’s attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh on 19 September. (photo: courtesy Artsakh Information Center)

Just days earlier a former International Criminal Court official called the acts of the Azeri government in blockading the Armenian enclave “genocide by starvation,” during a congressional hearing convened by Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey. Mr. Smith urged the U.S. State Department to take stronger measures to ensure that food and humanitarian assistance be allowed into Artsakh, calling the current situation “a three-alarm fire.”

“The Biden Administration must say immediately that this is genocide—and put a stop to it,” Mr. Smith said.

In a report filed with his testimony during the hearing, Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former I.C.C. prosecutor, said the blockade of the Lachin corridor by Azerbaijani security forces impeding access to food and medical supplies should be considered genocide under Article II, (c) of the United Nation’s convention on genocide: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.”

According to Mr. Moreno Ocampo’s report: “There are no crematories, and there are no machete attacks. Starvation is the invisible Genocide weapon. Without immediate dramatic change, this group of Armenians will be destroyed in a few weeks.”

Mr. Moreno Ocampo has acknowledged producing his report in August at the request of the president of the breakaway republic of Artsakh. The international community, including the United States, has recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan and called for the dispute to be resolved through peaceful negotiation.

Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, co-chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission with Mr. Smith. McGovern issued a statement on 14 September to America, just after the apparent lifting of the blockade of the Lachin corridor had been announced.

“I remain extremely concerned by the reports I’ve seen of the humanitarian crisis in Artsakh,” he said. “I’m glad an agreement was reached to reopen the Lachin corridor, but closing it off was a violation of international law to begin with, and the Azeri government should never have done so.”

The Congressman expressed his strong support for U.N.-led negotiations to resolve the long-standing autonomy and self-determination issues of the enclave. “The bottom line is that the well-being of entire communities must never be used as a geopolitical bargaining chip,” he said. “I remain adamant in support of the people of Artsakh and a peaceful, democratic, negotiated resolution that treats the people of Artsakh and Armenians everywhere with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

With reporting from The Associated Press

Kevin Clarke is America’s chief correspondent.

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