Tensions between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia on the fate of the Nagorno-Karabakh region are reaching dangerous levels. In the past year, the Azeri enclave in the South Caucasus, which Armenia has occupied since 1992, has been the focus of increased violence. Just last month, six people were killed in an exchange of fire across the temporary line that separates the two sides.
Prospects of another war in the Caspian Sea region are real. But as the rhetoric heats up, little is heard from Washington. Azerbaijan, America’s closest ally in the region, deserves more direct and concrete support from the Obama administration.
Pinned between Iran and Russia on the ancient Silk Road bridging Europe and Asia, this former Soviet republic is an indispensable strategic partner. It is known mostly for its very significant oil and natural gas reserves, but it also is becoming a decisively vital source of support for Washington’s push to end the Afghanistan quagmire. The United States has routinely used Azeri airports in support of NATO and U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, and thousands of flights carrying supplies to and from the Afghan theater have crossed Azeri airspace over the past nine years since Sept. 11, 2001.
What is far less known is that the capital, Baku, also has become a credible sounding board on sensitive political developments. This translates into helping the Obama administration’s foreign policy team get a sensible and qualified reading on Russia’s aggressive political posture in the Caucasus and on an exceedingly defiant Iran.
But neither Mr. Obama nor his senior aides have come up with a serious plan to jump-start negotiations with Armenia on Nagorno-Karabakh. It took more than a year for the administration to pick an ambassador to Azerbaijan, and Mr. Obama has yet to meet with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. Worse, unlike in the Middle East, no special envoy has been appointed to help - and ultimately replace - the idling Minsk Group.
A cautious and passive America in the Caucasus will only embolden an increasingly aggressive Russia. Mr. Obama must help defuse a potentially disastrous international conflict - before it is too late.
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