- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2020

Second of two stories.

A cold, uneasy peace flared into a hot war when Azerbaijani and Armenian forces clashed once again late last month over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijani territory that has been a source of constant tension since the two countries were formed with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Azerbaijani Ambassador Elin Suleymanov answered questions from The Washington Times’ Lauren Toms on conflict and the U.S. role in Thursday’s edition. Today, Armenian Ambassador Varuzhan Nersesyan offers the point of view from Yerevan.

Question: How did both sides arrive at this point of escalation?

Answer: This war broke out on Sept. 27, 2020, when Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military offensive against Artsakh [Editor’s note: Armenia’s name for the region of Nagorno-Karabakh], violating a cease-fire agreement that had been in place since 1994. That is the last time when the region saw clashes on the scale and magnitude that we see today. However, smaller but still violent breaches of the cease-fire did occur over the past several years, for example in April 2016 and most recently in July 2020.

Azerbaijan has never made a secret of its intention to seize Artsakh by force and drive its people out. Despite years of negotiations under an international mediation framework co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France, Azerbaijan has continuously rejected attempts to resolve the conflict through negotiated compromise. Instead, it has used its oil proceeds and dubious international deals to fund a multibillion-dollar military buildup, which it wants to use to turn the tide in this conflict in its favor.

In the present fragile state of international relations, further exacerbated by COVID-19, Azerbaijan appears to have sensed an opportunity to apply maximum and deadly force, when in its view the world may not be paying attention. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, having already engaged in civil wars in Syria and Libya, and meddled in Lebanon and the Aegean, now has his eyes on the Caucasus, where he views Armenia and Artsakh as obstacles to this grand plan. Therefore, he encourages Azerbaijan to attack and provides it with diplomatic, political and military support, including deploying Islamist mercenaries from Syria to fight against the Armenians.

So far, however, Armenia and Artsakh have held strong. As in any war, there is tragic cost to pay. There are casualties on both sides, including among civilians, and heavy destruction of property and infrastructure. Azerbaijan has also massively used banned cluster munitions to shell Artsakh’s towns and villages — another sign of its brutal, scorched-earth method to inflict pain, suffering and destruction on the people of Artsakh.

Q: Where do the two sides go from here?

A: There should be no doubt that the use of force is not a helpful method to achieve any solution in Artsakh. Armenia calls for the immediate and unconditional halt of hostilities and a return to negotiations without preconditions. Azerbaijan, however, emboldened with Turkey’s support, continues to reject that and demands concessions before the sides sit down to negotiate.

Armenia hopes that the international community will bring pressure on Azerbaijan and Turkey to stop fighting and come to the negotiating table. Until then, Armenia will continue to support the people of Artsakh in exercising its inalienable right to self-defense. Artsakh fights for its survival. The continuing brutal aggression against the people of Artsakh by Azerbaijan and Turkey in order to subdue it by force demonstrates just how well-founded our concerns are and how high the stakes. In this existential struggle, Armenia stands with Artsakh.

Q: Calls have been growing for a cease-fire. What would be required for that outcome, and would both sides adhere to the terms?

A: There must be an immediate and unconditional cessation of hostilities for the parties to start negotiating. No peace talks can occur when the war is raging.

We urge Artsakh’s return to the negotiating table, as one of the three original signatories of the 1994 cease-fire agreement and a party to the conflict whose commitment to and assurance in the irreversibility of the peace process are perhaps most vital for that process to succeed.

As a matter of urgency, we also want to have [an] investigative mechanism in place between Artsakh and Azerbaijan, with proper monitoring and verification of the cease-fire, to minimize the likelihood of resumption of military activities in the future. The primary obstacle to this is Azerbaijan’s intransigence, bolstered by Turkey’s support.

Q: Russia and Turkey both have unique interests in this conflict. What are you expecting to see from the Russian government backing Armenian forces?

A: Armenia has not put forward any formal request to Russia for military assistance to Armenian forces. We do welcome Russia’s diplomatic engagement and hope that its pressure, alongside that of the international community, on Turkey and Azerbaijan to stop the aggression will be effective.

We expect the same especially from the other OSCE mediators, the United States and France. Other than that, Russia does have mutual defense treaty obligations towards Armenia should Armenia come under direct military attack by a third party.

Q: Do you believe the U.S. should play a greater role in the crisis, and are you satisfied with the U.S. response thus far?

A: The United States is indispensable to the cause of a peaceful and lasting negotiated resolution in Artsakh. As a key mediator and a global power, the United States can be decisive in keeping Turkey out of the conflict to prevent the inevitable drawing of others into it.

Turkey is key to bringing this war to an end. Its actions are crucial to Azerbaijan’s ability to continue fighting: unconditional support for Azerbaijan’s military aggression; supply of weapons, officers and other military aid; supply of Islamist militant mercenaries from Syria to Azerbaijan to fight against the Armenians. Turkey is expanding the geography of its proxy wars it has now been fighting for quite some time, both along its borders and beyond. Turkey has become a serious threat to global security and must be stopped.

We hope that the United States brings its authority, weight and influence to halt Turkey’s unbridled meddling in this and other conflicts. There are many mechanisms that can be used to discourage Turkey from threatening global security, and we are hopeful that the United States will consider applying them.

More broadly, an active U.S. political, diplomatic and economic engagement can help bring stability, economic development and security in our region. We look forward to working with the United States and others in all these areas and hope that peace will prevail.

• Lauren Toms can be reached at lmeier@washingtontimes.com.

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