Armenian Tensions with Tel Aviv on the Rise Over Azeri-Israeli Military Ties

Uriel Irigaray Araujo, VT UnCensored Foreign Policy, 22 October 2023

Much has been written on the ongoing crisis in Palestine and its international consequences. For one thing, US President Joe Biden’s plans to request the largest aid package for Ukraine ever (another $100 billion) are becoming increasingly less likely to materialize now that the pressure for Washington to boost its support for Israel will increase.  A lot of attention is also being given to Israeli-Iranian tensions, for instance. But not much is being said about the impact that the new Israeli war might have on Armenia.

Armenians have been going through their plight, largely ignored by most of the international community. By September 30, in less than a week, over 100,000 people had been reported to have fled the Nagorno-Karabakh region, also known as Artsakh, historically considered to be a sacred homeland of Armenians on the disputed Armenian-Azerbaijani border (quite arbitrarily incorporated into Azerbaijan in the early Soviet years).

The unresolved conflict has been going on, and, more recently, the US-led West has largely benefited from it. Then, on September 28, the de facto separatist republic of Artsakh ceased to exist after the Azerbaijani authorities in Baku’s successful September 19 military campaign, which involved drone strikes and heavy artillery, to dissolve what was an “illegal regime” from their perspective. Thus, as mentioned, almost the entire population of ethnic Armenians has left the former Armenian enclave since neighboring Azerbaijan militarily seized the area. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev boasted that Baku’s sovereignty over the region had been restored “with an iron fist.” According to international law expert (and also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) David J. Scheffer, “the ethnic Armenian population of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan, a largely Christian community in a predominantly Muslim nation, is experiencing ethnic cleansing at warp speed.”

Armenia’s ambassador-at-large, Edmon Marukyan, interviewed by the BBC, also described the situation as people being “ethnically cleansed from their ancestral homeland, from their homes, where their parents, where their ancestors were living and these people were cleansed from this territory.” Salpi H. Ghazarian, a director at the USC Dornsife Institute of Armenian Studies, has described the current crisis as “the greatest Armenian catastrophe since the genocide of Ottoman Armenians in 1915.” Since December 2022, writes Diana Roy (a Council on Foreign Relations editor), residents of Nagorno-Karabakh’s living conditions have been “deteriorating”, “after Azerbaijan restricted access and later established a blockade of the Lachin Corridor.”

This begs the question of why Washington won’t support Armenia and Artsakh, even after Secretary of State Antony Blinken, last week, warned that Azerbaijan could soon invade Armenia, according to Politico. US special relationship with Israel may provide part of the answer, according to Harut Sassounian, head of the United Armenian Fund, and a former non-governmental delegate on human rights to the United Nations in Geneva. Israeli weapons manufacturers, he notes, provide 60% of Azerbaijan’s advanced arms.

Moreover, the AP reported that the Jewish state helped Baku’s capture of Artsakh, supplying it with powerful weapons just weeks before the operation. Arman Akopian, Armenia’s ambassador to Israel, put it quite bluntly: “For us, it is a major concern that Israeli weapons have been firing at our people.” In July, Yoav Gallant, Israeli Defense Minister visited Baku and praised both countries’ joint “fight against terrorism” and military cooperation. The country is a major supplier of oil to Tel Aviv, plus it is a strategic ally against their common enemy Iran.

That being so, quite predictably, anti-Israeli feelings in Armenia are on the rise among the general public. Antisemitism has also been given a boost: in early October an Armenian radical group, the Young Fighters for the Freedom of Armenia, for instance, attacked a Jewish synagogue in Yerevan, with spray and a Molotov cocktail, over Israeli-Azeri ties.

Israel has been the target of heavy criticism and demonstrations internationally over its intense bombing of civilian targets in Palestine after being attacked by Hamas. On Oct. 13, Christian Patriarchs and church leaders in Jerusalem, including the (Roman Catholic) Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, issued a joint statement demanding Tel Aviv avoid killing innocents. The Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Raphael Schutz, strongly criticized the document over the fact that it did not condemn Hamas.

Reports about Christian holy sites and churches also being targeted (such as the Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius) could also spark outrage among Christians in general and particularly in the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox (“pre-Chalcedon”) parts of the world, such as in Armenia. The humanitarian crises in both Armenia and Palestine are heated ethnic-politic conflicts that also have religious implications for many, with potential repercussions worldwide.

Meanwhile, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan now faces massive demonstrations in Yerevan and nationwide over the crisis. His pivoting to the West, I argue, has been mostly a failure. Pashinyan’s campaign to have his country join the International Criminal Court, after it issued a controversial arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin may have thrown cold water on the already damaged Russian-Armenian relations. Pashinyan’s new Western allies will simply not act as guarantors of his nation’s security the way Moscow did, with  2,000 Russian soldiers deployed as peacekeeping forces.

As I wrote, besides being a humanitarian catastrophe, the victory of Turkey-backed Azerbaijan tremendously complicates the already complex balance of power in the South Caucasus, a region where Israel also has its stakes. The former close relations with Azerbaijan and their arms trade are increasingly under scrutiny, and Western countries may pressure Tel Aviv to rethink it, while Israel already has to deal with all the bad press caused by its military campaign on Palestine. To sum it up, while there is geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East, Israel’s concerns also extend to the South Caucasus.

Uriel Irigaray Araujo, is from Sao Paulo Brasil.  He is a researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.  He is currently working on his Ph.D
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