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.
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