- - Wednesday, April 13, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Azerbaijan and Armenia have declared a cease fire in Azerbaijan’s mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region, halting what was one of the most intense rounds of fighting and violence in the region since the countries’ original cease fire in 1994.

The latest cease fire is not monumental. There has been a cease fire in the region for 22 years.

Fighting between the Armenia and Azerbaijan started more than 30 years ago, in the late 1980s. It escalated into a full-fledged war in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed. More than 30,000 people were killed before a cease fire was instituted. Since then, sporadic, unenthusiastic and ineffective efforts have been made by the Minsk Group — co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation and the United States — to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Congress must understand that an extended cease fire between Azerbaijan and Armenia won’t stick. Now is the time to take action toward a peaceful and complete reconciliation between the two countries.

What’s wrong with the status quo?

For starters, as a result of the Armenian occupation, around 1 million Azerbaijanis have been forced to flee their homes; one in nine people in Azerbaijan are considered internally displaced persons or refugees. That is an international crisis.

Second, the U.N. Security Council has recognized Azerbaijan’s right to this territory with Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884, among others. Armenia has continued to ignore the resolutions. By sitting idly, the United States looks weak and sends a less-than-caring message to its ally Azerbaijan.

Third, while there may be another cease fire now — and it may even stick for months — keeping the status quo is like standing by a volcano waiting for it to erupt. Nagorno-Karabakh has erupted many times, making the status quo not only unacceptable but also unsustainable.

Fourth: Oil and gas. Azerbaijan is the champion and most important player in the $45 billion international Southern Gas Corridor pipeline project to bring new gas supplies to the European market. This project is arguably the global oil and gas industry’s most significant and ambitious undertaking yet. Armenian commanders have more than once threatened to attack Azerbaijan’s oil and gas infrastructure, and some of the fighting that took place in recent weeks was not far from the route of the oil pipeline. If the line was attacked, this would drastically slow down and potentially put on hold a project in which seven European governments and 11 companies are invested. This, not to mention that European energy security is at stake.

Finally, and most importantly, is the fact that with every day the cease fire holds, Moscow’s influence in the region grows. Many experts believe it was Moscow that tasked Armenia, Russia’s vassal state and puppet, with the initial attack to serve as a warning to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who was in Washington, D.C. at the time for the Nuclear Security Summit. Armenia in recent years has effectively become an extension of Russian military in the region.

Yet it was also Moscow that brokered the cease fire agreement, which significantly increased Russia’s diplomatic profile in the region.

On the surface, Russia appears a doer of good deeds, but this shift in diplomatic profile is intentional and confrontational toward Azerbaijan and its close ties with the United States, which Russia strongly discourages. It was only months ago that Armenia announced that, in addition to joining the Eurasian Customs Union, Moscow’s answer to the European Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow’s counter to NATO, Armenia would coordinate all foreign affairs with Moscow. This is in addition to the $200 million export loan Russia provided Armenia in February to finance the delivery of Russian military products, including Russian Smerch rocket launchers and ammunition, Igla-S air defense missile systems, RPG-26 grenade launchers and more.

Moscow is on Armenia’s side. Moscow owns Yerevan lock, stock and barrel.

If Moscow’s participation becomes any deeper, the Turks will undoubtedly involve themselves, too; Turkey backs fraternal Azerbaijan. The result may be a regional war with two major powers and militaries fighting on the periphery, while supporting the two central players as proxies.

The region cannot afford another flash point.

Congress: Now is the time to step in and forestall the Russians and ensure justice in the region.

Force Armenia to remove its troops from the region. Allow Azerbaijani refugees to return to their homes. And reconvene the Minsk Process to produce a peaceful and lasting solution to the conflict.

Anything less than immediate and strong action by Congress on behalf of our Azerbaijani allies is hopeless.

Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman, a director of international communications for a Israeli think tank, is a former editor for the Jerusalem Post and a former editor in chief of the Baltimore Jewish Times.


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