- - Thursday, May 16, 2019

There is renewed momentum building for the peaceful resolution of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the U.S. Congress can play a very constructive role in ensuring that this momentum is maintained.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have bipartisan congressional caucuses dedicated to their respective positions as it concerns their “frozen conflict.” Members of the U.S. Congress who serve on their respective Armenia and Azerbaijan caucuses have a historic opportunity to help end this 30-year-old conflict and promote American interests in a strategically important region of the broader Middle East.

At the outset, it is very important to note that the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not religious in nature. Before conflict erupted in 1989, Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side by side throughout the villages, towns and cities in the Caucuses. At its core, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabagh, an enclave within the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan whose population is majority Armenian.

Today, Armenian forces not only control the territory of Nagorno-Karabagh but occupy seven districts within Azerbaijan that surround Nagorno-Karabagh. And while a ceasefire holds between the two sides, the possibility of renewed conflict and escalation into all-out war exists. Given the entangled alliances between Azerbaijan, Turkey, Israel and the United States on one side and Armenia’s strategic and historic relations with Russia and Iran on the other hand, renewed fighting can drag world powers into this conflict.

Thankfully, recent events have tipped the scales from major escalation to the possibility of a peace agreement. The election of Nikol Pashinyan on a platform of economic reform and stamping out corruption within Armenia, National Security Adviser John Bolton’s visit to the region last October, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s encouragement of meetings between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan and the March 29 official summit between Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan have created a positive outlook for a peace agreement.

Ironically, both the speaker of the House and Senate majority leader are strong supporters of Armenia and thus well positioned to encourage members of the Armenian Caucus to work closely with member of the Azerbaijan Caucus to draft a simple resolution encouraging that this momentum be sustained. A simple congressional resolution written in cooperation between the Armenian and Azerbaijan caucuses will send a powerful message to not only the leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan but to the peoples of the both countries that the United States is fully committed to a fair and equitable resolution of the conflict.

This simple resolution by both the Senate and House should stipulate the following. First, the overall message to the Trump administration is that it has the full blessing of the U.S. Congress to employ every aspect of America’s diplomatic, economic and commercial arsenal towards the resolution of this conflict. President Trump and his foreign policy team need to know that in their quest for peace, members of the U.S. Congress will be their allies.

Second, “low cost” confidence building measures by both Armenia and Azerbaijan should be encouraged as a means to institutionalize the entire peace process. Furthermore, Laurence Broers, a scholar at Chatham House and one of the world’s leading experts on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict has laid out a comprehensive series of structural confidence building measures that can be included in this congressional resolution. Congressional sponsorship of a friendly soccer match in Washington, D.C., between the national teams of Armenia and Azerbaijan would be a good example of a “low cost” confidence building measure.

Third, this simple resolution must acknowledge that while the final contours of an agreement must be negotiated between the two parties, the basic principles of a peace agreement should include the following: the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied territories, the deployment of peacekeeping troops (the Armenian population’s security needs must be addressed), the return of displaced persons and the highest level of autonomy for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabagh. These core basic principles have been agreed to by the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group (Russia, France and the United States) responsible for the resolution of the conflict.

Fourth, members of Congress should task the Departments of State, Commerce and Energy to put together a post-conflict economic reconstruction package with accompanying video to present to the peoples of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The peace dividend needs to be spelled out for both parties but especially for the people in Armenia whose newly elected leader has promised economic development. Included in this package should be regional projects such as a high-speed rail-link between Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan.

Finally, it might be useful if members of the U.S. Congress coordinate and collaborate with the French National Assembly. France has deep historic ties with Armenia and unlike the United States, France has acknowledged the genocide of Armenians in 1915.

Elie Weisel once said that “peace is not God’s gift to his creatures; peace is our gift to each other.” The U.S. Congress has been given a historic opportunity to give the gift of peace to the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

• S. Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.

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