- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2020

First 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.

With hundreds already dead on both sides and fears that an expanding war could draw in neighboring powers such as Russia, Turkey and Iran, European and U.S. diplomats have pressed in vain for a cease-fire and the renewal of diplomatic talks to end the crisis. In the first of two interviews, Washington Times reporter Lauren Toms discussed the fighting and what happens next with Azerbaijani Ambassador Elin Suleymanov. An interview with Armenia’s ambassador will run Friday.

Mr. Suleymanov’s answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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

Mr. Suleymanov: On Sept. 27, 2020, the armed forces of Armenia, by using large-caliber weapons, mortar launchers and artillery, launched attacks against positions of Azerbaijan causing human casualties and raising the tensions to a new dangerous level. This was not completely unexpected.

The latest provocation by Armenia follows the July 12-14 attacks against Azerbaijan across the international border in the Tovuz region in the vicinity of regional oil and gas pipelines, a vital part of Europe’s energy security. Similarly, the transportation infrastructure and the air corridor connecting Europe and Asia, including NATO transit to Afghanistan, pass through the same territory.

Extensive damage has been inflicted on many homes and other civilian infrastructure, including hospitals [and] medical centers. Targeting civilians is not [incidental] but a deliberate policy of the Armenian armed forces trying to expand the policy of total ethnic cleansing they used in the 1990s.

By attacking civilian targets, Armenia doubles down on its earlier terror tactic of causing mass displacement of Azerbaijan’s population. Armenia’s military commanders openly state that they have given direct orders to attack civilian targets.

Q: What is next in this conflict?

A: It is important to remember that all the fighting is taking place within the internationally recognized borders of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, it is Armenia that has occupied and committed ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijani lands for the last three decades, and recently, the Armenian defense minister publicly announced the policy of “new war, new territories.”

We do hope for the soonest resolution of the conflict, which would bring about lasting peace based on international law. It would also allow for both the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities of Nagorno-Karabakh to live next to each other in peace and security.

A lasting peace would allow for the region to realize its full potential and for Armenia to finally cease being an externally dependent relic of the USSR and to integrate with its neighbors. … We hope that the Armenian leaders will finally realize that we live in the 21st century and it’s time to put the future of the Armenian people and all citizens of the region above their personal political ambitions and narrow ethnic interests.

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: Reaching a cease-fire is important, and we appreciate [the] call for protection of civilians by the [leaders] of the United States, Russia and France, who are the co-chair countries of the OSCE Minsk Group, the main negotiating body for this conflict. The cease-fire lasted more or less for some 26 years, since May of 1994; however, this has not produced a lasting peace or security.

The reason for this is simple: The status quo of the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijan has been neither sustainable nor legal. … To have a truly lasting cease-fire — and hopefully a peace — Armenia needs to commit to fulfilling the four U.N. Security Council resolutions unequivocally calling for withdrawal of Armenian troops and respect to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. The same is at the core of the principles elaborated by the mediators of the Minsk Group and openly rejected by Armenia.

The sooner Armenia ceases its offensive operations against Azerbaijan — and I want to repeat that the Armenia military is now on the Azerbaijani territory, not the other way around — and accepts the timetable for ending the occupation, the sooner the cease-fire can be reached to end Armenia’s indiscriminate attacks.

The co-chairs should weigh in with Armenia to explain that any cease-fire should not be just a pause in fighting until the next confrontation, but a settlement benefiting the people of the entire region.

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

A: Russia is an important regional player and a neighbor of Azerbaijan. We understand that Russia is a close military ally of Armenia and Armenia hosts Russia’s military bases on its territory.

However, Azerbaijan has raised concern with the ongoing intensive deliveries of Russian weaponry to Armenia over the last several months. These deliveries take place over land and over airspace of Azerbaijan’s other neighbor, Iran. Such supplies of armaments to Armenia cause understandable concern in Azerbaijan.

Armenian leaders are desperately trying to provoke an Azerbaijani response against the territory of the Republic of Armenia, hoping to invoke treaty obligations of Russia within the Collective Security Treaty Organization. This shows Armenia’s intent to expand the scope of this conflict by dragging Russia directly into this confrontation as well as total disregard to safety of its own population. Along these lines, [Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan] raised the possibility of inviting Russian peacekeepers and asking Russia for a military intervention in his recent interviews.

While Azerbaijan appreciates Turkey’s moral and diplomatic support as well as its clear demand to end Armenia’s illegal occupation … Turkey is neither directly involved and is not a party to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, nor does Turkish military participate in fighting. Azerbaijan has a disciplined, well- equipped and well-trained 21st-century military, and there is no need for any additional outside forces.

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

A: Similar to Russia, the United States is both a Minsk Group co-chair and a U.N. Security Council permanent member. Therefore, the U.S. should have a keen interest in implementing the peace plan and the decisions by both international organizations, respectively.

Azerbaijan and the United States also enjoy a robust, multifaceted strategic partnership, which serves the mutual interests of both nations and the wider region. So, we hope that [the] U.S. maintains its role as an honest broker and an objective mediator. This is the key for successful peace negotiations, and it is important not to undermine the U.S. role and, in fact, the remaining credibility of the Minsk Group by taking sides in this conflict.

So far, the United States has been assertive and vocal in calling for cease-fire and protection of civilians; now it should actively push for peace by convincing Armenia to end hostilities within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders and begin withdrawing.

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

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