Armenians in Peril, Again

In the awful annals of the 20th century, two instances of genocide stand out. One of them, the Jewish Holocaust of 1942–1945, has spawned an enormous amount of literature. The other—the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915-1916—has been largely ignored, except by the Armenians themselves. The irony is that their fate was almost a prototype of the mass murder of Jews in Europe. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler asked rhetorically the members of his inner circle at the Berghof shortly before attacking Poland.

The numbers are still disputed, and estimates vary from at least 664,000 to as many as 1.2 million Armenians killed or starved to death by the Turks and their Kurdish helpers. Survivors of the massacre ended up scattered throughout the Middle East and in other parts of the world. Other Christian communities also suffered horribly in the final years of the Ottoman Empire. The bloodshed of 1915–1922 destroyed ancient Christian groups and cultures that had survived since Roman times, such as the Jacobites, Nestorians, and Chaldaeans.

The tragedy of Christian communities under Turkish rule, as Gladstone saw it at the time of the Bulgarian atrocities some four decades earlier, was not “a question of Mohammedanism simply, but of Mohammedanism compounded with the peculiar character of a race… Wherever they went, a broad line of blood marked the track behind them, and, as far as their dominion reached, civilization disappeared from view.”

The persecution of Christians culminated in their final expulsion from the newly founded Republic of Turkey in the early 1920s under Mustafa Kemal known as Ataturk, the same man who abolished the caliphate and separated the mosque and state. The fact that the final ethnic cleansing was carried out under the banner of resurgent Turkish nationalism, rather than Ottoman imperialism or Islamic intolerance, mattered but little to the victims. The end result was the same: churches demolished, and communities that used to worship in them dispersed or dead.

Over a century later the Armenians have their own nation-state, which emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union, but they are far from safe. The enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh provides a typical example of unsettled ethnic and territorial disputes which have resulted from the arbitrary drawing of internal boundaries between constituent republics by the communist leaders of multiethnic states—in the Soviet Union and in the former Yugoslavia alike. Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave inhabited by Armenians, but Stalin awarded it to the newly created Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan in the 1920s in a clear bid to buy the Azeris’ political loyalty to the Soviet state.

When the USSR disintegrated in 1992 the enclave’s Armenian inhabitants were adamant in their refusal to be absorbed by the newly independent Azerbaijan. The same dynamics were at play in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the Donbas, and the Crimea, where significant local majorities did not want to be ruled by the successor states which had a legal claim to those lands based on the communist-era borders drawn between the Soviet state’s constituent units.

There was a difference, however: other post-Soviet frozen conflicts did not entail a religious dimension. Most Ossetians, Georgians, Abkhazians, Russians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans are Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Armenians are also overwhelmingly Christian, but their Azeri foes are Sunni Muslims. This fact provides an important dimension to the conflict, the one which is almost inevitably present in many parts of the world where Islam meets non-Islam: the Balkans, Cyprus, Nigeria, Lebanon, Kashmir, Sinkyang, southern Philippines, etc. Having experienced unspeakable horrors at the hands of their Muslim neighbors during the Great War, at the time of the USSR’s disintegration the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh relied on their compatriots in Armenia proper to prevent their homeland’s absorption into Azerbaijan.

After an indecisive Azeri-Armenian war, which ended in 1994, almost two decades of frozen conflict ensued with the Armenians controlling the disputed territory. The Azeris made a successful surprise attack in September 2020 with Turkey’s unreserved support, however, and occupied a large part of the enclave. This conflict, known as the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, resulted in a mass exodus of the Armenian population from the territories ceded to Azerbaijan. The Russian-brokered peace agreement was rightly seen as a triumph by the Azeris, and it arguably prevented the “complete destruction of the surviving Armenian forces.”

The 44-day war, as it is also known on both sides, displayed Armenia’s acute geostrategic vulnerability. It is a landlocked country of three million people, sandwiched in just over 11,000 square miles of southern Caucasus, between Georgia, Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan. Smaller than Maryland and bereft of natural resources—unlike the oil and natural gas-rich Azerbaijan—Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and hosts more than 10,000 Russian soldiers, including a Russian peacekeeping force in the remaining Armenian-controlled areas of Nagorno-Karabakh. The country depends on Russia for its security, but it cannot count on its unreserved support because Moscow is also keen to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan. By contrast, Turkey is wholly committed to Baku’s interests, and its weapons—most notably drones—played the decisive role in Armenia’s defeat three years ago.

Despite ongoing peace agreement talks between Baku and Yerevan, tensions between the neighboring countries have escalated in recent months due to the Lachin Corridor, the only land route which links Armenia with the remaining Armenian-held areas of Nagorno Karabakh. Since last March it has been mostly blocked by the Azeris, reducing food and other essential supplies to a trickle and effectively trapping 120,000 Armenians still living there.

This is the context of the June statement by Sam Brownback, former ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, that the ongoing war between Azerbaijan and Armenia threatens the existence of Christian communities in the Near East. Brownback’s statement was made after he returned from a fact-finding trip to Armenia with the Christian human rights group Philos Project. According to the Catholic News Agency report, Brownback—a Catholic—called Islamic Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia and its ongoing blockade of the Nagorno-Karabakh region the latest attempt at “religious cleansing” of the Christian nation: “Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s backing, is really slowly strangling Nagorno-Karabakh. They’re working to make it unlivable so that the region’s Armenian-Christian population is forced to leave, that’s what’s happening on the ground.” The former ambassador added that if the United States does not intervene, “we will see again another ancient Christian population forced out of its homeland.”

Brownback called for Congress to pass a “Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Act” to “establish basic security guarantees” for the enclave’s population.” He also called on the U.S. to reinstate sanctions on Azerbaijan should it continue its blockade. Christians in the Near East have been subjected to similar attacks before, Brownback said, yet this time the religious cleansing is being “perpetrated with U.S.-supplied weaponry and backed by Turkey, a member of NATO.”

Brownback’s diagnosis is entirely correct, but it is most unlikely that his advice will be followed. The Biden administration has gone out of its way to woo Turkey’s wily president Erdoğan back into the Western camp. He remains adamant that Turkey will not join Western sanctions against Russia, but his long-delayed final agreement on Sweden’s NATO membership is a major boon to the current U.S. strategy. That this strategy makes no long-term sense is a different matter. For now, Turkey is yet again a cherished ally. Neither the White House nor the evenly-balanced Congress will compromise the current state of goodwill for the sake of a small Christian community in some God-forsaken land that has no strategic significance and no valuable resources.

This is not the first time that the religious cleansing of Christians in the Middle East is being perpetrated with U.S.-supplied weaponry. The decline of the Christian remnant in the Middle East has been accelerated in recent decades by the U.S. intervention in Iraq and by the support the Obama Administration has given to the “moderate rebels” —actually hard-line jihadists—in Syria. Once-thriving Christian communities in pre-2003 Iraq are now tiny minorities. They survive in Syria only thanks to the fact that the government in Damascus has prevailed, with Russian help, against the “moderate rebels.”

Lest we forget, in July 2012 the Department of State vigorously lobbied against proposed bipartisan Congressional legislation to send “protection envoys” to the Middle East to examine the position of the Christian minorities. The State Department called the protection envoy role “unnecessary, duplicative, and likely counter-productive.” By that time tens of thousands of Syria’s Christians had fled rebel-controlled areas as Islamists who dominated in the rebel ranks targeted them for murder, extortion, and kidnapping. The legislation went nowhere.

It is virtually certain that any comparable attempt today would encounter an even more vigorous pushback from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon. It is not realistic to expect that American politicians will risk ruining the renewed Turkish connection for the sake of a small Christian community in what is formally Azeri territory.

As per Thucydides, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. It applied to the Melians in the fifth century B.C. and it applies to the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh today.

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