September 28, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 527

Gradually And Then Suddenly: Artsakh's Lessons For Potential Victims And Victimizers

September 28, 2023 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
South Caucasus | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 527

It would be easy to say that Azerbaijan's corrupt, blustering dictator Ilham Aliyev has outsmarted and outplayed the Biden Administration and the leadership of the European Union. But that is not the whole truth. The truth is that they wanted to be played when it came to the inconvenient existence of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is a problem they wished would go away. An ancient Christian people living for centuries in their mountainous homeland, they were placed within the borders of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic by then Soviet Commissar for Nationalities Joseph Stalin in 1923.[1] Once the Soviet Union cracked up, those borders were largely treated as sacrosanct by the international community. As of late September 2023, it seems that the survival of the Armenians of Artsakh (as they called their homeland) has been extinguished by the Aliyev regime after nine months of increasing hunger and suffering followed by a short but bloody invasion.

But beyond the very real ethnic cleansing of Karabakh's Armenians, under the very noses of the US, EU and UN, what are the implications going ahead beyond the confines of that immediate conflict?

It seems clear that going ahead, in many cases, territorial lines on a map will matter more than the fate of the people, often vulnerable ethnic or religious minorities, within those borders. In many situations, we will see a return to the old reality where territorial sovereignty matters most and where the rhetoric of human rights and responsibility to protect will remain just that – rhetoric, posturing, and nothing more. As Michael Rubin noted recently, China can make the case now that Taiwan is just as much theirs as Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan.[2]

Of course, there does seem to be places where borders don't matter. Karabakh Armenians or Uyghurs or Rohingya are to be crushed by the regimes that control those populations within their borders. The great exception to this new rise of sovereignty is the West itself – the borders of the United States of America and the European Union, those borders seem quite permeable, unlike the eleven kilometers that separated the starving besieged Armenians of Artsakh from Armenia proper through the Lachin Corridor for almost a year. You can get to Lampedusa by the tens of thousands with impunity but you couldn't get wheat flour to Stepanakert.

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, a tiny area the size of the US state of Rhode Island, was watched closely elsewhere, far beyond the Caucasus, as a model and a template on how to carry out ethnic cleansing and get away with it. It helped to have Azerbaijan's cash to bribe foreigners, of course, but even more significant was the combination of racist rhetoric used to mobilize your own population, economic blockade of the adversary, and in the end rapid military action carried out while seemingly "discussing peace" with your adversaries and with the gullible West. We see some inkling or echo of this in efforts by the Republic of Kosovo to somehow try to rid itself of its unruly Serbian Christian minority, efforts that are likely to accelerate now.[3]

But also watching very closely the situation in the Caucasus – the combination of effective Turkish/Azeri duplicity and blatant American/European ineptness – were populations in the Middle East. As one Lebanese observer noted, what happened to Karabakh's Armenians is likely to happen to Mount Lebanon in a decade or two. He meant that region's Christian and Druze population, vulnerable to a slow motion and then sudden ethnic cleansing by an increasingly assertive and heavily armed Shia Muslim population – led by Hezbollah and Amal – and abetted by Assad's Syria. This is ethnic policy modeled after that famous Hemingway quote from "The Sun Also Rises": "How did you go bankrupt?" "Two ways." "Gradually and then suddenly." "Diversity" is a ubiquitous Western buzzword. In the East, it is something to be eliminated.

While Lebanon has mixed populations in many areas, there still remain relatively homogenous ethnic pockets of Christians, toward the North, and Druze, toward the South, in what once was the old Mutasarrifate of Mount Lebanon.[4] For Hezbollah, both are problems. The Druze block the contiguous flow of a Shia majority zone stretching from Beirut's Dahiye to the South. Lebanon's Christians cannot be fully crushed as long as they maintain a tenuous hold on a compact Christian heartland, as tiny as it is. There is always the fear, unlikely as that seems, that they might once again find a foreign patron to take up their cause, as both France and Israel did at different times in the past, to the detriment of Hezbollah/Iranian hegemony in the region. And the possibility that a tiny, but free, Lebanese Christian zone would flourish next door to totalitarian Syria and "Hezbollahistan" is something to be avoided at all costs.

If the crushing of Karabakh's Armenians is an object lesson for Lebanon's Christians and Druze, the same is true of the Kurds of Syria and Iraq currently living in relatively autonomous regions. Both are highly susceptible to machinations against them directed from Damascus and Baghdad, and ironically, such moves would likely be with the acquiescence of Turkey, which, of course, has been a key supporter of Azerbaijan in its anti-Armenian campaigns. Turkey already ethnically cleansed the Syrian Kurdish region of Afrin, beginning in 2018, with Western indifference.[5] Turkey would love to control a Kurdish-free border zone along the entirety of its frontier with Syria but would likely settle for a future where it holds on to its current gains while Assad pushes out the American-supported Kurds who rule in the so-called Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). If the West was indifferent in 2018 when Afrin was taken, it is likely to be more so in the near future given the obsession with power politics against Russia and China. This is particularly true if the Biden Administration is successful in securing some sort of new understanding with the regime in Iran.

The hard lesson for Lebanon's Christians and Druze, and for the Kurds, is to plan now for the even more difficult eventuality ahead. This means building foreign ties as much as possible, while at the same time recognizing that these foreign ties may amount to nothing at the time of crisis and that you will be left, as Karabakh's Armenians were in the end, with only your own economic and security resources to try to survive and endure. This is a terrifying possibility but one that cannot be ignored.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], October 14, 2020.

[2], September 25, 2023.

[3], September 15, 2023.

[4], April 20, 2023.

[5], April 11, 2018.

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