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Former US Commander Calls For Closer Ties With Azerbaijan and Turkey

By Mushvig Mehdiyev December 5, 2020


Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges speaks with a Ukrainian soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 80th Airmobile Brigade, during a visit to the International Peacekeeping and Security Center, Lviv, Ukraine, October 2019 / U.S. Army

A former commander of the US army has linked the latest outbreak of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan to the West's failure to build a consistent presence in the greater Black Sea region, including the South Caucasus.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a retired US Army officer who served as commanding general for the United States Army in Europe, was quoted by EU Observer as saying that the US and Europe are observing the impact of the fighting in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan from the sidelines. The wider South Caucasus has been long-neglected by most countries in the West, he explained.

"For the United States and Europe, standing on the sidelines is no longer a viable option. The Nagorno-Karabakh region, internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, is the only east-west land corridor connecting Europe and Eurasia which doesn't go through Russia or Iran," Hodges said.

Azerbaijan's Karabakh region staged large-scale military operations over 44 days starting on September 27. An attack by Armenia's forces deployed in the occupied Karabakh region of Azerbaijan was met with counter-attack measures by Azerbaijani forces. As a result, Azerbaijani army liberated around 300 settlements, including five cities in its Karabakh region from Armenia's occupation. Hostilities ended on November 10 after a trilateral ceasefire was signed by Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia.

The agreement sealed major territorial regains for Azerbaijan and obliged Armenia to return the occupied parts of the Aghdam district, as well as the occupied Kalbajar and Lachin districts to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani forces restored control over the Aghdam, Kalbajar and Lachin districts by the date specified in the document.

The US and France, two of the countries involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh (Daghlig Garabagh) conflict's resolution as co-chairs of OSCE Minsk Group alongside Russia, could not reach a lasting settlement to the conflict over nearly three decades of shuttle diplomacy. During the latest Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes, Washington responded by calling for restraint and hosting a meeting with the foreign ministers of the two countries.

Meanwhile, France has openly taken Armenia's side in the conflict despite its obligation to remain neutral under the co-chairmanship mandate. On the third day of clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan on September 30, French President Emmanuel Macron voiced solidarity with Armenia. Paris supplied humanitarian aid to ethnic Armenians in the conflict zone. Despite President Macron's confirming Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas as internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan on November 22, the French Senate passed a controversial bill on November 25 to urge the government to recognize the illegal separatist regime in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan as an independent state.

Russia played a major role in ending the hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan by positioning itself as one of the signatories of the trilateral ceasefire statement. The ultimate role of Moscow in the conflict came as a peacekeeper. The agreement addressed the deployment of a Russian peacekeeping contingent in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan for monitoring the adherence to the ceasefire by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Currently, around 2,000 peacekeepers serve in observation posts deployed in the region.

The Trump administration later voiced satisfaction with the cessation of hostilities on November 10.

US General Ben Hodges said the recent developments show that the world has entered into a new era of great-power competition, which can prevent great-power conflicts.

"The competition must encompass all domains: diplomacy, information, military, and economy. We [the West] must step up efforts to protect international law and work more closely with stakeholders on the ground to create some of the conditions for a lasting peace between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. This will require sustained diplomatic effort as well as economic support and private investment opportunities," he explained, adding that the West must also closely monitor the deployment and activities of Russian peacekeepers in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

Hodges went on to add that Turkey is a crucial player for the West to stay relevant in the region and help keep the peace.

"It's time for Turkey-US and a Turkey-Nato 2.0 - we need to repair and update these relationships. Nato needs Turkey as its focal point of defence and security in that part of the world for the coming century. This is vital if Nato members want to compete successfully in the greater Black Sea region," he stated.

Turkey has accelerated its involvement in solving the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan through firm diplomatic support to the latter. Since the start of military operations in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan in September, top Turkish officials, including the president, the foreign minister, and the defense minister have voiced Ankara's solidarity with Baku. Turkish peacekeepers will be deployed in a monitoring center in the Karabakh region next to their Russian counterparts. The parliament has approved and the president has signed into law the transfer of a contingent to the center, which will be established on a site chosen by Azerbaijan.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at odds since the late 1980s with the dramatic rise in anti-Azerbaijan sentiments in Armenia, at the center of which stood the illegal claims for Azerbaijan's historic Nagorno-Karabakh (Daghlig Garabagh) region. Following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Armenia kicked off a full-blown military aggression against Azerbaijan. The bloody war until a ceasefire in 1994 saw Armenia occupying 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories including the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts. Over 30,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis were killed and one million were expelled from those lands in a brutal ethnic cleansing policy conducted by Armenia. Although the United Nations Security Council adopted four resolutions in 1993 demanding the immediate withdrawal of the occupying forces from the Azerbaijani lands and the return of internally displaced Azerbaijanis to their ancestral lands, Armenia failed to comply with all four legally binding documents.