By: AAA Intern Hamlet Tamazian
July 29, 2013
Turmoil has been ravaging the Middle East and South Caucasus for decades, and on July 16th, conferences were held on Capitol Hill regarding the situations in Azerbaijan and Syria. The issues related to Azerbaijan are two-fold. First, there is an unresolved conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the historically Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK). Second, Azerbaijani people are suffering from worsening conditions, a direct result of what the Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) dubbed a “Troubled Partner: Growing Authoritarianism in Azerbaijan,” at a Capitol Hill briefing on July 16th. In Syria, there is a crisis of a different sort. The ongoing civil war has brought chaos to the country and worry to its neighbors. In a region as volatile as this, any conflict poses the threat of a potentially larger problem.
An issue garnering more attention in the South Caucus is the political war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1988, and the declared independence of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, a war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over control for NK. The result was a victory for the Christian Armenian forces in the face of Azerbaijani aggression and even elements of Islamic terrorism. However, the only tangible result was a fragile cease-fire signed in 1994. Prominent expert in the field Thomas de Waal predicts that, “The risk of new fighting over Karabakh is still relatively low. Azerbaijan, the losing side in the conflict of the 1990s and therefore the party most likely to go back to war, has too much to lose by choosing the military option.” However, recent events in the area suggest otherwise. Not only has Azerbaijan been increasing its military power for one clearly stated reason, going to war against Armenia, but the Azeri leadership has also implemented serious crackdowns on its own civilian population. Although Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to U.S. Elin Suleymanov “strictly reject[s]” that there is “growing authoritarianism in Azerbaijan,” he claims that, “Everyone living on our soil can equally and fully enjoy Human Rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their racial and ethnic background.” This statement seems detached from reality as facts from independent, third parties suggest.
Thomas O. Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, at the United States Department of State opened the conference by bringing to light the increase in the number of detained activists in the country, the growing difficulties for NGO’s to operate, and the targeting of defense lawyers by the government. Eldar Namazov, a member of the opposition party National Council of Democratic Forces of Azerbaijan, supported the concerns cited by Melia. He noted that of the 129 members of the Council, 12 are in jail without trial. Namazov warned that, “the spread of corruption and lack of social justice leads to the situation when without the intervention of political parties in Azerbaijan, people in the rural area, in the districts, rise against the corrupt officials.” It is important to remember ahead of this Fall’s election, all previous elections in Azerbaijan, as Namazov pointed out, have been falsified and did not meet international standards.
Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, Director for Russia and Eurasia National Endowment for Democracy also confirmed the reality facing average Azerbaijani citizens. She cited Freedom House’s Nations in Transit data claiming that all signs of freedom are declining. For example, Azeri ruler Ilham Aliyev will soon be on the ballot for a third presidential term which was originally prohibited by the Azeri constitution until term limits were abolished by the Aliyev administration. Regarding freedom of speech, criminal cases against online activists are now possible through new government legislation, and television and radio broadcasting have also faced greater restrictions and interference. According to an Aljazeera report, “Several foreign outlets have noted deliberate broadcast interferences, known as jamming, and is a practice that violates both international telecommunications regulations and human rights law.” Here, one issue ties in with the other, since the lack of a free flow of information to the Azeri people also inhibits them from engaging in cross-border civil society contacts necessary to successfully negotiate and resolve the NK conflict.
On the other hand, Syria is facing tumult of another kind. With growing concern for the country and region, the US seeks to help alleviate the suffering of the average citizens and refugees and to find a peaceful settlement of the conflict. However, during a conference held by The Middle East Policy Council titled “The Crisis in Syria: What Are the Stakes for Syria’s Neighbors?” Dr. Nabeel Khoury who is a Senior Fellow for Middle East and National Security at Chicago Council on Global Affairs, warned that, “I don’t think anybody trusts us [America] in the Middle East anymore. Starting out with the best of intentions, this Administration has confused everybody and pissed off everybody.” However, Dr. Khoury also thinks that since the outcome of the civil war will affect the US, we should also be involved in determining the outcome. Dr. Khoury agreed with Mona Yacoubian, a Senior Advisor on the Middle East at the Henry L. Stimson Center, in that the most effective strategy to bring stability to the neighborhood, as observed in Libya, is the implementation of a no-fly zone. The notion of arming the rebels was deemed with no prospect of ending the war. Its only foreseeable results were a reactionary counter-arming from government forces and the loss of even more lives. With no obvious short term solution on hand, the panel also discussed preparing aid for a post-war Syria.
Steven Simon, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and corresponding director of IISS-Middle East, informed the audience that work is being done to get Syria back on its feet in the areas where the regime has receded. He raised the need to build a “patchwork security” to assist Syria even as al-Asaad is still in command.
Taniel Koushakjian of the Armenian Assembly of America was able to ask the panel about the situation of Armenians and other Christians in Syria, especially because of their direct persecution and targeting by the rebels. Ms. Yacoubian agreed that the situation for Christians and other minorities in Syria, and the greater Middle East in general, is “dire.” She added, “This is certainly the case in Egypt. It’s the case in Lebanon. It’s absolutely the case in Iraq. And it’s for sure the case in Syria.” This unfortunate circumstance also explains the support given to al-Asaad by Christian groups. With the rebel forces in Syria becoming increasingly extremist and Islamist, Christians and even secular Muslims are threatened by the potential outcomes of this civil war.
With tension building up in various parts of this volatile region, it is important to keep these discussions ongoing, open, and honest. Although countries such as Azerbaijan might not allow freedom of speech, we do here in the United States. We have worked for this privilege and should not waste this opportunity to reach out and help others achieve their own democratic ambitions. Now more so than before, the people of authoritarian countries can be guided to create peaceful and fruitful democracies. With authoritarian governments falling to the voice of the people, it would be most effective to put support behind those groups who champion values that we, too, uphold. Understanding the root of the ongoing problems in the region is the first most important in resolving these issues; this is what we should do.
To watch the Commission for Security & Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) briefing entitled “Troubled Partner: Growing Authoritarianism in Azerbaijan” and for more information please click here.
To watch the Middle East Policy Council’s 73rd Capitol Hill conference entitled “The Crisis in Syria: What Are the Stakes for Syria’s Neighbor’s?” and for more information please click here.
Author attended briefing entitled “Troubled Partner: Growing Authoritarianism in Azerbaijan” at the Capitol Visitor Center, Senate Room 201-200 on July 16, 2013.
Author attended conference entitled “Crisis in Syria: What are the Stakes for Syria’s Neighbors?” at 339 Rayburn House Office Building on July 16, 2013.
de Waal, Thomas. (2013, July 24). The Two NKs. Carnegie Moscow Center. Retrieved from http://carnegie.ru/eurasiaoutlook/?fa=52483
Vincent, Rebecca. (2013, July 09). Jamming in Azerbaijan: Foreign news outlets unable to broadcast. Aljazeera. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/07/2013779559301632.html