We don’t talk much about Aleppo these days. But it was only a few years ago, beginning in 2011, that the northern Syrian city was front-page news because of the civil war in Syria. The once-thriving metropolis was reduced to rubble and had become ground zero for the refugee crisis that impacted most of Europe — and would be a driving force in Donald Trump’s xenophobic election campaign. (Remember the “Muslim Ban”?) The humanitarian crisis and the refugee camps in Greece, Jordan, and Lebanon are still awash in human suffering.
Now another humanitarian crisis looms in the Caucasus, in the fledgling Armenian Republic of Artsakh — known also as Nagorno-Karabakh. The 150,000 Armenians there have been under heavy fire from Azerbaijan since Sept. 27, with the Azeri army aided by mercenaries and weaponry that Turkey is shuttling to the front lines. The capital, Stepanakert, has been bombarded for days, despite the cease-fire that was supposed to have gone into effect on Oct. 10. Hospitals, schools, and churches are being shelled.
Most of the world can’t find Artsakh on a map. Of course, most of the world can’t find Armenia or Azerbaijan, either. But I’m a grandson of two survivors of the Armenian Genocide, so I’ve been there. I’ve been to the front lines opposite Azerbaijan during peacetime and stood in the trenches with the soldiers. One year I was there for the country’s national first day of school, an annual holiday, and watched the ritual where parents and grandparents would join their children in morning assemblies.
Why is Artsakh a flashpoint? Azerbaijan claims ownership over Artsakh, citing laws of territorial integrity. The Armenians, meanwhile, insist it is theirs because of a people’s right to self-determination. History is on the Armenians’ side.
In 1923, Joseph Stalin gave the land to Azerbaijan, despite the fact it was populated by Armenians, to undermine ethnic solidarities that might, in turn, undermine the Soviet Union. But the land had a long Armenian heritage, such as the medieval Dadivank Monastery, with its hauntingly beautiful frescoes.
In 1988, the Armenian majority, in what was then called Nagorno-Karabakh, voted to become part of the Soviet Union’s Armenian Republic. But the USSR was about to collapse and couldn’t pacify the anti-Armenian violence that erupted across Azerbaijan, especially in Baku, where Armenians were targeted with the violence of pogroms and all had to emigrate to Artsakh, Armenia and, in some cases, America. In 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed its independence and, for the next three years, the Armenians there and in Azerbaijan fought a war that, in the end, the Armenians won. About 30,000 people died, and perhaps as many as 1 million were displaced.
Azerbaijan has never gotten over the loss of that territory, a region that is mostly pomegranates, scrub, and now vineyards. It is Azerbaijan that has the oil and natural gas. Moreover, it has always been a David-and-Goliath sort of struggle: The 150,000 Armenians of Artsakh are squaring off against 10 million Azeris. And this month the odds have grown even longer because of Turkey’s involvement.
“There is enormous enthusiasm, but also growing unease among the populace because of Turkey’s intervention,” said Antranig Kasbarian, an American citizen who is in Stepanakert. Kasbarian is a trustee of the non-profit Tufenkian Foundation, a group that tries to combat poverty and promote education in Armenia and Artsakh. “The people here believe they can win a fair fight anytime, but this is something wholly different,” he explained, "such as the drones and aerial bombardment, which are a result of Turkey’s presence.
Turkey has also resurrected the ghosts of 1915 and the Armenian Genocide, the Ottoman Empire’s systematic annihilation of 1.5 million of its Armenian citizens. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has been clear that he views Ilham Aliyev, the Azeri president, as an ally in his anti-Armenian agenda, going so far in May as to condemn what he called “terrorist leftovers of the sword,” a pejorative term for the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek minorities the Young Turks almost obliterated a century ago. The coronavirus pandemic, the US exit from the world stage, and our focus on the presidential election have offered Erdogan and Aliyev the perfect cover for the premediated attack on Artsakh.
Today, Stepanakert, a city of 50,000, “resembles a pockmarked ghost town,” said Kasbarian. “It’s desolation. The streets are empty, and half the population has been evacuated.”
If Stepanakert falls and Artsakh is returned to Azerbaijan, the world may face another Aleppo: a humanitarian crisis with 150,000 refugees and the sort of anti-Armenian bloodshed we saw in that northern Syrian city nine years ago; in Baku, in 1990; and across the Ottoman Empire, in 1915.
The United States must help to stop this. It can:
▪ Demand that Turkey, a NATO ally, stop providing weapons and transporting mercenaries to the front.
▪ Insist that Azerbaijan and Turkey agree immediately to the cease-fire.
▪ Recognize Artsakh, giving it more clout in any peace negotiations with Azerbaijan. (So far, seven US states, including Massachusetts, have.)
▪ Put economic sanctions on Azerbaijan and Turkey.
I do not mean to denigrate the concept of territorial integrity. But as a descendant of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, I think it is clear that a people’s right to self-determination counts far more, especially when the alternative is annihilation.
Novelist Chris Bohjalian is the author of 21 books. His novel “The Flight Attendant” will be an HBO Max limited series later this year.