Will the US succeed in settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
A Washington-brokered truce came into effect on Monday, but like two previous attempts at peace, the ceasefire is struggling to hold.
After a month of hostilities and two failed ceasefires, Armenia seems to be on the losing side in its decades-old conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan.
Since September 27, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region recognised as Azerbaijani territory but dominated by ethnic Armenians since the early 1990s.
Azerbaijani forces pushed deep into the mountain enclave saying they “liquidated” hundreds of Armenian soldiers.
Turkey, Azerbaijan’s staunchest ally, pledged to send troops “if requested” by Baku, amid claims that it had allegedly dispatched pro-Ankara fighters from Syria and Libya. Turkey and Azerbaijan have denied the allegations.
Russia, Armenia’s strategic ally and main international backer, has not dispatched a single soldier, although it keeps thousands at a base in the northwestern Armenian city of Gyumri, less than 400km from the front lines.
It also has not provided its advanced Krasukha-4 electronic warfare systems stationed at the Gyumri base that can deactivate Turkish and Israeli drones that Azerbaijan used with lethal efficiency.
Washington steps in
So, many in Azerbaijan were convinced that a round of peace talks in Washington, DC, on Friday, would bring about a long-awaited solution to the oldest armed conflict in the former Soviet Union.
“Perhaps, a certain breakthrough will take place in Washington considering that every day, the Azerbaijani army blows devastating blows on the enemy, exhausting it and liberating new areas,” Emil Mustafayev, a Baku-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and his Armenian counterpart Zohrab Mnatsakanyan held separate meetings with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
After the talks, Pompeo urged both sides to “end the violence and protect civilians”.
“The secretary also stressed the importance of the sides entering substantive negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs to resolve the conflict based on the Helsinki Final Act principles of the non-use or threat of force, territorial integrity, and the equal rights and self-determination of peoples,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told journalists after the meeting.
The United States, Russia and France co-chair the Minsk Group, a body that has tried – unsuccessfully – to settle the conflict that became “frozen” after the 1994 ceasefire with sporadic flare-ups and shootouts along the heavily-fortified border.
Pompeo added in a tweet that he and both foreign ministers discussed “critical steps” to halt the violence.
“Both must implement a ceasefire and return to substantive negotiations,” he said.
The truce started at 7am local time on Monday, but was immediately broken, with both sides accusing each other.
Before meeting with Pompeo, both ministers had rushed to Moscow earlier in the week to meet with Russian diplomats.
No breakthrough for Trump?
US President Donald Trump has succeeded in finding ways out of political stalemates.
The author of the Art of the Deal, a 1987 bestseller, boasted of “eliminating” North Korea’s nuclear threat and has normalised Israel’s ties with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
“Let’s say that it isn’t the first time Trump is organising a diplomatic breakthrough,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a researcher at Germany’s Bremen University, told Al Jazeera.
However, he thinks that the Nagorno-Karabakh conundrum is too far from Washington’s political grasp – and that the way out cannot be found without Moscow.
“But this is the case when he’s got nothing to offer to the sides, he’s not influencing the situation in the region. And Armenians should try not to vex Putin with these talks, otherwise he may refuse to help them,” Mitrokhin said.
In its dealings with the Southern Caucasus region, Washington has relied too much on boosting ties with Azerbaijan and neighbouring Georgia, but neglected Armenia despite the presence of a large and affluent Armenian diaspora in the US, Mitrokhin said.
Therefore, Armenia did not expect the talks to be successful at all – and many saw them as a ploy to show off Trump administrations’ peacemaking efforts just days before the November 4 presidential vote.
“It is more about Washington trying to show leadership prior to the election, and nothing is expected,” Richard Giragosian, a political analyst based in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, it is too early to write off Armenia-backed forces, some observers insist.
“Judging by the fact that Armenia is limiting the use of force and is not utilising, for example, its ballistic missile system Iskander, it does not see the situation as critical,” Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based defence analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a US think tank, told Al Jazeera.
“Azerbaijan is, possibly, hoping that Armenia will soon ask for peace and will be inclined to cede sizeable areas. [But] Armenia is counting on full-scale diplomatic pressure on Azerbaijan,” he said.
Pompeo faces domestic pressure from the Armenian diaspora in the US, especially in Southern California.
US reality television star of Armenian descent Kim Kardashian said on October 10 that she would donate $1m for humanitarian efforts in the conflict zone.
The next day, at least 20,000 rallied in front of the Azerbaijani consulate in Los Angeles with Armenian flags.
A group of mayors and politicians, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, sent a letter to Pompeo urging the Trump administration to help peacefully settle the conflict. In the letter, they used the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh – Artsakh, after a medieval Armenian kingdom in what is now the enclave.
“As proud representatives of Armenian-American communities across our country, we share their deep concerns about the violence being inflicted upon Artsakh, the growing number of civilian casualties, and the involvement of regional actors like Turkey and Iran,” the letter read.
Ethnic Armenians have historically formed the majority of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh, but Communist Moscow made it part of Soviet Azerbaijan in 1923. When the perestroika reforms started in the waning days of the USSR, they urged Moscow to make the enclave part of Armenia, and held a referendum to cede from Azerbaijan in 1991.
Baku never recognised the referendum, and the subsequent conflict became the first open war between two former Soviet republics. It killed more than 30,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands, as Armenians occupied districts outside their enclave that were dominated by ethnic Azerbaijanis.
Even though Armenia has not recognised Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence, its military and economic support was crucial.