Ending US military assistance to Azerbaijan immediately

11 Նոյեմբերի 2023

The 35-year-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave wedged between the two countries, appears to have been settled in Azerbaijan’s favor as President Ilham Aliyev raised the country’s flag over the region’s former de facto capital.

While officials in Azerbaijan celebrated a political victory after conducting an “anti-terrorist operation” on September 19 against Karabakh Armenian military units, more than 100,000 Armenians have since been forced to leave their homes for the neighboring Republic of Armenia.

Baku’s actions and threats thus far should be reason enough for Washington to end the military assistance it has provided Azerbaijan over previous decades. In fact, it should have ended assistance years ago.

During the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, Washington committed to prohibiting aid to Azerbaijan through Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act. However, following Azerbaijan’s pledge to cooperate with President George W. Bush’s global war on terrorism following the attacks on 9/11, Congress approved a process to waive Section 907 in 2002; this has occurred each year since. From 2002 to 2020, the Departments of State and Defense (DOD) reported providing about $164 million for security assistance to the government of Azerbaijan.

All waivers of Section 907 should have ended in 2020 as Azerbaijan initiated the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Military equipment, potentially sent by Washington, is being used by Azerbaijan to satiate its territorial aspirations, not the intended purpose of supporting U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Azerbaijan also explicitly violated the condition of the waiver requiring that Baku “will not undermine or hamper ongoing efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan or be used for offensive purposes against Armenia.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has reportedly stated that the U.S. State Department will not renew a long-standing waiver for military assistance. Secretary Blinken’s statement was likely the result of lawmakers who have pushed for ending this military assistance, such as Senators Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and others who have sponsored the Armenian Protection Act of 2023. This bill would effectively repeal the Section 907 waiver. Adopting such a bill would be a positive development, as Azerbaijan considers further aggression against Armenia’s internationally recognized territory.

Domestic rhetoric by Aliyev is most important in understanding the potential of Azerbaijani foreign policy ambitions. President Aliyev has previously threatened to use force to establish a “corridor” through southern Armenia connecting mainland Azerbaijan with the Autonomous Nakhchivan Republic. "The Zangezur Corridor is a historical necessity," Aliyev said in January 2023, "It will happen whether Armenia wants it or not.”

Azerbaijan and Turkey are particularly interested in linking this route with the already expansive “Middle Corridor” to directly connect the two countries rather than the current path through Georgia.

Days after the offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh, Aliyev held talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Nakhchivan regarding the Zangezur Corridor, hinting at creating a land bridge between their two countries through Armenia. If Azerbaijan (and, by extension, Turkey) established a link by force across Armenia’s territory, it would clearly violate Armenian sovereignty and territorial integrity, the exact tenets that Brussels and Washington have sought to defend in Ukraine and uphold through the so-called rules-based order.

For Armenia, such a development would deprive it of a land border with Iran, one of its key regional allies and trading partners.

As such, Armenia is vehemently opposed to the idea of a corridor through its territory that is not under its direct jurisdiction. Article 9 of the 2020 ceasefire statement includes a provision committing Armenia to "guarantee the security" of transportation connections between Azerbaijan's mainland and Nakhchivan. However, both sides have accused each other of violating this agreement.

Additionally, the stipulation that “control over transport communication is carried out by the bodies of the Border Guard Service of the FSB of Russia” appears unlikely as Moscow did not do much of anything to stop clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2022 or Azerbaijan’s offensive in September 2023. As a result, Armenians have lost significant trust in Moscow’s ability to provide security to Armenia despite being a mutual security partner in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Iran also has qualms with the prospect of Azerbaijan and Turkey occupying Armenian territory and creating the Zangezur Corridor by force. Tehran has said that it opposes “geopolitical” changes in the South Caucasus. Specifically, Iran is deeply concerned about Israeli influence in Azerbaijan. Baku received high-tech drones and other weapons from Israel, which after Russia, was the second-largest arms supplier to Azerbaijan from 2011 to 2020.

On top of military hardware, Tehran worries that Azerbaijan, over time, has become a hub for Israeli intelligence and surveillance. Due to Israel’s military and intelligence cooperation with Azerbaijan, Iran sees this as Israel expanding its presence in the South Caucasus.

On the surface, Russia may appear indifferent to the creation of a Zangezur Corridor, as Russia does not share Iran’s threat perceptions of Israel. This may be shortsighted. If Azerbaijan and Turkey take the Zangezur Corridor through military means, it could spiral into a larger-scale war between Tehran and Ankara. Despite the limited interests of the United States in the South Caucasus, facilitating cooperation with Baku and Yerevan to peacefully coordinate trade routes could serve to avoid a future war on Europe's periphery.

While stopping American military support will not necessarily inhibit Azerbaijan’s current aggression from occurring — Israel and Turkey provide most of its military hardware — it will remove American complicity.

Refusing to provide another waiver to Section 907 is the right thing to do, as Azerbaijan’s use of military force clearly does not serve U.S. interests since it has led to a humanitarian crisis affecting over 100,000 Armenian civilians and could spark a middle-power conflict on the periphery of Europe.

Baku will inevitably push back on this decision, but it will serve the United States well to resist external pressure and abide by consistent and fair rules and laws.