Israel’s Other War: Ethnic Cleansing in the South Caucasus

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YEREVAN – Over the past month, legacy and social media have been saturated with reports of the Netanyahu regime’s war on Gaza, which is being met with growing calls from the international community to invoke the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Less known, however, is the role the Israeli government has played in another genocide that took place in West Asia only a month and a half ago. This genocide, little noted in the Western press, involved the ancient Christian community of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, known within Armenia as the Republic of Artsakh, that was ethnically cleansed by the Ilham Aliyev, the Shia dictator of Azerbaijan, in late September and early October. The muted response to Azerbaijan’s crime might plausibly be chalked up to the strength of its well-funded and influential lobby in Washington which profits off of the oil and gas revenue generated by SOCAR, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic. SOCAR has links to the Podesta Group (co-founder John Podesta currently serves as a senior adviser to President Biden), lobbying powerhouse BGR Government Affairs, LLC, as well as numerous think tanks and academics associated with, among others, The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the American Foreign Policy Council.

Yet another reason for the subdued response by Washington is the well documented ‘special relationship’ between the 51st US state, Israel, and Azerbaijan. A discussion I had last week with the Armenian academic Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, who serves as Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies and Senior Research Fellow on Foreign Policy at the Applied Policy Research Institute (APRI) of Armenia, shed some light on the role the Israeli government and its defense industry has played in enabling Azerbaijan – and why.

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The relationship between the two countries began to deepen around 15 years ago when Azerbaijan, flush with revenue from its oil and gas deposits in the Caspian basin, began looking to purchase advanced weapons systems.

According to Poghosyan, “as late as September 2023, just before the most recent Azerbaijani attackseveral cargo planes went to Israel and came back to Azerbaijan full of weapons. And there is even information that Israel continued to supply weapons to Azerbaijan even after October 7th.”

The AP reports that it is estimated that Israel has supplied Azerbaijan with “nearly 70% of its arsenal between 2016 and 2020.”And just this week it was reported that Azerbaijan inked a $1.2 billion dollar deal with Israel Aerospace Industries to purchase the Barak MX air defense system, described as “a modular air defense system… designed to address missile and aircraft threats.”

The question then arises: Why is Israel, which claims to be under a near constant threat of missile attacks from the south in Gaza and potentially from the north by Hezbollah, doing this?

Poghosyan notes that he doesn’t think money is the reason, after all, fully 20 percent of the Israeli defense budget is covered by the American taxpayer.

The real reason has to do with Iran.

According to Poghosyan, Azerbaijan has agreed “to allow Israel to use their territory for anti-Iranian activities. And we are speaking about covert activities, foreign intelligence… Azerbaijan gave the green light to Israeli special services, especially its foreign intelligence service, to do whatever they want in Azerbaijan. Of course now they have access to that security zone around Nagorno-Karabakh, which borders Iran.”

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Poghosyan notes that in recent years (in the aftermath of its earlier attempt to subjugate Nagorno Karabakh in 2020) Azerbaijan constructed two airports in the territory it gained around Nagorno Karabakh. “They are,” says Poghosyan “supposedly civilian airports, yet they are located very close to Azerbaijani-Iranian border – a distance of 30, 40 kilometers from the border. There are a lot of reports that Israeli military intelligence or foreign intelligence operatives are using these airports for operations against Iran.”

Israel’s role in assisting Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh is well known inside Israel, which it must be said, conducts a far more robust debate over Israel’s foreign policy than is allowed here in the United States.

The estimable Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently editorialized that Israel has, in their words, “its fingerprints” all over Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh. Haaretz also contends that “Israel hasn’t just supplied Azerbaijan with arms. It has also helped it distort history” by its refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide, which the Israeli regime merely defines as a “tragedy.”

Meanwhile, the situation in Armenia grows more ominous by the day, as Azerbaijan escalates its rhetoric (last week accusing Armenia of, among other things, illegally “occupying” eight villages on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border) and stands ready, with the eager help of Tel Aviv, to once again make a mockery of both international law and common decency.

* James W. Carden is a columnist and former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the U.S. Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, The Los Angeles Times, and American Affairs.

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