Armenian forces and Azerbaijan have resumed fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, marking the collapse of a third ceasefire agreement.
The ceasefire was agreed upon after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held separate meetings with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in Washington on Friday, marking an increase in the US’ involvement in the conflict.
“[Secretary of State Michael] Pompeo is certainly stepping into the fray to make sure it’s understood that the US cares [about] the horrible situation on the ground,” Carey Cavanaugh, a former US ambassador and co-chair of the OSCE Minsk group told Al Arabiya English.
Here is all you need to know about the US position on Nagorno-Karabakh.
US passivity in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
The latest outbreak of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh did not provoke a major US response, in contrast to France and Russia, who immediately expressed concern about the escalation. The three countries jointly co-chair the OSCE Minsk group, the international organization tasked with finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.
“We have not seen the president [Trump] or senior leaders rise up to the occasion in this time,” Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment said, adding that this conflict has been less of a priority for the Trump administration than previous administrations.
But with US presidential elections slated to take place in a week, the coronavirus pandemic worsening and Trump himself getting infected, the administration’s attention has been focused on domestic issues.
“With the elections going on it would be hard to imagine [Trump administration] doing more in this instant,” Cavanaugh said.
The former US ambassador added that he would’ve welcomed a visit by Pompeo to Moscow, Paris or even Yerevan or Baku, during his trip to Greece when the fighting first broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The US’ lack of involvement is in line with the Trump administration’s broad “America first” foreign policy, signaling a partial withdrawal from the international stage.
“I think here the delays of the US getting into it [the conflict] are related to the president’s foreign policy goals and reluctance to be involved in other problems around the world, I think that was a pullback already,” Cavanaugh said.
“This is an area that is very far away from the US it’s not instability in Mexico or Venezuela, this is instability in a different part of the world, so I don’t think it gets the same sort of high-level attention that it maybe deserves from this particular administration,” said Stronski.
He added that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will probably get more attention from the Joe Biden administration, if Biden wins the election.
America’s gradual withdrawal from the South Caucasus is a trend that has been observed for the last decade, Stronski noted.
The Pompeo meeting came after two previous ceasefires brokered by Russia and France failed to materialize. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of violating the ceasefire in its early hours. The ceasefires agreed upon were only for humanitarian purposes, for each side to collect dead bodies, exchange prisoners of war and ensure safe travel for civilians.
“The fact that the first nor second ceasefire held up calls for greater engagement and Washington is clearly responding to that,” Cavanaugh said.
“What we’re seeing now is Pompeo doing the US turn of pushing for an immediate ceasefire and getting [parties] back to the negotiating table,” he added.
However Pompeo’s diplomatic efforts were unable to cement a durable ceasefire, as fighting resumed Monday morning.
As an all-out war raged on in Nagorno-Karabakh, killing scores of civilians on both sides and resulting in significant military casualties, America’s passivity drew criticism as a global power and co-chair of the body responsible encouraging a peaceful settlement to the decades old conflict.
“The US has come under criticism both globally for its lack of real high-level diplomacy and domestically, from Armenian-American communities, as well as former Vice-President Joe Biden, who has issued a much stronger statement and a sort of a proposal for re-invigorating diplomacy,” Stronski said.
No strong incentives for the US
However, he noted that the South Caucasus region is not a prime area of strategic interest for the US.
But the warzone’s proximity to Iran and the broader Middle East region could be a driving factor for more US attention, in addition to NATO ally Turkey’s direct involvement and growing influence there.
According to Stronski, the Trump administration “does not necessarily think strategically” and might not have considered all the relevant factors.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan energy pipeline that brings oil to Europe from Baku is extremely close to the warzone, however both Stronski and Cavanaugh do not see it as an important factor driving international actors, including the US into this theater.
“I would argue that the energy markets have shifted a lot in the past decade, so that pipeline is not as essential to European energy security and global energy as it was, say in 2010,” Stronski said.
Cavanaugh, pointing out the US’ role in establishing the pipeline in the early 2000s said that the energy market could be a factor, “but it’s never been a significant one.”
The BTC pipeline that carries oil from the Caspian seas to the Mediterranean was a major geopolitical victory for the US in the former Soviet space.
Nevertheless, Stronski didn’t completely rule out its importance as it is still a major pipeline that could be easily targeted or hit by mistake.
Regardless of the importance of the Caucasus and the Karabakh conflict for the US, Stronski said Trump wouldn’t mind to score another foreign policy “win” which in this case would be to achieve a ceasefire that will hold.
“If they [Trump administration] can get a foreign policy win that they can tout that will hold at any point, I think the administration will see that as a win,” Stronski said.
Indeed, Trump was quick to tweet out the US victory in brokering a ceasefire, that later broke down within an hour of the start of its implementation.
“Congratulations to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who just agreed to adhere to a cease fire effective at midnight. Many lives will be saved. Proud of my team @SecPompeo & Steve Biegun & @WHNSC for getting the deal done!”
With the Trump administration focused primarily on the looming US elections, Pompeo carrying out his duty Tuesday spoke with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev separately, urging them both to cease hostilities and solve the issue diplomatically, according to a statement by the State Department.