A Pro-Western Azerbaijan Deserves American Support | Opinion

One of us is a human rights attorney stridently opposed to Turkish foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere; the other is a public affairs consultant who strongly believes Turkey is a key pillar in America's ongoing efforts to roll back the Iranian regime's aggressive behavior.

However, we unite in our support of Sunni-majority Turkey's Shi'a ally, Azerbaijan, an unabashedly pro-Western country, as it is unfairly smeared in certain political, diplomatic and media circles for having the audacity to defend itself in the latest round of bloody fighting with its neighbor, Armenia.

Both nations reside in the South Caucasus region, which borders Iran, and had declared their independence from the imploding Soviet Union in 1991. The Soviets had a policy of instigating and backing sectarian tensions, and a Kremlin-backed Armenian invasion of Azerbaijan immediately followed, resulting in the capture of some 20 percent of the latter's territory (the Karabakh region and seven adjacent territories) and ethnic cleansing of the region. Nearly one million Azeris became internally displaced persons. The Khojaly massacre in February 1992, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Azeri civilians, is all but forgotten, as is the historic context for the conflict we have witnessed ever since.

The conflict has flared up numerous times since 1992. But the most recent round of fighting, which began in July and intensified three weeks ago, has been considerably more deadly, and has included efforts to disable a strategically vital oil pipeline that runs from the Azeri capital of Baku through Georgia and into Turkey, the repeated shelling of Azerbaijan's second largest city, as well as reported importing of Syrian civil war combatants by both sides.

In promoting a cessation of hostilities, the United States must prioritize its interests in stopping additional civilian deaths and protecting the major energy and transport corridor emanating from the Caspian Sea toward the West. Similarly, Washington must resist the urge to recite talking points that inaccurately—and dangerously—paint the fighting as some sort of religious war between Christian Armenia and brutal Muslim invaders.

While the overwhelming majority of Azeri citizens are Muslim, Azerbaijan, with a population of barely 10 million, is a secular society in which no major religious faiths face discrimination.

Pope Francis visited Baku in October 2016 and declared: "The Catholic Church, even though it has a small presence in the country, is truly present in the civic and social life of Azerbaijan; it participates in its joys and shares the challenges of confronting its difficulties. ...I am, moreover, particularly pleased with the cordial relations enjoyed by the Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox and Jewish communities. It is my hope that the signs of friendship and cooperation may continue to increase. These good relations assume great significance for peaceful coexistence and for peace in the world, and they demonstrate that among the followers of different religious confessions cordial relations, respect and cooperation for the good of all are possible."

There are sizable, vibrant communities of Ashkenazi, Georgian and Mountain Jews, as well; indeed, the first Jewish settlement inside the country dates back to the 7th century C.E. Repeated efforts by the Iranian regime to the south to foment anti-Semitic hate inside the country, including attempted terror attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets, have failed. Intra-communal relations remain rock solid.

Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh
Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh Aziz Karimov/Getty Images

And while in 2020, it may seem trendy to come out in favor of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, Azerbaijan forged ties with the Jewish state almost immediately after it declared independence. Cooperation has never flagged, including on military matters, even as Turkey's relations with Israel turned mostly icy in recent years. The volume of trade and cultural exchanges has expanded. The relationship between the two nations is warm and fully engaged, rather than limited to merely defense cooperation.

No wonder Iran, the largest Shi'a country in the world but with ethnic Azeris comprising of up to 30 percent of its population, feels threatened by a tolerant Azerbaijan's continued geopolitical success and therefore supports Armenia.

Moreover, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline delivers 40 percent of Israeli's oil, but is also an important route of hydrocarbon delivery to Europe and a crucial counter to Russia's and Iran's supplies. The Trump administration's crippling sanctions on Nord Stream 2 have created additional economic challenges for Moscow; accordingly, Baku is a direct economic competitor. Additionally, Azerbaijan is a major gas producer and is one of the most energy self-sufficient states in the world. It is no wonder that Russia also backs Armenia against Azerbaijan, which presents a challenge to the Kremlin's primacy in Europe.

Not only must Baku resist pressure from Moscow and Tehran, but it has to play a delicate balancing act between its pro-Western orientation and maintaining its relationship with Ankara. Those who believe that Azerbaijan is simply Turkey's proxy are mistaken. Although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has offered additional military hardware and technical assistance to his Turkish cousins during the latest events, Azerbaijan, with its vastly improved standing military and sophisticated and effective weapons, needs no foreign legions—nor does it need imported Syrian jihadists. While Turkey's political support is an important booster in international circles, ultimately Azerbaijan is dedicated to an independent political line, which has not shifted despite Erdogan's heated words and information campaign.

It is neither in Washington's interest to change this situation, nor to alienate Baku from the West, nor to ironically make it wholly dependent on Turkey by treating the two very distinct countries as indistinguishable. This simplistic understanding of the complexities of the South Caucasus only plays in the hands of the anti-Western hegemons who seek to divide the Western and Middle Eastern partners over these issues and promote chaos where strategically vital alliances fall into disrepair, thanks to effective disinformation and manipulation of the zeitgeist at the expense of more important geopolitical matters.

Whatever one's views are on Turkey's trajectory, pro or con, America must have Azerbaijan's back.

Jason Epstein is president of Southfive Strategies, LLC, an international public affairs consultancy. Irina Tsukerman is a New York-based human rights lawyer and national security/geopolitical analyst, the vice president of Timberwolf Phoenix, a media and security consultancy, and an adviser to the London-based International Justice Organization.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.