The United States Congress has held a rare closed hearing on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, as leading members of Congress are pushing for new conflict-resolution measures favored by Armenia but opposed by Azerbaijan.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee held the hearing last week, with James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, testifying. Warlick did not comment on the content of the hearing, except to tweet: "I thank the @HouseForeign affairs committee and its chair @RepEdRoyce for hosting me to discuss #NKpeace. We agreed to work for a settlement."
It's not clear why the hearing was closed, or why it was held now. But tension has been getting worse along the so-called "line of contact" between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. Armenian forces won control of the territory, which is de jure part of Azerbaijan, in a war in the early 1990s, but the ceasefire that has held since then has become increasingly tenuous, with violence along the line at its highest level since the war formally ended in 1994. "This is a war, and I would ask you to use the term ‘war’ and not to use the phrase ‘ceasefire violation’ because, in effect, we don’t have a ceasefire anymore,” Defense Ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovannesyan told reporters in December.
And a spat between Russia and Turkey -- Armenia and Azerbaijan's primary regional allies, respectively -- has added an unpredictable international element into the mix. Meanwhile, significant economic problems caused by the drop in oil prices has led to increasing civil unrest, which may increase the incentives for Baku to change the subject by rallying the country around the flag for war in Karabakh.
The chair of the House committee, Representative Ed Royce (a Republican from California), and the leading Democrat on the committee, Eliot Engel, have been promoting a new initiative for Karabakh. The proposal calls for snipers on both sides to move back from the line of contact and for monitors and monitoring equipment to be put in place to determine whom to blame for the increasingly regular and serious ceasefire violations. Royce, after last week's hearing, issued a statement:
Violence in the Nagorno-Karabakh region is at the highest point in decades. Just last month we heard reports of heavy weapon attacks and tank artillery fire – a clear violation of the ceasefire agreement. As Ambassador Warlick has said, this isn’t a ‘frozen conflict,’ but is a forgotten conflict – with a real risk of spinning out of control. That is why we need all snipers to be withdrawn, more international monitors to be deployed and gunfire locator systems to be put in place to increase transparency and accountability for each and every cross-boundary violation. Acts of aggression must be clearly condemned. The faster the administration can help put these in place, the quicker it can help put an end to the killing and avert war.
That proposal has been endorsed by the State Department and by Warlick, as well as by Armenian lobbying groups. "The United States supports proposals to withdraw snipers, expand OSCE's role via an OSCE investigation mechanism and deploy sensors along the line of contact and the Armenia-Azerbaijan international border," Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield said. "Without a mechanism to verify ceasefire allegations, or sensors to pinpoint the location of gunfire, it is difficult for the Co-chairs to make specific accusations against one side's use of force."
Azerbaijan, however, objects on the grounds that it would solidify the status quo, which is in Armenia's favor. "Armenian lobby organizations in the United States and other countries are mobilized to divert attention from the fundamental issues which can serve for the comprehensive settlement of the conflict, thus, the focus was oriented towards the mechanism on investigation of incidents," Azerbaijan's foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, said in December. He continued:
First of all, we should find out why the incidents occur? The military forces of Armenia are present illegally in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. After withdrawal of the armed forces of Armenia from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan the incidents would not occur and investigation of incidents mechanism wouldn’t be needed....
Armenia deliberately throws out the most important element of comprehensive settlement of conflict, which is withdrawal of military forces of Armenia from all occupied territories of Azerbaijan, and brings the mechanism of investigation of incidents to the spotlight. It is crystal clear that under the pretext of mechanism Armenia intends to consolidate occupation of the territories of Azerbaijan and maintain the status –quo...
Azerbaijan has been increasingly unreceptive to pressure from Washington, so it's not clear what kind of traction these proposals will be able to get. The U.S., however, also has recently attracted the ire of Armenia. In response to Russian criticism of Turkey, the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, praised Turkey's role in the Karabakh diplomatic process.
Congressional committee staff did not respond to a request for comment, and a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, would only comment in generalities:
We will continue our active engagement with the sides through the Minsk Group process to advance a peaceful and lasting settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Our longstanding policy, shared by the Minsk Group Co-Chairs, is that a just settlement must be based on international law, which includes the Helsinki Final Act and the principles of the non-use of force or threat of force, territorial integrity, and self-determination.
Anyway, 2016 promises to be a rocky year for Karabakh.