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Azerbaijan Talks Tough as Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Heats Up

One day after President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan threatened war with neighboring Armenia via Twitter, Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry issued a statement saying that the country is prepared for war in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The recent bout of fighting cost Azerbaijan 12 troops and Nagorno Karabakh three, each side confirmed on Saturday. Exactly what set off the latest violence between the former Soviet republics is unclear but both point to the other as the aggressor.

The Nagorno-Karabakh border remains heavily militarized. Azerbaijan and Armenia each have 20,000 troops dug into World War I-style trenches on their respective sides. Exchanges of sniper shots are common but the recent fighting has raised the stakes. On Wednesday Aliyev visited the frontlines, spending time with an Azerbaijani military unit. The day after the president's return from the front, he launched a sabre-rattling Twitter tirade, announcing Azerbaijan's preparedness for war.

 

 

The two countries already fought a brutal, six-year war over Nagorno-Karabakh that wracked up at least 30,000 casualties and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. A cease-fire brokered by Russia in 1994 ended formal hostilities but international efforts to reach a last solution have failed and the conflict has been in limbo for the last 20 years.

The heart of the conflict lies in the ethnic and political divisions that existed when Armenia and Azerbaijan were Soviet republics. Despite being part of Soviet Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh was home to a large ethnic Armenian population. In 1988, the Armenians of Karabakh -- encouraged by politicians in Yerevan, the Armenian capital -- demanded unification with Soviet Armenia. Then, in December 1989, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh declared unification and war broke out with Azerbaijan. Armenia was able to hold Nagorno-Karabakh and, following the 1994 cease-fire, retained control over the territory. Azerbaijan keeps claiming the land as its own and considers it an occupied territory.

 

 

Following its defeat, Azerbaijan launched a silent arms race to break Armenia's economy. Funded by its hydrocarbon wealth, Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, has been on a military spending spree, allocating $3.44 billion for defense in 2013. Its defense budget has skyrocketed 493 percent since 2004, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Armenia has done its best to follow suit, spending $427 million on defense -- a 115 percent increase from 2004, according to SIPRI. But lacking Azerbaijani natural-resource wealth, Armenia has turned to Russia for military aid to bolster its security. In return, Moscow has taken its pound of flesh from Yerevan by establishing a major military base in Armenia.

With tensions high after the recent clashes, both Russia and the United States have made calls for calm along the border and for reviving the OSCE Minsk Group process -- which was established to bring a lasting solution to the conflict following the 1994 cease-fire. Russian President Vladimir Putin has set up meetings with the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents for Friday and Saturday, in a bid to broker a cease-fire. But a lasting solution will require more than just Russian pressure. Moreover, with U.S.-Russia relations at an all-time low, international cooperation on Nagorno-Karabakh looks confined to the trenches for the immediate future.

KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/GettyImages

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Obama Launches Airstrikes in Iraq, Delivers Aid

After telling a national audience Thursday night that he authorized bombing in Iraq, on Friday President Barack Obama gave the green-light to airstrikes. 

On Thursday the United States began dropping food aid to stranded religious minorities in northern Iraq and authorized the military to bomb the Islamic State if it threatens U.S. advisors working in and around Erbil, capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region.

The airstrikes are the first American offensive since U.S. forces completed their withdrawal in December 2011.

"I've directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward [Erbil], including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad," Obama said at a White House press conference Thursday night.

As many as 40,000 Yazidi refugees are trapped in the Sinjar mountains and they are slowly running out of food and water.

Defense officials said the humanitarian mission was conducted from a number of air bases within the U.S. Central Command "area of responsibility" and included one C-17 jet and two C-130 cargo jets. The two dropped a total of 72 bundles of supplies. The cargo jets were accompanied by two F/A-18s and the mission did not require U.S. ground troops, according to the Pentagon. 

The C-17 jet dropped 40 "bundles" of fresh drinking water and a C-130 dropped 16 additional bundles totaling 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water. Another C-130 dropped 16 bundles more, totaling 8,000 meals ready-to-eat, or MREs. The airplanes spent about 15 minutes over the area, at a low altitude, according to a point paper distributed by defense officials Thursday night.

Residents of Iraq's largest Christian city, Qaraqosh, which is home to some 50,000 followers, fled as the Sunni militants advanced toward Erbil, targeting Iraq's religious minorities along the way.

"ISIL has called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide," Obama said. "When we have the unique ability to prevent a massacre, the United States cannot turn a blind eye."

The militants also captured Iraq's largest dam. U.N. officials estimate that there are as many as 200,000 new refugees seeking safety in Iraq's Kurdish north.

The Islamic State seized the city of Sinjar, the Yazidis' ancestral home some 75 miles west of Mosul, on Sunday as part of this wider offensive, causing the city's inhabitants to flee into the mountains. Unlike Christians, who are often given the choice of converting or paying a tax to save their lives, the Islamic State has killed the Yazidis by the hundreds, sometimes taking them as slaves. "We believe that what they have done may be classified as genocide and a crime against humanity," said Gyorgy Busztin, the deputy special representative in Iraq of the U.N. secretary general, speaking to the Christian Science Monitor. "They are being treated as a group to be eliminated from the face of the earth."

The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks after gathering for an emergency session on Thursday. "The members of the Security Council call on the international community to support the government and people of Iraq and to do all it can to help alleviate the suffering of the population affected by the current conflict in Iraq," said Mark Lyall Grant, Britain's U.N. ambassador and current Security Council president. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that he is "deeply appalled" by the attacks.

Despite the promises of assistance, Obama ended his remarks Thursday evening by noting that in the long term, Iraq's people will have to sort out the unstable political situation themselves.

"There is no American military solution to the larger problem in Iraq," Obama said.

Earlier in the day there had been conflicting reports of whether there had been airstrikes, and if so, by whom. Accounts that Turkish fighter jets entered Iraq's airspace were denied by the Turkish government, and Turkish media later reported that the Turks, using Iraqi government helicopters, did deliver goods to the Yazidi refugees.

The Iraqi ambassador to the U.N., Ali al-Hakim, said that the Iraqi jets had "yet" to strike Islamic State fighters. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered his air force to support the Kurdish army earlier this week, ahead of the coming Islamic State advance.

This post has been updated.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza