Over 100 Congress members urge Biden admin. to strengthen US ties with Armenia

People protest during a rally against the country's agreement to end fighting with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region outside the government headquarters in Yerevan, Armenia on Nov. 11, 2020. More than 2,000 demonstrators protested in the Armenian capital as anger mounted over Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan's decision to cede swathes of disputed territory to Azerbaijan under a controversial peace deal. | AFP via Getty Images/KAREN MINASYAN

A bipartisan group of over 100 members of Congress is urging the Biden administration to hold Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey accountable for the recent fighting with Armenia that displaced thousands and killed hundreds.

“The United States cannot allow Russia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan to solely dictate and dominate the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh,” reads a bipartisan Armenian Caucus letter co-signed by 101 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

The conflict started in the 1980s when the Soviet Union began to fall apart. The Nagorno-Karabakh region is recognized internationally as part of Muslim-majority Azerbaijan even though it has a majority Armenian population and is controlled by ethnic Armenians.

While Russia brokered a ceasefire in 1994, clashes reignited last September, with both sides accusing each other of targeting civilian communities. The fighting ended in November with Armenia agreeing to a peace deal brokered by Russia. 

“This agreement brought an end to the fierce combat, but it has done little to address the immediate and significant problems of feeding, sheltering, and ensuring the safety of thousands of displaced families during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the lawmakers contend in the letter dated last Friday. 

“In violation of the ceasefire, Azerbaijan also refuses to free dozens of Armenian prisoners of war and apprehended civilians, which illustrates how this agreement fails to address the structural issues that have caused uncertainty and fueled the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for decades. There remain several important issues that must be resolved and many critical questions that must be answered before a binding and durable peace settlement can be reached.”

Armenians recognize the region as the Republic of Artsakh, which Armenians say is part of their ancestral homeland.

“We urge you to identify ways we can provide additional economic assistance to Armenia to support its democracy and development as well as respond to the significant number of displaced people who have fled the conflict in Artsakh,” the letter reads.

“We also request that your Administration identify ways in which our economic, cultural, and other ties to Armenia can be improved to benefit Armenia and the large Armenian American diaspora in the United States.”

According to the legislators, those steps should include the “formal recognition of the Armenian Genocide by President Biden on April 24” to follow in the “footsteps of both the House and Senate who passed resolutions recognizing the fact of the Genocide during the 116th Congress.”

The Armenian genocide refers to the Ottoman Empire’s alleged systematic extermination of its minority Armenian subjects in their historic homeland within Ottoman Turkey and of those who lived in other parts of the territory constituting present-day Turkey. 

According to estimates, about 1.5 million people were killed in the genocide, which lasted from 1913 to 1923.

Some historians see the genocide as a precursor of genocides the world witnessed later, including the Holocaust.

According to The Wall Street Journal, about 2,855 Azeri soldiers were killed in the recent six-weeks fighting, which also reported that Armenia said more than 3,000 of their troops died. The total number of civilian casualties is reportedly around 150.

Armenian Caucus founding Co-Chair Frank Pallone, D-N.J. New Jersey, who spearheaded the letter, said he appreciates “the overwhelming bipartisan support we received for this letter.”

“It shows how important these issues are to the U.S. Congress, especially in the aftermath of the unprovoked Azerbaijani and Turkish attacks on Artsakh last fall,” Pallone added. “The U.S. can and must do more to help the thousands of displaced families from Artsakh that fled to Armenia because of the war and to pressure the Azerbaijani government to release the dozens of prisoners of war it continues to hold. All of this has caused a great deal of uncertainty in the region and continues to threaten Armenia’s young democracy.” 

The Armenian Council of America welcomed the letter.

“We applaud Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Frank Pallone for his steadfast leadership, as well as Caucus leaders Reps. David Valadao, Jackie Speier, Gus Bilirakis, Adam Schiff, and all of the signatories for coming together in this important effort to urge the Biden’s administration to work closely with America’s democratic allies Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, as they face an existential threat from the Islamist armies of Turkey and Azerbaijan,” the council said in a statement.

This month, a bipartisan coalition of 54 Senators also sent a letter to President Joe Biden, expressing their concern over a deteriorating human rights record in Turkey. 

However, the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern noted that the letter failed to mention the domestic crackdown on Christianity, by which the government has systematically deported Christians from Turkey.

Last October, an estimated 100,000 people marched through the streets of Los Angeles, California, to call for an end to the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

“We stand with our brothers and sisters in Armenia & Artsakh, & the diaspora in L.A.,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tweeted at the time. “We need our national leadership to step up & help bring peace to the region. Turkey must disengage.”

On Oct. 8, Schiff, who was at the protest, spoke with Armenian Ambassador Varuzhan Nersesyan about the military campaign that was being “aided and abetted by Turkey and the foreign fighters it is bringing in from Syria.” They also discussed the “deliberate bombing of a historic Armenian Church, the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, in the city of Shushi.”

Schiff vowed that “not one dime more” of U.S. aid will be sent to Azerbaijan or Turkey. 

“For decades, through the OSCE Minsk Group, the United States has supported a peaceful, democratic, and negotiated resolution to the dispute surrounding Nagorno Karabakh,” Schiff said. “We have persisted in this policy even as Azerbaijan launched countless assaults and as their leadership frequently threatened war to redraw the line of contact by force.”

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