Religion Unplugged

Armenia, Artsakh And Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman Dream

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
A view of a make-shift chapel on an Armenian frontline position on October 20, 2020 near Aghdam, Nagorno-Karabakh.
A view of a make-shift chapel on an Armenian frontline position on October 20, 2020 near Aghdam, Nagorno-Karabakh.

Apart from its colorful connection to the Kardashian family, the small, landlocked country of Armenia is most often brought to mind by the tragic events that took place there in the early 20th Century—the Armenian Genocide. That massacre of some 1,500,000 Armenian Christians (along with the murder of around 750,000 Greek and Assyrian Orthodox) took place between 1914 and 1922.

Lesser but related troubles have since gripped Armenia’s corner of the world. In 1994, a conflict costing the lives of 30,000 erupted between Nagorno-Karabakh—an enclave mostly comprised of Armenians—versus neighboring Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh is known locally as Artsakh, and it is noteworthy that Armenia and Artsakh are deeply rooted in Christianity and have been so since the 4th Century. Azerbaijan is Muslim.

Now, more than 25 years after the rather unclear resolution of that 1994 conflict—and emerging in the notoriously painful year 2020—the Armenia/Artsakh vs. Azerbaijan conflict has flared up again. And this time—tragically—Turkey’s Islamist President Tayyip Erdogan has powerfully entered the fray.

Seemingly intoxicated by his dream of a neo-Ottoman caliphate, President Erdogan recently declared little Armenia as “the biggest threat to peace in the region.” His latest posturing led to Turkish-backed military action by Azeri soldiers, launched against Artsakh and Armenia in late September. Those troops reportedly included thousands of radicalized Syrian mercenaries.

As the New York Times reported Oct. 21, 2020,

…This conflict is nothing like the 1990s… Then, the Kalashnikov rifle was the principal weapon. This time, there are few exchanges of small-arms fire. Of his unit’s 17 days at the front, he said, 15 days were spent in the trenches, taking cover from artillery barrages that came as frequently as every 20 minutes. There they are surrounded by craters where Azerbaijan has been systematically destroying Armenian tanks and other equipment, using modern “suicide drones” that loiter over a battlefield before diving down to an opportune target.

“They’re so fast that we can’t manage to hunt them down…I won’t say that we are not afraid. We are all afraid.”

The Armenian Genocide was carried out by the Ottoman Turks and is understood by many to have been a jihad against Christians. In fact, at the time, the killings were declared so by the Turks themselves. Today’s Azerbaijani invasion is also perceived by Armenians as reflective of jihadi ambitions.

There are historical reasons for this understanding.

Before Turkey launched the Armenian Genocide’s beginning, on Nov. 13, 1914, a holy war against Christian infidels was officially announced by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V Resad. He declared war on the Allies and called for a worldwide jihad (Holy War) against them. The carnage against the Armenians began just days later.

After the demise of the U.S.S.R. (1989-1991)—where both Azerbaijan and Armenia had been “Socialist Republics”—disputes about boundaries and allotments of land persisted. Arguments over age-old ethno-religious borders vs. those dictated by the modern U.S.S.R. eventually ignited the tragic 1994 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

A handful of years after Artsakh’s eventual victory in that conflict, I visited there with Baroness Cox, Life Peer in the U.K.’s House of Lords, along with other friends. During those inspiring days in the picturesque and then-triumphant little enclave, I discovered how deeply Baroness Cox had been involved in their defense, providing desperately needed relief aid and medical supplies in the midst of hard-fought battles.

I also learned that the conflict had been about far more than land; that there was indeed a Muslim/Christian component as well. More than one man who fought during that time explained that, in fact, there had been jihadi elements among the troops waging war against Armenia’s Christians, reflected in mutilations and other radical behaviors. Some veterans claimed this included hardened warriors from Afghanistan.

The 1994 conflict was widely understood by the Armenians as an extension of the earlier 20th Century genocide. And today’s fighting resounds with similar overtones. Meanwhile, as I traveled there, I was touched by Baroness Cox’s heartfelt affection for the local Christians, their churches and their charities. Her love was profoundly returned.

Needless to say, all who love Armenia, and those who have visited Artsakh and its people are heartsick about the present fighting—and no one more than Baroness Cox. A few days ago she sent me some of her current insights. Unsurprisingly, she “strongly condemns Turkey’s provocative actions and demands the immediate withdrawal of the Turkish armed forces, including the air force and jihadi terrorist mercenaries from the conflict zone.” She goes on to say:

“The direct involvement of Turkey and the scale and ferocity of this offensive raises the genuine fear of an attempt at the genocide of the Armenian people which Turkey’s highest leadership has declared in so many ways…The revival of Ottoman rhetoric by the Turkish Government reinforces the possibility/danger of realization of this evil intent.”

Baroness Cox concludes,

“In the previous attempt by Turkey to achieve the genocide of the Armenians in 1915, the UK stood firmly against it. The historic and recent acts of ethnic cleansing committed by Turkey and Azerbaijan mean that for the Armenians, the preservation of Artsakh is a question of survival for their people and for their spiritual, cultural and political heritage.”