The pathway to a peace deal in the South Caucasus has been long and fraught with challenges. Emotions run high within the nexus of Armenian-Azeri relations, with painful memories and distress on both sides. But from inside this torn relationship, one can see the openings (however small) and the opportunities (however faint) for creating a turnaround in the regional dynamics.
Establishing a stable, sustainable peace is certainly the order of the day. It would save lives and prevent tremendous suffering. It would also bring significant upsides for the future of both countries: a geo-economic peace dividend that boosts the South Caucasus and its surrounding regions. Peaceful regional integration would create new, flourishing transit routes and supply chains that connect Asia to Europe, promoting the resilience of the global economy. And it would unlock tremendous value from both countries, as well as neighbouring Georgia, accelerating the development of their respective strengths.
Instead, for the moment, the conflict drags on, affecting a number of countries and communities. It also raises the risk of a violent confrontation along the Armenia-Azerbaijan-Iran border, where a possible military escalation over control of Armenia’s southern region of Syunik could draw Tehran in, seeing as it lines northern Iran.
For more than three decades, Armenia and Azerbaijan have wrestled over the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region with a majority Armenian population that was assigned within Soviet Azerbaijan by the USSR in the 1920s.
A 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia shifted the issue in favour of Baku, which had long been seeking to reclaim control of the region as a matter of national sovereignty. But that left an open question as to how the relationship between Azeri authorities and Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh would progress.
Fortunately, Baku and Yerevan began to take steps towards peace. The US, EU and Russia have all tried to move the initiative forward, hosting talks in different cities between Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. But the comprehensive deal they began to pursue now risks being derailed.
A dispute over the Lachin Corridor, the main road into Nagorno-Karabakh, has cut off vital supplies to an estimated 120,000 Armenians for more than eight months. Civilians, including about 30,000 children, are desperate for fresh food, fuel and medical goods. The International Committee of the Red Cross, among other leading voices, has described a dire lack of basic necessities, while UN experts warn that vulnerable populations are at risk of going hungry.
A humanitarian intervention urgently needs to be found, one that would stop the immediate suffering and prevent malnutrition levels that could very soon turn deadly. The solution could be a multinational aid delivery, co-ordinated with both Baku and Yerevan. There could be humanitarian air cargo flights to Ganja or cargo drone deliveries into Stepanakert and remote villages of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Creative solutions can be found once a principled compromise is reached – there simply needs to be a well-balanced diplomatic intervention that will give both sides a face-saving way to climb down from the current impasse.
The region needs a fresh approach to peacebuilding, with out-of-the-box ideas. Countries in the Global South could be crucial for providing a platform, with a climate of goodwill and understanding of both sides.
Diplomatic assistance from a trusted partner in the Arab and Muslim world would be a powerful positive force.
Azerbaijan has warm ties with countries in the Mena region, anchored in its membership in the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation. Armenians have a history of close friendship and integration with the Islamic world, encapsulated by a decree of the Prophet Mohammed in 626 AD that put the Armenian people and their church under his patronage and protection. Today, the Matenadaran museum in Yerevan houses a prestigious collection of Islamic manuscripts, including a copy of the Prophet’s Covenant with the Christians of the World.
The values of Islam – foremost, peace, compassion and care for humanity – create a unique diplomatic climate for potential reconciliation. They create a level of comfort and a safe space for both sides to be meaningfully heard. In that spirit, diplomats can help Armenia and Azerbaijan deescalate the current crisis, first by finding a point of compromise over urgent humanitarian needs. That will subsequently create the time and space required to find greater common ground.
“There are no real, fundamentally insurmountable problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” said Laurence Broers, an Associate Fellow with Chatham House focused on the South Caucasus. “With determination, intelligence and a sensible view you can overcome all of the obstacles.”
To achieve peace and stability, the two sides need to trust each other, with a facilitator that can help build that trust. Both sides will have to come to terms with their shared history. There is much to forgive and multitudes of grief that need to be transcended. An authentic, compassionate platform for dialogue could help Armenians and Azerbaijanis reconnect with their shared humanity.
“In the past, Armenians and Azerbaijanis had social norms of how to live together … they experienced happy and sad moments together,” Ahmad Alili, the director of a think tank in Baku, told me. They need to get together and talk.
Both sides have experienced the burden of war and share a will to live in safety and prosperity. If they can find the way to a peaceful co-existence, it will be transformative for the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. And it will set history in the positive direction we all want to see.