There is no military solution for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Only diplomacy will work.

People sit in a bomb shelter during a military conflict in the city of Stepanakert, the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan on October 5, 2020 [Areg Balayan/ArmGov PAN Photo via AP]

Despite a 1994 ceasefire and 28 years of diplomatic efforts led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement has proved elusive, frustrating the conflicting parties and mediators alike. The stalled peace process, coupled with major political developments, such as the fallout of the pandemic, the upcoming US elections, the Belarusian crisis and Brexit, distracting the countries leading the negotiations – the United States, Russia, and France, set the stage for the tragic outbreak of hostilities on September 27.

The current clash – the worst fighting in the region since 1994 – has already exacted a military and civilian death toll of certainly at least 1,000 lives and the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians. Artillery, rocket, missile and drone attacks are causing untold devastation along both sides of the Line of Contact, the extent of which is not yet fully known. On October 10, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov brokered a “humanitarian truce” to let both sides exchange prisoners of war and retrieve the dead, but this collapsed as soon as it began. A second effort on October 18 may suffer the same fate.

Today, Armenia and Azerbaijan stand on the precipice of a dramatic escalation in fighting which will generate even greater human suffering and risks triggering significant military involvement by outside powers. Russia maintains a mutual defence pact with Armenia and Turkey is a close ally of Azerbaijan. A military misstep here could have consequences that stretch far beyond the Caucasus. While a major clash between Russia and Turkey is unlikely, this tangled web of relationships sparks concerns that a proxy fight might emerge (as in Syria) where Russian and Turkish rivalries play out in this corner of Europe to the detriment of all.

What has changed in the current round of fighting is that Azerbaijan – with strong backing from Turkey – has moved towards a military solution, resisting calls to end hostilities and return to the negotiating table. The stated aim of its current military offensive is to retake all the lands Azerbaijan lost to ethnic Armenians in the 1990s.  President Ilham Aliyev also set a precondition for restoring a general ceasefire: an Armenian timetable for the complete withdrawal of its military forces from Nagorno-Karabakh and all surrounding territories, plus an apology.

President Aliyev must know that military action, while perhaps politically advantageous at home in the short run, will not yield an Armenian withdrawal timetable or apology, let alone deliver peace.  It has been understood from the beginning of negotiations that the withdrawal of forces from Nagorno-Karabakh cannot take place absent negotiated provisions for the safety and security of the local population, the majority of which is Armenian, as well as mutual agreement regarding the determination of the future political status of the region.

In this conflict, all sides possess brave soldiers, resilient and patriotic populations, and sufficient modern armaments to bring about enormous destruction and human suffering. Indeed, a level of military power has been established on each side that ensures weapons of war can deliver only misery, not victory.

The path to peace for this region lies in diplomacy. Talking, not fighting, offers the only real opportunity to achieve a lasting settlement. I saw evidence of this first hand, serving as the US co-chair of OSCE’s Minsk Group. Three distinct ingredients are required to achieve a negotiated peace between Armenians and Azerbaijanis: a willingness on the part of their leaders to work together towards a compromise solution, international support in the development of such a settlement and its eventual implementation, and the preparation of local populations to embrace that kind of accommodation. Not surprisingly, assembling all three is a daunting challenge.

At least twice under the Minsk Group mediation format, in the mid-1990s and again in 1999-2001, Armenia and Azerbaijan approached political settlements that had the potential to bring about peace. The essential element in these instances was acknowledgement by leaders that genuine compromise – which would involve painful political concessions from all sides – was required to attain peace, and a preparedness to negotiate on that basis.

Their efforts were bolstered by solid backing from all three Minsk Group co-chair countries, plus other interested nations and international institutions. A key area where these promising approaches came up short was that leaders had not prepared their own governments and populations to embrace a compromise solution.

While Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have been willing to explore surprisingly serious, even bold, mutually beneficial deals in private, in their public pronouncements all have been loath to move away from maximalist positions. Their people may be more receptive to give-and-take solutions than their leaders think.

International peacebuilding NGOs, working with students, journalists and local populations have found a weariness with conflict and a general openness to talking about peace. Civil society can play an invaluable role here by promoting a dialogue that facilitates greater understanding, engagement and grassroots cooperation. That could help build a much-needed foundation of popular support for compromise.

All sides in this dispute have shown that they are willing to fight and take casualties to regain or defend territory, both in the 2016 Four-Day War and in the latest military engagements. They must now take steps to restore a durable ceasefire and return to diplomacy without preconditions. Amid this unfolding tragedy, there has been an encouraging sign. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declared “conflicts need to be resolved on the basis of mutual concessions,” and said “Nagorno-Karabakh is ready, and Armenia is ready, to mirror the concessions that Azerbaijan is ready to make”. If President Aliyev is of the same mind, this could provide the basis for a productive diplomatic dialogue.

Resolving the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh will be no easy feat. It will require from Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders the political courage to end hostilities, commit to meaningful, mutually beneficial negotiations and convince their peoples that this approach can provide the peace they so richly deserve.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.