STEPANAKERT, NAGORNO-KARABAKH—Armenians are angry at the U.S. State Department. On March 26, 2020, Deputy Secretary Stephen Biegun granted Azerbaijan its annual waiver to Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 1992. In effect, Biegun certified that Azerbaijan both remained committed to diplomacy to resolve its dispute with Armenia and would assist to counter terrorism. Absent such certification, the United States would be unable to provide aid and military assistance to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s abandonment of diplomacy would be reason enough for the White House and State Department to end its waiver of Section 907, but Aliyev has also violated counter-terror commitments by utilizing Syrian mercenaries who apparently have Al Qaeda or Islamic State links in the fight. Armenian officials confirm to me the capture of Syrian mercenaries. International journalists have also confirmed the participation of the Syrians. Simply put, any continued waiver for Azerbaijan flies in the face of the law and insults Congress.
Now that the guns have fallen silent, however, the incoming Biden administration should impose Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on those responsible for human rights abuses and war crimes in the conflict. Azerbaijan is an absolute dictatorship, ranked below both Cuba and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in political freedom. The decision to deceive the United States and resort to a military surprise attack rests with both Aliyev and his wife (and vice president) Mehriban. Indeed, the Dutch Parliament has already approved sanctions on the pair for this reason.
The need for Magnitsky sanctions is also crucial because both during the war and in its aftermath, Azeri forces and Syrian mercenaries have videoed themselves torturing and subsequently executing prisoners, both military and civilian. At the very least, the United States and Europe must demand Azerbaijan identify its personnel and militias who appear on the videos and to hand them over to international authorities for war crimes prosecutions. Any Azeri or Turkish official under whom they served should also face prosecution if they gave the order to conduct atrocities or if they failed to stop such actions.
Eight years ago, I testified before Congress on the South Caucasus. At the time, I considered Azerbaijan a better ally to the United States than Armenia, but today the reality is the opposite because of two factors: First, in 2018, Armenia underwent a democratic revolution. Today, it is a democracy while Azerbaijan has slid further into dictatorship. Second, Azerbaijan’s use of Syrian mercenaries shows it has become a terror sponsor rather than counter-terror partner.
Now that the guns in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan have fallen silent, it is easy to ignore Nagorno-Karabakh and move on. This would be a mistake. Not only is the integrity of U.S. and multilateral diplomacy at stake, but so is the credibility of U.S. law. To do nothing would both affirm the idea that might makes right and reward the aggressors. Inaction would guarantee Turkey and Azerbaijan would continue to use Islamist mercenaries in a way that could inflame ethnic tension and promote religious warfare. It is time for Congress to act, acknowledge the illegality of any further aid to Azerbaijan and ensure individuals responsible for war crimes are held to account.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.