BEIRUT – From Lebanon to Los Angeles, the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is fueling the Armenian diaspora and adding a new international element to the deadly conflict in a controversial enclave between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
When clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces lasted for the third week, young men drove through the streets of Beirut's largely Armenian district of Bourj Hammoud with Armenian flags. Armenian Americans blocked roads and highways in Los Angeles more than 7,000 miles away. organized deliveries of money, medicine and food; and called for action from the US government. For the estimated 7 million Armenians hurled into large parts of the world, the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is an almost unprecedented stimulus for mobilization and unification – with reports from young Armenians even returning to an ancestral homeland that few have ever seen to fight.
"When there is war, people all over the world flee the country," said Krikor Artenian, a Lebanese Armenian resident of Bourj Hammoud. “But not Armenians. Armenians from all over the world have flooded into Armenia and Artsakh, ”he said, using the term that millions of Armenians use for the enclave that legally belongs to Azerbaijan but is mainly inhabited and ruled by ethnic Armenians.
The conflict over the breakaway region has been simmering for years. The last major outbreak of violence prior to the current fighting claimed around 30,000 lives in the early 1990s. Since hostilities broke out in late September, Armenia and Azerbaijan have increased military pressure on each other and blew up a provisional ceasefire. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it as the "powder keg of a situation".
For many Armenians living in Lebanon, the conflict strikes near their homeland, even if the actual Armenia never belonged to them. Most of the Armenians in Lebanon are descendants of the up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire who were killed or forced to flee by Ottoman forces during World War I. Many fled to the eastern deserts of Syria or Aleppo. others drove on to Lebanon and ended up in a refugee camp outside of Beirut. A century later this camp is the densely populated, heavily Armenian quarter of Bourj Hammoud.
Armenian flags fly there alongside anti-Turkish graffiti; "Azerbaijan is guilty" is now being sprayed on the walls as the worsening conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh attracts public attention. People who mostly chat in Armenian with a bit of Arabic gather to watch the latest news about the fighting on TV. Shopkeepers listen to patriotic Armenian songs. There are signs in Armenian, schools that teach in Armenian, and Armenian churches too, and a deep collective memory of their historical trauma.
Despite all the differences between the Armenian diaspora – some are descendants of this first exodus, others from Soviet or even post-Soviet conflicts, each with different histories and relationships with today's Armenia – the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict mobilizes and unifies them in an unprecedented way. Across Europe, ethnic Armenians have also blocked highways and protested in capital cities. Many called for Nagorno-Karabakh to be recognized as a sovereign Artsakh.
"These differences are very evident in peacetime," said Armenak Tokmajyan, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. "Today we don't see these departments. We see unity and mobilization." Turkey's role as a major military supporter of Azerbaijan is to reopen historical wounds, he said.
"It evokes certain memories, especially for Armenians from the old diaspora," he said.
This feeling is translated into donations of money and aid – and there is much, if less, talk among young Armenians about fighting for their country.
"Our people either give food, money or their blood to fight," said Artenian, who is in his 60s and has never been to Armenia but is ready to die for it.
A well-known Armenian willing to give money is Kim Kardashian West, who contributed $ 1 million. She is not alone: The Hayastan All Armenian Fund, which offers the diaspora the opportunity to contribute in dollars, euros, rubles or Armenian drama, was raised To date, $ 126 million has been raised.
"My thoughts and prayers are with the brave men, women and children," Kardashian said in a video message to her 190 million Instagram followers. “I want everyone to remember that despite the distance that separates us, we are not bound by borders. We are a global Armenian nation together. "
Like Kardashian West, other Armenians in Los Angeles are campaigning for the cause. Armenian Americans in Southern California have dispatched high-powered generators, food, medicines and volunteers, including ethnic Armenian doctors and nurses who have traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh, said Sevak Khatchadorian, chairman of the Armenian Council of America. (Apparently not all shipments arrive: Armenia complained about Turkey this week clogged the flight of an aid delivery from Los Angeles.)
For Armenian Americans like Khatchadorian, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a key political issue just a few weeks before this year's presidential election. The Mayor of Los Angeles issued a statement earlier this month helping Armenia in the struggle – an odd outing for a community official. Meanwhile, the United States has increased its security funding for Azerbaijan by $ 100 million in the past two years.
"It's definitely a voting problem for us," said Khatchadorian. "The Azerbaijani government could use my US tax dollars to attack Armenians." He calls what he sees as the Trump administration's support for Azerbaijan "unforgivable". The US House of Representatives and the Senate both passed resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide between 1915 and 1923. However, President Donald Trump has refused to sign it for fear of backlash from Turkey.
This week, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden did Weighed in In addition, both countries and Turkey must be held accountable for their role in spreading the conflict. Khatchadorian says Biden's position is better than Trump's, but not enough.
But despite all the exuberant talks and generous help, few Armenians seem to go to the front to fight, unlike some of Turkey Proxies. Some Lebanese say they have local friends, but it's hard to confirm. Artenian, who is sitting in a narrow street in Bourj Hammoud, calls a friend he says is in the fighting. A photo of a tired man appears on the phone, but no one speaks on the other end. "They told him he wasn't allowed," Artenian said cryptically, putting the phone away.
In contrast to the conflict in the early 1990s, Armenia does not need foreign volunteers this time, even if every young man in Bourj Hammoud apparently says he wants to join the fight. Thirty years ago, the Armenian military was less professional, while Lebanon had years of civil war behind it. Today combat is a high-tech war with drones and advanced battle tanks that leaves little room for volunteers.
"No matter how much you love this country and how much trauma you have, you cannot operate this equipment," said Tokmajyan, the Carnegie expert.
In a war that is just as dependent on the struggle for international image, the Armenian diaspora seems to have an advantage. Whether it's Kardashian West and their Armenian-Americans in California or Lebanese Armenians standing up for their government and calling for cyberattacks on Azerbaijan, the normally wealthy and well-educated diaspora is a strategic asset.
"This time around, it feels like our main resource isn't land," said Tokmajyan. "The most important resource is the diaspora."
Hassan Harfoush contributed to the coverage of this story.