In 1992, shortly after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the U.S. Congress passed the Freedom Support Act to support open markets and coordinate assistance for the successor states of the Soviet Union. Against the backdrop of Azerbaijan’s blockade on Armenia, however, Section 907 of the act forbade the application of assistance to Azerbaijan. The language was simple. “United States assistance under this or any other Act…may not be provided to the Government of Azerbaijan until the President determines, and so reports to the Congress, that the Government of Azerbaijan is taking demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.”
For almost a decade, Azerbaijan did not receive any of the billions of dollars distributed under the aegis of the Act. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, though, Azerbaijan positioned itself as a counterterrorism ally. The cost of Azerbaijan’s support was an amendment establishing a waiver to Section 907, applicable so long as the president (via the State Department) can certify that Azerbaijan remains committed to diplomacy.
Azerbaijan has received a waiver every year since, even though both the Trump and Biden administrations have violated the letter and spirit of the law by issuing a waiver after President Ilham Aliyev’s government launched its 2020 attack on Nagorno-Karabakh. Aliyev’s open belittling of diplomacy as a means to resolve conflict and eliminationist rhetoric against Armenia as a state should have been clear disqualifiers. Azerbaijan has interpreted the Biden administration’s continued waiver as a greenlight for aggression.
While the Biden administration should revoke the waiver for Azerbaijan (and Congress should remove the option if the State Department serially violates the law), both the State Department and Congress should recognize that Section 907 provides an even more potent tool for regional security.
There is credible evidence that, during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Turkey both flew U.S.-provided F-16s in support of Azerbaijan and Turkish Special Forces supported Azerbaijani forces as they captured Shushi (or Shusha as the Azerbaijanis call it). While the language of Section 907 explicitly prohibits “United States assistance … [to] be provided to the Government of Azerbaijan,” it does not limit the prohibition to direct assistance. Indeed, standard American practice is to prohibit transshipment of military hardware. Whether Turks piloted the planes on behalf of Azerbaijan or allowed Azerbaijani pilots to fly them is irrelevant. Either way, Congress can embrace a creative interpretation to apply Section 907 to the prohibition of any military hardware or other assistance to Turkey, NATO member or not, so long as it too does not meet the conditions of the Freedom Support Act. Because Turkey continues to blockade Armenia and openly supported Azerbaijan’s most recent attack on Armenia proper, it is clear that Turkey would not meet the conditions. To qualify for a waiver, Turkey would essentially have to cut itself off militarily from Azerbaijan instead of using it as a proxy for military aggression and ethnic cleansing.
The ramifications of such a move go further: Turkey continues to occupy one-third of Cyprus, has bombed Kurdish and Yezidi villages in Iraq on an almost daily basis, and increasingly threatens Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. The language of Section 907 might apply to aggression toward Armenia but what happens in Armenia does not stay in Armenia.
Washington might not see Armenia as a pivotal state to regional security, but it should understand that Armenia is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. As Turkey grows more aggressive, it is essential that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress use all non-military tools in their arsenal to prevent Turkish aggression along the breadth of its land and sea borders.