Noam Chomsky Discusses Azeri Aggression on Artsakh

David Barsamian and Noam Chomsky at MIT, January 2012. (Photo: Balaji Narasimhan)

Noam Chomsky, by any measure, has led a most extraordinary life. In one index he is ranked as the eighth most cited person in history, right up there with Aristotle, Shakespeare, Marx, Plato and Freud. The legendary MIT professor practically invented modern linguistics. In addition to his pioneering work in that field, he has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for many decades. Chris Hedges says he is “America’s greatest intellectual” who “makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable.” He is Institute Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT and Laureate Professor of Linguistics and Haury Chair in the Program in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona. At 91, he is still active, writing and giving interviews to the media all over the world. He is the author of scores of books, including Propaganda & the Public Mind, How the World Works, Power Systems and Global Discontents with David Barsamian of Alternative Radio.

On October 9, 2020, Barsamian spoke with Noam Chomsky about the war on Artsakh, its imperial roots and the role of “malevolent actors” like Turkey’s Erdogan. The Armenian Weekly thanks Barsamian for permission to publish the transcript of the interview below.

David Barsamian—The fighting in the Southern Caucasus might be an example of what Edward Said called “unresolved geographies.” A legacy of imperial cartographers. Stalin as commissar of minorities in 1920, to placate Turkey, gave Nagorno Karabakh, which Armenians call Artsakh, and Nakhichevan, both Armenian majority areas, to Azerbaijan. Then with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, fighting breaks out, resulting in Armenian forces taking Nagorno Karabakh. There have been skirmishes, so-called incidents, on and off since then, but the attack by Azerbaijan that began on Sept. 27th, no doubt in coordination with Turkey, represents a major escalation. The reporting here [in the U.S.], the little that there is, is without historical background or context. Fighting “erupts,” there are ancient enemies, etc. 

What are the roots of this conflict?

Noam Chomsky—You’re right that Stalin drew the borders, but remember, he was not the only one to draw borders. The entire Middle East was carved up by French, British imperialists, drawing lines where they wanted, which were to their benefit, taking no account of the needs and interests of the populations. That’s a large part of the cause for the bitter, violent conflicts raging through the region. 

Take, say, Iraq. The British drew the borders around Iraq so that Britain, not Turkey, the former Ottoman Empire, would have control over rich oil resources in the north. That brought together Kurds and Arabs who had nothing to do with each other. The British furthermore wanted to make sure that the new creation they were imposing would not be independent, would not have free easy access to the Gulf, so they carved up the principality of Kuwait, which the British would control, to prevent Iraq from having easy access to the Gulf. Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, same thing. Lines drawn by French, British imperialism for their interests. All over Africa, you see straight lines. Why? The imperial powers were destroying Africa for their interests. Hideous atrocities. We don’t have to go through it. Still showing up with the people dying in the Mediterranean, fleeing from the horrors that were created. So it’s not just Stalin; all the imperial powers.

Well in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, there’s a long history. Can’t go through it, but the immediate crisis came when Azerbaijan, surely with Turkish backing, Israeli arms pouring in. Ben Gurion airport in Israel, Ilyushin planes coming in and out, while no other planes are flying [into Baku], sending Israeli arms to Azerbaijan so they can kill people, Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh. So yes, this is an escalation. International. Russia is on both sides, Iran is supporting Armenia, very strange relations. It’s horrible for the people there. It’s a very dangerous situation. It’s time for international diplomacy, for negotiations to take place to try to dampen in down.

The actors are not the nicest people in the world, to put it mildly. Erdogan in Turkey is basically trying to create something like the Ottoman Caliphate, with him as caliph, supreme leader, throwing his weight around all over the place, and destroying the remnants of democracy in Turkey at the same time. 

Israel is interested only in selling arms. They’ll sell them to everybody no matter who they’re killing. That’s the mainstay of their economy: security and arms. Even right here where I live, the border not far from where I live is being fortified with the crucial assistance of Israeli so-called security forces and corporations. That’s their job. Elbit [Systems], in this case. 

There’s plenty of malevolent forces involved, and we can only hope that there will be some kind of international effort to dampen down the atrocities and the aggression before it really explodes into massive massacres on the scene and, possibly, international war, because many powerful international forces are involved. 

D.B.: Turkey is also shuttling ISIS jihadi fighters from Syria, and paying their salaries to go fight with the Azerbaijanis against the Armenians. 

N.C.: That’s apparently true. Turkey’s probably doing the same in Libya, one of the other places where Erdogan is trying to show his power. Yes, that’s reported in Azerbaijan.

D.B.: Armenia in 2018 had a peaceful democratic revolution led by Nikol Pashinyan overthrowing the ruling oligarchy. This is one of the few instances where there was a peaceful revolution replacing an autocratic regime in the post-Soviet states. It wasn’t well-reported on here in the U.S.

N.C.: As far as I know, there was essentially no interest in the United States. If there was, I failed to detect it. Yes it was, for once, apparently a real democratic revolution. What has happened beyond that, I don’t really know the details.

D.B.: You know my background is Armenian and I’ve been to the Republic of Armenia. It’s a relatively poor country, landlocked, has a small population of three million. I went to some villages, and I noticed that there were no young or middle-aged men in the village, so I asked around: where is everybody? And they said all the menfolk had gone to Russia because there is no work here. So Armenia is in a kind of desperate situation.

N.C.: All the more reason why there should be some major international effort to terminate the current aggression, and to try to find some way to resolve the convoluted problem of Nagorno Karabakh, where there’s an Armenian population inside an Azerbaijani controlled area. It’s not an easy one to resolve, but through reasonable negotiations that could be an outcome that is possible.

David Barsamian

David Barsamian

David Barsamian is the award-winning founder and director of Alternative Radio, the independent weekly audio series based in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of numerous books with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Eqbal Ahmad, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and Edward Said. His best-selling books with Chomsky have been translated into many languages. His latest books are How the World Works and What We Say Goes (both with Noam Chomsky) and Targeting Iran. David's interviews and articles appear in The Progressive, Z and other publications. He is winner of the Media Education Award, the ACLU's Upton Sinclair Award for independent journalism, and the Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. The Institute for Alternative Journalism named him one of its Top Ten Media Heroes.
David Barsamian

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  1. Turkish American here who believes that it is no longer the era of war & conquer. If Germany & France can get along, if US and UK are buddies, why can Turks & Armenians not live in peace? I’d love to read a follow up to this conversation where possible solutions are discussed. Why not pull Turkish/Azeri and Armenian scholars together and work on possible solutions to this conflict as well as the existing hostilities.

    • Peace on Earth may there be peace in your life all the time. It is impossible for Armenian and Turks to sit together when the most fundamental of issues hasn’t been resolved. Turkey still denies the Genocide. They even imprison their own citizens who question the history. Every other country and nation you mentioned who can coexist together is because the agressor for no better word has not denied their part in the history. There can never be talks of any kind for as long as Turkey will deny the genocide of the Armenian people living under their rule in the WWI.

    • Why not….? But,this must be the wish of the leaders !!! But, I guess that these leaders are businessmen…..And then, as we all know,businessmen, all they want,is profit…..I hope to be wrong !

    • The Turkish, Azeri and Armenian people can live together in piece if there is true democracy in both Turkey and Azerbaijan. It has happened before. During the soviet era my dad has even told me stories that he had Turkish friends during the time he was serving in the Army. I myself have visited Tukey and have seen so many similarities in our cultures. The civilized ones are very humane. But at this point the government has filled them with so much hate i think its almost unlikely to undo all that. As long as there r leaders like Aliev and Erdogan i dont expect much. We armenians are peace loving people.

  2. Where is everyone? Gone to Russia to work doing what,I wonder? All these wonderful metanational organizations like the IMF,United Nations, etc. sitting on their thumbs with nothing to do or say. This planet will rot not from climate irregularity, but from lack of caring.

  3. Great coverage. Thank you for bringing it to us. It is clear who Armenia’s friends (very few) and enemies (many) are. The World does not take action until it is too late. They are worried that this would escalate into a major international conflict, so they would not hesitate to make Armenia the sacrificial lamb to appease the bloodthirsty Turks> Israel, of course, would rejoice, instead of realizing that they can be next. Turkey knows no loyalty. Wouldn’t be funny if Turkey started attacking Israel with the very same weapons bought from it? The Ottoman Empire, includes Palestine, you know.

    • Israeli military is a lot more powerful than Azerbaijan and Armenia. If Turkey thinks they can just come and conquer Israel then they are in for a surprise. It will be a brutal war. Israel won’t hesitate to use its nukes on Ankara if cornered.

  4. Many have complained about those imperialists’ borders. After independence, why didn’t the new nations peacefully meet & redraw their borders to ones that were fair?

    • That’s a great question. The story of Arstakh is actually the story you seek. Armenians who were subjected to such redrawing of boundaries proclaimed independence and self-rule to question the conditions placed upon them by Stalin. As for the Middle East, I would direct you to the short-lived United Arab Republic experiment. There is a long discourse in the Arab World (Sati al-Husri, Michel Aflaq, Nasser, George Habash) about redrawing the boundaries of the region almost as soon as they were created, unfortunately imperial rule in the form of mandates, the Cold War, and the self-interest of the newly-created states made those projects doomed from the start.

  5. Thanks for clarifying the historical background around this conflict. Such clarification helps to see the real issues through the confusing media reports and support the peaceful resolution of this conflict.

  6. NC is a well-respected scholar, but he is definitely lacking a clear-cut understanding of the history of and state of affairs in Nagorno-Karabakh because Eurasia is not his regional area of studies.

    The imperial borders were being drawn in the Soviet Union differently that the Brits were doing in the Middle East or elsewhere.

    If you want some objective view on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, go read Black Garden by T. de Waal.

  7. Dear devoted scholar-activists David Barsamian and Noam Chomsky, please air this excellent interview on Alternative Radio for your many devoted listeners. We appreciate your sharing this with the Armenian public, but it is really the non-Armenian public that needs to hear it and act on it.

  8. I say this respectfully:

    I read the interview with Chomsky.

    Please, Chomsky had little important to say and hardly knows anything about the geopolitics of the present conflict.

    What is Russia up to? Why has Putin allowed jihadists in Russia’s backyard? What are Trump and Biden saying or not saying, doing or not doing?

    Lots of issues there that were not broached and which Chomsky could not answer even if they were broached.

    Why did David Barsamian have on a non-Armenian, Chomksy, as well-known as he may be, who does not really know the subject matter, rather than a knowledgeable Armenian American who could really explain the issues and what is going on behind the scenes – of which there are many?

    Am I permitted to say this?

  9. It would be truly delightful and most appreciated if our good friends Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian were to reach out to all righteous Jewish journalists, authors, and other public figures to write an open letter to the Israeli government condemning their training of and arming the Azeri military.

    Send it to President Trump too, and Secretary of State, and Jewish American organizations.

    Something like this:

    We regret to say that today, the grandchildren of Armenian Genocide perpetrators are committing a genocide on the grandchildren of Armenian Genocide survivors using weapons provided by the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

    Here are links to Jewish scholars Israel Charny’s and Yair Auron’s articles in 2014 and 2016.

    Two great older articles by Charney and Auron:

    Would Israel Sell a Used Drone to a Hitler?

    Israel Must Not Sell Arms to the Azeris

    They spoke up. Why not Noam and David?

  10. Professor Chomsky, the only reason why I checked this article was to get your perspective on the history of this region and conflict, given your comprehensive knowledge of history & politics which I value highly. Sadly, you brushed this off with “there’s a long history. Can’t go through it”. Please go through it next time!

    Regarding the recent flared-up war, Professor Chomsky doesn’t add anything new, instead repeats what is been told all over the international media which is unarguably pro-Armenian due to years of building strong relationships and lobbying.

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