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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Trey Blanton, Former Army Officer and Afghanistan Veteran Shares His Insights on Artsakh, Turkey, Azerbaijan and More
The abandonment of the 'Big Stick' politics, as Roosevelt once advocated, is evident in the timidity of Western leaders.
I sat down with Trey Blanton recently, a former US Army officer and Afghanistan Veteran who is currently pursuing a journalism degree at Sam Houston State University. He already holds a Criminal Justice degree from the same university. After being sent on mission in Afghanistan twice, once in 2011 and again in 2014, Blanton became a deputy sheriff in Montgomery County, Texas in his desire to help others and serve the wider community. For Trey, this was not enough, he felt he could serve and protect people better away from the political arena and therefore started working for a Roman Catholic organization. With so many conflicts happening currently in the Middle East and elsewhere, I wanted to ask Trey, who has experience both in the Army as well as journalism, what he thinks about current conflicts, geopolitics and specifically, the ethnic cleansing of Artsakh.
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TB: “After my time in the Army and the police, I started reporting on Artsakh for a Roman Catholic organization. Most of the information I gained came from Twitter, so it was very difficult to verify what was going on and which sources were reliable, so these articles always took me a couple of days to work on, to make sure it was all accurate. Soon after I started publishing, people from the Armenian community reached out to me, as well as Americans who support Armenia and Artsakh. This is how I was able to build up my source base for my articles, for example, I interviewed Archbishop Anoushavan of the Armenian Apostolic Church in New York, as well as Foreign Minister David Babayan of Artsakh (former Minister Babayan was arrested and detained by Azerbaijan on September 30th during the Armenian exodus from Artsakh).
“I did the report on the war in 2020. Afterwards it came to my attention that there were those in Artsakh who thought I was the most prolific, non-Armenian journalist, covering the war and in 2021 I was invited to Artsakh. This was before any other Westerners were allowed in, I can’t say how I got in, but I did. I spoke to government ministers, talked to local families who had lost their relatives during the year 2020 and the previous war (early 1990s) when Azerbaijan attacked.
“I started to realize that the place I was working was not the best place to be able to continue to help Artsakh, so I decided to leave that organization. I went to Artsakh for a second time, this time as a teacher to the local school children there. That was important because of the importance of awareness in the West with regards to Artsakh, for the children to meet an American on a daily basis and for me to talk to Americans and tell them about my experience in Artsakh, to make more Americans knowledgeable, aware of what was going on.”
SD: Many people in the West thought about Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) as a territorial dispute between two nations.
TB: “Yes, that has been one of the big misunderstandings, especially among people in the West that Armenia and that side of the world (Caucasus) has an extensively long history. To try to sum that up in an article that is readable is difficult, but I always tried to capture the big bullet points so to speak. The fact remains that Azerbaijan did not exist prior to 1918 and that it was built on massacres of Armenians. That part of the world has always been a fulcrum point for many empires, not just Armenia, but also Israel, it has always been a crossroad of empires, from Rome to Persia to the Persian Empire or Russia and the Ottoman Empire and later Turkey. That area has always been caught in the middle and there was a time when Armenia did not exist on the map and they were perpetual refugees almost like the Israelis going forty years into the desert.
“When you look at history, you will realize that Armenians are an integral part of that region and you will have to fast forward hundreds of years when you see the Turkish invasions, the Mongol invasions, and that intermingling with the local Persian population, to finally get an Azeri bloodline.The Azeris are not a people, so to speak, but I think they are more like a political party. They were a small ethnic group within Baku (Capital of Azerbaijan) who were relatively poor, who invited the Ottoman Empire in to assault both the Russians and the Persians and establish these, now Azeris, as their own identity in Baku. But prior to that point, the beginning of the twentieth century, that never existed.”
SD: Trey, how is it possible, considering everything that is currently going on in the Middle East, what is happening in Israel right now, but also what happened in Artsakh, that the focus in the Western media lies predominantly on Iran and Russia, but Turkey manages to stay off of the radar?
TB: “You have to look at the history of the Ottoman Empire to explain that, the impact that they had on European politics was profound. For the longest time they were pounding at the Gates of Vienna. In Europe at the time, you had the Catholic-Protestant split, the schism of the church in the West, and there were various European powers who sided with the Ottoman Empire because they wanted to see the Catholics fall. I don’t want to dive too deep into that, but it has had a big play in modern European politics. For example: you’ve had Germany siding with the Ottomans for their wars, so when you look at the way other European countries interacted with them, Britain and others, there has always been an attitude to either appease them or, when it came down to war, to challenge them.
“Today, Turkey is a NATO-ally, with the second largest standing army in NATO. Some European powers are now trying to bolster up their forces again, just because they realize how detrimental it was to rely on Russian oil. So, they’re now trying to maintain their energy and security positions better. That plays a big part in it and the area, Anatolia, where Turkey is, has always been an East-West fulcrum point as well. It has always been a seat of power, if you controlled Constantinople, you had a dominant role in the Levant and the Balkans. So, in short, Turkey is not a position of power that can be ignored. From there you have direct access to the Black Sea and transport to almost anywhere in the Middle East and it directly challenges Russia’s power.
“Erdogan knows this very well, he knows that he is sitting on a lot of history so to speak, he knows how important it is to many in the West, in particular Christians. That is why you will see him taking big places like for example turning the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, originally an Eastern Orthodox cathedral until the Islamic conquest) into a mosque again. These are all calculated maneuvers on his part, to bolster his standing in Turkey among the hardline Islamists, who want to see a return of the Ottoman Empire. And then even the goals of Pan-Turkism, expanding Turkey’s power among all the Turkish speaking states.”
SD: Speaking about Pan-Turkism and all of that, on many occasions in both the Turkic and the Arabic speaking Muslim world, President Aliyev of Azerbaijan has linked what he calls the liberation of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and the Israeli-Hamas war, in an attempt to get other Muslim countries on his side. What is your take on that, was the ethnic-cleansing of Artsakh a long scheduled or planned strategy?
TB: “Well, that is an interesting one. I think he capitalized a lot on a pro-Israeli strategy, especially for the Western audiences. Among the Arabic states, I think it may be played to strengthen the Turkish power, because there has always been that rivalry between Turkey, Iran and the Arabic states, particularly Saudi-Arabia. So he is trying to bolster himself as his own statesman and not just Erdogan’s lapdog, which is how a lot of people saw him during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war (2020). Even in Turkey itself, some have mocked him, so I think part of it is becoming his own man. He likes to see himself as this great conqueror, trying to reinforce his own image.
“It is a delicate game that Aliyev is trying to play; he cannot risk antagonizing anyone too much, because he knows all he has to sit on is his oil deposit. Outside of that, he is of no-value to anybody. Everything that is great about the Azeri state, is Western funding; oil coming in now from them since Russia is sanctioned. Their fighters are worse than the Armenians, if there was a one-to-one fight, with equal technological footing, the Armenians would take that fight nine times out of ten. But with Israel’s support, with sophisticated weaponry, American support and even Russian support, don’t think that they haven’t been supplying them as well, you are looking at a military power that is stronger than what their own forces represent.”
SD: That is really interesting, because during the Russian presence as peacekeepers in Artsakh many people, especially on social media, said Armenians were Russia’s puppets.
TB: “I would not make the argument of either side being a puppet or a Russian ally, this is a political sphere and in that region Russia is the top dog over there, just as the United States is the dominant power on this side of the hemisphere. Unless the West will want to get more involved with Armenia, the countries there will have to look to somebody for their support.”
SD: That is another issue you will never read or learn from the media here in the West, the involvement of other countries in this conflict. For example, Pakistan choosing sides with Azerbaijan and India being in support of Armenia?
TB: “I think that the reason all of this has been allowed to transpire is because of a dynamic shift in politics and the way that nation states conduct themselves. I believe it was the former president Theodore Roosevelt who said “Walk softly, and carry a big stick.” Today, we have abandoned this concept of ‘big stick’ politics, where, if a country gets out of line, you swack them and they will not do that bad atrocity again. Instead, we have evolved into endless talking, we threaten with sanctions, if we even go that far. None of that even has happened against Azerbaijan, not in 2020 nor ever since then. Maybe some countries will think about something like sanctioning Azerbaijan, but it has not happened yet.
“This is all the wrong way to play, because sanctions will take time, we have had sanctions against Russia, but that has not stopped them from going to war. It is cowardice among Western politicians that they are not willing to tell Azerbaijan or other countries:
‘Hey, we have the bigger stick, stop violating human rights or we will show you what violence looks like.’
“I understand that might sound a little bit harsh, but it should not, it is the kind of language they understand. Their history is one of conquerors, and they were very good at that, the Turkish and Arab conquerors needed the indigenous people for example for administrative work, without them, they could not have managed.
“The same thing we are seeing with Erdogan, Aliyev and any of these other leaders, is that their power is built on the back of slavery. The people that they conquered had the choice: die or submit, and those who submitted contributed to the wealth and wellbeing of the various nations that have popped-up over the years. So, Turkey, Azerbaijan, they don’t know how to conduct business in a way that is not thuggish or in the conqueror mindset; they only think in these terms.”
SD: That is so interesting, because after Artsakh was ethnically cleansed, almost all leaders, the US, the UN, the European Union, all said that they felt they had been misled by Azerbaijan. The United States even said they felt embarrassed, they trusted Aliyev when he said he would not attack Armenia, and then he did. Is this, in your opinion, a clash of cultures?
TB: “They don’t understand each other and part of that is the evolution of education, I think, among Western leaders and it predisposed it towards a more, I use the term cowardly mind-set. But that is just me, I don’t claim to be an expert, I sort of come at it with a blue-collar approach, even though I was an army officer, I never viewed myself as part of the elite. Now, when you think in terms of politics, that has always been shaped around the notion of power and people in power in the West have lost a great deal. When you look at it from the term of the great wars (World Wars I & II) this sharpened their perspective, they felt they had to get away from big army politics. That may work between one European power and another, where they understand each other, but when you look at these other nations we’ve discussed, they don’t just thrive off of that thuggish attitude, they love it, they don’t want to give that up.”
SD: Former head of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Mr. Luis Moreno Ocampo, called the blockade of the Lachin Corridor a soft genocide; not actively committing murder, but rather starving an entire people. Perhaps because of this, much stayed under the radar and we in the West pretended we could negotiate with Azerbaijan?
TB: “Exactly. European and American politicians have engaged in this ‘both-sideisms’, that is how many in the media have described it as well, they want to blame the victim as much as the aggressor for why things are so bad over there. In terms of persecution, you always have to look at it from both an individualistic and a group perspective. You need to dig down to the roots, exploring the history of such conflict, why are things happening, what are the patterns. Stick to our example of Azerbaijan, for one, their entire educational curriculum is based upon hatred of Armenians and two, they have a false notion of who they are as a country.”
SD: Previously, in one of your own articles, you even called it jihad?
TB: “Yes, many people would dispute there is a religious dynamic to it, and I am not claiming that it is the only reason behind it, but when you are hiring mercenaries who are toppling down crosses (from churches), shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’, there definitely is a religious component to it. And even President Aliyev may paint himself and his country as a secular, non-religious state, but religion is involved. You cannot separate a person from his beliefs, who we are, our beliefs, form the decisions we make, the policies in which we enact.”
SD: Is this also part of an infowar; because President Aliyev, as you’ve just said, has one face he likes to show to the West, where he claims Azerbaijan is a multicultural country with religious freedom for everyone. This narrative was actually taken over by many Western media, as I saw, and you can say that Azerbaijan is very good at changing the narrative, we know about their caviar-diplomacy and so on. How do you see this?
TB: “Well many politicians, the media in the West, both European and American, follow a cultural ‘zeitgeist’ meaning that they don’t want to cause offense to anybody. In terms of religious freedom, some take advantage of that, because Islam is a religion that, if we say anything negative, will automatically make you an islamophobe. Just because you are critical of state policy or what the Qur’an says, which it does, it tells them to conquer and subdue the infidels, just because you call that out, it does not make you an islamophobe. I am fearful of an invasion and rightly so, because they have done it, even in this day and age, they are still using conquest as a form of state diplomacy.”
SD: We’ve also seen this recently with Hamas shouting “Allahu Akbar” while killing, raping and abducting Israelis.
TB: “Yes, and we might be reluctant to say anything, because we don’t want to cause offense to the good Muslims, but those Muslims in Europe and the United States who just want to live their daily lives and not go out and conquer the infidels, they don’t practice the faith authentically, you know. They were mostly culturally brought up as Muslims and follow what their parents passed down to them. That is the same with, for example, Catholicism and why you see a degrading of the faith among catholics, because they don’t practice their faith. They call themselves catholics, but they don’t act in accordance with what their religion places value on.
“The same thing goes for Islam, if a Muslim doesn’t believe in carrying violence against the infidel, great. But their religion praises what Hamas is doing, what Iran is doing to fund them and to shy away from the reality of that, does not do service to their victims nor to the people of good will within Islam who could be shown a better way. If you have this deep devotion to God, why put your faith in Islam where they want you to be something you are not, i.e. violent, and come to the Christian faith where you are rewarded for doing what is good. So, when we do not have a fair and honest discussion on these matters, you are handicapping people from being able to live out a better life. And you will constantly keep these Islamic nations, secular or otherwise, handicapped too. How can we properly interact with a nation if we don’t call them to their better selves?”
SD: And also the people living in our own countries, the diaspora, because from Canada to Australia we see Muslims going out on the streets celebrating the horrific attack of October seventh and after that waving Hamas, ISIS or Taliban flags in the streets of Sydney, London, New York, Amsterdam, shouting anti-Semitic slurs. All of this happens while the West is shocked and doesn’t seem to know how to respond to all of this?
TB: “That is the thing with this, people are tightly connected with their religious beliefs, and that is why when you have a Qur’an burning in Sweden, the Christians in Pakistan get beat. That is another area I focus on, Christian persecution in Pakistan, because that is the one thing we don’t talk about. As you yourself mentioned earlier, India supports Armenia, Pakistan supports Azerbaijan, but there are communities within both countries that disagree with their governments; you have Muslims in India and Christians in Pakistan. When we take actions that punish or reward other nations, based on geopolitical interests, the minorities that we should be supportive of, in this case Christians in Pakistan who want the best for all parties involved, are the ones who end up getting hurt.”
SD: And they remain rather invisible, because the entire geopolitical arena is not concerned with defending their rights, the same goes for Christians in Nigeria.
TB: “Exactly, so that is why in terms of respecting other religions, you are not acknowledging that their form of worship is valid, but you respect people’s human dignity enough to not degrade them, or insult them for not worshiping the One, true, God. We’re all called to pursue Truth and that means forbidding the government from determining the nation’s religion because then you have condemned those who want to follow God, but live in a country that has different beliefs.”
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