In a whirlwind of global news, the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has fallen out of the spotlight, if it was ever there to begin with. Not only is the conflict devastating for those in the conflict zone—it also has large implications for the European, Central Asian, and Middle East politics.
The majority ethnic Armenian autonomous region within Azerbaijan has long been a flashpoint for conflict between ethnic groups in the Soviet and post-Soviet era. Both the Azeri and Armenian governments have claimed the other side started the most recent conflict, which began on 27 September.
Since then, fighting has increased and again both countries have accused the other of targeting cities and endangering civilians. Viral footage has shown the capital of Stepanakert allegedly being shelled by Azeri cluster bombs.
As tensions ratchet up, Western powers have mostly remained mum on the topic, but Turkey threw their military weight behind their Azeri allies quickly. The forceful military support from Turkey marks a departure from previous conflicts over the region which were primarily of Russian interest.
The latest iteration of conflict leaves regional powers scrambling as Russia, Iran, and Turkey all share borders with the two nations in the Caucuses.
The Nagorno-Karabakh fighting has also roped in the Syrian National Army fighting on behalf of Turkey. The Turkish-backed force is fighting in opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, while Russia has been one of the Syrian leader’s biggest backers.
Russia-Turkey relations threaten to worsen as the Nagorno-Karabakh situation makes the third armed conflict in which the two countries are on opposing sides, with Libya and Syria as the others. Russia has been an ally of Armenia, but thus far it has not supplied Armenia the same military support as Turkey has given Azerbaijan.
Turkey Flexes Power
Turkey’s latest moves to support Azerbaijan are part of a much larger increase in the country’s military presence in the last decade under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Turkey’s military expansion has extended beyond Syria and Libya, as Erdoğan has increased tensions with Greece and Cyprus over Mediterranean gas reserves, much to the dismay of Egypt and other regional players. Greece has drawn support in the form of military exercises from Italy and France as other European Union members attempt to solve the crisis diplomatically.
The increasing military exploits in Syria, the Mediterranean, and Nagorno-Karabakh come as the Turkish lira is in freefall against the US dollar and the Euro. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the fall of the lira which has been trending down against other currencies for years.
As the Turkish economy has stuttered and domestic crises run amok, Erdoğan has run a tight ship at home and attempted to both appease voters and business interests by flexing Turkish military might in the region. An attempt to secure gas rights in the Mediterranean is a business calculation, nevertheless one that threatens relations with European counterparts.
And much like Mediterranean gas, Turkey’s interest in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict lies further than the historic, ethnic, and cultural ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Recently, Azerbaijan became Turkey’s top gas supplier, as part of Erdoğan’s diversification from Russian gas dependence.
Russia and Europe
While Armenia does not enjoy a level of support from any country equivalent to Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan, it can count several ‘allies’ on its side.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke most forcefully of Western leaders and called for a ceasefire in the region. Macron also called the deployed of Turkish-backed Syrian forces a “jihadist” deployment. In recent days, Macron has been outspoken against “Islamist radicalism”, drawing ire from Muslims in France and around the world.
Russia and the United States have also called for a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, but no foreign power has rushed to their aid and offered direct military support. NATO also joined the calls to cease fighting.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was very critical of the international community’s call for a diplomatic solution after ten days of fighting. While visiting Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, Cavusoglu said, “we look at the calls coming from around the world, and it’s ‘immediate ceasefire’. What then? There was a ceasefire until now, but what happened?”
While international leaders duke it out on the international stage, deaths are mounting. And, Azerbaijan and Armenia have both been adamant that a ceasefire cannot occur.
On the Ground
For Azerbaijan and Armenia, the fighting seems to be intractable, with both sides taking hardline stances.
Armenia is particularly wary of Turkey’s involvement in the fight considering the Ottoman Empire committed a genocide against ethnic Armenians, a fact Turkey still denies over 100 years later.
The Armenian diaspora and government officials have linked the current battles as a continuation of the genocide which spanned from 1914-1923. Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Turkey is “once again advancing on a genocidal path.”
Armenia seems to want nothing less than the removal of Azeri and foreign troops from the autonomous region.
For Azerbaijan, they have a similar request, the removal of all Armenian troops from Azeri territory (Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan).
So, the two sides have hardened stances with Armenia arguing they cannot leave the region as Azeri-Turkish control is a threat of genocide in the region, and Azerbaijan insists that the territory is under their control.
And thus far, the international community has been unable to broker a diplomatic solution, with Turkey the only major power to take a commanding role. With regional and global powers from the European Union, Iran, Russia, and the United States attempting to play a balancing act between interests in the region, Armenia finds itself up against a more populous Azerbaijan with the military backing of Turkey.
Without a diplomatic answer on the horizon, the conflict threatens to grow out of control and spill into conflicts in other arenas.