Azerbaijan and Armenia in a military conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region

Print edition : November 06, 2020

At Gangja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city, the scene of damage after shelling by Armenian artillery, on October 11. Photo: AP

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia. Photo: AFP

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan. Photo: AFP PHOTO/Azerbaijani presidency/handout

Hostilities break out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that has been under dispute since 1917 and has witnessed many clashes over the decades.

The sudden military face-off between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh caught the international community by surprise. After more than a quarter of a century, the “frozen” conflict over this 4,400-square-kilometre enclave with a population of 150,000 people, almost all of them Armenians, has once again become live. There were some signs that the two opposing sides were preparing for a conflict: the leaders of the two countries gave belligerent speeches at the recently concluded United Nations General Assembly session.

There is no doubt that it was Azerbaijan that launched full-scale hostilities in late September, taking Armenia by surprise. It was the bloodiest fighting witnessed between the two countries since the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh after the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union) three decades ago. Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan after a bitterly fought war, which ended in 1994.

The first war over the territory started in 1991 and lasted for almost three years, resulting in the death of more than 30,000 people and the displacement of a million, the majority of them Azeris. A ceasefire was declared in 1994, brokered by Russia, the United States and France. The Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have named the enclave the Republic of Artsakh, but no state, including Armenia, recognises it. In fact, U.N. Security Council resolutions have categorically supported Azerbaijani claims that Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of their country.

The fighting this time is even more intense than that witnessed during the conflict in 1991. The last serious clash between the Armenians and the Azeris was in 2016. More than a dozen people on both sides were killed. In two weeks of fighting this time, more than 400 Armenian fighters have been killed. Azerbaijan has not released any figures yet, but the casualties have been high on its side too. On October 9, the Russian government finally managed to persuade the two sides to announce a “temporary” ceasefire so that the dead could be given a proper burial and the injured soldiers taken to hospital. The Foreign Ministers of both countries were in Moscow in the second week of October to attend talks mediated by the Russian government. Both sides also promised to continue talking until a negotiated settlement was hammered out. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the truce was agreed upon on humanitarian grounds and that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would help in carrying out the humanitarian work. Lavrov admitted that the specific terms for the negotiating process were yet to be agreed on but said that the two sides had given their assent to substantive peace talks being held under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, which comprises Russia, the U.S. and France. Azerbaijan has been claiming until now that the Minsk Group has been totally ineffective in finding a solution to the three-decades-old “frozen” conflict.

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But within hours of the agreement being signed, both sides blamed each other for breaking the truce. Armenia accused Azerbaijan of shelling Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and other towns. By the second week of October, half the population of the disputed enclave had fled to safety in Armenia. The Azeris claimed that it was the Armenian side that broke the truce by shelling Ganja, the second biggest city in the country with a population of more than a million.

Ominously, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, speaking just after the temporary ceasefire agreement was signed, said that his country “will go to the very end and get what rightfully belongs to us”. At the same time, he said that he would keep the dialogue process going with Armenia. Jeyhun Bayramov, the country’s Foreign Minister, was even more forthright, saying that the ceasefire would only last for as long as it took the ICRC to collect and exchange dead bodies. Public opinion in Azerbaijan has also not welcomed the truce as people there feel that for the first time their country has the upper hand militarily in a conflict with Armenia.

History of conflict

The history of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is a complicated one. The status of the region has been under dispute since Armenia and Azerbaijan broke away from czarist Russia in 1917 and became independent countries. In the brief period of independence the two countries enjoyed after the end of the First World War, Armenia was backed by Russia and Azerbaijan by the Ottomans. Soviet power was established over the two countries three years after the Bolshevik Revolution. Initially, the Communist Party had decided to transfer power in Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian majority, but at the last minute it reversed its decision and gave control back to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic with the enclave allowed to retain autonomy. The Communist Party said that the move was “based on the need for national peace between Muslims and (Christian) Armenians”. In the last years of the Soviet Union, Armenia tried to get the enclave back by petitioning Moscow. The request was rejected by the USSR’s Supreme Soviet, the highest decision-making body of the country at the time. Clashes broke out in 1988 between Armenian separatists and the Azerbaijanis, leading to the decades of conflict that has followed.

The Azeris are a Turkic race and have cultural similarities with their cousins in Turkey but belong to the Shia sect, while the Turks are overwhelmingly Sunni. But sectarian differences have not stopped the neo-Ottoman Turkey under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from backing the Azeris in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenians on their part have not forgotten the genocide the Ottomans perpetrated against them in 1915. More than a million and a half Armenians perished and they were all expelled from what is the Anatolia region in present-day Turkey. The Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge that the genocide took place. Despite sharing a common border, Turkey and Armenia have a tense relationship: the borders remain closed and the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

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Turkey is the only country to have given the government of Azerbaijan its full backing as the latter seeks to forcibly reintegrate Nagorno-Karabakh. After minor clashes erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh in July between Azeris and Armenians, the Turkish army conducted joint exercises with Azerbaijan. Turkey has supplied a lot of the weaponry that Azerbaijan has been using with such lethal effect. For example, the “Bayraktar” military drones that have been particularly effective in the current conflict. France and Russia have accused the Turkish government of sending Syrian jehadi fighters to help the Azeris in their fight. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the Russian media that Turkey was the “main initiator and instigator” of the new war over Nagorno-Karabakh. He also said that he had proof of the presence of Syrian mercenaries in the fighting. Turkey has vehemently denied the accusations.

Azerbaijan is well supplied with advanced weaponry from Israel and Russia. As an observer of the region noted, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh is the first war in which Turkey and Israel are openly on the same side. It has been reported in the media that it was Israel that initially shared with Turkey its advanced drone technology. Relations between the two countries have become tense, and Israel’s new ally in the region is Azerbaijan. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on a visit to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, four years ago, President Aliyev revealed that his country had imported arms worth $5 billion from Israel, including “kamikaze” self-destructing drones, some of which have evidently been used with great effect in the latest conflict. Amnesty International said that Israeli-made cluster bombs had been dropped on Nagorno-Karabakh and accused the Armenian side of targeting Ganja with these munitions.

Israel sources a lot of its energy from oil-rich Azerbaijan and uses the country for its undercover actions against Iran. According to reports in the Israeli media, the country’s intelligence agency, Mossad, has a station in Baku serving as “the eyes, ears and springboard” for monitoring Iran, which shares a border with Azerbaijan and Armenia. In fact, in the early 19th century, imperial Russia seized the territory from Iran. Historically, Azerbaijan was a part of northern Iran. Around one third of Iran’s population today are said to be of Azeri ethnic origin. Iran is officially neutral in the conflict, but its sympathies seem to be with the Armenians.

The Russians so far are sitting on the fence and trying to play the role of honest mediator. Two million Azeris and two million Armenians live and work in Russia. However, Russia has stated that it is treaty bound to come to the defence of Armenia if its territorial integrity is threatened.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia came to power in 2018 on the back of street protests, replacing the pro-Moscow incumbent, Serzh Sargsyan. Pashinyan, it is said, also refused to entertain a plan Russia formulated to finally settle the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. A report brought out by the neoconservative RAND Corporation recommended that the U.S. should “try to induce Armenia to break with Russia” and encourage it to move fully into the orbit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Azerbaijan has so far confined its attacks to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Russia has no immediate incentive to bail the Armenians out. Both Russia and Iran have so far displayed statesmanship and tried to find a peaceful solution. Neither country wants to hurt its relationship with Turkey. Russia has grown close diplomatically to Turkey despite being on opposite sides of the wars in Syria and Libya. Russia is contracted to sell its sophisticated S-400 missiles to Turkey even though that country is a NATO member. Turkey is helping Iran in mitigating some of the harsh after-effects of the draconian U.S. sanctions.

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has talked to the leaders of both Azerbaijan and Armenia, asking them to stop the bloodletting. “Our region can no longer take instability and new wars,” he said. The Iranian government has reassured Azerbaijan that it recognises and respects the territorial integrity of the country.

At the moment, Turkey remains a key player in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It should not be forgotten that it was the U.S. that encouraged Turkey to get involved in a big way in the Caucasus after the end of the Cold War though these days the two countries have drifted apart on a variety of issues. Azerbaijan wants Turkey to be involved in the mediation process on Nagorno-Karabakh. The Minsk Group wants to keep Turkey out of the picture. Ankara has signalled its strong displeasure at being excluded from the mediation process. Turkey now views itself as a “mentor” to Azerbaijan. At the beginning of the latest conflict, Turkey had issued a statement urging Armenia “to stop violating” international law. The statement said that Turkey would stand by the people of Azerbaijan “against any kind of aggression, by Armenia or any other country”.

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