ARMENIAN forces' recent seizure of significant parts of Azeri territory has prompted renewed concern that the five-year war in the Caucasus could generate a regional conflict.
"We will take whatever steps are necessary if the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia does not stop, including the formation of a military alliance with Azerbaijan," Turkish President Turgut Ozal said at an April 14 news conference in the Azeri capital of Baku. The Turkish daily Hurriyet yesterday reported that supplies of Turkish weapons and ammunition have already been shipped to Azerbaijan.
Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani warned on April 13 that the fighting was now dangerously close to its border, directly threatening Iran's security. Iran "will be forced to take a more determined and tough stance in case armed clashes continue," he said at the close of a two-day visit by senior Azeri official Panakh Guseinov. Iran has in the past tilted toward Armenia out of fear of the spread of Azeri nationalism to the significant Azeri minority living within Iran. Yeltsin as mediator
On the other side of the Caucasus mountains, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has offered his services as a mediator. But a Russian-mediated cease-fire, negotiated last week by Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, collapsed within hours, and a subsequent effort this week to organize a high-level meeting in Moscow has so far failed as well.
The Armenian advance, which began March 27, provoked condemnation from the United Nations Security Council, the US State Department, and the European Community. All the statements called for a resumption of peace negotiations sponsored by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Delegates from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, the United States, and Turkey, under the chairmanship of Italian mediator Mario Rafaelli met as recently as March 18-19 in Geneva to discuss conditions for a CSCE-mo nitored cease-fire.
Earlier last month, Russia and Turkey jointly proposed conducting some form of shuttle diplomacy to speed up the process. But that effort has also stalled.
US Rep. Richard Lehman (D) of California, who led a four-man congressional delegation to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey two weeks ago, proposes that a US official join this effort.
"The Azeris hate the Russians, and the Armenians hate the Turks, but they both trust the Americans," Mr. Lehman explained in a telephone interview after his return.
Bearing out this observation, the Azeri government has accused Russian troops of aiding the recent Armenian offensive, an allegation made frequently in the past. Armenian officials have condemned Turkish involvement as favoring their ethnic Turkic brothers in Azerbaijan. Turks talk tough
Lehman shares the view of many observers that the Turkish government is seeking to avoid any direct intervention in the war. The tough talk is mainly aimed at a domestic audience, to deflect the attempt by President Ozal to use the issue against his rival, Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel. The premier has been more moderate in his statements, including at a news conference on April 14, when he made clear Turkey would not act unilaterally and avoid turning the conflict into a Muslim-Christian war. "It woul d take us two days to get in and 20 years to get out," Lehman quotes Mr. Demirel as saying privately.
The conflict between the peoples of the two former Soviet republics centers on control over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated region within Azerbaijan that was formed under Soviet rule as an autonomous area. After military successes last year, which gave them control over most of the Karabakh region, the local Armenian government declared itself an independent republic. The Armenian government in Yerevan insists that it is a third party to the conflict, though it admits to providing supplies of foo d, fuel, and arms to Karabakh.
The recent combat is a significant escalation, going beyond Karabakh's boundaries. Initially, Armenian forces from Karabakh drove west, taking the regional Azeri center of Kelbazhar and threatening to cut off a section of Azeri territory. Since then the thrust of their assault has shifted south, where Armenian forces are attacking the city of Fizuli, north of the Iranian border.
The Karabakh government claimed this was a pre-emptive attack aimed at forestalling an Azeri offensive to cut the Lachin corridor, the vital land route between Armenia and Karabakh taken last year.
Both the Karabakh and Yerevan governments claim that the fighting is being carried out by Karabakh forces. The Armenian defense minister acknowledged to Lehman, however, that in response to Azeri cross-border shelling, Armenian forces fired on Azeri positions "clearly in support of efforts in Kelbazhar." Militant Karabakh
The Karabakh government, controlled by more radical Armenian nationalist groups, has taken a more militant stance than the Yerevan government, including resisting joining the CSCE talks unless its delegation participates as an independent state.
Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan sent a letter on April 1 to the Karabakh authorities expressing concern about the escalation of fighting, saying "it might hinder the progress in the peace negotiations within the framework of the CSCE." In a reply, Karabakh leader Robert Kocharian defended the offensive, claiming Azerbaijan had used the CSCE talks "to disguise its military intentions."
Azerbaijan rejects any distinction between the Karabakh and Yerevan authorities. Claims that the Yerevan government "does not fully control the actions of the so-called leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh are all meant to mask the true nature of this conflict," says Zaur Aliev, Azerbaijan's deputy ambassador to Moscow.