Turkey stirring the pot? Why Armenians, Azeris are fighting again.

Why We Wrote This

For decades, Nagorno-Karabakh has been largely absent from headlines. But fighting has resumed, and people are dying again. It’s a case study in old borders, older rivalries, and the enduring ability of outside powers to meddle.

Reuters
A sapper works next to an unexploded BM-30 Smerch rocket allegedly fired by Armenian forces in the fighting over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, near the Mingachevir Hydro Power Station in the town of Mingachevir, Azerbaijan Oct. 5, 2020.

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The fight over Nagorno-Karabakh was one of a number of territorial and ethnic battles that erupted as the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s. Thousands died. Hundreds of thousands were displaced. The majority Christian Armenian enclave declared independence from Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan in 1991, and rebel forces were able to occupy one-fifth of Azerbaijani territory.

Four United Nations resolutions in 1993 called for Armenia to withdraw. And since the cease-fire in 1994 – which was meant to be temporary – Azerbaijan has vowed to regain the territory, even as neighboring Armenia considers itself Nagorno-Karabakh’s security guarantor.

After lying largely dormant for decades, conflict has escalated in the past week. At least 250 people have been killed, and a largely local ethnic dispute runs the risk of turning into a wider regional war.

The new player in the conflict – viewed by some analysts as a key destabilizing factor – is NATO power Turkey. Its foray into the South Caucasus is its latest regional military intervention, after Syria and Libya. It has vowed to provide unequivocal backing to its close ally Azerbaijan amid a combustible mix of nationalism, rising military capabilities, and energy politics.

After lying largely dormant for decades, conflict has escalated in the past week between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. At least 250 people have been killed, and a largely local ethnic dispute runs the risk of turning into a wider regional war.

As artillery, drone, and rocket attacks increasingly target population centers on both sides, rival leaders have staked out uncompromising positions over the fate of the mountainous ethnic Armenian enclave carved out of Azerbaijani territory.

Nagorno-Karabakh, still recognized as part of Azerbaijan, has exercised self-rule since a fragile cease-fire in 1994 capped six years of war that left 30,000 dead and some 600,000 ethnic Azeris displaced.

After months of rising tensions, open hostilities erupted Sept. 27. Separatist forces in Nagorno-Karabakh say their largest city, Stepanakert, has been heavily bombarded by Azerbaijan since Friday. Several Azeri cities likewise have been targeted in recent days.

Karen Norris/Staff

Why is a post-Soviet conflict hot again?

The new player in the conflict – viewed by some analysts as a key destabilizing factor – is NATO power Turkey, which has vowed to provide unequivocal backing to its close ally Azerbaijan amid a combustible mix of nationalism, rising military capabilities, and energy politics.

Turkey’s foray into the South Caucasus – long considered Russia’s backyard, because the two key belligerents are both former Soviet republics – is Turkey’s latest regional military intervention, after Syria and Libya. In all three conflicts where Turkey has flexed its regional muscle, it has often found itself on the opposite side from Russia.

The fight over Nagorno-Karabakh was one of a number of territorial and ethnic battles that erupted as the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s. The majority Christian Armenian enclave declared independence from Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan in 1991, and rebel forces were able to occupy one-fifth of Azerbaijani territory.

Four United Nations resolutions in 1993 called for Armenia to withdraw. And since the cease-fire in 1994 – which was meant to be temporary – Azerbaijan has vowed to regain the territory, even as neighboring Armenia considers itself Nagorno-Karabakh’s security guarantor.

Brief clashes erupted in 2016, leaving 200 dead. Fighting erupted again this past July after Armenia killed an Azerbaijani general and several officers. The skirmishes this summer prompted Turkey to send men and military equipment to Azerbaijan for two weeks of joint land and air exercises.

Each side accuses the other of starting the latest fighting, and both have enhanced their military prowess, which experts say is one of several contributing factors in the latest flare-up.

“Both Azerbaijan and Armenia have acquired new military capabilities,” writes Turkish military analyst Metin Gürcan in the online news site Al-Monitor. He also cites “major changes” in energy politics of the South Caucasus that have brought Azerbaijan and Turkey much closer together, with pipelines that bring Azeri oil and gas through Turkey.

In addition, writes Mr. Gürcan, “nationalist and populist trends are on the rise in both Azerbaijan and Armenia, pushing their respective leaders ... to adopt more escalatory postures.”

How has Turkey changed the battlefield equation?

Armenia accuses Turkey of playing a direct role: shooting down an Armenian jet fighter, boosting Azerbaijan’s drone capabilities, deploying 150 Turkish officers, and even recruiting and sending Syrian rebels to the frontline – as Turkey did in Libya.

Ankara denies those accusations. But there is little doubt that Turkey’s presence – and the rhetoric of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who promised again Friday to back “brotherly” Azerbaijan “with all our means and all our heart” – has emboldened Baku.

Indeed, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Sunday laid down tough conditions for a cease-fire. Armenian forces “must leave our territories, not in words but in deeds,” recognize the country’s territorial integrity, and apologize.

Mr. Aliyev has trumpeted the recent capture of a string of Karabakh villages. Those gains prompted hundreds of people in Baku to take to the streets, waving flags and signs that read, “Karabakh was and will be ours,” Reuters reported.

The Karabakh presidency warned that it would “expand subsequent [military] actions to the entire territory of Azerbaijan.”

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan cast the current fight in nationalist terms, likening the current battle to Armenia’s war against Ottoman Turkey more than a century ago – a period when the precursor of the modern Turkish state killed at least 800,000 ethnic Armenians in the first genocide of the modern era.

What are the chances of peace?

The scale of renewed fighting indicates that the fragile status quo prevalent for 26 years – with an enclave of Armenian self-rule in the midst of Azerbaijani territory – may no longer be tenable.

The Minsk Group – founded in 1992 to end the conflict, and chaired by France, Russia, and the United States – has called for an end to hostilities. Russia has so far not officially taken sides, for despite having a defense pact with Armenia and a military base there, it has also provided weapons to Azerbaijan.

France has been loudest in calling for a cease-fire and has offered to mediate. Armenia on Friday said it would work toward a cease-fire with the three big powers.

But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu dismissed the request, saying that “superficial demands for an immediate end to hostilities and a permanent cease-fire will not be useful at this time.”

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