30 October 2020 — New Eastern Outlook
It is still difficult to find out what is actually going on in the NK conflict zone. News outlets are highly selective in their reporting, which is based more often than not on carefully controlled information drips from Azerbaijan and Armenia. The reports being shared back and forth on various sites are little more than versions of whose ox is getting gored the most.
However, there is no doubt that this shooting war would not have got to the level it has without prodding from the Turkish president. What is his game – just self-preservation, or does he really believe in some greater Ottoman shadow?
Erdogan has been especially full of himself and his rhetoric of late, and neither seems to be abating. Many have even taken to calling the sitting president Sultan Erdogan, as his detractors have for years.
But why now? This conflict has been waiting to explode for two decades, with all the powers around wanting to keep it that way. What is Erdogan seeing as an opportunity here, and for whom – his “Turkic Council” or the other side?
Fox and Geese
It is true that the Armenian position is weak, at best, in terms of international law. But it is also true that extreme nationalist Armenians in various countries are willing to rally behind the homeland despite not knowing the facts.
The same goes for the Azeri side, but it has a much smaller international profile. More people have heard of the Armenian Genocide than can name the current President of Azerbaijan, despite one Aliyev or the other having run the place since Soviet times.
Azerbaijan will always be at a disadvantage in terms of international opinion. The fact that Armenia doesn’t just occupy Karabakh, but areas surrounding it where few Armenians live, and is allowed to continue doing so tells you all you need to know.
Erdogan may interpret this as an opening for him to assert himself as Azerbaijan’s “Great Power” protector. He may likewise see it as an existential threat to Turkey itself, which is already struggling as a Muslim country in the Western world.
It would be very typical of Erdogan to think this conflict was all about him. But if he is going to be the strongman at the head of a stronger country, he has to be seen to be doing something about Karabakh sooner or later.
It would be natural for Erdogan to feel that a diplomatic solution is beyond reach, as international law has been ignored in this conflict, but he is actually sating that such a solution is beyond reach for him, because Turkey isn’t as important as he thinks it is, and neither is he.
Things They Don’t Talk About
It is not true that Azerbaijan had no choice but to resort to the use of force. There are a number of territorial conflicts and disputes in the world where the players involved do not resort to force in their resolution, as it’s only the side which fears it will lose out in a diplomatic resolution is the one which resorts to violence.
By deciding to target and kill individuals it considers its own citizens, the Azerbaijani government is violating both its domestic laws and international humanitarian law. The latest violence has simply proven the Armenian contention that the Armenians of Karabakh cannot be assured of secure lives if they live under an Azerbaijani government.
However, Armenians know that they are partly to blame for this, hence their reliance on diplomacy and lobbying amongst people who don’t want a war. The Sumgait pogroms and Khojaly massacre at the end of the Soviet period are black spots on both nations, and such blood spilling has not been forgotten by either side.
Legal and territorial details must be high on the agenda of any negotiations, which is why Armenia is more interested in undertaking this necessarily complicated and time-consuming process to maintain the status quo. If someone finds a simple solution, which can never be maintaining what has existed on the ground since the Armenians occupied the area, Yerevan has very limited agency.
Foreign policy has not really changed since Pashinyan came to power. Pashinyan is just as stuck to Moscow as the earlier leaders, but he cannot turn easily to Russia for help under a security shield in light of his own connections with those in the opposite camp. Indeed, there is speculation in Azerbaijan that the Russians are on board with Kocharyan and his teammates, although fighting a war to drive Pashinyan out would only result in even more Russian influence over Armenia.
All About Russia?
Armenia and Azerbaijan have their own interests, like the pundits who get rich off their conflict. But at the end of the day, it is the interests of larger political powers which will decide what happens in Karabakh, and keeping these balanced is the task all sides have been forced to undertake since day one.
One of the attractions for the Turkish government is that further conflict in Karabakh opens up another front of engagement with Russia. With the West so anti-Russian, this keeps Erdogan sweet with Washington and also gives him the opportunity to avenge the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainardji, like any good Turkish nationalist.
Turkey is already unofficially conducting a proxy war in Libya and Syria. Will Karabakh be used as a bargaining chip? Russia remembers what happened when the aura of Soviet invincibility was shattered in Afghanistan. It will have to tread very carefully to avoid getting involved in more foreign wars, engagements, than it can handle, and achieving outcomes it can defend long term.
This attack has clearly been planned for weeks, if not months, with the July clashes meant as a test or provocation. This suggests a specific military objective is being sought – probably the lower territories by the Arax river, or other points on the northern portion of the Line of Contact within easier reach.
If Turkey is conducting a limited military operation to redraw the line of contact more favourably, it might get away with this. However, there is a great deal of evidence now of the presence of radical militants from Syria, and possibly Libya, in the conflict zone. Erdogan is unlikely to get away with that, unless he then rides in to save the region from the people he inserted to begin with.
Someone Else’s Terrorists?
The presence of these radicals is easier to blame on Aliyev than Erdogan because the latter is theoretically is spectator, whilst the former is directly responsible for his country. Erdogan can present himself as a double Western saviour in return for a free hand at home – not only beating the Russians, but ridding Azerbaijan of terrorists too.
Aliyev cannot be seen to be backing down. Otherwise he and his family will outrage the population which has waited too long for this conflict to unfreeze, and the country to move forward.
Aliyevs father and son have always been able to blame lack of progress, and political and civil repression, on the frozen conflict. However Azeris know that they have both failed to conduct that conflict either well or credibly.
Armenia controls a number of Azeri areas around Karabakh because the all-controlling Azeri state was so desperate for troops during the initial conflict that it was kidnapping young men off the street and sending them to the front without any military training. Dictatorship is supposed to produce strong leadership, instead it produced a humiliation borne of chaos, which a system with greater accountability might have prevented.
The national self-worth of Azeris depends on restoring their territorial integrity, not supporting a regime or ideology, like in Soviet times. Aliyev can’t restore it, so he too has wanted the status quo to prevail. Now he has been stitched up, the question is who else wants to keep him there, regardless of the consequences for his own people.
Brinkmanship Before the Brink
Thomas de Waal, author of the book ‘Black Garden,” maintains that Turkey and Azerbaijan are trying to break the OSCE process and remake it in their favour. He has said in an interview with Yavuz Baydar, the editor of Ahval:
“For Armenia, Turkey is the biggest existential threat. It’s been at peace with Turkey since 1920; for a hundred years there has been no shooting war. And now suddenly Turkey comes in on the side of Azeris. [Such engagement] is a source of fear in the Armenian DNA – a huge issue for Armenians.”
This may well have been the offer made by Erdogan to Aliyev, or perhaps the other way round. It is easy to see why Aliyev would be attracted by the idea of bringing in terrorists to help him do what he can’t do himself. Such a scenario is suggested by various media outlets, who quote Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, as saying “We are talking about hundreds, even thousands, of radicals hoping to make money in the new Karabakh war.”
Russia has long been concerned by terrorists infiltrating it from neighbouring states. Erdogan is saying in effect, here they are then, I am bringing them here, what are you going to do about it?
Russia’s problem with terrorists is not that they are unpredictable, but that they are Western trained. It cites the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, which has become a safe haven and training base for terrorists recruited by Saudi and US intelligence.
But whichever way you look at this conflict, and why it has heated up again, fingers can only point in one direction. Aliyev doesn’t want more humiliation (or worse), Armenia doesn’t want the status quo upset, other countries don’t want another conflict getting in the way, and reducing their influence.
Only Recep Tayyip Erdogan has anything to gain from moving into Karabakh, and everyone else involved knows this. He has decided, in typical fashion, to push tolerance to the limit to show how important he is.
A frozen conflict is being turned into a “do or die war”, and all those people are dying, simply to protect the Turkish leader from his own population’s scepticism of his boasts about how great he and his country are. He has played his hand well, it must be admitted, but we will have to see how long it is before he oversteps everyone else’s mark.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.