Azerbaijan’s calculations as it contemplates third week of war – analysis

Azerbaijan has been careful to isolate the war in the Nagorna-Karabakh region from a wider conflict with Armenia.

FILE PHOTO: Azeri men living in Turkey wave flags of Turkey and Azerbaijan during a protest following clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 19, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER/FILE PHOTO)
FILE PHOTO: Azeri men living in Turkey wave flags of Turkey and Azerbaijan during a protest following clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 19, 2020
Azerbaijan says it has “liberated” two dozen small villages from Armenian control in a week-and-a-half of battle in the disputed region of Nagorna-Karabakh, as battles have taken place near the former line of contact that divided Azeri troops from the Armenian-controlled areas of the territory.
Azerbaijan has demanded the entire area be returned to it along with some seven other districts it says Armenian forces occupy illegally, but Armenia says they live in the area and have a right to autonomy.
Azerbaijan now faces entering a third week of war next week, and it must make tough decisions whether to press forward to say that it has won, and try to force concessions in negotiations.
Superficially, the conflict is similar to many that have resulted from changes in the last century.
Whether due to the end of the Soviet Union or the end of colonialism, major wars after the Second World War have often erupted as large powers fought for control of former territory using local proxies. Now, we are many decades removed from that era, but simmering conflicts, whether between Israel and the Palestinians, divided Cyprus, Kashmir or in Ukraine, result from these complexities.
Azerbaijan gambled that a quick military offensive on September 27, supported diplomatically by Turkey and with the latest weapons, including state-of-the-art munitions from Israel, would push Armenia’s much poorer forces back.
Conversations with experts on both sides provide an insight into some of the challenges that Baku (Azerbaijan) and Yerevan (Armenia) face today.
Baku says it has waited for decades for the international community to do something regarding its demands but nothing has been done, and the world is changing. Turkey, Russia, Iran and China are rising, and US global hegemony and the concepts of a liberal international rules-based order are eroding. It means that countries that want things need to use force to get what they want, because no one is going to rein them in, except regional powers.
IRAN AND Russia have called for an end to fighting, but both have a relatively balanced approach of working with the adversaries. Turkey wants Azerbaijan to be empowered, partly so it can sell its drones abroad after showing how well they work, and also so that Ankara can appear strong and show it helped win another war. Turkey is already involved in conflicts in Syria and Libya, and it wants to use Syrian rebels it recruited as mercenaries to distract them from Turkey’s dealings with Russia in Syria.
Azerbaijan has been careful to isolate the war in Nagorno-Karabakh from a full-blown conflict with Armenia. But this seems contradictory: How can you fight Armenia in one place but not another? Azerbaijan has also said that Armenia is increasing its attacks inside Azerbaijan, using missiles to target cities such as Ganja, Barda and other places.
This means that Azerbaijan says that it is acting with restraint by not shelling Armenian cities, but concentrating on shelling towns in Nagorno-Karabkah. For civilians on the ground on both sides, this difference may be meaningless as they are being bombarded with impunity. Each side accuses the other of doing it, but videos show that both are culprits.
Azerbaijan denies that Turkey sent Syrian rebel mercenaries, mostly Syrian Turkmen, to fight for Azerbaijan. Armenia, Iran, Russia, Syria and others, as well as many global media outlets, say that the Syrians were sent.
Azerbaijan can say it has achieved victory already, since it has been able to make slow but steady progress on the ground. Using the latest technology, including what foreign and local accounts say are drones and loitering munitions from Israel, it has decimated Armenian tanks and artillery sites.
Week two of the war brings both the Russians, Iranians and Turks deeper into the conflict, with high-level foreign visits and statements. Azerbaijan’s challenge is that it has a maximalist approach and wants to take back much more area than it has already. Turkey is also encouraging it not to stop.
MEANWHILE, Armenia has sought to bring the war to the attention of the world. It highlights the shelling of civilians in Stepanakert. It has also tried to pressure Israel to stop defense sales to Azerbaijan. Baku wants to show it can achieve deterrence and then enter negotiations with a stronger hand. But Baku’s stance on the Turkish mercenaries makes it appear that while it says it doesn’t need foreign fighters, Turkey may have pressured it to receive them.
This could be Ankara’s way of getting a foothold inside Nagorno-Karabakh. Videos and images show that fighters were deployed near the Iranian border. Iran has demanded that no “terrorists” be sent to Azerbaijan by Turkey, and this could serve as a headache and embarrassment for Baku while only serving Turkey, Iran and Russia’s interests to involve themselves more in the conflict.
Armenia continues to encourage the international community to get involved and push a ceasefire. Short of achieving that, the escalation with missile attacks deeper into Azerbaijan or threats on oil, gas and electric infrastructure could escalate the war, and Azerbaijan would be forced to respond if Armenian strikes hit sensitive infrastructure.
So far, days of fighting and shelling follow relatively peaceful periods along some sectors of the front line in Nagorno-Karabakh, but in the end, Moscow’s approach is to wait until Armenia begs it to intervene, and then Moscow and Ankara will seek to cut a deal.
Turkey is practicing with the Russian-made S-400 system this month, and it appears that this is also a signal to Moscow. Good tests might mean more purchases of the system. For Russia that is also a prize, and small, poor and isolated Armenia may have to wait for Russia if Moscow judges the S-400 sales to be more important than the war.
Either way, Russia’s TASS media just interviewed President Vladimir Putin and noted that he is working all the time, rarely taking a day off, to make sure Russia is as strong as it can be to face these kinds of situations. Moscow will want to swoop in from a position of strength.
Since the US and EU are not deeply involved in the conflict and don’t seem to care much, beyond some statements, the Russians, Iranians and Turkey can continue to watch and hope that if there is no escalation, the conflict can simmer on for another week.
Azerbaijan must decide if its state-of-the-art munitions – such as the Israeli Lora missile, Harop and Harpy drones and other weapons – will achieve more progress, or if Baku can celebrate a victory by showing it regained dozens of villages and several hundred square kilometers of land.