A handful of journalists were evacuated on Saturday from Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, as shelling around the city was stepped up.
Video on Sunday showed civilians fleeing the fighting as for almost a month and a half fighting has been taking place between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces in the besieged city.
The territory is administered by Armenians and is supposed to be an autonomous region inside Azerbaijan but the recent dispute has led Azerbaijan to try to take control of it from Armenian forces.
For those on the ground, the military dispute has been harrowing. Tens of thousands have fled fighting, with civilians being shelled on both sides. However, Azerbaijan forces have made gains in recent weeks and after initial slow progress in October, the forces now appear poised to take key civilian areas, such as Shusha, and even Stepanakert.
Azerbaijan has benefited from massive support from Turkey, including Turkish drones, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) that it has purchased from Israel over the years. It has used them to devastating effect against the Russian-supplied equipment that Armenia went to war with, neutralizing most of the air defenses of the Artsakh Republic, the area that Armenia claims and controls.
Russia, Turkey and Iran have all watched the fighting and have been happy to let it grind on and attempts by Moscow to broker a ceasefire have failed, as did attempts by the US. America has shown little interest in the conflict.
The conflict has also led to tensions between Israel and Armenia, as Armenians have accused Israel of supplying military hardware to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has been a key partner of Israel, a strategic relationship built on decades of friendship.
Iran is wary of the fighting near its border as Turkey has sent Syrian extremist mercenaries to fight Armenia. Russia has done the usual of trying to weaken all sides to force them to come to Moscow to partition the area.
This was Moscow’s approach in Libya and Syria: It ends up cutting a deal with Turkey and getting everyone to be dependent on Russia. Clearly, Armenia now realizes that it will eventually lose and it now needs Russia more than ever. Turkey also needs Russia because it is buying its S-400 air defense system.
While US President-elect Joe Biden was celebrating yesterday, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan was speaking with Russia’s Vladimir Putin about dividing Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey’s AK Party was a keen supporter of US President Donald Trump and Erdogan had more calls with Trump than almost any other foreign leader. Turkey’s foreign ministry has also slandered and threatened US President-Elect Joe Biden over the last six months. Now, Turkey knows its friends are in Russia and it will work with Moscow to sort out the conflict in the Caucasus.
IN STEPANAKERT, locals showed images of widespread damage from shelling. People are begging the international community and the US to do something and they claim that ethnic-cleansing of Armenians could take place. Churches have already been shelled and many have fled. Azerbaijan responds that Armenia has also used rockets to strike cities such as Ganja, wounding and killing civilians. Like most wars, there is no purity here.
Pro-Turkey and pro-Azerbaijan social media are celebrating, telling Armenians to “leave immediately.” Azerbaijan Telegram accounts reportedly celebrated “chasing the dogs” out of the city and locals have reported rockets falling on the city and heavy shelling. Azerbaijan social media accounts claim the town of Shusha (Shushi) was already “liberated” on Sunday.
For those in Baku, the images of Armenians fleeing conjure up images from the 1990s of Azeris fleeing fighting in the same area. The argument is that after decades, this has come full circle.
The reality is a bit different because this area was once diverse, whereas today it appears that only one group or the other can control it and live there, much like the ethnic cleansing wars of the Balkans in the 1990s. Life is already shattered in Nagorno-Karabakh from a month of fighting, and the international community has done nothing to stop it or to help the civilians who have fled.
Russia’s Tass media says Turkey is ready to talk about a permanent solution to the conflict. Iran supports Baku’s demands that Armenia withdraw. Turkey and Russia appear ready to partition the area and get the spoils. It’s unclear how many civilians may have fled and the number could be anywhere between 50,000-100,000.
Considering that Turkey has already ethnically cleansed Afrin in Syria, expelling 150,000 Kurds in 2018, the expulsion of all these people will not gain the kind of sympathy of the 1990’s shown to people in the Balkans. Stepanakert once had a population of 50,000, and it’s unclear how many remain.
For Azerbaijan, however, this is a major victory for which they have waited for decades, with lingering memories of their own defeat in Shusha in 1992.