What Azerbaijan wants from the conflict with Armenia

Baku pushes offensive on second day of Azerbaijan-Armenia fighting

A still image from a video released by the Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry shows members of Azeri armed forces firing artillery during clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in an unidentified location, in this still image from footage released September 28, 2020 (photo credit: DEFENCE MINISTRY OF AZERBAIJAN/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A still image from a video released by the Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry shows members of Azeri armed forces firing artillery during clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in an unidentified location, in this still image from footage released September 28, 2020
Azerbaijan has continued to press its offensive against Armenian-backed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed area that Azerbaijan views as illegally occupied by a self-declared Armenian republic. The countries have clashed since the 1990s but in recent years the clashes became more pronounced. Azerbaijan, armed with modern drones and weapons, including drones from Israel, has been demanding that progress be made on negotiations over the disputed area.
On September 27 Azerbaijan said that Armenian forces committed “large-scale provocations” and Azerbaijan responded. This has now expanded to include artillery, drone strikes and the destruction of vehicles and killing of dozens of fighters. While both sides tend to portray the other as losing more soldiers, the reality on the ground indicates that Azerbaijan has made progress, taking control of villages and key points along a mountain range.
In conversations with Azerbaijani experts on the ground and also close following of Armenian reports, the unfolding events illustrate that the fog of war hangs over the progress on the ground, but that there are several points of clarity. Azerbaijan has been clear that its soldiers are shelling and pushing an offensive along the line of contact, including a length of the frontline that stretches for more than 250 km. This is an area of around 13,000 sq.km. To be specific, the sites that are under fire include the Vardenis-Agdere highway in the north to the mountain peak of Murov, the village of Talish and seven smaller villages between Jabrail and Martuni, including the town of Fizuli.
Azeri sources say that the army decided to launch a major “counter-offensive” on Sunday along the entire front. This included using tanks, UAVs, artillery and TOS rocket launchers. Azerbaijan is a pioneering army when it comes to using UAVs tactically and strategically. It has used them to suppress enemy anti-aircraft units and videos shown on Turkish TV show numerous strikes on these units. This appears to illustrate that the drones are successful. Reporters earlier this year say Azerbaijan acquired Israel’s SkyStriker drones. According to the Drone Data Book published earlier this year the Azeris also have the Aerostar and Orbiter 3 drone in addition to the Harop, Heron TP, Hermes 450 and Hermes 950 – all from Israel. It also has the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2.
Azerbaijan has declared the frontline area, around 230 km. from the capital of Baku, a war zone. It has stopped flights for the next several days and is calling up soldiers. Tens of thousands in Azerbaijan are prepared to be called up and the conflict has popular support.
Azerbaijan says it struck 12 anti-aircraft units on Sunday. Armenian sources claimed to have downed numerous drones and struck two dozen vehicles as well as hitting helicopters. Both sides put up videos to prove that they are succeeding. Azerbaijan claims that Armenia has illegally occupied this area since 1991 and that it consists of 20% of Azerbaijan territory. Meanwhile Armenia has hinted at wanting to recognize the Artsakh Republic as an independent country. Artsakh is like many small self-declared regions that emerged after the fall off the Soviet Union. These include: Transnistria, South Ossetia, the Donetsk People’s Republic and Abkhazia. Azerbaijan strenuously emphasizes that Nagorno-karabakh, where the Artsakh republic is based, is not a “disputed area,” but rather the “territory of Azerbaijan,” officials say. There are also seven Azerbaijani regions around it, “which Armenia was not going to give up all these years peacefully,” a source says. Therefore the war is not about Armenian territory, but Baku getting back what is rightfully its own.
Baku claims it has been patient and that it has a larger army with the qualitative advantage. It’s close strategic relations with Israel is one reason for this, as well as cash flows from energy, including oil pipelines and plans for more gas pipelines. This links Azerbaijan to Turkey and Europe and the international markets. For many years Azerbaijan worked with the OSCE Minsk Group to resolve its claims. “Yerevan has not shown the political will for the peaceful liberation of at least one centimeter of the occupied land,” sources say. Azerbaijan slammed Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for being stubborn and not negotiating. Pashinyan has called for all Armenians to support the war effort and rally around the flag. He has been in close contact with Russia’s Vladimir Putin while Azerbaijan has received support from Turkey for its war effort.
Azeri sources say that Azerbaijan will continue the operation and “liberate” more of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven areas that they claim. They will go forward with or without the support of Turkey, although so far Turkey’s Foreign and Defense ministries have expressed total solidarity with Baku. Turkey has seemed even more pro-conflict than Azerbaijan over the last months. However, Baku’s leadership understands the situation on the ground and believes it can push forward successfully.
Azerbaijan has targeted Armenia ammunition depots according to reports. Baku also says that during the first day of the fighting, Armenian fighters shelled the villages of “Qapanli of Terter district, Chiragli and Orta Garavend of Aghdam district, Alkhanli and Shukurbeyli of Fizuli district and Jojuq Merjanli of Jabrayil district, using large-caliber weapons, mortar launchers and artillery.”
Azerbaijan points out that it has international law on its side and argues that UN Security Council Resolutions 822, 853, 874, 884 of 1993 demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the armed forces of Armenia from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. In July Azerbaijan and Armenia also clashed in the area of Tovuz and Goranboy. That four-day conflict and fighting that took place in 2016 was a prelude to the current round. “Full responsibility for the present situation falls on the political-military leadership of Armenia,” Baku says.
Azerbaijan believes its armed forces – having been modernized over the last decades – can achieve victory over the forces of Armenia in Nagorno-karabakh. The question is whether Turkey and Russia will step in to create a deal, the way Turkey has done in Idlib, Syria or Libya. Ankara has a track record of fueling conflict and trying to get something in return, such as S-400 air defense from Russia. Turkey also works closely with Iran. Iran has generally been closer to Armenia than Azerbaijan. Iran has a large Azeri minority. Some sources in Azerbaijan say there is concern that Turkey could appear to be fully supporting the conflict while also working with Russia, who is close with Armenia, at the end relating to issues Turkey has with Russia in Libya and Syria. It is unclear if this is part of Ankara’s calculations. Azerbaijan prides itself on making its own policy independent of these larger regional players. Having waited decades with no movement or progress via dialogue, Baku thinks this effort is worth the
risk. “The winner is the one who has more advanced technological means that ensure successful military operations,” an Azerbaijan contact texted me in response to several questions about how Baku sees the current situation.
There are growing calls for an end to the hostilities. While the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in touch with NATO and also holding discussions with Greece, he sent lower level officials to express alarm about the battles. This sends a message that the US has not coordinated a response so far, while Russia and Iran have been more heavily involved. China, who has interests in this area due to its Belt and Road Initiative, has also called for de-escalation. The importance of energy pipelines and railroad links should not be overlooked. However Turkish far-right media Yeni Safak has said Iran is sending tanks to Azerbaijan.
Lists of Armenian casualties so far in Nagorno-Karabakh show that many of the young men were born in the mid-1990s, many in 1998. That means they were born long after the conflict that shaped this battlefield. Like young Azeris encouraging their government to go further, they are part of a new generation. With a world that no longer abides by the “new world order” views of the 1990s where conflicts were supposed to be reduced and open borders and democracy were supposed to follow, today’s generation from Russia to Turkey and other countries believe that conflict can solve most of these “frozen disputes.”
Large question marks remain. Armenia’s prime minister has called for the international community to restrain Turkey from greater involvement. It is not clear if the US will do more in the coming days. Turkish media has been pushing the war narrative, appearing to encourage more fighting, while Iran is concerned and wants the conflict to end.