Armenian-Azeri conflict embroils global forces

More than meets the eye in Armenia-Azerbaijan battle, diplomats and experts say.

A security guard walks past an Azeri (L) and Armenian flag at the opening of talks in Geneva, Switzerland, October 16, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE)
A security guard walks past an Azeri (L) and Armenian flag at the opening of talks in Geneva, Switzerland, October 16, 2017.
The UN Security Council met in emergency session Tuesday, to discuss the ongoing fighting between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Nearly 100 deaths had already been tallied by Tuesday evening, and dozens more wounded, in the escalating skirmishes that began Sunday morning.
Both countries reported numerous civilian casualties, as buses and private houses became the apparently unintended targets of drone and missile strikes. According to the self-proclaimed authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh who are backed by Armenia, while just 87 military personnel were lost on their side, nearly 400 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed in the hostilities.
“Israel has sensitive and important relations with both nations,” former ambassador to Azerbaijan Arthur Lenk told The Media Line. “With Azerbaijan, we have a strategic and flourishing relationship. A third of all our oil comes from them.
“Israel recognizes the region as Azerbaijan’s territory, just as almost any other country in the world does. We recognize [Azerbaijan’s] right to exercise its sovereignty and its right for self-defense there, and to protect its own people.
“But Israel also has a long history with Armenia. Not everybody gets a Quarter [in the Old City of Jerusalem],” Lenk jokes. “They recently opened an embassy in Israel. And we know their painful history.”
Approximately 1.5 million Armenians were murdered or died as a result of being displaced by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, a genocide Israel has refused to officially recognize for fear of harming diplomatic relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan.
“So relations are pretty good with both countries,” Lenk continues. “They both border Iran. We have our interests there. I think that’s why the silence so far [from the Israeli government].”
The Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan, containing an Armenian majority, declared independence in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and after years of bloody struggles between the Armenian secessionists and Azeri authorities. The unilateral move, not formally recognized by any foreign government including that of Armenia itself, sparked an all-out war that claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced thousands more Azerbaijanis.
Since the mid-1990s, a tense cease-fire has been maintained in the de facto independent region, population approximately 150,000, that is supported heavily by Armenia, with deadly skirmishes and clashes erupting every few years. Armenians call it the Republic of Artsakh.
“Israel is a big weapons provider for Azerbaijan, and we acquire their oil, so there is an overall strategic relationship with Baku,” Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told The Media Line.
“But it’s more complex than that,” she says, addressing the multiple reports of Turkish involvement in the recent days’ fighting. “Turkey might be using this crisis to display its drone arsenal, to show their superiority over Israeli technology, and in that way drive a wedge between Azerbaijan and Israel’s military partnerships.”
The Armenian government complained on Tuesday that some 4,000 Turkish fighters were being deployed to the region. According to multiple reports, Ankara in recent days has also supplied Baku with military advisers, drones and fighter jets. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev denied the allegations, with his office calling them a “provocation by the Armenian side and complete nonsense.”
“Turkey basically wants to increase its weapons sales, and is using this chance to do it,” says Lindenstrauss.
Other international factors are also involving themselves in the mix, she explains.
“Iran is Armenia’s ally, which is interesting since the Iranian population is mostly Shia Muslim while Armenia is predominantly Christian. But Iran has a large Azeri minority, so its relations with Baku are complex.
“Russia is playing both sides; it supports [both] Armenia and Azerbaijan and so it has the role of main mediator. But Russia has an interest in enabling frozen conflicts to remain unresolved. This keeps it in control, especially in the former USSR region where Moscow feels like the real landlord,” she says.
Lindenstrauss also pointed to a potential strain on Turkish-Russian relations as a result of the latest battle, saying that Azeri gains in Nagorno-Karabach, at the expense of Armenia, could further put out President Vladimir Putin. “[Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] are already at odds in Libya and Syria; this could develop into a similar arena,” she warns.
Following the outbreak of hostilities, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it had spoken with Armenian and Azerbaijani officials and called for an immediate cease-fire.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for both sides to “stop the violence and work… to return to substantive negotiations as quickly as possible.”
But Lenk, who served as Israel’s top diplomat in Baku from 2005 to 2009, doubts the international community can devote sufficient attention to the Caucasus these days.
“The global focus is just not there right now and hasn’t been there for a while,” he stresses. “There’s the [coronavirus pandemic], US elections, Brexit, what have you. … It’s not on anyone’s agenda really.”
Lindenstrauss believes the current round could prove to be crucial in resolving the dispute. “In broad terms, Armenia is in a weaker spot, so there is a chance for a military accomplishment that might end the stagnant stalemate. We can’t rule that out.”
Says Lenk: “The solution is clear and obvious. [Nagorno-Karabach] is occupied territory and people know what needs to be done. The question is, are there global or local political factors that are willing to push both sides to where they need to be?”
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