Few geopolitical hot spots are more complicated than the Middle East but renewed hostilities involving both the Levant and nomads from the Eurasian steppes, could be the exception. Deadly clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, fighting over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh involves Turkey, Russia, Iran and Israel.
The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, held by Armenia, declared independence in 1991 shortly after the fall of the USSR but it was never recognized by the international community. Between 1988 and 1994 the Azerbaijani Army fought the Armenians over this republic, killing thirty thousand and wounding one million. A cease-fire was finally declared in 1994 with Nagorno-Karabakh entering the gray area of a “frozen conflict.”
In 1993, the UN approved no less than four resolutions demanding Armenia withdraw from what was deemed to be roughly twenty percent of Azerbaijani territory. This is the core of Azerbaijan’s rationale for fighting against what it sees as a foreign occupation army. Armenia insists these resolutions are null and void because Nagorno-Karabakh (population 150,000) harbors an Armenian-majority population (90%) that wants to secede from Azerbaijan. In September 2020, Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s strongman, in power since 2003, launched a de facto war on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Historically, Nagorno-Karabakh (also called Artsakh) is one of three ancient provinces of Armenia, rooted in the 5th century B.C. and finally established in 189 B.C. Based on DNA samples, the Armenians claim they have been settled in Artsakh for at least 4,000 years.
Nagorno-Karabakh was given to Azerbaijan by Stalin in 1923. That set the stage for the future powder keg to inevitably explode especially since there was no Azerbaijan nation-state until the early 1920s. Historically, Azerbaijan was a territory in northern Iran. Azeris were well integrated within the Islamic Republic so the Republic of Azerbaijan actually borrowed its name from their Iranian neighbors.
Azerbaijan hatred of Armenians is a major concern in this conflict. Because of Azerbaijan’s military strength, Armenians fear a massacre. Next year marks one hundred years since the genocide against the Armenian people. An Azeri assault, if one were to take place, would be a sorrowful reminder of those tragic days. Since September 27th, when the righting resumed, at least three hundred people have already been killed.
A Middle East-Eurasian conflict would not be complete without the added wrinkle of oil and gas. Two key gas pipelines pass through the conflict zone. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan crude pipeline is Azerbaijan’s main oil artery to world markets. The South Caucasus gas pipeline supplies Turkey and European countries. Azeri and Armenian forces are engaged on the “line of contact” between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. This is about 30-40 km. from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan crude pipeline and South Caucasus gas pipeline. The fighting comes amid preparations for the start of gas exports to southeast Europe from the second phase of Azerbaijan’s BP-led offshore project. Exports to Europe will put Azerbaijan on the map as a truly international gas supplier.
Azerbaijan owes its military strength to Israel. In the last two weeks alone, four Azeri plans have flown directly from Baku to Uvda air base in southern Israel, the only Israeli airport from which plans loaded with explosive material are allowed to take off. Azerbaijan has purchased weapons from Israel to the tune of $5 billion including Israeli-made M095 cluster munitions. Cluster bombs, often referred to as area weapons, are designed to open in mid-air and disperse smaller submunitions called bomblets. They have been scattered on the Armenian residential areas of Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital. Mossad, meanwhile, has Bottom of Formestablished a station in Azerbaijan, serving as the “eyes, ears and a springboard” for monitoring Iran.
Azerbaijan has also prepared an airfield that would assist Israel in case it decided to attack Iran. The Iranian nuclear archive that was stolen by Mossad agents in Tehran two and a half years ago was smuggled to Israel through Azerbaijan. Israel’s aerospace industries, Elbit, Rafael and other smaller companies are selling Baku just about anything despite the fact that Azerbaijan is considered one of the worst countries in terms of democracy and freedom. This includes artillery, missiles, naval vessels, intelligence equipment and a large number of drones. As far back as 2012, Israel was already granted access to air bases in Azerbaijan though a series of behind-the-scenes political and military understandings. It was assumed these bases would be used in Israeli air strikes against Iran over its nuclear program and any other tensions with Iran Israel deemed “a threat to its national security.”
All of this interfaces with the fierce competition between Shi’ite Iran and Turkey for regional hegemony. The same bizarre pattern of behavior characterized by the Kremlim in Syria, with Vladimir Putin assisting the regime of Bashar Assad and the Iranians, while providing Israel with “silent encouragement” for carrying out air strikes against Iranian positions. To add to the confusion, Mossad and Turkish intelligence cooperate with each other, with Israel’s defense industries selling arms to Turkey for billions of dollars.
The dismantling of the strategic alliance between Turkey and Israel was a systematic and deliberate process, begun by Erdogan a decade and a half ago and yet Israel has not used this opportunity to fulfill its historic duty to recognize the Armenian genocide. At the same time that Erdogan started distancing himself from Israel, Azerbaijan and Israel grew closer. It soon became clear that the two countries had set up a strategic alliance centered on their mutual hostilities towards Iran. Baku is also Israel’s top oil supplier, providing forty percent of its annual consumption, while Israel is the sixth-highest importer of Azerbaijani oil.
Until recently, Azerbaijan saw President Putin’s Russia as a hostile force trying to undermine its pro-Western policy while supporting neighboring Armenia in the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. In early October, Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev suddenly began praising Moscow, saying, “Azerbaijan and Russia are two neighboring friendly countries which are developing together and are ready to face world challenges.”
With the possibility of prolonged military operations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, could a shift in this conflict from a multilateral framework involving the US and France to a regional one mean that both Russia and Azerbaijan no longer consider the West a relevant player in their backyard and are willing to implement their own security strategies in the South Caucus? As for Russia and Turkey, are they engaged in what can best be described as competitive competition, the South Caucasus only one region, along with Syria and Libya, were this competition is most intense? Stay tuned.