On the Brink: The Azerbaijan-Armenia Conflict
On September 27th, violent clashes erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. The long-disputed mountainous territory is now the scene of violent skirmishes between the former Soviet satellites, which have already left 300 civilians dead and displaced a further 70,000.
I fear this is the calm before the storm. While the Kremlin facilitated a ceasefire on October 10th enabling a prisoner exchange and the recovery of bodies, the Nagorno-Karabakh question bares the hallmarks of a devastating regional conflict yet to come.
Indeed, the region is not new to conflict. Towards the latter stages of the Great War, following the collapse of the Russian empire, Azerbaijan and Armenia quarrelled over several regions including Karabakh. After a failed attempt by the Karabakh Armenians to declare independence and unite with their neighbouring Kinsman, British high command (who occupied the North Caucasus) named Azeri statesman Khosrov bey Sultanov as provincial governor. Under this occupation Azeri forces massacred the Armenian population of Shusha in March 1920 following protests to Azeri hegemony. Over 20,000 Armenians were killed.
A month later, in April 1920, Azerbaijan and Armenia fell victim to the might of Soviet expansion. Both were absorbed under the Bolshevik vision and after a number of bureaucratic reshuffles, Karabakh was once again under Azeri sovereignty. Interestingly, the Soviets shadowed a ‘divide and rule’ policy for the two states. Instead of directing anger against the Kremlin, the politburo instead fostered resentment between Azeris and Armenians. In 1923 the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was created. In essence, the region was loosely declared autonomous yet remained under the control of Azerbaijan. The revised borders were sketched in such a way that the population of Nagorno-Karabakh was now 94% Armenian. In turn, this strategy fuelled a bitter intransigence between Armenians and Azeris.
So much so that hostilities between the two peoples were forever a hairs breadth away from violence. Indeed, as the Soviet Union was reaching its rather anticlimactic dissolution the Nagorno-Karabakh affair was reaching renewed levels of hostility. In February 1988 the NKAO voted to unify with Armenia which hand in hand facilitated Armenian secession movements as well as fuelling the war to come. As Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev declined to unite Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia in March 1988, the enclave had already proclaimed the unrecognised Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Ethnic infighting quickly manifests between Azeris in Armenia and vice versa. As early as 1987 Azeri villages in Armenia were targeted and their populations forced into displacement. After a multitude of subsequential attacks the Azeris retaliated, launching pogroms against Armenians in the Azeri town of Sumgait. As a result, Sumgait’s Armenians were compelled to flee their homes following reports of beatings, rapes, and mutilations. Until Soviet forces finally managed to quell the uprising three days later, the damage had been dealt and Sumgait’s Armenians had all but disappeared, frightened for their lives. From here, conflict was already in motion, Azeri villages were burned in Armenian Ararat, while Armenians were persecuted in Baku during the ‘Black January’ of 1990. Similar acts of cruelty displaced hundreds of thousands of Azeris and Armenians, forcing them to journey to safer, yet unfamiliar lands.
While this process of tit-for-tat was ravaging both states, Nagorno-Karabakh was a battlefield. From spring 1992, offensives and counteroffensives from both sides laid waste to the region. The towns Shusha and Stepanakert among others were decimated while Azeris were massacred in the town of Khojaly in 1992. Towards the war’s conclusion, Armenia had captured the enclave whilst capturing a further 9% of Azeri territory.
Finally, when the newly established Russian Federation brokered a ceasefire in 1994, the two republics were all but decimated. This process of escalation dragged the region through the nine circles of hell plaguing towns and cities both in Nagorno-Karabakh and in wider Armenia and Azerbaijan. 230,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan and 800,000 Azeris from Armenia were displaced while 30,000 died in the onslaughts.
Recent events are plainly wrapped in history. This conflict harks back a century, it is steeped in trauma, rage, and devastation still haunting minds on both sides. The ceasefire failed to bring peace to the region, labelling Nagorno-Karabakh under Azeri sovereignty yet under the control of Armenia. Today, the region appears to be on the brink of a deadlier war. Escalation is mounting and war appears to be on the eve of revival. While Moscow has established a rudimentary truce between the warring parties, shelling and sporadic gunfights have already been reported. Until a lasting peace agreement is reached, conflict will repeatedly pervert the region with far deadlier repercussions.
The technological advancements in war alone have the potential to reap chaos in the province. Both sides have been accused of dropping cluster bombs – prohibited by the Geneva Convention over the indiscriminate destruction they cause. Moreover, the Israelis have supplied Baku with long distance LORA ballistic missiles as well as Kamikaze and Orbiter 1K drones.
In this light, it is paramount to discuss the regional and international dimensions of this conflict. From this viewpoint, the conflict has a prospective to escalate to devastating war. As mentioned, the Israelis are already providing Azerbaijan with copious arms supplies. However, in its quest to tip the balance of power, Turkey has been vociferous in its support for Azerbaijan, supplying the republic with a plethora of weaponry. Meanwhile, President Erdogan has declared lasting peace exclusively requires the immediate withdrawal of Armenia. In response, the French have accused Erdogan of ‘warlike’ messages, while the Azeris have accused Paris of siding with Armenia.
Russia is an awkward position. As former Soviet states, both have relations with their former hegemon. Azerbaijan and Russia are tied by the Baku-Novorossiysk oil pipeline, yet the Kremlin has established a defence pact with Armenia solidified with a military base in Gyumri. While Moscow has maintained a neutral position since the conflict’s renewal, impartiality will become increasingly problematic if escalations continue to rise.
Further still, shadowing reports of stray projectiles striking Iranian villages to the south, Iranian President Rouhani proclaimed such actions are “totally unacceptable” and has suggested force will be necessary to protect the “security of our cities and villages” should hostilities continue. Iran has thus warned the conflict could escalate to a “regional war” and has already posted forces on its border for such an anticipation.
The numerous external powers with interests in this conflict is manifold. To add to the escalation, Syrian jihadists have been reported in the region. Indeed, International Relations scholar Mohammed Ayoob affirms “there are too many fingers in this Caucasus pie… it has the potential to turn into a major regional conflict”.
Proxy wars are the most devastating conflict. They drag external actors into the mix complicating peace agreements. They propel short conflicts into long wars - local actors which typically loose moral, resources, and fighters at a swifter pace are propelled by external funding. They linger on causing further carnage while psychologically hardening the minds of those involved complicating the means to facilitate negotiation. One only has to cast the minds to Yemen and Syria. Both local intrastate conflicts now in their fifth and tenth year of bloodshed. This cannot happen to Nagorno-Karabakh, as substantiated above, it is always the civilians who suffer the contradicting motives of regional and international players.
The international community must stay out of this local fight, maintaining a purely mediatory position if necessary. Nagorno-Karabakh needs to be solved in a way that does not foster a bitter stalemate and does not allow conflict to linger on gratuitously. Ideally, it would unite the regions Armenians with their ancestral neighbour. However, this is unlikely. Rather, the international community should partition the region to pre-USSR borders in an attempt to unite Armenians with Armenia yet satisfy the Azeris territorial claims.
By Daniel Mountain