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Another Syria looms in
the South Caucasus

Azerbaijan’s major new offensive in the Artsakh region is fueling a fire that is rapidly spreading to Armenia, Turkey, Russia and Iran and that could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and a new refugee crisis. Until now, the world has only stood by.

Another Syria looms in  the South Caucasus
Recrues lors d'un exercice militaire à Arzach en mai 2019, photographiées par Lukas Rühli.



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At 7:10 am on Sunday, September 27th, 2020, Azerbaijan launched a major offensive along the entire length of the Line of Contact with Artsakh. This large-scale breach of the cease-fire had been planned well in advance. Artsakh’s army positions and population alike have faced aggression from the outset. For days now, its capital city Stepanakert and most regional centers have come under increasingly intense bombardment and rocket fire. Even in villages, suicide drones are causing fear and horror.

What is happening now is more than a flare-up of the thirty-year Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, like those of the 2016 April War or last July. A violent war is raging, and it is escalating every day. While Artsakh and Armenia are largely isolated from the world, Azerbaijan enjoys Turkey’s full support. A humanitarian disaster, a conflagration and a new refugee crisis are looming. The world and the international community of states are watching: A new chapter on the history of genocide against the Armenian people might be about to be written.

An International Law Dilemma

Since the 1994 ceasefire signed by Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia, a frozen conflict has reigned, with regular skirmishes at the line of contact. The roughly 300 km long front line winds its way over the ridges and hills of the Lesser Caucasus, from the Sotk Pass in the north to the Arax River in the south. Every week has seen breaches of the cease-fire, shootings and the use of snipers. Before the current escalation, Azerbaijan had carried out major military operations on two occasions. The wholly unexpected 2016 April War was an attempt to overrun Artsakh, but this attempt was thwarted by the unflinching resistance of the Artsakh army. And last July, Azerbaijan attacked military targets in the Talish region; what then came completely out of the blue looks, in hindsight, a lot like a dress rehearsal for the current war.

Under the presidency of France, Russia and the USA, the Minsk Group formed by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) has been working towards a peace agreement since 1994. This has failed (despite an interim rapprochement between the adversaries), because both sides refuse to compromise. After 1998, Azerbaijan ceased to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as a negotiating partner and continues to demand the full national reintegration of the «occupied territories», while Artsakh wants territorial recognition under the status quo. The principle of national integrity in international law means that not one country in the world has been able to recognize the Republic of Artsakh as an independent state. Not even Armenia is doing so, explicitly to avoid provoking Azerbaijan into starting another war. However, the more the statehood, and with it the institutions, in Artsakh have developed, the more pressing the international legal principle of a people’s right to self-determination becomes.

Artsakh is in fact a functioning transitional democracy. According to Freedom House, a respected think tank that studies the development of global democracy, it is «partly free», scoring 34 out of 100 points, as is Armenia with 53 points. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, lags far behind with 10 points, and Turkey only has 32 points (both are considered «not free»). As many as 70,000 tourists visit Artsakh every year, with numbers rising fast thanks to its wealth of cultural assets, landscapes and history. Agriculture is flourishing, and people are still doggedly rebuilding their war-ravaged country; education levels are high, and people are hungry for more. Although rural areas appear poor, food is plentiful, and Stepanakert, the capital, can easily compete with smaller Eastern European centers. There is even an alternative, trendy bar beneath the city’s bus depot. The longer the status quo for a lively and forward-looking civilian population continued, the more realistic it seemed that an independent state of Artsakh could form – even at an international level.

Pan-Turkism Flexes its Muscles

The Azerbaijani kleptocracy, exploited by the Aliyev family clan, has been in financial crisis since oil prices collapsed. Members of the opposition and journalists have been jailed or disappeared without trace. The varied and ostentatious international events regularly held in Baku, and even more so the militaristic rhetoric directed against Armenia and Artsakh, have always provided a welcome distraction from disastrous domestic politics. But the 2016 April War was proof that recapturing the lost province of Nagorno-Karabakh was out of question. Azerbaijan had learned its lesson.

However, a few years ago, Turkish President Erdogan changed the rules of the game in the region through a renewed push for pan-Turkism. In his imperial dreams of a mighty Turkish power, stretching from the Mediterranean to East Asia, Azerbaijan is his first conquest. «One nation, two peoples», as he likes to point out: only the southern Armenian province of Syunik and the Republic of Artsakh lie between them.

The recent offensive has raised the power play a level. It had been planned well in advance with Turkey’s help and is now being jointly executed – at least the Turkish Air Force is known to have participated. The vast weapons stockpile features state-of-the-art military technology – including drones, the combat tanks of modern electronic warfare. Even the most highly motivated Artsakh guerrilla forces cannot withstand this material battle for long.

On October 1, Erdogan told his Parliament in Ankara that the Minsk Group had been failing for thirty years. It was now up to Turkey to solve the problem once and for all – and to help Azerbaijan take back all of the occupied territories. Erdogan can obviously get away with mocking international organizations and even with hints at ethnic cleansing on a larger scale, as when he demands that the Armenian occupiers withdraw completely from the area. As the Azeri saying goes, Nagorno-Karabakh is Artsakh minus the Armenians.

If the pan-Turkish Alliance manages to break through the Artsakhian lines along the Arax River at the border with Iran, the Turkish settlement area between the Black and Caspian Seas will be interrupted by no more than 40 kilometers of Armenian territory. However, its ambitions may be even greater. The Turkish-Azeri attacks on the Armenian heartland in early October indicate just that. Armenia will not be able to avoid militaristic escalation.

Perfect Timing

This pan-Turkish expansion is cleverly timed: Turkey has recently tried out a new aggressive approach in its Mediterranean policy in Syria and the Aegean Sea and has encountered almost no significant international resistance. A Europe weakened by Brexit, self-absorbed and incapable of any unified foreign policy is also susceptible to blackmail over the tidal wave of refugees being held back in Anatolia. Since Obama’s presidency, the US has handed back its international law enforcement badge and is now facing a presidential election that can only end badly. Globally, the coronavirus crisis is drowning out international protest, and national administrations are at full capacity in their perfectionist commitment to beating the pandemic. The struggle for democracy and against warmongering has fallen to the bottom of the priority list.

In fact, the international community is waiting to see what happens in the rapidly escalating conflict in the southeastern Caucasus. Hiding behind the principle of «impartialism» means it can avoid taking a stand. Instead, the warring parties are being politely invited to cease hostilities. Their statements fail to mention that it was an alliance between two undemocratic states which started a war against two transitioning democracies; that civilian targets have been under attack from the start; and that there is evidence of Syrian mercenaries being used.

The aggressors are unlikely to be influenced by such feeble appeals. I am afraid that – before our very eyes – they are about to write the next chapter in the history of the genocide of the Armenian people. With the oldest Christian nation on Earth facing its destruction, why is Europe simply looking on? At least French President Emmanuel Macron is starting to speak out more. On October 1, he accused Turkey of smuggling Syrian jihadists into the theater of war, declaring that that changes the whole perspective.

Extreme Volatility

For over 200 years, Russia has been the force of order in South Caucasus; Azerbaijan is a former Soviet republic and Armenia is under Russia’s protection. Putin is unlikely to tolerate Turkey reorganizing the South Caucasus. If major attacks are made on Armenian soil – for example to block supply routes to Artsakh, which appears to be happening already – it will be a case of mutual defense assistance and Russia will be forced to come to Armenia’s aid. What does that mean for Erdogan’s pan-Turkish ambitions? Will he back down? Or risk trading blows with Armenia’s champion, Russia? And what would that mean for the West? In case you had forgotten, Turkey is a member of NATO.

Iran has also become a powder keg: With a population share of around 19 million, about twice as many Azeris live there as in Azerbaijan itself. They make up 25 percent of the population and dominate the north of the country. On October 1st, anti-Armenian and pro-Azerbaijani demonstrations broke out in Tabriz and other cities across the country. War might fuel the separatism Teheran fears. This is all the more likely because Iran’s government line is pro-Armenian.

The escalation of the historical ethnic conflict between Armenians and Turks will be highly inflammatory beyond this region. The outbreak of local flash-points, shifts in regional power structures and the scale of new international refugee movements are unpredictable. Russia’s (continued) restraint therefore seems astonishing. We cannot assume that Azeri and Turkish preparations for this war escaped Russia’s attention. So why has Putin allowed for a war on this scale at all?

In the South Caucasus, Russia has always held the balance of power; it supplies arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Why is it doing nothing in response to this Turkish attempt to end the Karabakh conflict with a sledgehammer? Is Russia’s reticence to intervene as a protector intended as passive punishment for Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan, who (also) embraces European and Western values? Is Russia suddenly going to threaten Turkey, and consolidate its role as a protective power and force of order in the region? Could Putin and Erdogan – autocrats both – even have struck a deal?

No Happy Endings in Sight

At present, any determined international intervention that could enforce a ceasefire seems unlikely. The participants› interests are too disparate and the political agendas too short-sighted: the threatening escalation will probably take its course. The Artsakhian army can only survive the war of attrition in the medium term if it sticks to its core capabilities as a guerrilla army, operating out of pockets in the mountains and through resistance groups.

However, the longer the fighting continues, the more it becomes a question of prestige for the pan-Turkish alliance; this time it was anticipating a «blitzkrieg» but is yet to achieve any resounding success. Most Artsakhian positions are still holding along the front – considering their vast inferiority, this certainly demonstrates their determination.

The Azeri army has been launching attacks like this against Armenian targets since day three of the war. The strategic goal of these surgical air strikes is to cut off both of the roads linking the two countries and stop supplies of materials reaching Artsakh. In the face of such provocation, Armenia will not be able to hold off for long; it has announced general mobilization and the army is on standby.

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