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Conflict in the Caucasus may not be over

Conflict in the Caucasus may not be over

Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh has unleashed a grab bag of regional rivalries that have the potential to turn hostile

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

After more than three decades of conflict and several bloody wars, the Republic of Azerbaijan recaptured the Armenian-inhabited enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh on September 28. Azerbaijan’s lightning victory followed a nine-month blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the only link between the Karabakh region to mainland Armenia, effectively depriving the roughly 120,000 Karabakh Armenians who lived there of food and other necessities.

Following Azerbaijan’s victory, there was a mass exodus of Armenians from Karabakh and the creation of a severe humanitarian crisis that reminded some of the Armenians’ flight from the Ottoman Empire during 1915-16 when as many as a million people died or were killed — considered a genocide by Armenians and part of World War I’s tragic collateral damage by the Turks.

Many factors contributed to Azerbaijan’s final victory in its long-simmering conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Some factors are rooted in the South Caucasus’ complex history as part of the Iranian state until 1813, followed by the Russian and Soviet empires, the USSR’s nationalities policies and its practice of using various ethnic groups as levers of influence, and finally the messy breakup of the USSR beginning in 1988. Other factors relate to the disparity in Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s size, population, and resources. Unlike Armenia, which has few natural resources, Azerbaijan is an energy-rich country and thus capable of spending large sums on arms.

Additional factors include Armenia’s persistent internal political differences on the country’s foreign policy orientation, as well as rivalries and disagreements between Armenian and Karabakh political elites.

Since gaining independence after the Soviet collapse, Armenia has mostly depended on Russian support. But largely due to the 20-month-old war in Ukraine, Moscow’s priorities have changed. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan became more important for Moscow, and its failure to adequately support Armenia, particularly by deploying its peacekeeping force to dismantle the blockade, sealed last month’s outcome.

Unfortunately for Armenia, Azerbaijan also became more important for the West in light of the Ukraine war. This meant that neither Europe nor the United States was willing to take major risks to restrain Baku.

Lastly, international and regional geopolitical rivalries and Armenia’s vulnerable geopolitical position contributed to its ultimate defeat. Among these factors were the larger Russia-West rivalry for control of Eurasia and Washington’s 30-year-old efforts to contain and isolate Iran by denying Tehran any role in the emerging post-Cold War economic and security structures of the Southern Caucasus, most importantly in the construction of pipelines to transport oil and gas from Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia to Western markets.

To accomplish this aim, the U.S. and Europe effectively assigned a leading role to Turkey in the Caucasus and Central Asia both as a model to be emulated by the Central Asian states and as the West’s major regional partner. Perhaps, at the time, Armenia should have seen the writing on the wall and aligned itself more closely with the West while seeking some form of accommodation with Turkey. But given Armenians’ history with the Ottomans and Turkey, this was not easy to do, and Yerevan chose to align itself more closely to Russia instead.

Armenia did, in fact, retain ties with the West and even joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Yet, despite religious and cultural bonds with the West and a politically active Diaspora community, particularly in France and the U.S., Yerevan’s closer ties to Moscow resulted in a lingering Western distrust. And, as time went on, the lure of Azerbaijan’s energy resources became too strong for the West to resist.

Surrounded by Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia saw Iran with which it built a constructive relationship after independence, as a potential counterweight to Azerbaijan. But Iran, fearful of antagonizing its own Azeri population concentrated in the northwestern part of the country and concerned about antagonizing a fellow Muslim and mostly Shi’a country, was limited in its response. At the same time, Moscow worked to enhance Armenia’s dependence on Russia, making it more difficult for Yerevan to develop closer economic and energy ties with Tehran. In short, U.S. containment of Iran and Russia’s desire to control Armenia deprived Yerevan of alternative sources of support.

The regional involvement of Israel, the Middle East’s most important military power and a sworn enemy of the Islamic Republic, has further complicated matters. As a minority state in the Muslim world that was itself born in part as a result of the Nazi genocide against the Jews in Europe, Israel should theoretically have felt a natural affinity for Armenia. But a desire to expand its diplomatic relations with Muslim states (long before the 2020 Abraham Accords), the lure of energy resources and markets, and its hostility toward Iran have pulled Israel ever closer to Azerbaijan.

Over time, Israel became a key supplier of weapons for Baku, providing it with as much as 69 percent of its total arms imports, including some of its most advanced weapons systems, between 2016 and 2020, a trend that intensified significantly as Azerbaijan prepared its offensive to take Karabakh. Moreover, Baku’s principal patron and mentor, Turkey, which has its own regional ambitions, supplied additional weaponry and assistance, even to the extent of reportedly providing Syrian mercenaries for Baku to fight in Karabakh during the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.

Since Ottoman times, Turkey has coveted what is now the Republic of Azerbaijan, as well as the Iranian province of Azerbaijan. Pan-Turkist and neo-Ottoman forces, with which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is identified, have long wanted to create a land bridge between, first, Turkey and Azerbaijan, and subsequently through northern Iran to Central Asia. In this way, Turkey hopes to realize a direct land route to link all Turkic peoples.

Azerbaijan’s conquest of Karabakh marks the first step towards this goal. Now, Turkey is insisting on the creation of a land corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhicevan, an Azerbaijani exclave bounded by Armenia, Iran and Turkey. This would amount to the incorporation of what the Armenians call Syunik and the Azerbaijanis call Zangezur into Azerbaijan, thus bypassing Iran. In a demonstration of Turkey’s aims, Erdoğan himself visited Nakhichevan for a meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on September 25, two weeks before Baku’s Karabakh offensive, and talked about the opening of the so-called Zangezur Corridor.

Iran is understandably concerned by all of these developments. While relations between Baku and Tehran have oscillated between warm and cold since Azerbaijan’s independence, they have grown more tense in recent years, particularly as Israel became increasingly critical to Baku’s military buildup, possibly in exchange for oil and reportedly also for access to Iran for Israeli intelligence operations. Iran has long been concerned that Azerbaijan may serve as a launch pad for an Israeli, U.S., or joint attack on its territory.

As for Turkey’s ambitions, it should be noted that the Nakhicavan exclave lies only 90 miles from Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan, which Baku claims is occupied territory it refers to as Southern Azerbaijan. Erdogan appears to share that sentiment; in 2020, his recitation of a poem that claimed that Iran had usurped the region provoked protests in Tehran.

Iran has said clearly that it opposes any other territorial changes in the region, especially the creation of a corridor that would eliminate its common border with Armenia. In early October, Iran’s president, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, expressed this view to Armenian and Azerbaijani officials who met with him. Earlier, members of parliament had warned that Iran would not tolerate any changes to its border with Armenia, while an article that appeared in Tehran’s influential “Iran Diplomacy” even suggested that Iran unilaterally create a 20-mile buffer zone within Karabakh, Nakhichevan, and Syunik in order to prevent any incursions into Iranian territory. A year ago, Iran held large-scale military exercises along its Azerbaijani border, signaling its determination to resist further territorial changes to its detriment.

Against this background, the steady rapprochement between Turkey and Israel since last year’s exchange of ambassadors — Erdogan was reportedly preparing to host Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu later this month or in November before the latest Gaza war broke out last weekend – has done little to calm Tehran’s concerns. Earlier this year, 30-plus members of Israel’s Knesset also called for international support for “the national aspirations of the peoples of South Azerbaijan.”

Thus, the latest Caucasus conflict is not finished, and larger clashes may lie ahead, especially if Azerbaijan pursues its irredentist claims against Iran with the backing of Turkey and Israel. In the last few days, there have been reports that Baku and Tehran are now trying to normalize bilateral relations and even discuss opening a new transit route through Iran to Nakhicevan, which could alleviate some of Tehran's key concerns. However, the deep-rooted sources of tension between Iran and Azerbaijan are unlikely to be quickly resolved, and thus the risk of possible conflict remains high, especially if Iran's rivals pressure Baku.

Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh region arrive in the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, September 29, 2023. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

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