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Could Azerbaijan Armenia’s war embroil the Middle East?

Armenia Azerbaijan war
Women react at the blast site hit by a rocket during the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the city of Ganja, Azerbaijan, on October 11, 2020. Photo: Bulent Kilic / AFP

By: Sophia Akram

As fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia intensifies and progresses, regional neighbours are weighing in and even cautioning a wider regional war.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani made comments on TV to that effect Wednesday, 7 October 2020.

“We must be attentive that the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan does not become a regional war”, he said, and that “Peace is the basis of our work and we hope to restore stability to the region in a peaceful way”.

Rouhani spoke after reports in Iran’s media of stray shells landing inside the country, which borders Azerbaijan, reportedly telling his cabinet it was “totally unacceptable” for any artillery to land on Iranian territory. “Our priority is the security of our cities and villages”, he said.

Rouhani’s comments came on the 11th day of fighting over the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area that has been subject to around three decades of on-off war.

The area belongs to Azerbaijan under international law but its population and governance is Armenian dominated.

The new bout of fighting is thought to be the deadliest in more than 25 years and the most serious since 2016. It has stemmed from unresolved questions of control of Nagorno-Karabakh after a full-scale war in 1992-1994 that resulted in its de facto independence.

It is unclear from which side tensions flared up once more, but clashes turned into an offensive by Azerbaijani forces at the end of last month.

Since 27 September 2020, there have been close to 300 casualties while thousands of civilians remain at risk, including 55,000 people in the capital Stepanakert. Half the area’s population has been displaced. As fighting progresses, thousands more could face danger, while Azerbaijan has claimed Azeri cities outside the enclave have been attacked.

According to the International Crisis Group, Armenia’s advantage on higher ground may result in more soldier casualties for Azerbaijan as its troops advance.

However, Azerbaijan is likely to be spurred by support from Turkey, which has called on Armenia to “leave the land it occupied”.

Turkey’s seeming involvement has raised concerns among international actors that it is providing more than verbiage to stoke the fires of war with claims that Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) fighters have been deployed.

Turkey denies involvement, but its recent muscle-flexing in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean may indicate its readiness.

In addition to proxy forces from Syria and reports it is supplying Baku with drones, Stratfor’s Middle East and North Africa analyst Ryan Bohl says Turkey most likely has forces on the ground to advise and monitor the conflict.

“That remains the most likely path for them unless there is some kind of military disaster that puts Azerbaijan on the back foot against Armenia or unless another power, like Russia, sends forces to Armenia that are large enough to threaten the front line”, he told Fanack Chronicle.

“Turkish conventional forces will stay in the shadows for as long as possible, but if escalations continue, we can’t rule out their limited deployment.

“I’ve seen the accusations of the Turkish F-16s, but I don’t think there’s quite enough evidence to say that’s happened; nevertheless, air support like that is possible, but would raise the risk of Russia using its own air force to counter”.

“In Nagorno-Karabakh there was a frozen conflict in which it remained in Armenia’s hands. Turkey wants to undermine this game even if it cannot fully determine it”, said Galip Dalay, a fellow at Robert Bosch Academy, to Reuters.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Turkey’s involvement amounts to a “terroristic attack”, and a policy of “continuing the Armenian genocide and a policy of reinstating the Turkish empire”, referring to the 1.5 million Armenians who were killed under Ottoman rule between 1915 and 1923, although Turkey has disputed the number of casualties during this period and rejected accusations it was a genocide.

Ankara’s interest could also be linked to its gas imports from Azerbaijan, while its oil and gas pipelines, among other factors, give it regional importance.

“If you put Armenia and Azerbaijan on the map and take a look, it is strategically very important,” according to Robin Forestier-Walker from Al-Jazeera.

While Turkey has given its backing to Azerbaijan, Iran has been reportedly speaking to both sides.

The use of Syrian actors has also prompted Russia’s concern. Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR Foreign Intelligence Service, warned the region could become a launchpad for Islamist militants to enter Russia and other states in the region.

However, Bohl says while the fighting could bring in new actors, it’s unlikely to spill much over borders, “in large part because the core conflict is a very Armenian-Azerbaijani problem.

“Other actors, like Turkey, Russia, and Iran, are likely to try to use the conflict to their advantage to build influence there, and with competing aims, particularly between Russia — who backs Armenia — and Turkey — who backs Azerbaijan — it’s possible the two end up in yet another proxy conflict and confrontation that will test their relationship”.

Bohl explains, these external actors have been here before and have proven they can descale, such as in Libya.

“That being said, escalation ladders can be slippery: the more external forces go in, the more likely there is to be an accidental conflict, just as we’ve worried about in Syria and Libya”.

Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan suggested concessions could be made if Azerbaijan agrees to mutual trade-offs.

Calls for a ceasefire have been led by EU states such as France, Germany and Italy, as well as the US, although Turkey has said a Western role in reaching a peace deal is misplaced due to neglect of the region over the last 30 years.

The US, which chairs the OSCE Minsk Group formed to oversee peace negotiations for Nagorno-Karabakh, has, in particular, been said to have lost lustre for engagement in the region.

Russia is thought to be a more successful interlocutor, having played a role in a 2016 halt to hostilities.

While Moscow is an ally of Armenia and would be called to defend it should the conflict deepen and spillover onto Armenian soil, it’s unlikely to want to deepen its involvement, according to the Crisis Group.

The non-profit research and analysis organisation further writes that international diplomacy should step up a gear.

“Together, European states and Moscow could develop a package of incentives—potentially including economic aid, support for displaced and front-line communities once a ceasefire is in place, and a quick resumption of talks on a political settlement – that might help convince Baku and Yerevan to talk”, it writes.

The international community’s response in terms of the West has so far been rather limited”, says Bohl.

“Diplomatic pressure from Europe and the US is starting to pick up steam, which will help ease tensions to an extent”, he adds, “but without a strong US/European strategy, Turkey, Russia, Iran and the local actors will be the primary ones to watch in terms of de-escalation.

“There are humanitarian concerns that the conflict could spark yet another refugee crisis, adding to Turkey and Iran’s refugee burdens, and that fighting could undercut the region’s COVID-19 response for some populations as fighting eats up hospital resources.

“Finally, there is worry that escalation could put Turkey and Russia back on to yet another confrontation that could draw in NATO, though with Syria in mind, that seems a remote possibility given Turkey’s less strident interest in Azerbaijan, which it doesn’t border like Syria”.

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