Erdogan's Military Campaign in the Caucasus

 

Are we witnessing a new and lasting peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh region?

 

A peace plan between Armenia and Azerbaijan was negotiated on the 9th November under the mediation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, following a further escalation in fighting in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the flight of over 100,000 Armenians from their homeland. After 43 days of war, Azerbaijan emerged as the victor, the Republic of Arzach has effectively been dissolved, and Azerbaijan is granted about 80% of the disputed region.

 

In desperation, Christian Armenians set fire to their own houses in Nagorno-Karabakh to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Azerbaijani Muslim occupiers. While the celebrations were exuberant in Baku, angry Armenian patriots stormed the seat of government in Yerevan, and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The offices of George Soros' Open Society Foundation were also attacked in Yerevan, as the current Armenian government under Pashinyan came into power in 2018 through a "Velvet Revolution", with the aid of foreign geo-political actors.

 

A pro-military billboard in Republic Square, Yerevan on 7 October 2020, Գարիկ Ավագյան, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia, Commons

 

Another strategic winner is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Together with Russia, Turkey will monitor the fragile ceasefire between the hostile Caucasian peoples in a new control centre, thereby consolidating its regional position. The final aspect of the peace agreement provides for the establishment of a corridor through Southern Armenia to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan.

 

This would make the long-cherished dream of neo-Ottoman expansion come true, and give Turkey a direct link to the Caspian Sea, along with its rich oil and gas reserves. However, future conflicts over corridors can develop into a potential for supra-regional wars, as was the case with Gdansk prior to the outbreak of the Second World War in Central Europe. Significantly, the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region remains unclear in the new peace plan. Whether the deployment of 2,000 Russian soldiers can actually secure peace in the South Caucasus in the long-term is more than questionable. After all, the roots of the current conflict reach far back into the turbulent history of the Caucasus.

 

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Islamic Foreign Rule & Communist Dismemberment

 

It is apparent that frozen conflicts can flare up again at any time. The current events in the South Caucasus can be seen as the most recent example of this historical insight. The Azerbaijani attack on the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh on the 27th September opened a new bloody chapter in the Caucasian conflict. The Republic of Arzach alone concedes the deaths of over 1,300 soldiers in the war, involving tanks, heavy artillery and air strikes. While Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan promised his people at the beginning of the war that he would "break the backbone" of the Azerbaijani enemy, the President of Arzach, Arayik Harutyunyan, summarily reported personally from the military front line.

 

The Armenian Apostolic Church – the oldest state church in the world – also called for armed resistance against the Islamic invaders. After all, Armenia is the oldest Christian state in the world, as Christianity was elevated to the status of state religion by King Trdat III as early as 301. Originally, Nagorno-Karabakh belonged to the Armenian Kingdom of Arzach, and is thus a core of the Armenian nation. But already, since the mid-7th century, Christian Armenians had to defend themselves time and time again against the violent advance of Muslim Arabs, Turkic peoples and Persians alike.

 

On a regional level, Armenians were able to maintain their autonomy within the Five Principalities of Karabakh before the Khanate of Karabakh became a province of the Persian Empire in the mid-18th century. Since the Treaty of Golestan in 1813, the Southern Caucasus became part of the Russian Empire. Already after the first independence – following the October Revolution of 1917 – Armenians and Azerbaijanis fought bitterly for this region. As a concession to Turkey, and in order to drive a wedge into the ethnically rugged Caucasus, the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party – under the aegis of the power-conscious Georgian and expert on nationality issues, Joseph Stalin – decided in July 1921 to divide the region of Nagorno-Karabakh by decree. While a small part was directly subordinated to the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic, the region was given a special status within the borders of the Azerbaijani SSR as the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1926, around 94% of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh was of Armenian origin, and in 1989, the year of transition, the figure was still 73.5%.

 

The current conflict in the Caucasus is thus part of the political legacy of Kemal Atatürk and Joseph Stalin. With the weakening centralised Soviet power, ethnic conflicts resurfaced from 1988 onwards, and anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan began.

 

The fighting of the now sovereign republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan flared up around Nagorno-Karabakh in particular. In September 1991, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence, which led to several massacres on both sides, and to Armenia entering the war in 1993. Since the ceasefire of 1994, Armenian soldiers have controlled the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the area turned into a buffer zone for the warring factions. In 1993, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted four resolutions calling for the protection of Stalinist demarcations and the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces. By renaming itself the Republic of Arzach in 2017, the internationally unrecognised Caucasus Republic is consciously continuing its historical heritage.

 

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Turkish Armed Assistance

 

If there were a few unsuccessful mediation attempts after 1994, Azerbaijan tried in vain to conquer the territory militarily as early as 2016. Now Baku seems to have found new allies. The Turkish government under Erdogan, for instance, has demonstratively sided with the Azerbaijani "brother people", and assured them of Turkish support. Turkey has close historical and cultural ties with Azerbaijan. For example, Azerbaijanis speak a Turkish dialect that was only declared a separate language under Stalin in 1937. In Turkish popular opinion, the Caucasus state is therefore considered Turkey's only reliable ally. Azerbaijan is rich in oil and gas, and the state-owned Azerbaijani oil company Socar is considered the largest single investor in Turkey. In recent years, Baku has invested its profits from the oil business in the purchase of Turkish weapons.

 

According to the Armenian Government, the Turkish Air Force is also supporting the Azerbaijani Army in combat as well. For example, an Armenian SU-25 fighter plane was allegedly shot down by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet. In addition, more than 150 high-ranking Turkish officers are said to be involved in the strategic co-ordination of the military attacks. Furthermore, Islamist mercenaries from Syria are said to be fighting on the side of the Azerbaijanis. In the margin, it should be mentioned that Israel has also supplied Azerbaijan with modern military equipment, such as drones. Between 2016 and 2018 alone, Azerbaijan purchased weapons from Israel for $385 million.

 

The relative reluctance of Russia, the USA and France, as long-standing mediators within the Minsk Group, was surprising at the beginning of the Azerbaijani offensive. Although Russia sees itself as the historical protective power of the Christian Armenians, the Kremlin is noticeably reluctant to take much further action in defending the interests of the Armenian people within the Nargorno-Karabakh region. This is likely because of various multi-billion Dollar arms and raw materials deals with Baku. Iran is keeping a close eye on developments on its northern border, as Azerbaijanis also belong to the Shia denomination of Islam, and there are currently between 15 and 20 million ethnic Azeris living in Iran, representing between 15% and 20% of the Iranian population, depending on one’s sources, as the exact statistics vary.

 

Armenia Warns Europeans

 

For the Armenians, the Turkish advance is reminiscent of the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians during the First World War. The Armenian leadership recently commemorated the Battle of Sardarapat on the 26th May 1918, when the Armenians succeeded in stopping the Ottoman advance into their republic, and thus averted Turkish rule over their homeland. According to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia form a "civilisation front".

 

Photo: "The Battle of Sardarabad", oil-painting by Sargis Muradyan.

Photo: "The Battle of Sardarabad", oil-painting by Sargis Muradyan, https://www.armmuseum.ru/

 

In view of the Turkish aggression in Libya, Syria and Iraq – as well as Turkish claims in the Mediterranean – the Armenian government attempted to hold diplomatic talks with other European nations, warning them about Turkish geo-political ambitions in the future. In a televised interview with France 24, Prime Minister Pashinyan explained the geo-political implications of the current confrontation in the Caucasus:

 

Turkey has a clear objective of rebuilding the Turkish Empire. Do not be surprised if this policy succeeds here. Do not be surprised if they try not only to incorporate the Greek islands into their empire, but also to expand further into continental Europe. If Turkey succeeds in this, they will be waiting in Vienna. As early as 1529 and 1683, Ottoman armies stood in front of Vienna, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, until they were repulsed by a European alliance.

 

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Photo: Serouj Ourishian, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia, Commons

 

Gas Dispute in the Mediterranean

 

At present, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus are in dispute over access to the rich natural gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. On the one hand, Ankara is preventing the Greeks from drilling for gas around the many Greek islands if they are less than 200 nautical miles from the Turkish coast. On the other hand, Turkey has its own test wells in the Mediterranean secured militarily. Parallel military manoeuvres have already led to a collision between a Greek and a Turkish warship this year. This intensified the diplomatic rhetoric between the two countries, whose relationship is considered strained for historical reasons. Athens announced that it would arm its own military forces. After weeks of NATO mediation, Greece and Turkey agreed in early October on an arrangement to prevent military incidents in the Eastern Mediterranean, including a permanent hotline to avoid clashes between the two NATO countries' respective air forces and navies.

 

The European Union has been threatening sanctions against Turkey since the end of August due of Turkish intimidation attempts against Cyprus. At the EU Summit in early October, however, the EU Commission only announced sanctions against Turkey would only be vague diplomatic warning messages if Ankara were to maintain "the provocations and pressure" against the divided island state. The EU was only able to bring itself to take this toothless approach after Cyprus abandoned its veto on sanctions against Belarus. While the German Chancellor Angela Merkel celebrated the bland decisions as "great progress", the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz advocated a much tougher line, and immediately called for sanctions and the breaking off of EU accession talks with Turkey. The issue should be back on the agenda at the next EU Summit in December. While the Eurocrats are debating, Erdogan announced unequivocally that his country will "take what is rightfully its own" and is "determined to do whatever is necessary politically, economically and militarily".

 

For Europeans, the developments in the Caucasus should be a warning of what may come in the future.

 

Safet Babic

Political Scientist, M.A.

 

 

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