Why Is Conflict Erupting Again Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
Why Is Conflict Erupting Again Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
MOSCOW — A simmering, decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh erupted in late September into the worst fighting the area had seen since a vicious ethnic war in the 1990s.
Skirmishes have been common for years along the front lines of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan but is home to ethnic Armenians.
This time the conflict is different, analysts and former diplomats say, because Turkey has offered more direct support to Azerbaijan, and because of the scale of the fighting. Both sides have been using drones and powerful, long-range rocket artillery, they say.
Turkey’s direct engagement in support of its ethnic Turkic ally, Azerbaijan, in an area of traditional Russian influence, risks turning the local dispute into a regional one.
And the attacks have spread far from the front lines. Cities in Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia have been hit by long-range weaponry fired by combatants on both sides. The capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, has been repeatedly bombarded.
Azerbaijan accused Armenia of firing powerful rockets at the country’s second largest city, Ganja, and at a hydroelectric station, suggesting an effort to destroy civilian infrastructure.
Even the impetus for the latest hostilities, which began on Sept 27, is in dispute. Azerbaijan said Armenia shelled its positions first, while Armenia says an Azerbaijani offensive was unprovoked. On Oct. 10, the countries agreed to a limited cease-fire brokered by Russia to exchange prisoners and collect the dead from the battlefield.
Here’s a guide to the conflict and why it has flared again.
The region is an ethnic tinderbox
Nagorno-Karabakh has long been ripe for renewed local conflict.
A war that began in the late Soviet period between Armenians and Azerbaijanis set the stage for the fighting today. At that time, the ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan declared independence and was nearly crushed in the ensuing war before its fighters captured areas of Azerbaijan in a series of victories leading up to a cease-fire in 1994.
But the tensions go back further, to at least World War I, during the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when Armenians were slaughtered and expelled from Turkey in what many now consider a genocide. That history, Armenians say, justifies their military defense of their ethnic enclave.
The 1994 cease-fire, always meant to be temporary, left about 600,000 Azerbaijanis — who had fled Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts captured by the Armenians — stranded away from their homes. It also left Nagorno-Karabakh vulnerable to attack by Azerbaijan, which vowed to recapture the area.
A local fight threatens to draw in regional powers
Russia and Turkey had coordinated at times in the past to tamp down tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
But the uneasy cooperation between Turkey and Russia, an ally of Armenia, is starting to fade as both countries become increasingly assertive in the Middle East and as the United States steps back. Relations between all three countries have become more complicated.
Turkey has alienated the United States by buying antiaircraft missiles from Russia and cutting a natural gas pipeline deal seen as undermining Ukraine. At the same time, it is fighting proxy wars against Moscow in Syria and Libya.
After Russian airstrikes in Syria killed Turkish soldiers earlier this year, Turkey soon appeared on other battlefields where Russia was vulnerable.
In May, Turkey deployed military advisers, armed drones and Syrian proxy fighters to Libya to shore up the U.N.-backed government and push back a Russian-supported rival faction in that war. In July and August, it sent troops and equipment to Azerbaijan for military exercises.
Armenia has said that Turkey is directly involved in the fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, and that a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down an Armenian jet. Turkey denied those accusations.
After satellite images revealed F-16s parked on the apron of an Azerbaijani airfield, Azerbaijan’s president conceded that Turkish planes were in his country but said they had not flown in combat.
Russia and France have both supported Armenia’s claim that Turkey deployed Syrian militants to Nagorno-Karabakh, following its playbook in Libya.
Warning signs went ignored
Distracted by other issues like the pandemic and a popular uprising in Belarus, another former Soviet state, international mediators missed warning signs and possible openings for diplomacy, analysts say.
Travel restrictions related to the coronavirus prevented traditional shuttle diplomacy over the summer, said Olesya Vartanyan, a senior Caucasus analyst at the International Crisis Group. For the antagonists in Nagorno-Karabakh, “this is a perfect time” to start a war, she said.
When Armenia killed a general and other officers in Azerbaijan’s Army in a missile strike during a border skirmish in July, Turkey immediately offered to help prepare a response, a retired Turkish general, Ismail Hakki Pekin, has said.
Turkish and Azerbaijani joint military exercises ensued, raising tensions.
The prospects for peace
The Oct. 10 cease-fire aims to pause the hostilities long enough for the combatants to collect bodies from the battlefield and to exchange prisoners.
But the prospects for a broader peace deal appear dim. The Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, said in a televised speech that he was happy to have talks but was making no concessions.
“We are winning and will get our territory back and ensure our territorial integrity,” Mr. Aliyev said. “Let them abandon our territory in peace.”
The last major American effort to broker peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was 20 years ago when the United States invited the sides to talks in Florida, but the issue dropped off the United States agenda after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Earlier that year, the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia had secretly agreed to swap territory, including some land that Azerbaijan lost in the 1990s war, to settle the conflict. But both backed away from the deal before it could be finalized.
The most optimistic outcome in the current fighting, analysts say, would be a return to the same unhappy status quo before the fighting started in September. At least, they say, that would avoid a wider war that might draw in Turkey and Russia.