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Turkey's Erdogan: Lost in the Caucasus

Erdogan’s interference in Nagorno-Karabakh may be the last straw for other NATO members when it comes to tolerating his regime

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Thursday 29 Oct 2020
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If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not exactly light the fuse that reignited hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia, he is less than keen to see the flames doused in the war that is now over a month old. He has committed hardware, “personnel” from Syria and his incendiary oratory to support Baku in the hope of securing a victory for his ethnically Turkic Azeri cousins and another “conquest” in his glorious march towards his envisioned empire.

However, it appears this hope is about to sputter out as Ankara finds itself increasingly criticised and sidelined in the international management of the conflict over the predominantly ethnically Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

On Sunday, 25 October, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev announced that his country would commit to a ceasefire on the condition that all parties adhere to the principles of the Minsk Group, Fox News reported. Ankara has fumed at the Minsk Group on a number of occasions. Last week, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay, accused the group — formed to mediate the conflict and led by France, Russia and the United States — of trying to keep the conflict unresolved and, also, of supporting Armenia politically and militarily.

Ironically, Aliyev’s announcement came soon after a phone call with Erdogan who, after the call, reaffirmed his rejection of all international appeals to silence the guns immediately and give reign to the voice of reason through dialogue. Turkey would support Azerbaijan to the end, Erdogan said, alluding to this vice-president’s call to send Turkish troops into Nagorno-Karabakh “if there is a need and Azerbaijan makes such a request”.

Then in a show of flexibility, which was in fact a bid to win a place at the negotiating table, Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul that he hoped Moscow and Ankara could work together to resolve the dispute. He also insisted that his country had a right to become one of the Minsk Group co-chairs, as “brother Aliyev” had suggested some days earlier.

The Minsk co-chairs, Washington, Paris and Moscow, snubbed Ankara’s bid and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo topped it off by accusing Ankara of escalating the conflict.

It also appears that Erdogan and his clique have failed to grasp the significance of the security alerts issued by the US embassies in Ankara and Baku over the weekend. The embassies warned of potential terrorist attacks and kidnappings targeting US citizens and other foreign nationals in Baku as well as in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey.

Was this a reproach against Turkey’s state-controlled media for inciting hostility against the US and certain European countries for their support for Armenia?

Although the US State Department did not explicitly link the two warnings, the coincidence speaks for itself, as does the fact that a similar warning was not issued by its embassy in Yerevan. Turkish opposition forces saw the terrorist warnings as one of the boomerang effects of their government’s precipitous foreign adventures.

As for Moscow, while reluctant to criticise Ankara officially, the Russian press has frequently condemned Turkey for fanning the flames of conflict in the region and, especially, in areas that were once a part of the Soviet Union. Sergei Yeshchenko, in Svobodnaya Pressa, urges his government to act firmly “before it is too late”.

It is impossible to deny that Baku instinctively refuses to take the hint to go to the negotiating table, because it is feeling its military strength and wants all of it (Nagorno-Karabakh) and now, he wrote, suggesting that Turkey was encouraging Baku in this regard. Vahgarshak Harutyunyan, senior adviser to the Armenian prime minister, went further.

This war was planned by Turkey from the outset, he said. “Their goal is to create a neo-Ottoman Empire and swallow up Azerbaijan. Whereas they used to say there is one people and two states, when talking about Turkey and Azerbaijan, now we can say there is one people and one state.”

What would Erdogan gain if he succeeded in implementing this formula? At the very least, direct access to the Caspian Sea and all its strategic oil resources and pipelines, which would, of course, necessitate a Turkish military base or two on its shores.

Clearly Russia would not take well to the consolidation of such a project in a zone vital to Russian interests. It was not for nothing that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier this month, “we have never considered Turkey as our strategic ally.”

Last Thursday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ruled out the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karakbakh conflict at this stage. “Everything that is diplomatically acceptable to the Armenian side... is not acceptable to Azerbaijan anymore,” he said, claiming that Baku refuses to compromise. He urged Armenians to volunteer to fight at the front and added, “there is victory and there is defeat. There is no middle ground.”

Could Armenia, which is not as strongly armed as Azerbaijan, possibly settle the dispute in its favour militarily? We should not underestimate the fighting capacities of the soldiers of this small Armenian nation which has lived more than 4,000 years in a hostile environment, said one observer.

However, the balance of military powers is not the crux of the matter here. Pashinyan would not have ventured such a hardline position unless he were certain that he had some solid support from the international community. That support is growing by the day, in large measure thanks to the efforts of Armenian communities abroad that have forged some dynamic and influential lobbies, especially in the US.

Congress, at present, is considering a number of actions, not least of which is the resolution submitted to the House of Representatives by Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, calling on her government to work with allies in removing Turkey from NATO.

Although the NATO charter provides no mechanism for suspending or expelling a member state, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has pointed out, developments such as this are writing on the wall for the Erdogan regime. It says that this regime has become a threat to international peace and security and something needs to be done to stop it.

With regard to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, this threat has taken the form, as Gabbard’s resolution puts it, of contradicting NATO’s position by publicly supporting and assisting with Azerbaijan’s continued military aggression, participating in or outright asserting control of Azerbaijan’s air command and military offensives using Turkish F-16 fighters, and sending in Syrian mercenaries, many linked with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, to fight against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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