A conflict revisited

Karam Said, Tuesday 3 Oct 2023

Karam Said keeps up with the news from Nagorno-Karabakh.

A conflict revisited
Ethnic Armenians forced to leave their birth place to the Armenian capital


Thousands of ethnic Armenians have fled Nagorno-Karabakh to the capital Yerevan since Azerbaijan’s military operation launched last week.

On 19 September, Azerbaijan started a military operation against Nagorno-Karabakh, killing 200 and wounding 400 people. The clashes followed exchanges of gunfire after Armenian officials in Karabakh accused Azerbaijani forces of violating the 2020 ceasefire. The fighting lasted no more than a day. Azerbaijan declared a ceasefire on 20 September after the Armenians in Karabakh agreed to enter negotiations. The separatist forces also agreed to hand over their arms and withdraw from their positions in coordination with Russian peacekeeping forces, according to reports following the first round of Russian-brokered meetings between the two sides on 21 September.

Armenian officers detain a proteser during an anti-government rally in Yerevan

Protests erupted in the capital of Armenia demanding Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation over his “deliberate and weak” response to the crisis. Armenian police have arrested at least 170 demonstrators.

Last week’s flareup surrounding the Armenian exclave in Azerbaijan reflects various local and regional developments in recent years, not least the decline in Armenia’s military capacities following its defeat in its war with Azerbaijan in 2020 and the consequent decline in its ability to defend the separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the current Armenian government has also shifted positions on the Nagorno-Karabakh question, recognising Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh. It is perhaps no coincidence that Baku’s recent military operation came soon after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that the situation in Karabakh was an Azerbaijani domestic concern. Subsequently, on 21 September, the Armenian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Vahan Kostanyan said that Yerevan supports the position of the local authorities in the region regarding the ceasefire with Baku. This is not to suggest that tensions have subsided between Yerevan and Baku. On 2 September, the latter accused the Armenian army units in the border town of Basarcigar of firing mortar shells at Azerbaijani locations near the border.

The flare up over Karabakh also occurred against a backdrop of shifting regional alliances. Specifically, the Pashinyan government has decided to pivot away from Moscow, which it believed had failed to preserve peace in the region, and to move closer to the US-led NATO camp. The shift is epitomised by the recent 10-day joint US-Armenian military exercises called Eagle Partner 2023.

Baku, for its part, has forged strategic relations with many regional and international powers including Turkey and the US. On 19 September, the Turkish Ministry of Defence stated that Ankara supported Azerbaijan’s military operations in Karabakh and the Turkish minister of defence phoned his counterpart in Baku to stress that Turkey, as always, supports Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan’s recent military actions are a reflection of its awareness of the limits of Russian influence in the Caucasus, due to its preoccupation with the crisis in Ukraine and the tightening Western blockade against Russia. At this point, Moscow wants to strengthen its relations with the Caucasian countries and avoid having to support one side against another in the region’s conflicts.

   Baku has a number of motives for launching its recent military operation against the Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh. A major one is to underscore its own legitimacy as the sovereign authority over the enclave and the illegitimacy of the separatists, whom it casts as terrorists. Baku made this explicit to the international community when it launched what it termed a counterterrorist operation on 19 September, just as world leaders were convening in New York for the UN General Assembly meetings. The Azerbaijani defence minister took pains to stress that military actions were intended to dismantle illegitimate separatist pockets and that they would not target civilians.

A related purpose was to put paid to the presidential elections held in Nagorno-Karabakh on 9 September. Yerevan had supported the elections but the US, Turkey and the EU held that they were illegal and provocative.

A third purpose of the operation was strategic. Azerbaijan wants to clear Karabakh of Armenian forces and consolidate its control over the region. Azerbaijan had been demanding the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabakh for more than two years. According to government sources in Baku, an estimated 10,000 Armenian soldiers are in the region to support the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Fourthly, the operation aimed to strengthen Baku’s hand and weaken the Armenian one in any bilateral or multilateral talks over future political arrangements for that region.

Despite the cessation of the fighting, the ceasefire agreement and the commitment to future rounds of talks to resolve outstanding differences, the crisis is not over. There are no guarantees that hostilities will not flare up again considering Baku’s determination to achieve all the goals of its military intervention, namely the return to the country’s constitutional order, the removal of Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabakh and the end of Armenian support for the forces it refers to as separatists and terrorists. Tensions could easily rise again, especially given both Washington’s and Moscow’s declining influence on the relevant parties and, at least according to Yerevan, the inefficacy of Russian peacekeeping forces. Another potentially aggravating factor is that some regional powers have conflicting views and agendas related to the Nagorno-Karabakh question. Above all, Turkey, to the west, backs Azerbaijan, while Iran, to the south, backs Armenia.

So, despite determined mediating efforts to resolve the crisis and consolidate the recently restored calm, and as much as the two sides appreciate the political and economic costs of conflict, the situation is still volatile. Much is contingent on how aggressively Azerbaijan moves to assert its control in the forthcoming period.  But Armenian intentions are also important. It could be that they have decided to step back momentarily until more propitious opportunities arise to regain the territory and influence they lost in the past two years.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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