Turkish proxy wars extend to Caucasus

Ioannis Kotoulas
Tuesday 6 Oct 2020

Rolled back in Libya and Syria, and facing censure in the East Mediterranean, Turkey has turned to the Caucasus to stage a regional show of power

Turkey has intervened so far in Syria, Iraq and Libya, while in the past it also meddled in the interior of other countries supporting terrorist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. Turkey occupies the northern part of Cyprus and has exerted military pressure against Greece, a fellow NATO member, although to no avail. Now Turkey turns its attention to its eastern backyard, in the Caucasus region, where over the last week a frozen conflict has resurfaced.

Since 27 September there is an ongoing military confrontation between Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed Armenian-speaking Republic of Artsakh. This is the latest dramatic episode in the still unresolved historic Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that entails long-term cultural memories, historical enmities, regional geopolitics and energy concerns. The conflict shows the primacy of state interest over religious affiliations, although patterns of ethnic affiliation and the strategic use of foreign fighters in proxy wars are also visible. 

Nagorno-Karabakh is a land-locked breakaway state historically populated by Armenians in the South Caucasus, and internationally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan. This region was claimed in 1918 by the newly founded Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the First Republic of Armenia after the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917.

The Soviet Union regained control in the Caucasus and established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within the territorial limits of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1923. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 the region became the focus of heated dispute and armed violent clashes between Armenians and Azeris. The 1991-1994 hostilities ended with a ceasefire along roughly the current borders, as the better-equipped Armenians gained total control of the enclave and of the surrounding territory linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The Republic of Artsakh has not been recognised by other states, including Armenia. 

Turkey has declared its unequivocal support for Azerbaijan offering all means to reclaim the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory. President Erdogan rushed to declare: “I condemn Armenia once again for attacking Azerbaijani lands. Turkey continues to stand with the friendly and brotherly Azerbaijan with all its facilities and heart.”

Turkey supplies Azerbaijan with military intelligence, weapons and training, while Turkish military personnel are present in the territory of Azerbaijan. The Turkish policy of using Islamist fighters in proxy wars, as manifested in Syria and in Libya, repeats itself. There are increasing credible reports that Turkey has been transferring Islamist fighters from the parts of Syria it controls to the Nagorno-Karabakh front. These include both experienced fighters and untrained personnel. The reports have appeared in multiple respected newspapers, media networks and have also been verified by independent researchers and journalists.

French President Emmanuel Macron attacked Turkey over its interference in the Caucasus: “We now have information which indicates that Syrian fighters from jihadist groups have transitted through Gaziantep (Southeast Turkey) to reach the Nagorno-Karabakh theatre of operations. It is a very serious new fact, which changes the situation. I urge all NATO partners to face up to the behaviour of a NATO member.”

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged third parties to stay out of the conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region and said he hoped reports of Syrian fighters arriving in Azerbaijan via Turkey were not accurate. The Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that Syrian and Libyan fighters from illegal armed groups were being sent to the region and called on the countries involved to prevent the use of “foreign terrorists and mercenaries” in the conflict. 

So far, Russia’s stance vis-à-vis the conflict has been rather slow; Russia shares ties with Armenia in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Russian-led Eurasian security network that also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Belarus, while in the past it had also included Azerbaijan for a period.

Armenia has declared that Russia should intervene militarily according to the provisions of the CSTO; still, so far, Russia has avoided any participation thus allowing Turkey to forward its ambitions. Iran is supporting Armenia, as it does not want to see an overextension of Turkish influence in the Caucasus. An upset of the existing equilibrium would create a new front: Turkey and Azerbaijan projecting influence at the expense of Iran using the demographic card, as Iran includes large Azeri populations in its western provinces. 

Turkish interference on multiple fronts is receding rapidly both in Libya and in Syria, while in the seas of the Eastern Mediterranean Turkey faced the diplomatic network of Egypt and Greece. Now Turkey attempts to regain some of its lost credibility by meddling in another conflict, this time in the Caucasus, as the country’s economy has entered a downward spiral. 

Strategic overextension has failed in the recent past and now Turkey sees the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a prospect for a regional demonstration of power.

*The writer is a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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