Caucasian tinderbox risks igniting new regional conflict

Caucasian tinderbox risks igniting new regional conflict

The aftermath of shelling during fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, in the disputed region's main city of Stepanakert on Sunday. (AFP)
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Under normal circumstances, 4,000 square km of picturesque mountain forest does not immediately lend itself to being the arena for a potentially destabilizing regional conflict. Nagorno-Karabakh, however, finds itself squeezed between the ambitions of Russia, Turkey and Iran.
The one-time Azeri province has, for 30 years, been under the administration of neighboring Armenia, but tensions flared once again last week and the territory has found itself host to conflict once more. For Armenians, the territory would provide a valuable addition to their centuries-old dream of an independent homeland, while, to the 1.2 million internally displaced Azeris, Nagorno-Karabakh is the home they yearn to return to.
Conflicts in the Caucasus can frequently spiral out of control. The region hosts a patchwork of ethnicities, languages and religions in a relatively small land mass, in which competition for resources is high. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict perfectly encapsulates the complicated origins and potentially lethal consequences of unresolved territorial disputes. The fighting over the last week is only the latest escalation in a long history of skirmishes. Now, with several hundred dead on both sides, including an Azeri family of five, the international community has begun calling for calm.
Events have now surpassed the Four-Day War of 2016, which was the previous worst breach of the 1994 cease-fire agreement. The potential for larger powers to be drawn in, particularly Russia and NATO member Turkey, has concerned many and led to fears of another Syria or Libya, where the two countries support opposing sides.
Though the impressively well-orchestrated Armenian international public relations machine has gone some way to rewriting the arguments concerning the conflict, the reality is that the situation is incredibly intricate.

Nagorno-Karabakh perfectly encapsulates the complicated origins and potentially lethal consequences of unresolved territorial disputes.

Zaid M. Belbagi

For three decades, the UN has affirmed and reaffirmed the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, calling for a withdrawal of Armenian forces. The toppling of the fossilized Armenian leadership in 2018 during the Velvet Revolution had raised hopes that new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan would seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis. However, his revolution has since stalled, forcing him to seek other measures with which to whip up nationalist sentiment in order to legitimize his government. With Nagorno-Karabakh at the center of this effort, the Azeri government was only too ready to use the opportunity to militarily enforce borders that the UN has demarcated as Azeri. These skirmishes would perhaps not have alarmed the international community so much were it not for Azerbaijan’s importance to energy markets. The conduit for energy that Azeri pipelines provide on Europe’s doorstep is a reassuring alternative to the potentially precarious reliance on Russia or indeed the tumultuous Middle East.
As the regional hegemon, Russia has always stopped short of bringing the conflict to a complete halt, given the clear advantages of interfering in the affairs of its diminutive neighbors so it can continue to exercise its traditional influence over the Caucasus. Selling weapons to both sides, with strong cultural and religious links to the Armenians, while simultaneously boasting significant economic ties with the Azeris, Moscow has always been aware that a cessation of hostilities could curtail its influence and invite the interference of other powers into the proximity of its sphere of influence.
In the centuries-long rivalry that has existed between Turkey and Russia, the Karabakh theater concerns Moscow from the perspective of Ankara’s guarantees of support for its Turkic brethren in Azerbaijan. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have viewed each other as both a friend and an enemy in several international conflicts, now risk finding themselves in direct opposition once again. The situation is further exacerbated by the role of Iran, which, despite sharing strong religious ties with Azerbaijan, has been a longtime supporter of the Armenian cause with a view to frustrating the efforts of Turkey in seeking Caucasian hegemony. As the latest round of conflict broke out, it was therefore unsurprising that Tehran’s offers to mediate were spurned by Azerbaijan.
Given the potential for escalation, the involvement of France and the US, which previously made up the Minsk Group that sought to prevent further military clashes and implement peace, would be most welcome. However, in the context of the upcoming election in the US and increasing tensions between France and Russia, the prospects of such an effort taking place are incredibly slim.
Most likely, peace will come about once Azerbaijan secures the military objectives it seeks and ceases its activities amid either military exhaustion or Russian threats. In any case, it is incredibly doubtful that it will relinquish any of the territory it has gained in the last week.
Though the region played a significant role in the history of the Armenian people in antiquity, its history since the Arab conquest of Persia has been firmly Islamic. Whether under the orders of the caliphs of Baghdad, the shahs of Persia, the sultans of Turkey or indeed its local khans, the territory has an identity that is unmistakably Azeri.
Given the current global context and the experience of the last decade of relatively small, local fissures descending into international conflicts and humanitarian disasters, the international community must act swiftly to bring about a peace that will guarantee Azerbaijan’s UN-recognized borders, as well as protect civilians on both sides.

* Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid

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