The last thing the world needs is another proxy war
A territorial dispute over Nagorny-Karabakh has escalated from small-scale skirmishes into all-out engagement as Armenia and Azerbaijan deploy increasingly lethal offensive capabilities. Despite a fragile cease-fire, there are worrying signs that both sides are ratcheting up for an extended conflict.
Even more, there is a gaping mismatch between the objectives and paths chosen to achieve them. At its core, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a dispute over ragged, mountainous terrain of little strategic value. However, we live in an era when far-off powers wade into disputes in the service of mostly unrelated geopolitical aims. Thus, there is ample reason to worry this conflict in the Caucasus may become a repeat of similar scuffles in Libya, Syria, Yemen or the eastern Mediterranean.
Both sides maintain strong ties with Russia and Turkey, themselves on opposing sides of conflicts in Libya and Syria, via Armenia’s mutual defense pact with Moscow, while a NATO-aligned Ankara is allied with the Azeri. Shifting strategies and deployments of troops and munitions in zones of conflict suggest an expectation by both sides of a protracted conflict. Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has relegated conflict de-escalation and resolution to Zoom diplomacy, which still fails to replace shuttle diplomacy’s ability to foster dialogue between warring factions. Should current trends persist, a perfect storm is likely to cascade over the Caucasus in the form of yet another geopolitical standoff in an increasingly conflict-weary world.
Setting aside the obvious risks and potentially disastrous consequences of the escalating battles descending into all-out offensives, events in Nagorno-Karabakh appear to follow an emerging pattern. Conflict is no longer the purview of organized militaries financed by taxation or realignments of entire societies and economies in support of a total war. Instead, what is happening in Libya, Syria, Yemen and will probably happen (should diplomacy fail) in the eastern Mediterranean will probably happen in the Caucasus too.
Gone are the days of stiff hierarchies in well organized militaries, deployed in pursuit of ideological ideals or to gain strategic advantages in the 21st century’s relentless geopolitical gamesmanship. Instead, belligerents made up of state and non-state agitators coalesce in loose coalitions based on mutual interest, staking a claim to power or access to state apparatus based on sectarian, religious notions.
Unfortunately, while all-out battles are few, civilians suffer the brunt of marauding bands of mercenaries, warlords, militias and self-professed revolutionary groups, frequently joined by regular armed forces, law enforcement and state security agencies. The ensuing chaos creates a fog of war, which often leads to deliberate acts of violence targeting civilians, such as genocide and ethnic cleansing — as already happened in Nagorno-Karabakh from the late 1980s to the middle of 1994. In some cases, it can be difficult to distinguish civilians from combatants, resulting in egregious human rights violations with little international outcry given conflicting narratives. Impartial media coverage of asymmetric conflicts such as these also becomes impossible as violence escalates.
And that's not all. Classical wars built states and enhanced their power, but the new wars have demonstrably revealed their goal to be the destruction of the state. However, war is expensive, and even with external support proxies must largely “self finance” via organized, transnational criminal activities such as kidnapping, smuggling, trafficking in arms and persons, looting, even withholding humanitarian aid.
A territorial dispute over Nagorny-Karabakh has escalated from small-scale skirmishes into all-out engagement as Armenia and Azerbaijan deploy increasingly lethal offensive capabilities.
In the end, a war enterprise emerges, dependent on the perpetuation of violence to generate incomes to sustain war efforts. The longer such conflict persists, the more difficult it becomes to contain it, let alone undo its damage. Worse yet, belligerents and their proxies emerge from the conflict substantially more powerful, wealthier and entrenched in the rifts of the identity politics they used to justify insurgency.
Proxy wars are not new. They became a viable alternative in a nuclearized post-1945 world, which made battles between superpowers inconceivable. The trouble is the extent to which proxies have become a go-to option for geopolitical rivals seeking to capitalize on a competitor state’s fragility or perceived weaknesses in a superpower’s sphere of influence.
Inflaming tensions and lending material support to non-state agitators has proved a cheaper alternative to conscription and mass mobilizations. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Syrian mercenaries have been deployed in support of the Azeri while Armenians have welcomed the help of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
These are just the early stages, and should the cease-fire fail it could attract the attention of regional players such as Iran, where misfired rockets from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have landed. Turkey has pledged unconditional support for the Azeri, while Armenia remains assured of Moscow’s commitment to its defense with military hardware supplied via Iran. Israeli drones occupy the skies for Azerbaijan, and the Armenia-affiliated Artsakh Defense Army — from the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh — uses Serbian weapons.
The involvement of Russia and Turkey is particularly concerning since the Caucasus conflict presents an opportunity for either country to frustrate the other. Proxy battles in these new wars can become a major vulnerability to grander goals, such as the stability of regions or dominance of their affairs. For instance, France has sought to capitalize on tensions in the eastern Mediterranean to frustrate Ankara in a bid to insulate its interests in the North Africa and Sahel from Turkish encroachment. Moscow has equally used the conflict in Syria and Libya to undo US-led efforts to stabilize a region still sore from a disastrous War on Terror and the emergence of Daesh.
Should tensions intensify in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Caucasus will be the next region where geopolitical rivals wade in, carve out spheres of control via local proxies and earn a place at the negotiation table to assert dominance or frustrate the opposition. Lessons have been learned after nearly a decade of such asymmetrical warfare in the Middle East. Conflict has changed, becoming messier, more deadly and increasingly challenging to contain as it requires consensus among deeply divided interests, many of whom benefit from the war.
The world cannot afford another Syria or Libya. Nagorno-Karabakh must not escalate any further.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell