The renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has the propensity to draw in regional powers such as Iran, Russia and Turkey, and thus become a proxy war in the South Caucasus. The conflict is one that is already progressing towards outright war as fighting has now escalated, with cities being bombed, a rising death toll and allegations of cluster bombs being used.
As with most contemporary border disputes this is both complex and multifaceted, rooted in the legacy of imperialism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both countries gained their independence in 1918 from the Tsarist Russian Empire only to be incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics two years later. By then, ethnic and religious tensions had already erupted between Armenians and Azeris, as both laid claim to Nagorno-Karabakh; although within Azerbaijan’s borders, it was and is mostly inhabited by Armenians. Hostilities halted for a while following the establishment of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) in 1923 by the then Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Yet following the demise of the Soviet Union, war erupted again with the Armenians preferring to reunify with historic Armenia and Azerbaijan wanting to reassert its own sovereignty claims and bring an end to Armenian occupation. This lasted until a 1994 ceasefire and the emergence of a de facto Republic of Artsakh, a state not recognised internationally within Azerbaijan’s borders.
This long peace came to an end abruptly due to a very short war in 2016 which left at least 200 dead and was seen largely as being instigated by Azerbaijan as a logical consequence of the lack of progress in the peace talks under the auspices of the OSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) Minsk Group co-chaired by France, Russia and the US. It was during this conflict that Azerbaijan addressed the longstanding asymmetry with Armenia which always had the superior army. Russia was the primary benefactor of Baku’s face-saving skirmish by repositioning itself as the principal mediator and strengthening its geopolitical position in the Caucasus at the expense of Western influence. While Moscow officially recognises Baku’s territorial claims it has a defence pact with traditional ally Armenia – and this does not apply to the disputed region — and is happy to supply arms to both sides.
A peak in oil revenues between 2010 and 2015 coincided with a huge military budget for Azerbaijan. Most of its military equipment is acquired from Russia, and Israel is its second largest military trading partner. In the same year as the 2016 conflict, Baku spent almost $5 billion on Israeli arms, including radar systems and drones.
Azerbaijan established ties with Israel soon after its post-Cold War independence in 1991. It is among a handful of Muslim-majority countries which have relations with Tel Aviv; in fact, Azerbaijan and Turkey are the only non-Arab Muslim-majority states in this position. Nevertheless, the “Turkish-Azerbaijani axis” has had a significant impact on Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan, with all three countries facing similar security threats and geopolitical perceptions. However, waning ties between Turkey and Israel over the past decade has meant that relations with energy-rich Azerbaijan have superseded ties with Turkey in importance for the occupation state. Israel gets most of its oil from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea oilfields, although its recent normalisation with the UAE and Bahrain means that there is the potential for it to diversify its oil supply should the Caucasus conflict spiral out of control.
It is interesting to note that, historically, Azerbaijan had a thriving Zionist movement, with Baku becoming “one of the major centres” of Jewish nationalism by 1891. The movement was particularly active during the fleetingly independent pre-Soviet republic when a Zionist represented the Jewish community in parliament.
Casual observers may be surprised to learn that although Iran has ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, it tends to favour its Orthodox Christian neighbour over Azerbaijan, despite the latter being a fellow Shia Muslim majority country, albeit a secular state.
Iran does have historic and religious links with Azerbaijan, though; the Safavid dynasty established its base in Ardabil, in Iran’s Azerbaijan region, and Azeris form the largest ethnic group in Iran after Persians, there being more Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself. However, Iran’s support for Armenia is best understood in light of Baku’s alliance with Tel Aviv and Ankara.
Azerbaijan is not just an invaluable energy source for Israel, but it also provides Tel Aviv with valuable intelligence on military activities in northern Iran. Thus, Tehran does not trust Azerbaijan; this wariness is reciprocated because Baku is concerned about Iran’s growing ideological influence among its Shia population. The majority of the political prisoners in the country are said to be behind bars for religion-related offences and Ashura commemorations are monitored closely by the state.
Iran must tread carefully so as not to alienate its large Azeri minority as there have already been demonstrations and rallies in support of Azerbaijan. There are also fears that nationalist sentiments could spill across the border and ignite Azeri separatism in the country. However, the Azeri Iranians are largely loyal to the state whose head, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is of Azeri descent. The arrival of Turkish-supported Syrian mercenaries in Azerbaijan is also is a genuine security concern for Tehran being so close to the border, especially as extremist factions are currently the dominant force among those fighting against the Syrian government in Idlib.
Unlike Azerbaijan, Iranian ally Armenia has “underdeveloped” ties with Israel and only opened an embassy in Tel Aviv last month. The Armenians have already recalled their ambassador over Israel’s continued supply of “ultra-modern weapons” to Azerbaijan, describing this as “unacceptable”. Even in the midst of the conflict, Azerbaijani civilian cargo flights have been running between Baku, Turkey and Israel, and are perceived widely to be carrying military equipment to be used in Nagorno-Karabakh. Ironically, Israel is also noteworthy for officially refusing to recognise the Armenian Genocide, a highly controversial and sensitive subject for the Turks.
In spite of the advanced arsenal at Azerbaijan’s disposal, including Turkish drones which have been so effective in Syria and Libya, its conscript soldiers are poorly trained and have low morale. Given that they are bolstered by untrained and ill-equipped Syrian mercenaries, it is no surprise that Armenian sources have claimed high casualties among Azerbaijani forces and social media is full of graphic footage of fallen Azerbaijani soldiers. NetBlocks has reported a social media and communications blackout in Azerbaijan following the declaration of martial law “to prevent large scale provocations” by the enemy.
From Armenia’s perspective, it is facing an existential threat, with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accusing Turkey and Azerbaijan of “continuing the Armenian genocide”. Turkey’s rejection of a ceasefire at this stage and Azerbaijan’s insistence on pressing forward, having captured several villages from Armenian forces, have made Armenian disengagement from the conflict and ceding to Baku’s demands “almost impossible” to imagine. The mountainous terrain and higher ground favours the Armenians and the onset of winter will severely restrict Azerbaijani progress.
It goes without saying that Turkey’s troubled history with the Armenians and the lack of diplomatic ties, plus the fact that the Azeris are a Turkic nation, means that Ankara is fully supportive of Azerbaijan. Even the head of the IYI Turkish opposition party has announced its support for the government’s policy on Azerbaijan, expressing the hope that it focuses on strengthening ties with Turkic countries instead of the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab countries.
Azerbaijan is therefore crucial for pan-Turkism and connecting Turkey with the wider Turkic world across Central Asia, but Armenia is in the way. However, in practical, realistic terms, Turkey is also reliant on Azerbaijani gas imports, which jumped 23 per cent in the first half of this year, although this may change if Ankara can exploit its own recently discovered gas field and it is found to be economically viable.
Much like Russia’s intention to bolster its presence in the Caucasus, Turkey is seeking a similar outcome, which is in line with its assertive foreign policy. According to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s support for Baku is part of the search for its “deserved place in the world order”. In the zero-sum vying for power game, neither Iran, Turkey nor Russia would be content with allowing one or the other to dominate the Caucasus. The Russian, Ottoman and Safavid Empires all clashed over this region in the past, and their modern equivalents will do so again, albeit by proxy, should the situation on the ground deteriorate. Any support for the Azeri people, whether based on religious or ethnic ties, however, will not necessarily warrant support for its pro-Israel government.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.