Heavy clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia over a 30-year old ethnic and territorial dispute leave 30 people dead on its second day, and the international community worried about a possible war
On Sunday, heavy clashes erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia over claims over the Nagorno-Karabakh region - a mountainous, heavily-forested, landlocked territory in the South Caucasus that while recognised as a territory in Azerbaijan, is controlled by Armenian forces.
HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT
A ceasefire in 1994 after a war between the two former Soviet nations over the disputed territory, cemented Armenian control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, as well as in the surrounding districts Aghdam, Jabrail, Fuzuli, Kalbajar, Gubadli, Lachin and Zangilan of Azerbaijan.
According to the 2018 war report prepared by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, "Armenia exercises its authority over Nagorno-Karabakh by equipping, financing or training and providing operational support to the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and its forces, but also in coordinating and helping the general planning of their military and paramilitary activities".
Map marking Nagorno Karabakh region
While Russia, France and the U.S. tried to mediate peace efforts as the "Minsk Group" between Baku and Yerevan, the last big push for a peace deal collapsed in 2010.
While ever since the 4-Day War the along the Nagorno-Karabakh line of contact in 2016, border skirmishes in the region have been a fairly frequent occurrence, this conflict has gained the attention and concern of the international community, and has also been termed the worst since conflict since the war.
ESCALATION IN 2020
Neither military force has shown any sign of backing down. In fact, On 23 July 2020, Armenia announced the start of a joint air defence system exercises with Russia, only to be followed by Azerbaijani military regiment exercises that lasted from 29 July to 10 August. Shortly before the conflict, Armenia took part in joint military exercises on the southern border of the Russian Federation, in Armenia as well as in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, regions recognised to be a part of Georgia. In fact, during the September United Nations General Assembly sessions, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of Turkey, made a statement emphasising his support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and Georgia.
In this photo released by the Armenian foreign ministry on September 28, people watch the state media in a bomb shelter to hide from shelling in Stepanakert, the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan [Armenian Foreign Ministry via AP]
Three weeks before the conflict, there were reports from Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta alleging that fighters from different armed factions in Syria had been transferred to the Azerbaijani army, an allegation that the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan sternly denied.
"We categorically reject the false fabrications indicated in the article that allegedly "there is already a de-facto Turkish military base in Nakhchivan" and about the "transfer of about 500 Syrian militants, mainly Turkmans, to Azerbaijan," the ministry said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Turkish sources alleged that YPG and PKK members from Iraq and Syria were deployed to train the Armenian militias in the Nagorno Karabakh region. Reports alleged that the YPG/PKK terrorists were expected to train volunteer fighters.
"They (Armenia) adopted a new national security strategy which specifically indicated that they want to occupy new territories of Azerbaijan," Azerbaijan Ambassador to Turkey Khazar Ibrahim said in an interview amid the weekend eruption of violence along the Armenia-Azerbaijan frontier.
The conflict itself extends far past the region. As may be evident already, Russia is likely to back Armenia while Turkey backs Azerbaijan. But the issue gets more complex as reports claim that Syrian rebel fighters have signed up to work for a private Turkish security company as border guards in Azerbaijan, at a time when the long-running conflict between Baku and neighbouring Armenia is showing dangerous signs of escalation. Ankara has also pledged its support to the Armenians.
“The Turkish people stand with their Azeri brothers with all our means, as always,” the Turkish president said on Twitter, going on to criticise other nations for “double standards and insufficient reaction” against what he characterised as Armenian attacks.
Turkish and Syrian influence over the war is likely to only make it worse. The United States, France, Russia and China have called for an immediate de-escalation in the conflict, asking both sides to cease hostilities immediately.
Armenia is deep within Moscow’s orbit as a member of Russia-led regional military and economic blocs CSTO and EEU, which means that Russian support and military guarantees are critical to Armenia, whose defence budget is overshadowed by Azerbaijan's arms spending. Additionally, Armenia hosts a Russian military base near its second-largest city.
INDIA - A POSSIBLE MEDIATOR?
Meanwhile, this conflict puts India in its own tangled mess, as India has good ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and requires both to access the North-South international transport corridor which goes from Mumbai to Chabahar via Azerbaijan to Moscow, something crucial for India's connectivity plans. Sushma Swaraj, the then Defence Minister in 2018, visited the Fire Temple in Baku in Azerbaijan, which has both Hindu and Zoroastrian roots. Meanwhile, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has good relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even advocating his support for India's abrogation of Article 370 last year saying, "In the Kashmir issue we fully defend the Indian position and it is our firm position." This would ideally put India in the position of a possible mediator in the conflict. However, the Centre is yet to respond to the conflict.
It is also worth noting that Islamabad does not recognise the Republic of Armenia at all, and has close ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey, which will have a substantial role in terms of India’s involvement in the conflict. Pakistan has also been the first and only South Asian country to comment on the clashes so far, and in line with Turkish reaction backing Azerbaijan.
Pakistani foreign ministry said, "Pakistan is deeply concerned about the deteriorating security situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The intensive shelling by Armenian forces over the weekend on civilian populations of Azerbaijani villages of Terter, Aghdam, Fizuli and Jabrayil region is reprehensible and most unfortunate."
Adding," Pakistan stands with the brotherly nation of Azerbaijan and supports its right of self-defence. We support Azerbaijan’s position on Nagorno-Karabakh, which is in line with the several unanimously adopted UN Security Council resolutions."