Aneela Shahzad l

After a lull of three years, escalations heightened again between Armenia and Azerbaijan on July 12. This time specific military targets and high-profile military personnel were hit. With both sides equipped with sophisticated drones and missiles systems, fear of war has multiplied.

Why are the two nations at war since World War I and how have things complicated in time, needs to be understood. The Azeris are Turkic people of Caucasian Albanian descent, who converted to Shia Islam in the 7th century; the Armenians are ancient settlers that converted to Christianity in the 3rd century after Christ.

Hence, since the dawn of Islam, the Armenians have been the odd ones in the region. Trapped between Sunni Ottomans to their west, Shi’ite Persians to their south and the religiously Shi’ite but ethnically Turkic Azeris to their east. This also made for a natural affinity between Azeris and Turkey and between Armenians and Russia, the traditional protector of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Before WWI, some Armenian groups, like many all across the Arab World, embraced the socialist ideology. Arabs wanted Arab nationalism and riddance from a decaying caliphate in Constantinople, and the Armenians found this the right time to fight for their own national recognition. The Ottomans, in fear of a rebellion from Armenia, launched a pogrom against the socialist element in the province, which is termed as the Armenian genocide.

After the dissolution of the Ottomans, the Trans-Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia) became part of USSR and the states gained independence only when the USSR broke. In this period, Nagorno-Karabakh self-designated itself as an Armenian province, but Stalin made the ‘Treaty of Brotherhood and Friendship’ with Kemal Ataturk for his socialist views, under which Nagorno-Karabakh was placed under the control of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

At the dissolution of USSR, over one million people rallied in Yerevan in support of Nagorno-Karabakh’s reunification with Armenia, but again the Supreme Soviet concluded that Karabakh should remain part of Azerbaijan. This led to a full-blown war taking the lives of over 30,000 on both sides. Since 1994, Armenian forces have not only backed the Karabakh stance with arms and diplomacy but are also occupying seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts.

Since their independence, planned and systematic deportations along with brutal episode of massacres, have led to the displacement of as many as 230,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan and 800,000 Azerbaijanis from Armenia, Karabakh and its adjacent districts, clearly showing that Armenians have been much more aggressive than the other. War and constant fear of war has forced the two states into an arms race. Both countries have been featured as the top 10 militarised states since 2011 and the highest military spenders of the post-Soviet states — Armenian buying from Russia and Azerbaijan from Israel. This constant fear also gives outside powers reason to interfere. The European initiative, the OSCE Minsk Group created in 1992, co-chaired by France, Russia and the US, has since, unable to resolve the issue, only succeeded in maintaining the status quo.

The 2008 Russo-Georgian War happened when Georgia tried to join the NATO and EU, therefore Russia is sensitive for Armenia’s following the same path. Before that, the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in the Chechen War (1999-2009) raised another alarm for Russia — that Azerbaijan could become an easy prey of the Iranian Revolution next door. For this same fear, Turkey and Pakistan swiftly manoeuvered to befriend Azerbaijan and Russia’s backchanneling led to the failure of the Tehran Declaration (1992), showing a shared sense of fear towards this Islamist trend. Like in a checkered board, sanitising Azerbaijan from the Iranian effect was vital to curb possible agitation in a hitherto peaceful sectarian balance in Pakistan. Being a friend, Azerbaijan allowed NATO to move only non-lethal resources to and from Afghanistan, when Pakistan refused transit after the Salala Incident (2011). And being a friend to Iran, Pakistan refused to send its forces to Yemen in 2018.

This also explains why Pakistan has taken the extreme stance of not recognising Armenia as a country. Pakistan has maintained a pro-Turkey and pro-Azeri policy, and in a tit-for-tat, Azerbaijan supports Pakistan’s stance against India on Kashmir; and Armenia has responded by siding with India on the Kashmir issue. All this complication with time, and for maintaining a much-needed alliance, Pakistan prefers to not alter its policy towards Armenia. This backdrop shows how the conflict is by no means insignificant. Especially, with the convergence of Turkey and Russia’s interests in the region.

Interestingly, this time the fighting has happened in Tovuz in the north, far from Karabakh that is in the south. Tovuz is close to the vital pipelines and rail-line from Baku and sustained escalation in this new front would be a threat to Azerbaijan’s economic lifeline.

Russia is Armenia’s defense ally via the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and has started military drills involving 15,000 servicemen, 400 aircrafts and 100 vessels, in the middle of the escalation. Turkey on the other hand is constantly threatening Armenia; Ismail Demir, head of Presidency of Defense Industries stated, “Our armed unmanned aerial vehicles, ammunition and missiles with our experience, technology and capabilities are at Azerbaijan’s service,” making it evident that the next encounters will be more lethal than ever.

The question perhaps now is, when Turkey and Russia seem to be so much in control in the matters of the region, does an escalation suit them. So far, prolonged influence of outside powers has not helped resolving this conflict and only ensured its continuation — real peace will only come when the two parties decide that they want to stop fighting for the sake of their people.

One best-case scenario can be, if Turkey and Russia succeed in peacefully resolving the issue by giving Nagorno-Karabakh some autonomy or accession with Armenia and getting back the seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts, practically occupied by Armenia, on the premise that Armenia will align with the interest of its own region and on the premise of sustained peace for the Azeris, who remain underdeveloped and consumed because of the ensuing fear of war.

Aneela Shahzad is a geopolitical analyst who frequently writes for Express Tribune and Daily Pakistan Global. The article was first published in Express Tribune and has been republished here with author’s consent. 

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