A territorial dispute with broad regional implications – the ever-thorny Azerbaijani-Armenian dossier

By Catherine Shakdam – Sitting at the heart of the Caucasus region – a relatively small region of the world sandwiched in between Eastern Europe and Western Asia – Azerbaijan has been the unfortunate subject of much foreign attention over the decades due to its coveted geo-strategic position and vast natural resources.

A state of the Soviet Union until 18 October 1991, Azerbaijan was once one of Moscow’s most prized possessions in terms of the Kremlin’s energy strategy policy. It was actually Baku’s vast oil reserves which prompted Soviet Russia to invade this small state in the first place. Back in 1920, at a time when Moscow sought to assert communism as the new political regional paradigm, Vladimir Lenine understood what crucial role Azerbaijan would play in securing Soviet Russia economic and energy independence.

Although much has changed in terms of political dynamics since Azerbaijan gained its independence Baku government has increasingly looked west towards Europe, distancing itself from Russia and beyond the Asian block – the country has nevertheless remained a crucial cog within the regional power map; to such an extent that many analysts, among whom Fariz Ismailzade, have argued that Baku’s foreign policy would ultimately carry broad regional repercussions.

At this particular juncture in time, when Azerbaijan’s frictions with Armenia have increased in both intensity and frequency over the ever-thorny issue of territorial sovereignty and border demarcation, the Caucasus could soon become a regional cesspit.

As noted by Ismailzade in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, “This is a conflict which has the danger of pulling in major regional powers.”

To which he added, “The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a hostage to geopolitical rivalry. Although international organisations put much of the blame on the political leaderships of Armenia and Azerbaijan for their inability to make concessions and persuade their nations that peace requires painful compromises, it is clear that the conflict has more players than just Yerevan and Baku.”

And indeed, with powers such as Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States and the EU having geo-strategic interests invested in Azerbaijan, one can easily understand what pull Baku’s decisions will have on the region and to some extent world dynamics.

The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan. As a result of the ensuing war, in 1992 Armenian armed forces occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.

Armenia breaks ceasefire agreement

On November 28, Azerbaijan Defense Ministry issued an official statement in which it condemned Armenia’s belligerent actions against Baku, emphasizing that Armenian troops targeted Azerbaijan’s territories on 51 separate instances in less than 24 hours, in clear violation of a long-standing ceasefire.

While Azerbaijan has so far refused to engage Armenia militarily, Baku has warned that further encroachment on its territory would be met with utmost speed and resolution.

This aggression came only five days after Armenia held state funeral for three soldiers it claimed were killed earlier in November when Azerbaijan allegedly downed a military helicopter as it flew

over the disputed territories. Baku has categorically denied any wrongdoing, stressing that since the helicopter “made attack maneuvres” it exercised its right to self-defence.

With tensions and resentment in between Azerbaijan and Armenia building back up again, experts have already warned that timing could prove disastrous for the region as another war would force world powers to engage at a time of great unrest and over-lapping foreign agendas.

Mohsen Kia, an Iranian political analyst based in Tehran stressed that just as Syria became center-staged to foreign rivalries, pitting Iran and Russia against the United States, the EU and somewhere in between powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia playing piggy-in-the-middle, a new Caucasus war could unravel the status quo and force regional powers to dig in their political and military heels.”

With Ankara being such a staunch ally of Baku – Turkey was first in the world to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991 and it has since worked to bolster state independence through active military and economic support – and in the light of long-standing fictions with Armenia, it is likely Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will stand behind Azerbaijan come hell or high water.

Kia further noted, “With Armenia on a slippery economic slope, it could well be a conflict is imminent. Yerevan understands that Baku has gained the upper-hand both economically and militarily. Armenia might look to strike now, while it still can, to create a psychological deterrent. But again, this could prompt Azerbaijan to launch an all-out military intervention against its neighbour … with all the implications it entails.”

With thousands of Azerbaijanis standing in Armenia’s line of fire – media reports have confirmed that Armenia armed forces targeted Azerbaijani positions across four districts: Tovuz, Agstafa, Qazakh and Jabrayil on November 28 – many fear war has become inevitable.

Regional powder keg

As noted by Fariz Ismailzade almost a decade ago – 2005 in a report for the Centre for World Dialogue, “As Caucasian countries, Azerbaijan and Armenia are part of a region that serves as a bridge between East and West, and between the territories of the former Soviet Union and the Islamic world. This causes many regional powers to be interested in the area, creating an unhealthy competition, often turning into a bitter rivalry, between them. As a result, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains frozen and unresolved.

To which he added, “As if this strategic geographic location were not enough, Azerbaijan also possesses vast oil and gas reserves. This has caused external powers such as the United States, China and the European Union, hungry for energy resources, to become involved in the region as well. There are at least seven major players in the geopolitical game over Nagorno-Karabakh: Russia, the United States, the European Union, Iran, Turkey, the Islamic world, and China. A closer look at the interests and actions of each of these players illustrates their role in the conflict and reveals the difficulties associated with finding a solution to it.

Acutely aware of the dynamics which have moved the Caucasus region, Ismailzade’s assessment is as valid today as it was in 2005, notwithstanding the ever dangerous and ever-present risk regional ethnic and sectarian tensions represent.

In the light of developments in Syria, Iraq and renewed Taliban-related tensions in Afghanistan, Islamic radicals could attempt to play Armenia’s aggression toward Azerbaijan as a new platform for their Jihadist movement, adding a terror dimension to an already delicate situation.

As noted by Eldar Mamedovpolitical adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) – “The unraveling of Iraq may have some interesting,

even alarming implications for the Caspian Basin state of Azerbaijan.

He added, “There are two significant ways in which the disintegration of Iraq might pose security challenges to Azerbaijan. The first and most obvious is connected with the rise in Iraq of a Sunni jihadist movement, known as ISIS. This development, over time, could stoke sectarian tension in Azerbaijan, a country where, even though secularism remains a powerful force in society, religion is making a strong comeback.

As Armenia and Azerbaijan’s hands remain on the trigger, it could well be the region stand to get caught in the cross-fire.

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