Anyone with a vested interest in the Jewish state is accustomed to tracking developments related not only to Israel, but also to such Middle East players as Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. But much global attention recently has focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, and particularly on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called potential ripple effects on the Middle East.
Several dozen (if not hundreds) of soldiers and civilians were killed in early April before a Moscow-brokered cease-fire was implemented in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. This is not a new war. Much like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which began before the establishment of the State of Israel, fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been going on for decades. The conflict started more than 30 years ago in the late 1980s and escalated into a full-fledged war in 1991, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than 30,000 people were killed before a cease-fire was instituted in 1994, leaving more than 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory occupied by Armenia.
“Azerbaijan is the side that lost its territory, and it wants to win it back,” said Amberin Zaman, a Turkish-born public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Azerbaijan has been arming itself to the teeth for more than a decade….There may be a point where they feel confident to do something [militarily] about their land.”
But Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States, Elin Suleymanov, said of the latest flare-up with Armenia, “We don’t want this escalation.”
Suleymanov said that Azerbaijan is looking for international support toward attaining a peaceful settlement between his country and Armenia, and that the United Nations Security Council has recognized Azerbaijan’s right to this territory with Security Council Resolutions 822, 853, 874, and 884, among others.
“Armenia has continued to ignore the resolutions…and the world has been comfortable with the status quo,” Suleymanov said. “There is so much conflict around the world. As long as our conflict did not move to active warfare, it was easier just to ignore it or to refrain from putting pressure on Armenia to move toward demobilization.”
While the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been a source of conflict, Azerbaijan has succeeded in moving itself forward on several fronts. First, in terms of tolerance, Azerbaijan is considered a pioneer among its autocratic neighbors — Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Established in 1918, Azerbaijan is the first secular Muslim-majority country built on the principles of a Western-style democracy. The first draft of its constitution granted equal rights to all citizens, including voting rights for women. Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Rafi Harpaz, has been quoted many times as saying that there is no anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has championed the $45 billion international Southern Gas Corridor pipeline project to bring new gas supplies to the European market. This project, supported by seven governments and invested in by 11 companies, is arguably the global oil and gas industry’s most significant and ambitious undertaking yet.
The U.S. government has made more than $10 billion in economic investments in Azerbaijan in recent years. In fact, the first large-scale Armenian attack in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict took place while Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was in the United States to attend the fourth Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC. During this visit, which included a visit with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Azerbaijan-U.S. relations were deemed close, cordial, active, and strategic.
Reports that followed the first Armenian attack insinuated that the assault could have been a reminder by Russia, which has strained ties with the West, that no one in “their sphere” should be too cozy with the West. On this point, Suleymanov disagrees.
“I feel Russia is more a proactive diplomatic power in the area. Moscow’s involvement is a good thing,” Suleymanov said, noting that while U.S.-Russia relations remain strained, he believes that regional powers could see the benefit of Azerbaijan’s strategic ties with the United States and Israel.
“The rising tide lifts all boats,” Suleymanov added. “Like with the U.S., our relationship with Israel has resulted in a lot of economic growth for Azerbaijan. This is very helpful.”
Suleymanov admitted, however, that there is some cause for skepticism about Moscow’s role. In recent years, Armenia has effectively become an extension of the Russian military in the region, he said; in recent months, the country announced that in addition to joining the Eurasian Customs Union (the Russian-led alternative to the European Union) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (the Russian-led alternative to NATO), it would coordinate all foreign affairs with Moscow. This comes on top of the $200 million export loan Russia provided Armenia in February to finance the delivery of Russian military products, including Russian Smerch rocket launchers and ammunition, Igla-S air defense missile systems, RPG-26 grenade launchers, and more.
“We actually pay for what we buy,” Azerbaijan’s Suleymanov said. “The Armenian side gets them subsidized or for free. This is an issue that Azerbaijan has raised with its Russian counterparts. We want Moscow involved, but we cannot just have one side involved in the forming of a comprehensive settlement. We need Russia, the United States, and France to produce a balanced settlement.”
Sporadic efforts have been made by the Minsk Group—co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States — to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since the original regional cease-fire in 1994.
According to Woodrow Wilson Center’s Zaman, Russia has managed to “play a double game,” arming both sides and ensuring that no other regional powers step in. She also explained that Turkey and Azerbaijan have had historically strong relations, while Turkey and Armenia’s relations historically have been strained. That’s because Turkey has refused to label the massacres of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as genocide. Tensions between Russia and Turkey also have been on the rise in recent months, especially since Turkey admitted to shooting down a Russian warplane that violated its airspace last November.
“There was a moment when people thought Armenia was moving away from the Russian orbit,” Zaman said, recalling a period when Turkey considered opening its border with Armenia, which would have allowed more Armenians to work in Turkey, among other benefits. But the deal never went through, and the Turkish-Armenian border has remained closed since 1993.
“Trade between Turkey and Armenia would have been to Azerbaijan’s benefit,” Zaman said. “One of the reason Armenia is sort of hawkish about Nagorno-Karabakh is because it fears a Turkey-Azerbaijan alliance against it, which is rooted in reality.”
Zaman said she expects it will be a long time before this conflict is solved, and that there will be more violence, unless the Minsk Group’s three nations can act together. She said there is no one country that on its own could be “an honest broker.”
Yet Israel, Zaman believes, has the potential to influence both Azerbaijan and Armenia positively.
“Israel has always had extremely good relations with Azerbaijan,” she said. “But if you look at history, I think there needs to be greater [Israeli] awareness of where Armenians are coming from in all of this. Let’s not forget [the] 1915 [genocide]. The Armenians’ sense of insecurity is surely one Israelis can relate to.”
Zaman argued that while Israelis first must consider their own security situation by recognizing Azerbaijan as a strategic ally in the battle against Iranian nuclear proliferation, Israelis should also “feel empathy for this other country” — Armenia — “that suffered horribly in the way Jews did later in the century, and perhaps use its influence to promote peace in the region.”
“If indeed we have a full-fledged war between these two, it is not hard to imagine Turkey involved in some way on the Azerbaijani side,” she added. “Then I can see Iran helping Armenia. Instability in the Caucuses region is always going to be very destabilizing for the wider region. There would be multiple negative ripple effects.”