Nagorno Karabakh conflict boils up as Azerbaijan makes the advances

Azerbaijan's forces attack Armenian army's camp during fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry via AP
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By Robert Horowitz The USA Tribune

Presidential elections in the United States and the Brexit saga in Europe continue to leave the world’s most pressing problems in the shadow. Among them are human rights abuses in Asia, host of viral diseases spreading in Africa and re-emerging conflicts in Eurasia.

While we in the US focused on the upcoming presidential debate, an armed conflict was brewing at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Hearing newscasts about the so-called Nagorno Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is nothing new. Every now and then, both parties have deliberately exchanged fire over the course of the last 26 years, capturing or re-capturing some territory, and in the process, pushing each other to the edge.

We’re well into the second week of a reignited armed conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, even as the world leaders are calling the parties to restraint. The hostilities resumed in the early hours of September 27, when the Azerbaijani armed forces shelled the positions of the Armenian army in Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding occupied districts of Azerbaijan. According to the Armenian authorities, this was a preplanned action from the Azeri side and the separatist authorities saw it coming. The Azerbaijani authorities, however, reject the claim, and state that the new war initiated by Armenian troops which began heavy shelling of Azerbaijani positions on the Line of Contact and some residential areas within the Tartar district of Azerbaijan. In the first hours of the clash, some five civilians, all members of the same family, died. Two of them were teenagers.

While it is not immediately clear who violated the ceasefire regime, it is definitely clear that the status quo was bound to be broken and the diplomatic confrontation with bellicose statements of both leaders would eventually culminate in armed action.

The bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan lasted for two years (1992-1994) while the conflict originated in 1988 when both countries were constituent republics of the Soviet Union. During the hot phase of the war, two independent nations clashed in what each of them consider a historic homeland. Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was part of the Azerbaijan SSR, and prior to that a part of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. In its July 5, 1921 ruling, Kavburo (Caucasian Bureau of the Communist Party) decided to retain the province within Azerbaijan but carve out the mountainous part with majority of Armenian villages to make it an enclave under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction.

Every now and then throughout the following seven decades Armenian nationalists demanded transfer of the province to Armenia, to no avail. With Gorbachev’s perestroika, things changed, and Armenians were able to obtain nominal support from Moscow to proceed with the plan. Azerbaijan rejected the petitions and claims, and eventually dissolved the status of the NKAO before the collapse of Soviet Union. When their petitions were rejected, Armenians picked up armed to claim what they considered their own.

In the initial phase, the newly formed Azerbaijani army was able to deflect the attacks by Armenian units and in its largest offensive to date, recapture as close as half of Nagorno Karabakh. Yet, with Russia’s invisible hand, things began to change by the end of 1992, when Armenians with the help of the Russian army deployed to Armenia, reversed the tide. Throughout 1993, Armenians were able to gain control not only over Nagorno Karabakh itself but also 7 surrounding districts around it. Hundreds of thousands of Azeri civilians were expelled in the process.

Long story short, the cease-fire agreement brokered by Russia in May 1994, established a regime of non-use of force for many years, save some infrequent shootouts. With oil prices going up, Azerbaijan was able to rebuild its economy and heavily invest in its armed forces. Sophisticated weaponry was purchased from Russia, Israel, Ukraine, Belarus, Turkey and Pakistan, while Armenia was left out of regional energy projects and was forced to rely on Russia for its security. As the oil prices began to dwindle in 2014, the first major flare-up was witnessed in Nagorno Karabakh. In April 2016, the parties clashed once again bringing the sides to the brink of an all-out war. Azerbaijan, with its beefed-up military was able to secure some strategic gains in the northern and southern parts of the Line of Contact.

With the color revolution of 2018, the situation changed drastically. Azerbaijan on its part, was patient with the political transformation of Armenian government because the so-called Karabakh clan (Armenia was led by Karabakh natives Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan since later 1990s) was overthrown and a new promising populist leader Nikol Pashinyan claimed power.

At first, Prime Minister Pashinyan seemed to cooperate with President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, but as the time passed, the peace talks were pretty much neglected.

Unable to fulfill his promises on social and economic issues in Armenia, Pashinyan began to use the nationalism card to appeal to his constituents. By the mid-2020, he’s made irrational statements on Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict including claiming that “Artsakh was Armenian, period!”, attended an inauguration party of the separatist leader in Shusha, an Azerbaijani town in Nagorno Karabakh which has a very powerful symbolic meaning to Azeris, danced with separatists and held his Security Council meetings in Shusha.

Apart from that, he openly challenged the Azerbaijani president by calling names and ridiculing his style of government. All of this happened with Pashinyan himself imprisoning former president Kocharyan and many of his political opponents. This could not have been ignored by his counterpart in Baku and irritated the entire Azerbaijani elite.

Azerbaijani leadership’s patience exhausted when in July this year Armenia openly attacked Azerbaijani positions in Tovuz district of Azerbaijan, some 150 miles to the north of Karabakh but within 50 miles of energy pipelines and railways going to Europe. Baku claimed that Armenia attempted to take over strategic heights in Azerbaijan proper to be able to shell the areas where the pipelines passed. A short war with several deaths on each side brought the sides to what we’re witnessing today. Following the July clashes, Azerbaijan and Turkey held large-scale military drills while Russia held its own in Armenia. In August, Russia dispatched several cargo planes with as much as 400 tons of military equipment to Armenia. Since Georgia did not allow Russia to use its space, Russian airplanes flew over Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran, landing in Yerevan. The Russian Minister of Defense who arrived in Baku to meet President Aliyev, had no other explanation but give a lame excuse about the cargo being construction materials for the Russian military base in Armenia. Baku decried this act and seemingly prepared for Armenian offensive.

From September 27 on, Azerbaijani army was able to inflict serious damage to the separatist army in Nagorno Karabakh, although Azerbaijan claims it is the armed forces of Republic of Armenia it is fighting. Over the last seven days, Azerbaijan regained control over several strategic heights in Murov range (highest point in Karabakh) which allows it to control Vardenis-Mardakert (Azeris call it Agdere) highway, and over close to two villages in Fizuli and Jabrayil districts which were occupied by Armenian forces in 1993. On October 4, President Aliyev announced that his army liberated the town of Jabrayil.

This time around, Azerbaijan does not seem to be willing to stop until all of its internationally recognized territories are recaptured. Turkey provides strong political and diplomatic support to its brethren in Azerbaijan. President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia have had a call to discuss the situation in Nagorno Karabakh and despite the fact that Russia and other world leaders called for ceasefire, Ankara relentlessly continues to support Azerbaijan in its campaign. For Turkey it also comes at a cost. Some Western media made unsubstantiated claims about Turkey allegedly transporting mercenaries from Syria, a claim immediately consumed and adopted by French President Emmanuel Macron who has his own problems to sort out with President Erdogan. Azerbaijan and Turkey issued statements decrying the claims. Baku stated that Azerbaijan uses sophisticated high-tech military equipment to fight the battles in Nagorno Karabakh and using some Middle Eastern mercenaries is illogical. Indeed, Azerbaijan has more active military personnel than Armenia and twice as more reserves which it partially began calling for duty last week.

Apart from claiming Azerbaijan might be using jihadists, Armenia also stated that Turkish F-16 downed an Armenian SU-25 in Vardenis region of Armenia, apparently in an effort to draw Russia into the conflict. Since Armenia is a party to Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), established by Moscow, Russia has a duty to protect its member. However, Azerbaijan has been extremely careful in this matter and avoided shelling Armenia proper, and is conducting its counter-offensive in Nagorno Karabakh only.

Baku also made its own claims against Armenia, stating that Yerevan has been deploying mercenaries from the Middle East of Armenian descent. In the last three days, Azerbaijan started shelling the capital of the self-proclaimed unrecognized republic, targeting military objects. Armenians started evacuating the town, and other towns in the north.

The separatist authorities also ordered striking Ganja, the second largest city of Azerbaijan. On October 4, several missiles hit Ganja, injuring dozens and killing one civilian. Baku said Armenians also conducted strikes against Mingechevir power generation station, largest in South Caucasus and Absheron peninsula where the capital of Azerbaijan is located. None were successful but it demonstrated the transformation of the armed conflict into the next phase, where both sides will use any force to inflict larger damage to the enemy.

So far, Azerbaijan has been extensively using Azerbaijan, Turkish- and Israeli-made drones eliminating the equipment of the Armenian armed forces and leaving the Armenian defense naked. The northern front of the Armenian army seems to have collapsed with the Azerbaijani army gaining momentum. Stepanakert (Azeris call it Khankendi) is claiming otherwise.

At any rate, Azerbaijan says that it is simply enforcing the four UN Security Council resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884 which demand an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied territories. The Armenians say they are fighting for their homeland and will never relent, although with Azerbaijani advance things may change and may bring Armenians back to the negotiating table with willingness to agree to an autonomy within Azerbaijan. It is unclear what the future holds, but for now, Azerbaijan does not seem to want to lose momentum on the battleground.

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©2020 The USA Tribune
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