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Turkey backs Azerbaijan against Armenia as war looms over the Caucasus


As renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh enters its second day, the question of why now is looming ever larger, amid fears of a full blown conflict in the Caucasus that could draw in Russia and Turkey.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry said in a statement today that Turkey already had a “direct presence on the ground” and that Turkish military experts were “fighting side by side” with Azerbaijani forces who were using Turkish weapons and aircraft.

Armenian officials have also accused Turkey of transporting thousands of Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan, as it has done to Libya. An aide to Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, rebutted the assertions as nonsense today. 

But two Syrian rebel fighters quoted by Reuters said they were “deploying to Azerbaijan in coordination with Ankara” and had been told by their brigade commanders that they would earn $1,500 per month. Similar descriptions of the alleged recruitment effort circulated on Twitter and were reported by The Guardian as well. 

Turkey has riposted with its own claims that Armenia is deploying Kurdish militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party and Syrian mercenaries of its own.

Azerbaijan has, in turn, accused Russia of sending large numbers of weapons to Armenia, where it maintains a base near the Turkish border in Gyumri. While none of these allegations can be verified, the emerging consensus is that Azerbaijan most likely instigated the attacks after receiving assurances of military support from Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed his support for Azerbaijan today, saying that Armenia must immediately end its occupation of Azerbaijani territories. He called Armenia, a country of 2.9 million versus Turkey’s estimated 84 million, “the biggest threat to peace in the region.” 

The current conflagration, he said, offered an opportunity for Azerbaijan to seize back Nagorno-Karabakh. “Recent developments have provided an opportunity for all influential countries in the region to introduce realistic and fair solutions,” he said. “We hope that this opportunity will be utilized.”

More ominously, Erdogan noted that since the Minsk group of mediators led by Russia, France and the United States had failed to resolve the conflict for almost 30 years, Azerbaijan “had to take matters into its own hands whether it likes it or not.”

Armenia has begun a general military mobilization and both countries have declared martial law. Azerbaijan has sealed its airspace to all flights except from Turkey. Dozens of people including civilians have been reported killed and hundreds wounded on both sides. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said, “We are on the brink of a full scale war in the South Caucasus.” He blamed Azerbaijan and Turkey. 

Russia, the United States and NATO have all called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, as has Iran. 

Turkey and Azerbaijan are bound by strong ethnic and historical ties, which saw Turkey send weapons and military advisers to Azerbaijan in the early 1990s when the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority enclave inside Azerbaijan, was in full swing. Reflecting the public mood, the main political parties in the parliament, with the exception of the pro-Kurdish bloc, signed a joint declaration in defense of Azerbaijan today. 

Turkey is the main export route for Azeri oil and natural gas. Azerbaijan’s state oil company, SOCAR, is the biggest foreign investor in Turkey. Yet despite all the talk about being “one nation, two states,” the reality is more complex.

Azerbaijan, though ethnically Turkic, is mostly Shiite. “Turkey uses ethnicity and language while Iran uses religion to promote their agendas in Azerbaijan and then you have the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, who are all Russian speakers,” said Cavid Aga, an Ankara-based analyst who monitors the conflict.

“The truth is that most Turks know very little about Azerbaijan,” he told Al-Monitor.

Culturally speaking, Anatolian Turks arguably have more in common with Christian Armenians who fled to Armenia from Turkey than they do with the Azeris in Azerbaijan. But such nuances get lost in the warmongering rhetoric spewing from Baku, Ankara and Yerevan alike.

The intensity and scale of the current round of fighting does suggest advance planning by Azerbaijan to upend the status quo, cemented since 1994, when it lost Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories, and that favors Armenia.

Laurence Broers, Caucasus program director at the London-based think tank Chatham House, noted via Twitter that the clashes could be “an intentional but limited aims operation [on the part of Azerbaijan] aimed at recovering territories [and] consolidating [a] more advantageous new ceasefire, packaged as a military win.”

Firdevs Robinson, a London-based specialist on Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia, concurred.

“In Azerbaijan, the loss of significant part of the country’s territory has been a festering wound for decades but the pressure from the public has been growing in recent years,” she told Al-Monitor. “With the Minsk group largely ineffective in recent years, and the United States distracted with its presidential race, and the Europeans battling the pandemic, the timing of this latest escalation makes perfect opportunistic sense,” she added. It remains to be seen just how far Azerbaijan will go and how far Turkey will back it.