North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Nagorno Karabakh and Turkey’s imperial ambitions

The ongoing war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is part of Turkey’s neo-imperial ambitions in the region and it must be stopped.

Maria Armoudian Serj Tankian
12 October 2020
Portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Ankara, Turkey. 6 October 2020
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Picture by Altan Gocher/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved

The indigenous population of Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) is being besieged by cluster bombs as they suffer a climbing death toll.

But why is this conflict happening now? The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Turkey’s latest efforts to expand its influence as part of its neo-imperial ambitions in the region at the expense of human life and human rights – a foreign policy identified by scholar and researcher Alexander Murinson as the Strategic Depth Doctrine. If Turkey’s attacks are not stopped, the world can expect that this country, with a long track record of human rights abuses, will continue expanding its influence throughout the region.

The attacks are also a continuation of a history of terror that Armenians have suffered for more than a century. Long before the genocide of 1915, the Armenian people endured mass egregious human rights abuses, pogroms and slaughters in their homeland mostly at the hands of Turkish occupiers. Then, in 1915, the Young Turk-led Armenian Genocide killed 1.5 million Armenians. Stripped of everything—loved ones, communities, homes, indigenous lands, and culture. The survivors fled to countries near and far. Scattered across the globe for their very survival, the Armenians lived as minorities in the lands of others, where they were marginalized, then frequently had to flee their new homes once or twice more—often due to war (for example, in Lebanon, Cyprus, Syria, and Iraq) or other abuses. In their indigenous lands of Artsakh, where Armenians have lived continuously since around 500 BC, they are still struggling for their existence.

In more recent history, under Soviet rule, the region was tentatively transferred back and forth between Armenia and Azerbaijan before it was made an Autonomous Oblast (Russian autonomous zone) within the borders of Azerbaijan SSR. Svante Cornell, a Swedish scholar who specialises in the region, explains that this was thought to be part of a divide-and-conquer policy for the Soviets and a concession to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who sought to complete the annihilation of Armenians. The arrangement was established by decree from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. But Armenians have rightfully been unhappy with dividing their people, particularly for those left vulnerable, wholly surrounded by a hostile nation. For decades, Armenians have petitioned and demonstrated for reunification.

In February 1988, when relatively low-level hostilities were erupting, the region overwhelmingly voted for independence in a referendum (Azerbaijanis boycotted the referendum), and the Nagorno-Karabakh parliament voted to unify with Armenia. That same month, Armenians in Azerbaijan suffered another pogrom, when an Azerbaijani mob killed 26 Armenians in the town of Sumgait, and “evacuated” the entire Armenian population.

Distrust between the two peoples has mounted in part because of these events

Azerbaijan’s refusal to accept the referendum results gave impetus to the independence movement of Artsakh, followed by a war for its independence in which tens of thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands more wounded.

A 1994 ceasefire, mediated by Russia, the USA, and France, never turned into a peace agreement. But it resolved with Armenians retaining ownership of their indigenous lands in Nagorno Karabakh.

Distrust between the two peoples has mounted in part because of these events, but also because Azerbaijan’s leaders have continued to stoke anti-Armenian ethnic hatred (calling them “fascists,” as reported by British journalist and writer on the Caucasus, Thomas de Waal). Like other malignant leaders who use “othering,” blame and hate to build anger, resentment and hatred against minority groups (and draw attention away from their own failures), Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, and his cohort use the Artsakh issue as part of their campaign to maintain power.

Now what’s left of Armenia—a fraction of what it once was—is under threat again. With a tiny sliver of land sandwiched between two hostile countries—Turkey, the country that committed the genocide in 1915, and Azerbaijan, one that is threatening ethnic cleaning today.

Ilham Aliyev, declared that removing the Armenians from Artsakh is the only way he will end the attacks, demanding that they “leave our lands unconditionally, completely and immediately.” Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, echoed this position when he said that “our Azerbaijani brother are waiting for the day they will return to their land”, a statement that some Armenians read as a call for further ethnic violence against them from a person who denies the genocide of 1915.

After holding cooperative military manoeuvres in the past month, the two countries have launched an all-out attack with air, ground and infantry (though Turkey denies its direct involvement). Turkey’s involvement beyond an advisory role has escalated the long unresolved conflict in the Caucasus—one that French President Emmanuel Macron said crosses “the red line.”

Observers believe that Turkey is in Azerbaijan to stay, regardless of the results of the current war

The widespread attacks on civilians, and particularly the use of cluster bombs, are war crimes. Bombs and fighting have already killed hundreds, including civilians, and destroyed hundreds of homes, schools and hospitals, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross and press reports.

Foreign proxy fighters from Syria have been brought in by Turkey and Azerbaijan. These are mostly fighters from Islamist groups, adding a religious component to the war against the Armenians. The presence of these foreign fighters has further aggravated the situation, with Russia, France, and Iran calling for their withdrawal. The 57-state Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk group, responsible for the conflict’s earlier arbitration, is calling for immediate return to negotiations.

The conflict threatens to destabilize the region, with effects from Russia to Iran and beyond. And Turkey’s involvement threatens to escalate the conflict further. Turkey is part of NATO while Armenia is a signatory to the CSTO, a defense pact made up of post-Soviet states. Further, Iran is amassing troops at its border after Azeri missiles landed within its borders. Iran is also disturbed by the presence of Syrian mercenaries in Azerbaijan, fighters who have been fighting against its allies, Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria.

Turkey continues to commit internal and external human rights abuses, and to play a role in destabilizing other countries such as Syria, Libya, and Iraq, or areas like the Mediterranean, and now the Caucasus. Observers believe that Turkey is in Azerbaijan to stay, regardless of the results of the current war, as part of its neo-Ottoman vision of extending influence to Turkic speaking countries from Central Asia to China.

It is imperative now for the international community to immediately call out the aggression of Turkey and Azerbaijan. It must broker peace talks between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Republic of Artsakh, in order to avert another humanitarian catastrophe, and to force Azerbaijan to accept monitors, including on warfare technology, before this war grows into a regional one or worse.

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