War and Ethnic Conflict: From the South Caucasus to Europe and the Middle East

As soon as an ethnic conflict flares up, its outcome is much more likely to be either the massacre of the minority or the forcible separation of the ethnic groups than the restoration of political unity.

Henry Kissinger

The HAMAS attack on Israel on October 7, 2023 was another challenge of 2023 and has supplanted in the news feeds both the war in Ukraine and the much more chronologically recent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Although all these events do not seem at first glance to be directly related, they are nevertheless part of a bigger picture.  As stated in the author’s publication "Armenia 2023 - in search of a new security configuration” at LIIA web page* on October 02, 2023, the Russian position on Azerbaijan's aggression was predetermined by the attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

And while many Western leaders condemned Azerbaijan's military aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023, the reaction, including to the subsequent humanitarian crisis in NKR, was clearly disproportionate, prompting accusations of double standards and hypocrisy. It became obvious that after nineteen months of full-fledged hostilities in Europe, which required an extraordinary commitment of both economic and military resources, the West does not want to be drawn so deeply into the armed confrontation in the South Caucasus.

HAMAS undoubtedly seized a moment that may never present itself again. Allied relations between Iran and Russia against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, and Russia's confrontation with the West, definitely pushed the latter to solidarize with HAMAS. Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip that followed the HAMAS attack destroyed the process of normalizing Israel's relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, while the prospect of a new full-scale war, now in the Middle East, is terrifying the West, which has exhausted its resources with the war in Ukraine. The latter also explains the position of the US, which is doing its best to keep Israel from quickly launching a ground operation in Gaza.

Against the backdrop of these conflicts, a new allied axis is emerging - Azerbaijan - Russia - Iran. And in this alliance, it is Russia that becomes the connecting element. Iran has a pro-Armenian stance in the Karabakh conflict and has different interests with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is not ready to enter into conflict with the US, the EU and NATO over Russia's war in Ukraine, while at the same time building a partnership with Israel. Iran, for its part, is in violent confrontation with the West and is openly aggressive towards Tel Aviv. And finally, Turkey, Azerbaijan's main ally, is a member of NATO, with which Russia, according to Russian officials, is at war in Ukraine. Thus, if we were to exclude Russia as a common ally and link, we would not be able to discern any alliance between Iran and Azerbaijan. However, Israel's recent actions in the Gaza Strip in October following the HAMAS attack have brought Islamic Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey, Azerbaijan's main ally, sharply closer together.

In 2020, Israel was one of the main suppliers of precision-guided weapons to Azerbaijan, and during the 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Israeli specialists and instructors were directly involved in electronic warfare, providing intelligence, and controlling and using drones.

Israel increased oil supplies from Azerbaijan by more than 70% in the first quarter of 2022. The Jewish state is the second largest importer of Azerbaijani oil after Italy. Azerbaijani oil transported through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline accounts for 80% of Israel's oil consumption. The Baku-Tel Aviv cooperation did not stop there, and after the 44-day war it even openly acquired a strategic character. Azerbaijan, which had long refrained from opening an embassy in Israel due to the inevitable backlash in the Islamic world, established a diplomatic mission in the country after the war. Over the past 2 years, systematic high-level bilateral visits have become more frequent, which confirms the deepening military-political cooperation between the  two countries. After the 2020 war, a number of territories close to the Iranian border came under the control of Azerbaijan and became the object of Tel Aviv's close attention. Given the ongoing hostility between Israel and Iran, Tel Aviv has placed its bets on the further strengthening of Azerbaijan, in return receiving a serious springboard against Iran that can be used in the immediate future.

Prior to the outbreak of war in Israel Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on the path of normalizing relations with Tel Aviv. In September, he held a meeting with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York and invited him to visit Ankara. Moreover, he himself intended to pay a visit to Israel. However, due to the new situation, the Turkish president announced in front of a huge crowd that his country would do everything possible to ensure that Israel’s human rights violations as well as its war crimes are investigated by the International Criminal Court, adding that Netanyahu has lost the support of his people and is no longer someone Turkey wants to talk to.

It is known that for some time now Erdogan has been positioning himself as a true defender of Muslims and a leader of the Islamic world, drawing  on the Ottoman legacy, when much of the Middle East, including the territory of Palestine and present-day Israel, was part of the Ottoman Empire.

The crisis caused by the Hamas attack on October 7 turned out to be very useful for Tehran, which was immediately suspected by Israel of directly organizing the attacks.

Rejecting the claims of official Tel Aviv that Iran was behind the HAMAS attack and, therefore, sooner or later deserved retribution would follow, Tehran activated both political and diplomatic channels (Moscow, Ankara, Washington, Beirut and Damascus) and military and political reserves (Hezbollah, Yemen, and various Islamic paramilitary organizations).

Already in November 2023, during a visit to Turkey, Iran's foreign minister threatened his country's intervention in the conflict with Israel on the side of HAMAS, while his Turkish counterpart accused the European Union of being unwilling to facilitate a ceasefire and shared concerns about the possible spread of the conflict to Syria and the rest of the region: "Now we have concerns about the geographical spread of the conflict. We have also discussed this with our Iranian brother and he just said that there are serious indications that other armed elements in the region may intervene in the conflict if the situation does not change," the Turkish foreign minister said.

This rapprochement between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran against the background of the escalating Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a bad signal for Armenia.It is precisely the position of Iran that is the restraining force that keeps Azerbaijan, in alliance with Turkey, from attempting to forcefully resolve the issue of the Zangezur corridor that connects Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan. If the partnership between Turkey and Iran continues to strengthen, Azerbaijan's two main allies, Moscow and Ankara, will already be cooperating with Tehran. In such a configuration, Armenia's chances of resolving the Zangezur corridor issue on acceptable terms will tend to zero.

The previous article "Armenia 2023 - in search of a new security configuration" briefly analyzed Moscow's position (or lack of position) on Azerbaijan's aggression, arguing that its behavior was predetermined by the need to ensure Turkey's benevolent neutrality in light of Russia's inevitable attack on Ukraine.

If after the signing of the Tripartite Statement by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia on November 9, 2020, it seemed that the Kremlin had strengthened its position in the region, including the deployment of a peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh in addition to the existing 102nd military base in Armenia, then soon after after the disastrous start of the war in Ukraine, Russia found itself unable to respond to the growing challenges along the entire perimeter of its vast borders.

In turn, Turkey did not miss the opportunity to take advantage of Moscow's vulnerability to strategically advance its positions in the Caucasus, supporting Azerbaijani aggression in Nagorno-Karabakh, the area of responsibility of Russian peacekeepers, and consistently pushing Moscow out of the region, undermining its until recently particularly strong stance in Armenia.

The exodus of the Armenian population from Karabakh after the September 19 military attack deprived Moscow of any leverage to ensure its presence in Nagorno-Karabakh, now recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Simultaneously with the sharply increased anti-Russian rhetoric of official Yerevan, the threat of withdrawal of the Russian base from Armenia itself loomed.

After the "Crimean operation" both Russia and its geopolitical rivals were actively preparing for the denouement, which failed to find a political and diplomatic compromise and spilled over into the plane of a solution by force on February 24, 2022.

Today, the situation in Ukraine is increasingly reminiscent of World War I, where for more than 4 years neither of the belligerent parties could win a decisive victory. In 1914-1918, the countries that eventually won were those that had superiority in material and human resources. The current war in Ukraine is just as inexorably draining Moscow, which, even with the potential presence of huge resources, cannot impose its will on Kiev, which enjoys the support of over 50 of the world's most developed countries. Naturally, under these circumstances, Russia's near abroad, which has traditionally been dominated by Moscow, has found itself in "free floating" mode.

The processes that followed Azerbaijan's one-day military operation against Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19 marked the beginning of a new reality with an increasingly precarious regional status quo. In just a few days, a mass exodus (104,000 people) of the autochthonous Armenian population of the region was carried out, as a result of which Nagorno-Karabakh was left without Armenians for the first time in the last 2 millennia. In this regard, the seemingly “final solution” to the problem that determined for the last 30 years the security agenda of the region has in fact opened a Pandora's box of risky escalation of stakes for regional and extra-regional players. The "recipe" for solving the Karabakh problem has demonstrated that it can become a dangerous precedent for application in other inter-ethnic conflicts.

Several decades ago, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger predicted that “As soon as an ethnic conflict flares up, its outcome is much more likely to be either the massacre of the minority or the forcible separation of the ethnic groups than the restoration of political unity.”  The process of "unfreezing" the conflict from the beginning of the war in 2020 to the final stage, which ended with the devastation of Karabakh from the Armenian population in the face of the threat of a new massacre, confirms the relevance of his forecast.  However, along with this, it is important to note that what has been happening over the past 3 years in the South Caucasus region goes far beyond the scope of a purely regional and interethnic conflict and is in fact a trigger and an integral part of the most complex “great game”, designed to radically change the political map of a larger region and the architecture of the international security inherited after the end of two world wars and the Cold War era.

The South Caucasus, which is a bridge connecting Russia, on the one hand, and the Greater Middle East, on the other, is increasingly reminiscent of a powder keg that can be exploded by any more or less significant new crisis, be it the creation of the so-called “Zangezur Corridor” across the territory Armenia, deterioration of the internal political situation in Georgia, further escalation of the war in Israel and its spread to a wider region, etc.

The 2020 war was not exclusively about the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation, and the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue went far beyond an inter-ethnic conflict, the outcome of which satisfied some countries, opened a window of opportunity for some extra-regional actors and multiplied challenges and heightened the perception of security threats for third countries.

To a certain extent, with the "solution" of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, the South Caucasus region is becoming more and more closely tied to the processes in a broader geopolitical format, which is called the Greater Middle East. The "unraveling" of one of the most complex "frozen" conflicts, in turn, has set in motion processes in which the opposing interests of world powers and regional heavyweights intersect.

*Armenia 2023 - in search of a new security configuration. S.Potapkins, LIIA, October 02, 2023


Publicēts 16. novembris, 2023

Autors Sergejs Potapkins