Courtesy: NATO Association of Canada

By Jai Kumar Verma

New Delhi. 03 October 2020. A fierce battle which started on 27 September between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh region is spreading and more and more countries are assisting the belligerent nations. Hence the possibility that it may take an ugly turn and engulf more states cannot be ruled out. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting for Nagorna Karabakh from last about forty years. Nagorna Karabakh is spread in mountainous region of south Caucasus in 4,400 Sq. Km. Azerbaijan claims this region as their own while it is in the control of Armenia supported self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh.

The clash between both the countries has caused large number of deaths, human right violations, generated refugee problem and tarnished their economy. Both these countries were part of the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) which demarcated the boundaries between different states however at that time no state could dare to go against the central leadership.

The problem arose after USSR dissolved and various states became independent countries. Although both countries fought before too, but the current fighting is much more severe, and several countries are involved directly or indirectly. Turkey and Pakistan are supporting Shia Azerbaijan while Russia and Shia Iran are supporting Christian Armenia. Nearly 99% of Azerbaijan population is Muslim and out of it about 85 percent are Shia while only 15 percent are Sunnis. Iran is clandestinely supporting Armenia although it also offered to mediate between both the countries. Tehran supports Yerevan (Capital of Armenia) because Iran considers rising Turkish nationalism in its substantial Turkish population as a big political problem. Many Turkish origin people residing in Iran call its northern portion as southern Azerbaijan and also talk about Greater Azerbaijan which will include some portion of Iran also. Besides it there are also land dispute between Iran and Azerbaijan. The close proximity between Azerbaijan and Israel is also bone of contention between Iran and Azerbaijan. 

As more countries are involved, the present battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan may turn to a regional war. Turkey and Pakistan are sending Muslim extremists to fight from the side of Azerbaijan. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claimed that a private Turkish security company is recruiting volunteers to fight from the side of Azerbaijan although the latter denied it. There are reports that Russians are sending heavy artillery and other military equipment to Armenia through Iran.

Turkey has already challenged Saudi Arabia in the Muslim world and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying hard to become the leader of Muslim countries. Besides Iran Russia is also supporting Armenia and if the war between both the countries not stopped soon and Turkey sends its troops to Azerbaijan the chances are that Russian forces may also intrude. Besides Russia, Turkey, and Iran, France and Israel may also join the ongoing war which will increase its intensity.

In 2016 also both the countries fought on the same issue and about 200 persons were killed. However, this time the war is at much larger scale. Both sides have deployed heavy artillery, tanks, missiles, aircraft and drone. Azerbaijan claimed that they killed or injured more than 2300 Armenian soldiers and smashed more than 200 tanks including armoured vehicles while more than 100 army vehicles, 228 artillery pieces, multiple rocket launchers, 300 anti-aircraft guns and 18 UAVs were also destroyed. Armenia claims that they have shot down four Azerbaijan helicopters although the crew returned safely to Azerbaijan. Armenia and Artsakh authorities also claimed that they have killed more than 400 Azerbaijan soldiers, destroyed 36 tanks and armoured personnel carrier, and 27 drones. Artsakh authorities accepted that they also lost 103 soldiers and 120 were injured and one SU-25 was also downed by enemy. However, Azerbaijan has not disclosed the number of soldiers killed and equipment destroyed.

History of the conflict

Azerbaijan claimed that Nagorno-Karabakh was under their rule while Armenians assert that Karabakh was a part of great Armenian Kingdom. However, as the area remained in the occupation of several rulers hence the situation became quite intricate. At present the majority is of Armenian Christian population while legally it is part of Muslim Azerbaijan. In early 1920 both Azerbaijan and Armenia fought, first Joseph Stalin of USSR gave this area to Armenia but later under pressure from Turkey the area was given to Azerbaijan. Although Turkey supported Azerbaijan because of Muslim brotherhood, but the other reason was that Turkey never wanted a strong Armenia near its border. Hence Narango-Karbakh remained part of Azerbaijan since 1922 although Armenia wanted to change it.

The majority Christian population of Nagorno-Karabakh charge that Muslim Azerbaijan is implementing repressive policies in the area hence their culture, language and religion are in danger. There were large scale demonstrations and confrontation at the last days of USSR in the area as the residents were demanding to secede from Azerbaijan and merge with Armenia. In August 1987 about 75,000 persons signed a petition requesting that mountainous Karabakh may be merged with Armenia. The petition was sent to USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

Both countries again fought in 1994 and Russia mediated a ceasefire, nonetheless the clash continued as after collapse of Soviet Union both countries became independent nations hence instead of internal matter of USSR it became the war between two independent counties.

At present legally Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, but it is in control of ethnic Armenians. Armenia extends full support to the self-declared republic, but it did not recognise it officially. Russian President Putin, US President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron as co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group issued a statement. The OSCE Minsk Group was founded on 24 March 1992 through a conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The group was created to find a peaceful solution through negotiation between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The statement issued by them mentioned that “We also call on the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to immediately commit themselves to resume negotiations on the substance of the settlement in good faith and without preconditions”.

Russia has a military alliance with Armenia and also has a military base in Armenia, but it also has close relations with Azerbaijan. However Turkish President Erdogan made it clear that there would be no ceasefire unless Armenia ends its occupation from Azerbaijan territory. Meanwhile a human right agency claimed that 900 Syrian mercenaries were sent to Azerbaijan by Turkish security agencies to fight against Armenian forces. Armenia recalled its ambassador from Israel as the latter is selling arms and ammunition to Azerbaijan.

The intelligence sources reveal that the hostilities were started by Azerbaijan as there was no reason for Armenia to start the conflict. Armenians won the war in 1990 and all the territory is under their control. On the other hand, although legally Nagorno-Karabakh is under the control of Azerbaijan but in reality, the area was in control of Armenia. Azerbaijan calculated that at present with the active assistance of Turkey and Pakistan they may capture the disputed area through military action. However, the knowledgeable sources claim that Azerbaijani army will not succeed because of inhospitable terrain of the area, the poor preparation, low morale and rampant corruption. The desertion rate of army is about 20 percent and although Azerbaijan equipped the army with sophisticated weapons, but the training is very poor, and the army personnel may fail to use the latest weaponry. The present aim of Azerbaijan is to capture Fuzuli and Jabrayil districts as these districts are less mountainous. In case Azerbaijan captures Armenia controlled areas with the assistance of Turkey, the possibility that Iran may intervene militarily cannot be ruled out.

It is unfortunate that Turkey and Pakistan are sending Islamic terrorists to Azerbaijan to fight Christian Armenia. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s position has become quite weak in Pakistan hence he wants to distract the public attention by sending Islamic extremists to help Azerbaijan.

Besides the OSCE Minsk Group several other countries have also called for immediate cessation of the hostilities between both the countries and for the permanent solution of the problem. In the present era when the weapons of mass destruction are available with several countries war cannot solve a problem. All problems must be solved through negotiations whether it is between Armenia and Azerbaijan or between India and China.

(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and member of United Services Institute of India and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views in the article are solely the author’s. He can be contacted at [email protected])