Why now? This is the question that almost all experts have been asking since the latest sudden flare of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh or Upper Qarabagh (Qarabagh Al-Ulya) last week. As usual, the answers given have been determined by the political orientation of the experts concerned.
The latest flare-up started with an exchange of fire along the ceasefire line between Azeri border guards and armed units of the self-proclaimed independent republic centered on Stepanakert. In almost three days of fighting an estimated 100 people were killed, including 67 military casualties on the Azerbaijani side.
The flare-up produced no major changes in the overall status quo, although Azerbaijan claimed to have captured four hills dominating a strategic road in the enclave. The disputed enclave is referred to by different names according to who is talking. To Russians and much of the outside world it is known as Nagorniye (mountainous) Karabakh. The Azerbaijanis and Turks name it Yukahri (Upper) Qarabagh (qara in Turkish means black and bagh in Persian means garden; thus the place is called black garden). Iranians use the name Qarabagh-Ulya (Ulya means high in Arabic). The Armenians call it Artsakh.
There is also disagreement on the name of the enclave’s capital. Armenians call it Stepanakert, a mixture of Armenian and Persian words meaning Stephen’s Village. (Stephen is the first of Christian martyrs.) To Turks and Iranians it is “Shushah” (gun-barrel), an ancient locality noted as the place where Agha Muhammad Khan, founder of the Qajar Dynasty, was assassinated.
The enclave covers an area of 4,400 square kilometers (just over 40 per cent of Lebanon) and is entirely located inside Azerbaijan. There are only three other “states” in that position in the world: Botswana, located inside South Africa, and the Vatican nested within Italy’s capital Rome. The enclave is home to over 180,000 people, almost all Armenians now that the 50,000 Azerbaijanis who lived there have been driven out.
The enclave declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1994 after a controversial referendum and at a time when the new state based in Baku lacked the military force needed to defend its territory.
Despite its miniature scale compared to other crises in the world today, the breakout of fighting over the enclave was regarded as alarming enough to put the diplomatic machines of a dozen capitals, including Moscow, Tehran, Washington, and Ankara, not to mention Baku and Yerevan, into high gear.
The Moscow daily Kommersant described the dispute as a “ticking bomb” that could cause a much bigger explosion in southern Caucasus. In Tehran the daily Kayhan, reflecting the views of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei claimed that the flare-up was engineered by Washington to distract Russia, a supporter of Azerbaijan, from the war in Syria. For their part, Turkish commentators pointed the finger at Armenia as the instigator of the flare up to exploit Azerbaijan’s current difficulties resulting from low oil prices.
Armenia’s President Serge Sargysian warned that the flare-up could undermine the security not only of the Caucasus and its immediate neighborhood but also of the European continent.
Change of Tack In Baku?
One answer to the question “why now?” is provided by Tehran’s daily Kayhan in an enigmatic editorial. It claims that the visit to Tehran last month by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev was a signal that he intends to distance himself from Washington and Ankara and get closer to Iran and Russia. The Qarabagh incident, Kayhan speculates, may have been a test of the solidity of Russian and Iranian support for Armenia.
“In his recent trip to Tehran, Ilham Aliev showed that he regards a turnaround in Azerbaijan’s foreign policy a necessity,” Kayhan claims. The subtext is that Tehran is ready to tone down its support for Armenia provided Aliev moves closer to the Iran-Russia axis in the region.
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart Muhammad-Javad Zarif flew to Baku for talks with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Muhammad-Yarov in search of “a lasting ceasefire followed by talks on the future of Upper-Qarabagh.” It was clear that Moscow and Tehran were keen to exploit the situation to drive a wedge between Baku and is allies in Ankara and Washington.
Another answer to the “why now?” question may be that the United States, the power that had guaranteed the 1994 ceasefire, is either unwilling or unable to continue doing so. President Barack Obama’s strategy of global retreat includes the aim of disengaging the United States from acting as arbiter-cum-peacekeeper in more than 60 crisis situations across the globe.
America’s absence creates space for rival powers to test the possibility of altering the status quo in their own favor. It may also weaken the trust that, since 1994, leaders in Baku have put in America’s determination to shelter them against Russian and Iranian ambitions.
Many analysts see Tehran’s hopes of persuading Aliev to switch sides as wishful thinking. The Azerbaijani leader may share the general belief in the region that the US, under Obama, is no longer a trustworthy ally. But putting himself under Russian and Iranian protection could mean the end of his regime.
This dispute involves two ethnic groups, Armenians and Azeris, two religions, Islam and Christianity, three ideologies pan-Turk, pan-Iranian and pan-Armenian, two neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, three regional powers, Iran, Turkey and Israel, and two “great powers” Russia and the United States.
On the first ideological side, the pan-Armenian groups, dominated by the ultra-nationalist Dashnag Party, believes it is time for the enclave to go beyond its virtual independence and formally attach itself to Armenia ruled from Yerevan. Such a move would give a boost to the idea of Greater Armenia that could incorporate another enclave, Nakhichevan, an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan but not geographically contiguous with it.
To link Upper Qarabagh with Armenia proper and then to Nakhichevan, partisans of Greater Armenia would also have to annex the Lachin salient which has a majority of ethnic Kurds.
In the second circle there are pan-Turkists in Baku that dream of one day creating a direct uninterrupted link between Turkey and Azerbaijan proper. That would require recapturing Upper Qarabagh, keeping control of Lachin and securing a slice of Armenian territory close to the border with Iran.
In Search of an Identity
Ever since it became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan’s leaders have grappled with the complex of issue of their nation’s identity and its place in the world. Heydar Aliev, a KGB general who ruled over Azerbaijan for decades both before and after independence ignored such intellectual puzzles and believed that what the newly-emergent nation needed was peace and security. He liked to play with an agate rosary from Isfahan but also kept his KGB parabellum close at hand. As far as he was concerned, there was no “crisis of identity”, and reshaping the persona of the new nation one way or another was a futile pastime for well-fed scholars. He had no qualms about keeping the Russian form of his name ending in “iev” when others tried to de-Russify theirs by adopting Persian or Turkish endings.
Other leaders thought otherwise. President Ayaz Mutallibov who led the nation at the end of the Soviet era and start of independence had tried a policy of slow but steady distancing of the nation from Russia and equally slow and steady rapprochement with the Islamic Republic in Iran. Iran’s ruling mullahs saw this as a sign of weakness and started throwing their weight around in Baku. They even set up a branch of Hezbollah led by Haj Ali Karam. As in Lebanon years later, the Iranians showed that they didn’t want allies but servants bound in blind obedience. That created a backlash against Iran which pan-Turkists exploited.
Iran had already made a false move in Azerbaijan during a visit to Baku in 1989 by Hashemi Rasfanjani, the mullah who acted as Speaker of the Islamic Majlis at the time. The visit came shortly after Soviet forces had massacred pro-independence demonstrators in Baku, allegedly even using chemical weapons. Instead of condemning the repression, the visiting mullahs advised the Azerbaijanis to stick to the USSR and not to be deceived by the “Great American Satan”. He then went to the main mosque in Baku and distributed posters of Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini and led a few hundred people in a prayer.
“The visit showed us that all repressive regimes, Islamic or Communist are blood relations,” says Leyla Qanbarov, a historian. “We understood that Russians oppressed us while the Iranian mullahs applauded.”
After the first rounds of fighting over Upper Qarabagh, large numbers of Azerbaijanis, over 500,000 according to some sources, sought refuge in Iran, fearful that the war could spread to other parts of the newly independent country.
In reportage last week, Raja News, controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Tehran, recalled those heady days. It said “Many young people from Azerbaijan Republic came to learn guerrilla and low intensity warfare in Iran. Tens of cargos of weapons were sent by Iran to Azerbaijan to defend the city of Shusha. At the demand of Roshan Javadov and Rahim Qaziev (Azeri commanders in the war over Qarabagh) a joint command center was set up for the operations. Also, many volunteer fighters from Tabriz and Ardebil (in Iran) joined the fight.”
Soon, however, it became clear that Tehran wanted to create armed groups loyal to itself, just as later happened in Lebanon, Iraq, and more recently Yemen and Syria. Tehran’s “Imperialist” approach antagonized many Azerbaijanis and strengthened the pan-Turkist camp.
Independent Azerbaijan’s first elected President, Abulfazl Ilchibey, a native of Nakhichevan like Aliev, tried to redefine the new nation as part of a greater pan-Turkist entity stretching from Hungary to China.
Ilchibey had two fears. One was eventual absorption by Iran where ethnic Azeris, numbering over 12 million, could press for the reunification of Azerbaijan with its original “mother country”. The territory now named Azerbaijan had consisted of several chunks, including Aran, Shirvan, Yervan and Nakhichevan, all part of Iran but lost to the Tsarist Empire in 1802, 1813, 1828 and 1830. Tabriz, capital of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan has been and remains the world’s largest Azeri city and the cultural capital of Azeri-speakers, a language close to Turkish in grammar and to Persian in vocabulary.
The lands that came to constitute what is now Azerbaijan produced many great Persian poets, among them Nezami of Ganjeh, Khaqani of Shirvan and Mojir of Beylaqan.
Ilchibey’s second fear was the return of the Soviets under a new mask. Having suffered in Russian prisons, the former campaigner for human rights believed that a solid link with Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and then on the fast-track to membership of the European Union, would enable the new nation to become part of the broader western world. Passionately secular, Ilchibey saw Kemalist Turkey as his nation’s protector against both crypto-Communist Russia and a backward feudalistic Iran ruled by fanatical mullahs. (He couldn’t have known what would happen to Kemalism in Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)
Thanks to Ilchibey, the pan-Turk party changed the alphabet from the Russian Cyrillic to the Turkish version of Latin, rejecting the idea of reverting to the Arabic-Persian script that had been in use before the Russian annexation. Tehran was especially enraged when Baku chose the crescent moon, the insignia of the Ottoman Empire, as the symbol on its flags.
Ayatollah Mussavi Ardebili, then the Islamic Chief Justice in Tehran, and himself an ethnic Azeri, castigated Baku for choosing the crescent (hilal or salkh) which, he said, was “the standard under which impious Ottomans fought the ummah of Ali, that is to say Shiites, for centuries (some 85 per cent of Azeris are Shiites).
One inevitable result of Ilchibey’s policy was the teaming-up of Tehran and Moscow to prevent newly independent Azerbaijan from becoming a NATO foothold in their backyard. One way to do that was to support Armenia in the dispute over Upper Qarabagh. Armenia had always looked to Russia, a Christian nation, as its protector in a rough neighborhood dominated by Muslim powers.
But it was now obliged to also accept a mullah-dominated Iran. Landlocked and resource poor, newly independent Armenia needed Russia for subsidies and Iran for access to the outside world. Iran also supplied Armenia with much of its electricity and all of the oil and gas it consumed. Since 1995, Armenia has been the largest recipient of Iranian aid proportionate to its population.
Having been favored as a reliable “subject nation” under both the Tsarist and Soviet Empires, Armenia has a long military tradition and is today in better shape to fight a war than Azerbaijan. However, Armenian leaders know that their nation, sandwiched between a hostile Turkey and a vengeful Azerbaijan, would have no future without Russian and Iranian support. By temperament, Armenian leadership elite want to be part of the West. By necessity they are beholden to Russia and Iran. Thus the third circle was constituted by the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia and their allies beyond the region.
Azerbaijan’s current President Ilham Aliev, the son of Heydar, has developed a syntheses of his father’s practical-cynical policy and Ilchibey’s idealism. He has forged closer ties with the both the United States and Turkey while also adding Israel as a special friend and partner. That, in turn, has antagonized both Tehran and Moscow; the last thing they want is the US and Israel so close to the oil-rich Caspian Basin. In 2008 Israel’s President Shimon Peres referred to Aliev as “a special friend, almost a brother.”
According to oil analyst Massoud Vakil, Azerbaijan plans to build strategic pipelines to ferry the basin’s oil and gas resources to world markets through Turkey and the Mediterranean. “That is especially troubling for Tehran and Moscow which hope to build theirown pipelines,” he claims.
In a sense, what is now Azerbaijan is where the global oil industry was born in the 19th century when US “oil barons” including the Rockefellers brought Baku’s oilfields to production. In both world wars Azerbaijan’s oilfields were key prizes for both sides of the conflict.
In the past two decades Azerbaijan has experienced another oil boom and seen its gross income increase from under $3000 in 1995 to over $18000 in 2015. That and a long period of relative stability have given it more self-confidence in seeking a higher profile. And that includes the “liberation” of Upper Qarabagh, a cause that unites virtually all Azeris. To that end Aliev has speeded up the building of a national army with help from the US, Turkey and Israel. However, allegations of corruption (including the latest in the so-called Panama Papers) and abuse of human rights have darkened his image in the West forcing him to look around for an alternative set of friends.
That, however, wouldn’t be easy. The leading French-Russian scholar on the Caucasus, Alexander Benningsen, argued that even under the Soviet Union, leaders in Moscow couldn’t abandon the Tsarist colonialist attitude towards subject nations of the empire.
“As for the Islamic Republic in Iran,” says Hamid Zomorodi, a former strategy expert with the Iranian navy,” it cannot even agree on sharing the resources of the Caspian with the four other littoral states, let alone treating Azerbaijan as an equal partner.”
Tiny Upper Qarabagh doesn’t have much that anyone might want. Nor is it of great strategic importance. However, it has become a focal point for virtually all ethnic, ideological, religious, local, regional, national and international conflicts that are tearing the Middle East apart.