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April 22, 2016 10:09 am

Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

avatar by Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman / JNS.org

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Azerbaijani Ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov said regarding his country's conflict with Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, “We don’t want this escalation.”  Photo: Azerbaijan America Alliance.

Azerbaijani Ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov, pictured, said regarding his country’s conflict with Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, “We don’t want this escalation.” Photo: Azerbaijan America Alliance.

JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called potential “ripple effects” on the Middle East.

Several-dozen (if not hundreds) of soldiers and civilians were killed in early April before a Moscow-brokered cease-fire was implemented in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Yet this is not a new war. Much like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has now been raging for 68 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan has lasted for decades. The conflict started more than 30 years ago in the late 1980s and escalated into a full-fledged war in 1991, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than 30,000 people were killed before a cease-fire was instituted in 1994, leaving more than 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory occupied by Armenia.

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“Azerbaijan is the side that lost its territory and it wants to win it back,” said Amberin Zaman, a Turkish-born public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Azerbaijan has been arming itself to the teeth for more than a decade….There may be a point where they feel confident to do something [militarily] about their land.”

But Azerbaijani Ambassador to the United States Elin Suleymanov said of the latest flare-up with Armenia, “We don’t want this escalation.”

Suleymanov said Azerbaijan is looking for international support towards attaining a peaceful settlement between his country and Armenia, and that the United Nations Security Council has recognized Azerbaijan’s right to this territory with Security Council Resolutions 822, 853, 874, and 884, among others.

“Armenia has continued to ignore the resolutions…and the world has been comfortable with the status quo,” Suleymanov told JNS.org. “There is so much conflict around the world. As long as our conflict did not move to active warfare, it was easier just to ignore it or to refrain from putting pressure on Armenia to move toward demobilization.”

Further, while the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been source of conflict, Azerbaijan has succeeded in moving itself forward on several fronts. Firstly, in terms of tolerance, Azerbaijan is considered a pioneer among its autocratic neighbors (Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Russia, and Turkey). Established in 1918, Azerbaijan is the first secular Muslim-majority country built on the principles of a Western-style democracy. The first draft of its constitution granted equal rights to all citizens, including voting rights for women. Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan Rafi Harpaz has been quoted multiple times as saying that there is no anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan.

Secondly, Azerbaijan has championed the $45 billion international Southern Gas Corridor pipeline project to bring new gas supplies to the European market. This project, supported by seven governments and invested in by 11 companies, is arguably the global oil and gas industry’s most significant and ambitious undertaking yet.

The US government has made more than $10 billion in economic investments in Azerbaijan in recent years. In fact, the first large-scale Armenian attack in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict took place while Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was in the US to attend the fourth Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC. During this visit, which included a visit with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Azerbaijan-US relations were deemed close, cordial, active and strategic.

Reports that followed the first Armenian attack insinuated that the assault could have been a reminder by Russia, which has strained ties with the West, that no one in “their sphere” should be too cozy with the West. On this point, Suleymanov disagrees.

“I feel Russia is more…a proactive diplomatic power in the area….Moscow’s involvement is a good thing,” Suleymanov told JNS.org, noting that while US-Russia relations remain strained, he believes that regional powers could see the benefit of Azerbaijan’s strategic ties with the US and Israel.

“The rising tide lifts all boats,” added Suleymanov. “Like with the US, our relationship with Israel has resulted in a lot of economic growth for Azerbaijan — this is very helpful.”

Suleymanov admitted, however, that there is some cause for skepticism about Moscow’s role. For starters, he explained, Armenia in recent years has effectively become an extension of the Russian military in the region. In recent months, Armenia announced that in addition to joining the Eurasian Customs Union (the Russian-led alternative to the European Union) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (the Russian-led alternative to NATO), Armenia would coordinate all foreign affairs with Moscow. This comes on top of the $200 million export loan Russia provided Armenia in February to finance the delivery of Russian military products, including Russian Smerch rocket launchers and ammunition, Igla-S air defense missile systems, RPG-26 grenade launchers and more.

“We actually pay for what we buy,” said Azerbaijan’s Suleymanov. “The Armenian side gets them subsidized or for free. This is an issue that Azerbaijan has raised with its Russian counterparts….We want Moscow involved, but we cannot just have one side involved in the forming of a comprehensive settlement. We need Russia, the United States, and France to produce a balanced settlement.”

Sporadic efforts have been made by the Minsk Group — co-chaired by France, Russia and the US — to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since the original regional cease-fire in 1994.

According to Woodrow Wilson Center’s Zaman, Russia has managed to “play a double game,” arming both sides and ensuring that no other regional powers step in. She also explained that Turkey and Azerbaijan have had historically strong relations, while Turkey and Armenia have had historically strained relations due to Turkey’s refusal to heed others’ insistence that it give an official genocide designation to the mass killing of Ottoman Armenians in 1915. Tensions between Russia and Turkey have also been on the rise in recent months, especially since Turkey admitted to shooting down a Russian warplane that violated its airspace last November.

“There was a moment when people thought Armenia was moving away from the Russian orbit,” said Zaman, recalling a period when Turkey considered opening its border with Armenia, which would have allowed more Armenians to be employed in Turkey, among other benefits. But the deal never went through, and the Turkish-Armenian border has remained closed since 1993.

“Trade between Turkey and Armenia would have been to Azerbaijan’s benefit,” Zaman said. “One of the reason Armenia is sort of hawkish about Nagorno-Karabakh is because it fears a Turkey-Azerbaijan alliance against it, which is rooted in reality.”

Zaman said she expects it will be a long time before this conflict is solved, and that there will be more violence, unless the Minsk Group’s three nations can act together. She said there is no one country that on its own could be “an honest broker.”

Yet Israel, Zaman believes, has the potential to positively influence both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

“Israel has always had extremely good relations with Azerbaijan,” said Zaman. “But if you look at history, I think there needs to be greater [Israeli] awareness of where Armenians are coming from in all of this. Let’s not forget [the] 1915 [genocide]. The Armenians sense of insecurity is surely one Israelis can relate to.”

Zaman argued that while Israelis must first consider their own security situation by recognizing Azerbaijan as a strategic ally in the battle against Iranian nuclear proliferation, Israelis should also “feel empathy for this other country (Armenia) that suffered horribly in the way Jews did later in the century, and perhaps use its influence to promote peace in the region.”

“If indeed we have a full-fledged war between these two, it is not hard to imagine Turkey involved in some way on the Azerbaijani side,” she added. “Then I can see Iran helping Armenia. Instability in the Caucuses region is always going to be very destabilizing for the wider region. There would be multiple negative ripple effects.”

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  • Lia

    Time to defund both the UN and Amnesty International: neither is any longer regarded as a quotable source & yet people keep on doing it …

  • Doug1943

    What we need to do is this: Recognize the messy, bloody, imperfect, hard-to-define-in-practice principle of regional self-determination?

    This requires defining what the smallest viable — capable of independent national existence — ‘regions’ are, and then declaring that their national-state affiliation should be determined by majority vote of those living there. The smaller the viable unit, the less likely you are to have overlapping, interpenetrated tribes/peoples/nations — which are the cause of 90% of the ‘hot’ conflicts in the world today.

    This would involved ‘population transfer’ — let the rich nations pay those ‘transferred’ compensation.

    It’s not a perfect solution == there is nonne — but it would be better than endless tribal war.

    Let every nation declare its support for this principle — including the US and Russia and India and China: if Chechnya or Hawaii want to separate or Kashmir or Tibet want to leave, let them.

    Of course, at the moment, this proposal appears naive or insane. But if enough thoughtful people begin to support it, it won’t be.

    After all, independence for the colonies, votes for women, legal equality for homosexuals, once appeared either impossible of attainment, or insane.

    • Robert Sklar

      I agree, all land disputes should be resolved regionally. NK is Armenia; South Azerbaijan is Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan should not be fighting each other, rather they should join forces to liberate SA. It is time for a Kurdish state.Paris talks re Israel and Palestinians without addressing all regional land disputes is self-defeating and useless.

  • ESLombard

    I confess to knowing less than nothing on this subject, but wouldn’t it be a good time for Russia to use its presence in Syria while rehabilitating it, to establish a base to counter the US in Israel. It presents all kinds of advantages along
    with very large Russian Jewish and non Jewish populations. So much for US intrusion in Crimea.

    • Seth Lefkoe

      ESLombard………You could have stopped at .”less than nothing”. Nothing in your comment made any sense. Russia rehabilitating Syria? A base to counter US presence in Israel? US intrusion in Crimea? Rather than the sheer ignorance of your comment, I’d almost rather read the spittle-spewing rants of the semi-literate trailer-trash who inhabit the internet between six-packs.

  • Israel

    Thank you both Jack and Harold. I was uncomfortable reading this article. It seemed so “plausible” but very one-sided. I was waiting for the author to add that Azeris were much like “Palestinians” and merely wanted what was “theirs”. Your historical background to the conflict brought clarity to the situation. It appears that some Azeris are much like some Palestinians but that is not positive.
    Am Yisrael chai!

    • No the Azeris are More like Kurds

      No the Azeris are More like Kurds

  • Sounds good but aren’t the Armenians related to Haman y”l

    Sounds good but aren’t the Armenians related to Haman y”l

    • Jack Schwartz

      According to the Book of Esther, Haman was descended from Agag, king of the Amalekites, the Arabian tribe of `Amaliq or `Amaleq. Velikovsky believed that the tribe of `Amaleq were the Hyksos –called `Amuw in ancient Egyptian– mentioned by Manetho. He also speculates that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was one of the Hyksos whom he saw as the tribe of `Amaleq.

      Anyhow, according to Sefer Esther, Haman was descended from an Arab tribe, not from Armenians. Where did you get that notion?
      המן היה אגגי
      זאת אומרת שהיה צאצא עמלק

      • That’s important someone said that the Armenians had a fast coincided with the smiting of Haman

        Someone said that the Armenians had a fast coincided with the smiting of Haman.

  • Jack Schwartz

    Why did this article not follow the rules of journalism by interviewing an Armenian official?

    The version of history presented in the article is ridiculous. Nagorno-Karabakh, the part-Russian, part-Turkish name for what Armenians call Artsakh, has had an Armenian majority population for centuries. Under Soviet rule, Artsakh was an ASSR [autonomous soviet socialist republic]. In the 1920s, for whatever reason, Stalin placed Artsakh within the state structure of the Azerbaijan SSR, as an ASSR subordinate to the traditional Azeri Muslim enemies of the Armenians. So there is no moral basis for the Azeri claim to Artsakh, just a decision by Stalin.
    As to “internationally recognized”, surely this hypocritical phrase fails to recall that Kossovo was recognized as part of Serbia, yet the US & Europeans insisted on “self-determination” for Kossovo which had driven out the Serbian Christian population just a few years before. While we are at it, the Ukrainian claim to the Crimea has no moral basis. After Stalin’s death, his successors, led by the Ukrainian Khrushchov transferred the Krim arbitrarily from the Russian RFSSR to the Ukrainian SSR. Does anyone want to die to restore the Krim to the Ukrainians or to restore Artsakh to Azerbaijan?
    Lastly, why did Azerbaijan start the fighting a few weeks ago? They don’t mind escalation just as long as they win. But they did not, so their ambassador says that they don’t want escalation.

    • Arnold Pinsley

      Excellent history, Jack. The real problem with the article and comments is that no one is talking about what the Mullahs and Oligarchs really want – that awfully cheap oil in Baku. Armenia has been under Russian protection since the fall of the Byzantine Empire. It is quite true that there was a slaughter of Armenians by the ‘Young Turks’ who took the reins of power in Turkey during WW I, but the Armenians sided with Russia and the Turks sided with Germany – this is not meant to justify the slaughter that ensued but it provides some perspective. Of course, Jews and Gypsies sided with no one in WW II and that caused the death of more than 11 million Jews and three million Gypsies(Soviet Archives). I guess if you really want to exterminate a group of people, any excuse or none at all will do.

  • Harold

    The claims in this uninformed piece are that Azeribaijan is a democracy and a pillar of economic strength, yet the crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan is barbaric. Read the Amnesty International report: https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/europe-and-central-asia/azerbaijan/
    Second, you site UN resolutions: start by honoring the UN resolutions (namely, the Whitaker report) regarding the Armenian genocide committed by the Turks and Turkey ally Azerbaijan. This UN genocide resolution proceeds the ones you site and Azerbaijan continues to deny this crime against humanity.
    Thirdly, Azerbaijan’s oil reserves are dwindling and its sovereign wealth fund has burned more than half its assets to the tune of $35 billion in two years. A civil war looms in Azerbaijan if the deficit is not plugged and more spent on social programs. Bye bye Aliyev and your dictatorship. Enter Islamic fundamentalists, or a military style junta.
    Fourthly, Azeris triggered this conflict with their pogroms in Sumgait and Baku where Armenians once accounted for 17% of Baku’s population (1959) and 10% in 1998. In an act of ethnic cleansing, there are now no Armenians in Baku or Sumgait. Armenians, and their ancestors, the Urartians, have lived in the region since 700 BC. Coca Cola is older than the state of Azerbaijan (1918).

    • Ted U.

      Wait a minute…Amnesty International claims Israel commits war crimes against the “palestinians” on a daily basis.
      UN Resolutions? how many are passed against Israel?
      I think those two “organizations” are as credible as the “palestinians” themselves.

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