When fighting broke out in the South Caucasus between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, even professional foreign policy observers had to remind themselves of the where, who and why of this never-ending conflict.
While it looks like an obscure local dispute over some inland mountains that is of little concern to the world behind them, there are at least three big reasons the recent flare-up in this three-decade-old struggle matters across Western Asia.
Firstly, it is another demonstration of the Turkish leader’s disruptive ambitions to make his country more than just a regional power, as Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan supports Azerbaijan with words, weapons and allegedly Syrian mercenaries as well.
Erdogan’s application for membership has been slowed down by the European Union and has turned eastward with soft and hard force. It is a strategy known as Neo-Ottomanism, with much of Turkey’s efforts directed towards the former areas of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, West Asia and the South Caucasus.
Erdogan has expressed support for Azerbaijan’s offensive to retake Nagorno-Karabakh as part of a broader search for “Turkey’s deserved place in the world order”. In the same speech, he linked this to existing Turkish interventions in Libya and Syria.
Erdogan spoke a similar language when he met China’s President Xi Jinping last year, likening Beijing’s dream of achieving his “deserved place” on the world stage to Ankara’s aspirations. Turkey’s so-called Middle Corridor Plan, which is linked to Georgia and Azerbaijan, could be a key component of China’s Belt and Roads Initiative, Erdogan said, adding soft power features to geopolitics.
Turkish Airlines has also played a role in this soft power offensive. Measured against the more than 310 destinations served before COVID-19, Turkish Airlines is now the world’s largest airline. White goods also helped: The Turkish Beko refrigerators, washing machines and ovens are now sold in almost 150 countries.
In the meantime, the battle for Nagorno-Karabakh – Artsakh for the Armenians – has become a marketing opportunity for the tough power of Turkey. Turkish-made combat drones have given the under-regarded Azerbaijani military a potentially crucial advantage. The Turkish arms manufacturers are hoping for many new orders from all over the world. One of the reported selling points is that Turkish drone suppliers – like the refrigerators – have good customer service.
Tayyip Erdogan signs a drone on a military airfield in Batman in February 2018: Turkish suppliers have good customer service. © AP
This comes to the second reason why this Caucasus flare up is important: it is a preview of the ways more conflicts are likely to be waged in the future. Almost 20 years since the US became the first nation to use armed drones to kill during its post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan – after Israel first used them for surveillance purposes – the capability has become global. At least 100 nations now have military drones, and more than 20 countries have models that can fire missiles.
That said, there is much more competition in the drone business now, with China, the US, and Israel being even bigger players than Turkey. And Israel becomes well known through the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with its own kamikaze drones, which are also used by the Azeris.
Relations between Turkey and Israel may have bottomed out on a variety of Middle Eastern issues, but in the Caucasus they are on the same side – albeit for different reasons. Israel sells weapons to Azerbaijan, which in return supplies Israel with oil and keeps an eye on Iran. Although Azerbaijan, like Iran, has a Shiite Muslim majority, Tehran supports Christian Armenia. Then there is Russia, which has troops in Armenia but also sells weapons to Azerbaijan.
This is the third main reason Nagorno-Karabakh may be more important than many realize. In a hyper-nationalist world where the US is increasingly turning inward, the risk of minor conflicts that spark regional wars is all the greater.
The US is involved in the Minsk Group’s peace initiative together with Russia and France. With the trio trying to find a solution since 1992, they are unlikely to deliver now. A ceasefire attempt has already collapsed, and with the US elections only weeks away, no one expects Donald Trump to act. Even Moscow doesn’t seem sure how to react, as its interests are divided and crises in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus are attracting attention. The United Nations has called for a ceasefire but is trying again to prove its relevance.
Most striking is how other Asian powers are staking positions on Nagorno-Karabakh. Afghanistan and Pakistan have spoken out strongly in favor of Azerbaijan, while Indian public opinion is firmly on the Armenian side. An Indian television station even called the conflict the “gateway to World War III” and claimed that thousands had already been killed in mass attacks on drones.
Apart from evaluation-related disinformation, real warning lights flash. More than two weeks after the fighting broke out, there is no end in sight – hundreds of dead, at least 70,000 displaced persons and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are warning of a regional war if the fighting continues. With the US entangled and Russia still making up its mind, Turkish Erdogan does not seem able to quit.
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