A regional conflict is quickly reaching an “irreversible point” where major military powers, including Russia, will be sucked in, which will almost certainly lead to even more bloodshed, one veteran diplomat has warned.
Which country has a thin strip of land could be all that is keeping the battle from becoming a far bigger war. Now Moscow is said to have taken its first clear step in choosing a side.
The two restless neighbors are in a deadly dispute over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but has been ruled by ethnic Armenians for decades.
Armed conflict erupted in late September after Azerbaijan, which is widely believed to be backed by arms and labor from Turkey, bombarded the disputed area in an attempt to retake it.
Since then, both sides have been accused of bombing positions and cities on the front lines.
Diplomatic efforts so far have proven unsuccessful.
A Russian-brokered truce was broken within a day; another agreement to put down weapons collapsed within hours; Last week, a US-backed deal to end the fighting lasted minutes.
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Carey Cavanaugh is a former US ambassador who led the 2001 peace effort over the same intractable dispute. He said if the current talks with Turkey, Russia, the US and France did not produce any real results, the fighting would almost certainly escalate.
“Outside of the nations, especially Turkey and Russia, could well enter the fight,” he wrote in a play for them Financial Times.
“The result would be a potentially astounding level of death, destruction and suffering.”
Iran, which borders both warring nations, has already warned that it will be forced to engage if more shells accidentally land on its territory.
Historically, both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks from Azerbaijan have named Nagorno-Karabakh as their home.
Since a war in the 1990s that killed 30,000 people, most of the area has been populated and ruled by ethnic Armenians who call it the Artsakh Republic.
Not a single nation recognizes Artsakh – not even Armenia – but it is supported by the Armenian government.
For decades there was a troubled truce. But not anymore.
Mr Cavanaugh said the main reason the conflict broke out again was Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan. His weapons have helped him reclaim some land.
“This external support and relative military success have generated widespread public support for the war effort in Azerbaijan.”
CONNECTED: Iran’s dark warning of Armenia, Azerbaijan conflict
SPIRALING OUT OF CONTROL
On Wednesday, Azerbaijan accused Armenia of killing 21 people and injuring dozens in a missile attack near the border. This was the deadliest reported attack on civilians in a month of fighting over the disputed region.
Armenia has refused to carry out the attack, the second in two days that Azerbaijan says civilians were killed in Barda district.
Yerevan, in turn, accused the Azerbaijani armed forces of deadly new strikes in civilian areas of the disputed region, as both sides claim the other was targeting civilians after weeks of violent clashes, AFP news agency reported.
The International Committee for the Red Cross said the shelling of urban areas was “appalling”.
“These latest stock exchanges signal that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could get out of hand,” said the regional director of the ICRC, Martin Schüepp.
Russia’s movement on a thin strip of land
There are growing fears of what could happen if a thin strip of land known as the Lachin Corridor is overrun by Azerbaijani forces.
The pass connects Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia and is an essential supply line for everything from food to weapons.
Azerbaijani forces have been reported to be approaching the strip.
“If this corridor is cut, the conflict is on the brink of humanitarian disaster,” said Cavanaugh, professor of diplomacy at the University of Kentucky.
This could result in the ethnic Armenians being captured in Nagorno-Karabakh and would likely force Armenia to step up its military response.
“This could result in Moscow acting in accordance with its mutual defense pact with Armenia, which in turn could trigger the entry of the Turkish military.”
Before that, Russia appeared unwilling to choose between two nations that were once part of the USSR.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had declared that his defense agreement with Armenia would only come into force if that country’s territory was threatened. Since Nagorno-Karabakh is not recognized by Armenia, he stated that Moscow had no reason to intervene.
But it looks like Russia will now take sides as the fighting nears Armenia’s internationally recognized borders.
A Russian news photographer is said to have seen a Russian camp in an Armenian village near the Lachin Corridor. It’s just a couple of tents and a Russian flag, but it’s a strong sign to approach the Azerbaijani armed forces so as not to cut your passport, Central Asian intelligence agency Eurasianet reported. Moscow is also supposed to deliver weapons to Yerevan.
The general situation will not be improved by the US being distracted by the election campaign and France and Turkey in a war of words over the treatment of Muslims after a teacher was beheaded in a terrorist attack in Paris.
Mohammed Ayoob, an international relations expert, wrote earlier this month for the think tank of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute that the “alarming” prospect of conflict was in the regional superpowers.
“Turkey has traditionally been a staunch supporter of Azerbaijan (while) Russia regards Armenia as a strategic ally, but Azerbaijan also as a strategic partner.
“So Russia will have a big problem if the conflict escalates.”
But that looks exactly how it could happen.
On Tuesday, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev downplayed the prospect of a diplomatic solution.
“There have been a lot of meaningless meetings in the past 28 years,” he said.
Armenia and Azerbaijan may be relatively small nations, but they each have much larger friends and enemies with a lot of firepower.
There is a very real prospect that Russian and Turkish troops will face each other on a front.
“The risk of an extended war is growing day by day,” said Cavanaugh.
“The conflict could soon reach an irreversible point where it will not end without a dramatic escalation of the fighting and increased loss of life.”
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