Is Nagorno-Karabakh The Next Syria?

Will the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan lead to another Syria-style war?

Kesh Anand
Oct 14, 2020 · 5 min read
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Somewhere between Europe and Asia lies a country — led by an authoritarian dictator and a ruling class hailing from the Shia Muslim community.

Here lies a country which forms a crucial link in an oil pipeline that feeds through to Europe.

Here lies a country with large portions of land occupied by hostile neighbours.

Here lies a country forming the front of an emerging proxy war — with Turkey supporting one side, and Russia the other.

How did we get here?

From time immemorial — people lived under governments whose right to rule them was based on the strength of their military.

Kings would conquer swathes of land with little regard for who lived on them; ruling over territory with force. This led to many “multi-ethnic” states around the world.

A notable change to this status quo occurred during the French Revolution when Louis XVI went from being the King of France; to King of the French.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — the fever of nationalism took hold of the globe. From Germany to Guatemala; and India to Israel — countries were formed based not so much on land but rather on nations of people.

It is in this context that the modern countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan were born — first as the Russian Empire collapsed about a hundred years ago; and again as the USSR disintegrated around 1990.

One of the unresolved conflicts stemming from these events was the status of Nagorno-Karabakh — an Armenian majority ethnic enclave entirely encircled by the country of Azerbaijan.

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Nagorno-Karabakh (in lilac) sits surrounded by Azerbaijan || Credit: aljazeera.com

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union; the majority of the denizens of Nagorno-Karabakh wanted independence from Azerbaijan. This triggered a war between Armenia (who wanted to cement this independence) and Azerbaijan (who wanted to prevent it).

The result was that Nagorno-Karabakh became a de facto independent state (known as the Republic of Artsakh), and Armenia took control of a large portion of Azeri territory.

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The brown region shows Azeri territory under Armenian control || Credit: bbc.com

What’s happening now?

Hostilities have flared up again — with the cease-fire being broken, and dozens of civilians and soldiers dead.

Martial law was declared and armies on both sides have mobilised.

This is not just a conflict between a country and a rebel province; nor is it even just a conflict between two neighbouring countries over a small patch of territory.

It has the potential to become much more.

This is due to who their friends are, and what is at stake.

Their Friends

Turkey and Azerbaijan share ethnic, linguistic, and religious ties — often described as “one nation in two states”. They also have a mutual defence treaty — where-in if one of them was attacked; the other would come to their aid.

Turkey’s membership in NATO, as well as being a strong regional power in its own right, has been a boon for Azerbaijan. In addition to rhetoric, Ankara has helped recruit fighters from Syria (including those from ISIS) to support the cause.

On the other side of the conflict; Russia and Armenia too have a close relationship.

Both are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CTSO); with one of Russia’s overseas military bases being located within Armenian territory. Russia also supplies Armenia with cheap weapons.

Should the conflict escalate, there is a real possibility that both Turkey and her allies as well as Russia and its, could all be dragged into a much larger and brutal war.

What’s at stake

Pipelines connect the oil and gas-rich Caspian sea to markets in Europe, Israel and Turkey.

These pipelines pass through Azerbaijan — either traversing very close to the Nagorno-Karabakh border and into Georgia and Turkey; or straight up through Russia.

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Azeri oil and gas pipelines || Credit: rferl.org + some edits by the author

Should conflict erupt in the region, it could easily disrupt the southern pipelines meaning a greater reliance on oil that passes through Russia.

Where to next?

One of two things will need to happen:

  1. Artsakh is given independence and Armenia withdraws from the Azeri territories it holds; or
  2. Azerbaijan continues to try and regain control of the wayward province and Armenian occupied territories.

If the former plays out — we may see a Kosovo style independent state emerge — with the likelihood that in time it will be annexed by Armenia proper in due course.

This is highly unlikely given how intrinsic the conflict zone is to the Azeri identity. One place this is evident is on Azerbaijani currency itself.

The backs of coins do not depict some monarch but the map of the very country — including Nagorno-Karabakh.

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Azeri join depicting map || Credit: enumista.com

On the other hand — if the conflict continues to escalate, it is Azerbaijan that is likely to come out worse for wear; despite all their demographic advantages.

It is unlikely the larger powers will confront one another directly over this mountainous province.

Rather it is likely that the proxy war already in play with both Turkey and Russia will simply increase in scale.

In fact, it is possible that Iran — which borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan would also enter the fray — most likely on the side of their co-religionists: Shia Azerbaijan.

Given the disparity in population, number of allies, and opinion of the international community — Armenia will be outgunned and eventually forced to withdraw to within their own borders.

The large swathe of Azeri territory that Armenia controls acts as a buffer zone, all but guaranteeing that the theatre of war will be contained to what is internationally recognised as Azerbaijan.

This will result in massive population displacement, damage to critical infrastructure, and potential ruination of the economy.

It may well end up as the next Syria.

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