Opinion |

Turkey's Trojan Horse and Iran Appeaser Azerbaijan Is No Ally for Israel

Thanks to the Gulf, Israel no longer needs its oil-for-arms alliance with a Baku in bed with Erdogan’s ultranationalist military adventurism. For moral and strategic reasons, Israel should now pivot towards Armenia

Alex Galitsky
Alex Galitsky
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Yusuf, a six-year-old boy from Azerbaijan with his face painted in the colours of the Azerbaijan flag at a protest against Armenia. Istanbul, Turkey, October 4, 2020
Yusuf, a six-year-old boy from Azerbaijan with his face painted in the colors of the Azerbaijan flag at a protest against Armenia. Istanbul, Turkey, October 4, 2020.Credit: Emrah Gurel,AP
Alex Galitsky
Alex Galitsky

It’s no secret that Turkey’s relationship with Israel has been in precipitous decline for the last decade. Despite a short-lived attempt at reconciliation, it is impossible to conceal the fact that Turkey sees Israel as a major obstacle to its international adventurism.

But with the deterioration of Turkey’s relationship with Israel and the West, and Israel’s normalization of relations with the Muslim world, where does that leave Israel’s relations with Turkey, and its proxy Azerbaijan? And what is Israel’s role in the accelerating conflict between Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, and its neighbor, Armenia?

HAARETZ PODCAST: A very close call for Netanyahu and Mossad chief at the White HouseCredit: Haaretz

Israel has become one of Azerbaijan’s closest military partners in recent years, an example of cognitive dissonance that has become all the more unfathomable in light of Azerbaijan’s recent instigation of war against Armenia and the Armenian-majority enclave of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh.

This war, backed directly by Turkey, has seen Turkish F-16s provide cover, while Israeli-made UAVs rain terror on civilian populations. Reports have also emerged of an ‘air train’ of Azerbaijani cargo planes transporting military assets from Israel during the course of the fighting.

Israel’s complicity in Azerbaijan’s war, through the sale of weapons used against the Armenians of Artsakh - in defiance of an OSCE embargo - begs the question as to what interest Israel has in finding itself on Turkey’s side, in the most significant violation of a ceasefire established in 1994.

Still from video released by the Azerbaijan Defense Ministry: a UAV flies over an Azerbaijani attack on Armenian artillery during fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Oct. 1, 2020.Credit: ,AP

For Armenia, the continued deployment of Israeli-made drones is unacceptable, triggering the decision to recall its ambassador to Israel - just weeks after it opened its Tel Aviv embassy.

It may have been understandable, though still unconscionable, if Israel had no other choice but to rely on Azerbaijan for oil in exchange for arms. But with Israel’s normalization of relations with the UAE and Bahrain, and more agreements on the way, Azerbaijan’s value to Israel both reputationally, as its only Muslim-majority partner, and strategically, as a major oil provider, has been radically diminished.

For Turkey - which has been deploying increasingly hostile rhetoric against Israel in an attempt to unite the Islamic world - normalization is a challenge to its status in the region, and negates the value of its trojan horse, Azerbaijan. This goes towards explaining Turkey’s noisy outrage at the UAE and Bahrain for their normalization of ties with Israel, despite the fact Turkey was the first Muslim-majority state to recognize it and still enjoys both diplomatic and economic ties.

Over the past decade, Turkey has sought to position itself at the center of the world’s most contentious geopolitical issues: exploiting a refugee crisis to hold hostage the European Union it once sought to join, supporting the Free Syrian Army to overthrow Assad while cooperating with Russia, occupying Northern Syria with the backing of the United States to cleanse the region of the U.S.-backed Kurds, its posturing in Libya and the Mediterranean, and now in its backing of Azerbaijan’s genocidal war against the Armenian people.

But while Turkey’s geopolitical entanglements may have earned Erdogan near universal scorn, one alliance has remained constant: with Azerbaijan.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Jeikhun Bayramov and Defence Minister Sakir Hasanov in Ankara, Turkey August 11, 2020.Credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/ REU

Turkey and Azerbaijan’s relationship dates back to the latter’s founding in 1918. The Ottoman Empire, desperately seeking to retain its waning regional influence, sought to establish a proxy in the South Caucasus. It aided local pan-Turkic nationalists to establish a state, which in turn assisted the Ottomans in the genocide of the region’s Armenian population.

Azerbaijan would later be absorbed into the USSR. 70 years later it emerged into a war to eradicate the indigenous Armenian population of Artsakh after they voted in two separate referendums in overwhelming favor of unification with Armenia in 1988, and for independence from the Azerbaijani SSR in 1991.

The came a moment of geopolitical déjà vu: the Ottoman Empire’s successor was the first country to recognize Azerbaijan as an independent post-Soviet state, and support its ethnic cleansing of Armenians. Much like their predecessors in the early 20th century, Azerbaijan and Turkey’s ultranationalist pan-Turkic dream, the same ‘vision’ that led to the Armenian genocide, has been codified in the shared national philosophy of "one nation, two states."

The extent of the relationship has been on full display during Azerbaijan’s coordinated assault on Armenia, which has seen Turkey transport Syrian mercenaries to the front line, and take full control over Azerbaijan’s aerial operations.

Yet despite its inseparable ties with Turkey, Azerbaijan has sought to strengthen ties with Israel. Azerbaijan has long predicated the relationship on the myth that it is a "country of tolerance," parading the existence of its dwindling and deeply isolated Jewish community as a means of cementing its place as the only Muslim-majority state with any meaningful relationship with Israel.

Protesters take part in a demonstration in support of Armenia, in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece. Oct. 3, 2020.Credit: Giannis Papanikos,AP

In reality, a "country of tolerance" Azerbaijan is anything but. From its attack on free press, free speech, and free assembly, to its blatant institutionalization of anti-Armenian racism that has seen the state incite and endorse acts of anti-Armenian violence, and its president describe Armenia as a "country of no value" that is "not even worthy of being a servant" - it is clear ‘tolerance’ is little more than a facade.

The Israel-Azerbaijan relationship has always been transactional - and not only in terms of its ‘oil for arms’ agreement. Azerbaijan sees its deepening ties with Israel as a means of earning favor in Washington, a strategy confirmed by Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the U.S. as he explained why the UAE’s recent normalization with Israel meant kudos in DC.

Azerbaijan has sought to embed Jewish community groups in the United States into this cynical manipulation by posing as a champion of "interfaith dialogue."

But closer ties with Israel haven’t stopped Azerbaijan from cosying up not onto to Turkey but to Israel’s implacable enemy: Iran. Iran and Azerbaijan have in recent years deepened their relationship, with Hassan Rouhani describing more substantial relations with Azerbaijan as a top priority. Iranian officials have also recently expressed their strong support for Azerbaijan in the midst of the current conflict.

In fact, Azerbaijan has been cooperating with Iran for years: From selling the country a 10 percent stake in one of its major oil pipelines, to funneling millions of dollars into state-linked Iranian companies as part of a major money laundering scandal (in which Israel’s big aerospace player IAI was also recently implicated).

A protestor stands with members of the Armenian Youth Federation during a protest outside the Azerbaijani Consulate General in Los Angeles. Sept 30, 2020.Credit: VALERIE MACON - AFP

Furthermore, despite its efforts to play up relations with Israel, Azerbaijan has consistently refused to establish full diplomatic ties and open an embassy, due to pressure from Iran, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and Turkey.

Despite its constant appeasement of the Iranian regime, Azerbaijan has still sought to steer Israel and the West away from Armenia. One key myth it pushes is the idea that Armenia, not Azerbaijan, that is beholden to Iran.

What isn’t mentioned, of course, is that Iran constitutes one of Armenia’s only available trade routes - because of a unilateral and illegal blockade Azerbaijan and Turkey maintain across 80 percent of the landlocked country’s borders. Nevertheless, despite its partial reliance on Iran for trade, Armenia has never allowed its foreign policy to be dictated by others.

Like any transactional relationship, the alliance between Israel and Azerbaijan, not anchored in real shared values, is hostage to pragmatism. And Israel now has better offers and better partners than Azerbaijan: in the Gulf.

Both Washington and Tel Aviv may have indulged Azerbaijan’s "minority-friendly" fantasies to keep close to the oil-rich and geopolitically strategic Muslim-majority state. But neither state has an interest in backing Azerbaijan’s complicity in Turkey’s destabilization of the region; and Israel’s normalization of ties with the UAE and Bahrain promises to afford Israel the same benefits as the relationship with Azerbaijan, but without the baggage.

Turkey’s geopolitical posturing, or neo-Ottoman delusions, has become a major cause for concern for both NATO and Israel. Turkey’s enabling of Azerbaijan’s aggression against Armenia risks embroiling the entire region in conflict. The silence and indifference of Western powers has provided Russia, Turkey and increasingly, Iran, the opportunity to monopolize any ceasefire process.

The risk of cooperation between three regionally contiguous and revisionist powers, Ankara, Moscow and Tehran should be clear to the West and Israel.

And if the chilling strategic facts aren’t enough, there is another overwhelming reason for Israel to pivot away from Baku and towards Yerevan. Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has called in no uncertain terms what Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s backing, is attempting today the continuation of the genocide that their forebears began 105 years ago.

For Israel and the Jewish people, who like the Armenian people know very well what happens when the world enables and appeases genocidal dictators, this shouldn’t even be up for debate.

Alex Galitsky is Communications Director of the Armenian National Committee of America’s Western Region, the largest Armenian grassroots advocacy organization in the U.S. Twitter: @algalitsky

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