Outside observers don’t have a clear idea who started the latest rounds of artillery shelling between the Azerbaijani army and the pro-Armenian separatists, in what has been described as the worst fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave since the ceasefire in the Azerbaijan-Armenia war in 1994. The roots of the war are in the ancient enmity between the Christian Armenians and the Muslim Azeris and for over quarter of a century now, has been the result of the messy dissolution of the Soviet Union which left an area with an ethnic-Armenian majority, which wants to join Armenia, within Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory.
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In the 22 years since the ceasefire, the fighting occasionally flares up, far from the eyes of the international media, since the regimes on both sides have no interest in seeking a peaceful solution while they can boost nationalistic fervor and divert attention from domestic problems with stories of victory and accusations of war crimes. Both sides need this diversion now particularly, with the kleptocratic family of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev continuing to plunder the country’s riches while suppressing civil rights and Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan, who launched his political career leading the battle for Nagorno-Karabakh, preparing for the end of his second, and last term, according to Armenia’s constitution.
Azerbaijan has two strategic advantages over Armenia – it surrounds the enclave on all its frontiers and its army is larger and better-equipped, thanks to the billions of income from the oil and natural gas on the on the shores of the Caspian Sea and under its water. Armenia is smaller and much poorer, but it has the military support of Russia, which maintains army bases in its territory and has offered, or threatened, to send a “peace-keeping” force to the beleaguered enclave. The Russians have been quite openly saying that if Azerbaijan tries to retake Nagorno-Karabakh by force, they may join the Armenian side. Fostering separatists within the former republics of the Soviet Union is Russia’s way to preserve its influence in the former satellites and “punish” the states which try to get closer to the west. It’s the method Moscow has used in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, as in Azerbaijan. Not that it stops them from selling arms to both sides in the conflict.
Russia is not alone. Despite Azerbaijan’s dismal human rights record, many countries are eager for a piece of its energy market. But the plummeting of oil prices and the Aliyevs lack of willingness to carry out reforms hasn’t allowed relations with the west to get any warmer. President Aliyev has actually been trying to get closer to Moscow recently. Russia is also one of the leaders of the “Minsk Group” which together with France and the U.S., head a diplomatic coalition formed in 1992 to oversee the ceasefire and try to seek a peaceful solution – but for 24 years they haven’t been getting anywhere with that.
Despite its geographical distance, Israel is also a player. In recent years Azerbaijan has become Israel’s main supplier of oil, through the pipeline which passes also through Georgia and Turkey, while, according to foreign sources, Azerbaijan has become a major client for Israeli arms, including drones and air-defense systems. The importance of Azerbaijan, which is described by Israeli diplomats as “a strategic partner," has grown as the relations between Israel and Turkey have deteriorated. Azerbaijan, a secular-Muslim country is a neighbor-rival of Iran and serves as a “backdoor” to Israel’s biggest enemy. Senior officials in Baku don’t hide the exchange with Jerusalem – Israel supplies weapons to help maintain the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Azerbaijanis provide a glimpse of what’s happening across the border in Iran.
Azerbaijan also hopes Israel will in the future use the pipeline it owns in partnership with Turkey for Israeli natural gas shipment. The Azeris see Turkey as their sister-nation (and Turkey doesn’t even have diplomatic relations with Armenia) – Israel’s reluctance to recognize the Armenian genocide carried out by Turkey during the First World War is partly due to the strategic ties with Azerbaijan. Israel has no interest either in a solution now for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as that would lead to a loss of leverage in the relationship.
Despite the renewal of hostilities, neither side is likely to escalate the situation as far as a full war which neither country can win. The 150 thousand poor residents of the enclave pay the price, as do hundreds of thousands of Azeri refugees deported from Armenia and Armenian refugees deported in the other direction, as do young freezing conscripts under fire on the frontlines which don’t move in a conflict which no-one has been interested in solving for 22 years.