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Baku in “conflict pentagon”: what will this regional tug of war end in?

President Ilham Aliyev in Tehran while meeting with Ayatollah Khamenei and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani. Photo: shia-news.ru

Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all becoming parties to the Syrian war. If they clash, the conflict may expand and reach the South Caucasus. The key threat for Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia today is the possibility of a serious conflict between Russia and Turkey. Both the Russians and the Turks are very active in the Caucasus and had contradictions long before the Syrian war. More and more sources worldwide are beginning to mention the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh as one of the key links of the Russian-Turkish confrontation. In the meantime, NATO has sent its ships to the Georgian port of Batumi. Some Georgians are happy about this, but some of them realize that this is making Georgia a target for Russia.

Erdogan’s probing in Ganja

Even though in Munich Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry have agreed on ceasefire, some experts are skeptical. Expert on the South Caucasus and the Middle East Nadana Fridriksson warns that the Syrian crisis may grow into a big war.

Fridriksson doubts that the terrorists fighting in Syria will comply with the Munich decisions. Munich may cause a small pause in the crisis but this pause may prove to be ominous. ISIL is sure to attack Assad’s forces, the latter will respond and the world community will regard all this as a breach of the Munich accords and will qualify this as Assad’s attack on the opposition. And all this will grow into a big war.

According to Fridriksson, Azerbaijan is now trying to keep aloof from both the Syrian crisis and the Russian-Turkish confrontation. Multi-vector policy was the best option for the Azerbaijanis but now it is no longer possible, so, they will sooner or later be drawn into the Syrian conflict. “I don’t mean that Azerbaijani soldiers will fight in Syrian deserts. Simply, the West may urge Azerbaijan to join its coalition with a view to keep it away from the Russian-Iranian tandem. For the Azerbaijanis too this tandem is not the best prospect as if they join it, they may spoil their relations with the Turks. But as soon as they join any coalition involving Turkey, they will see a cold shoulder from Moscow. So, Erdogan’s forthcoming visit to Ganja may become a turning point for Russian-Azerbaijani relations. So, let’s hope that the Azerbaijanis will find ways to avoid a choice,” Fridriksson said.

Ilham Aliyev’s forthcoming visit to Tehran (which may follow Erdogan’s visit to Ganja) will be a search for options. Aliyev will well consider what Erdogan will tell him and weigh all risks, including the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and will try to find a solution in Iran. Aliyev has always been flexible. So, let’s hope that Russia will stop pressuring Azerbaijan and will try to help its ally to find a way-out of this situation,” the expert said.

Iran and Azerbaijan

When asked to comment on Azerbaijani-Iranian relations, First Vice President of the Center of Strategic Development Modeling Grigory Trofimchuk called Iran and Azerbaijan direct rivals.

“When the West prevented Iran from trading, Azerbaijan was in good stead. The only way for the sides to stop their rivalry and to keep oil prices from falling is to unite economically. Otherwise, they may face even deeper problems, including in South Azerbaijan,” the expert said.

According to him, today the Azerbaijani-Iranian relations are tense as the Azerbaijanis are not pleased with the Iranians’ economic contacts with the Armenians.

Besides, the Azerbaijanis realize that not all the anti-Iranian sanctions have been lifted and that the key reason why the Americans lifted some of the sanctions was to let the Iranians to influence the oil market and to set them against Russia. “The Iranians are not planning to pressure the Russians but this may happen against their will. For the Azerbaijanis now it is better to be friends with the Russians than with the Iranians. On the other hand, if Azerbaijan wants the region to be stable, it will have to develop its relations with Iran,” Trofimchuk said.

Russia vs Turkey and Azerbaijan

Russian political analyst Vitaly Zhuravlev has told EADaily that Russian-Turkish relations are quite complicated and today the parties have fighting not only for Syria but also for geo-political influence in the region.

“The Eurasian project is opening up wide prospects for Russian-Turkish economic and cultural cooperation. In fact, both countries have fallen in a trap: they both realize that their conflict will have very bad consequences for them but have no efficient mechanisms and sufficient political will to find a solution,” Zhuravlev said.

Azerbaijan is facing a hard situation now. Its economy is declining because of falling oil prices. “Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is based on a balance of interests in the Russia-Turkey-Iran-the US-the EU pentagon. Here, we have historical, geopolitical and geo-economic factors. But it is becoming increasingly hard for the Azerbaijanis to keep this pentagon in balance as some of its angles are in conflict with one another,” the expert said.

He believes that Azerbaijan should not be viewed in the Russian-Turkish context only. He expects the United States and Turkey to try to involve Azerbaijan in their anti-Syrian coalition and to tear it away from Russia. They may expert diplomatic, economic and information pressure. They may use pro-western Azerbaijani mass media for anti-Russian propaganda. And some Russian mass media may react to this as in Russia too there are people who want to see Russian-Azerbaijani relations spoiled.

According to Zhuravlev, the Azerbaijani authorities realize that ban relations with Russia will not be good for their country. “There are lots of Azerbaijanis living in Russia. Besides, no more contacts with Russia will mean full control from the West,” Zhuravlev said.

He added that the best policy for Baku now would be diplomacy to not to be involved in the Syrian war and to preserve friendly or at least neutral relations with all the region’s states, including Russia and Turkey. “Baku might become a venue for Russian-Turkish talks. I don’t mean official meetings but some expert conferences or people’s diplomacy,” Zhuravlev said.

Anar Guseynov, analyst (Baku, Azerbaijan), specially for EADaily

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