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Karabakh after April: two victories and anticipation of new war

The April flare-up in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone pursued political rather than military goals. The military actions resulted in two victories. The Azerbaijani leadership was keen to achieve something to present it as a victory for the domestic audience. The victory of the Armenian side was the suspension of Azerbaijan’s offensive and prevention of a deeper frontal attack. However, 20 years after the war in Karabakh, the Azerbaijani side managed to take certain territories (800ha) by force, which is alarming. Experts from Russia, Turkey, Georgia, UK, and Armenia have arrived at such conclusion at the conference “Caucasus 2015.”

A “Yom Kippur War”: Was it really?

Experts avoid calling the military actions of early April in the Karabakh conflict zone as a war, since, historically, it was more like the “Yom Kippur War” of 1973 when Egypt unlashed war against Israel, says Alexander Iskandaryan, Director of the Caucasus Institute. 

“Then president of Egypt Anwar Sadat said he did not want the Sinai, he needed at least one square meter of Israel’s territory. During the April clashes, Karabakh or its big towns were not seized. There was a task to take several not big populated areas to present that as a victory and unite the public in the period of economic difficulties and why not to justify the billions of dollars spent on the defense field. Azerbaijan managed to take control of some territories and to show that as a victory. The victory of the Armenian side was that the offensive of Azerbaijan’s security forces were stopped by conscripts.

The Azerbaijani troops suffered big casualties. The Armenian army fulfilled the task set it, as the Azerbaijani Armed Forces did not manage to seize even one populated area through large-scale military actions. The military achievement of the Azerbaijani troops was an area equal to a potato field,” the expert says.

Maybe the Yom Kippur War historical analogy is good for the first episode, but it is not good for the others. The Arab-Israeli war of that period ended in the Camp David Accords of 1978 that was developed into a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in a year. Meantime, in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, there are not even “seedlings of the Camp David Accords.”  

“Quite the contrary, after the April escalation, there is a reverse process. The stances of the conflicting sides have just become more radicalized. Yet not so long ago, few in Armenia were shouting ‘not an inch of land,’ now this is in the vanguard of the national policy. This directly affects politicians and the negotiation process. At present, there is little area for maneuvering or concessions in the negotiations on Karabakh,” said Sergey Minasyan, a security expert. 

Although in Armenia, they are trying to downplay the importance of the territories seized by the Azerbaijani troops, amid Azerbaijan’s efforts to overvalue them, it is alarming that for the first time during 20 years, the Azerbaijani side has managed take any territory, says Alexander Krylov, President of the Moscow-based Scientific Society for the Study of the Caucasus, expert at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations.  In his words, Azerbaijan will soon return to its usual policy of exhausting Armenia through destabilization of the situation in the conflict zone.

Sergey Markedonov, an expert in the Caucasus, does not anticipate any significant changes in the conflict’s settlement despite the reanimated negotiations and the Vienna meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents.  He recalls that the presidents meet every time after the situation escalates in the conflict zone, but those meetings brokered by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs do not lead to any significant changes. “After the April hostilities, the format of the Minsk Group was left unchanged, the Madrid Principles too. The status of Karabakh was not changed either. Actually, no one has recognized Karabakh as an independent state like Kosovo. On the other hand, Azerbaijan did not cause any colossal damage to Karabakh and its infrastructures, like it happened to Srpska Krajina,” Markedonov explained adding that Moscow continues to moderate the conflict’s settlement.

Although Russia coordinates its actions with France and U.S. (the other co-chairs of the OSCE MG) in the Karabakh issue, for the conflicting countries Moscow is the key arbiter, the political analyst said. “After all, the ceasefire agreement of 1994 was brokered by Russia and was signed in Moscow. Many, starting from Iran up to Kazakhstan, tried to test their mediating capacities then, but failed,” Markedonov recalled.

Islam was absent; Turkey was present

Despite the statements on Azerbaijan’s ties with the “Islamic State” (a terrorist organization banned in Russia), there was no Islamic factor either in the April hostilities, or in the Karabakh war 20 years ago, said Ahmet Yarlikapov, the senior research fellow at the Center for Ethno-political Studies, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  In fact, the “Islamic State” does not care for Azerbaijan much, he said. That organization is now building its cells in the North Caucasus. Such attempts are stopped immediately in Azerbaijan with its secular dictatorship. Although several dozens of Azerbaijanis joined IS in the Middle East, Azerbaijan will hardly let them to Karabakh.  The secular authorities in Azerbaijan are well aware of the threats of religious radicalism,” the expert said.

He believes that Baku has another reason not to let the IS militants to the Line of Contact in Karabakh. “I am speaking about the confessions in Azerbaijan. The 2/3 of the population there are Shiites and 1/3 are Sunnites. In the Middle East, the conflict is raging between the Shiites and Sunnites. If the militants in the Middle East are let to Azerbaijan, they will become a political factor there and that religious conflict will spill over into Baku,” Yarlikapov said adding that such developments may spark domestic shocks too.

Actually, the only country in the region to support Azerbaijan’s actions in Karabakh was Turkey. Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish political analyst, Professor of Political Studies at the Istanbul University, said Ankara is little informed of the Karabakh conflict despite its rhetoric. During the days of the Karabakh conflict’s escalation, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Ankara supported Baku’s actions and would be supporting Azerbaijan “till the end.”

“Turkey has always been a party to the Karabakh conflict.  It happened after the failed Zurich protocols that looked to normalize the Armenian-Turkish relations. Baku’s influence on Ankara has increased sharply. Azerbaijan is one of the largest investors - nearly 20 billion dollars - in the economy of Turkey. In this light, Turkey supports Azerbaijan, though no one in Turkey, even the foreign minister, knows where particularly Karabakh is situated,” Aktar said adding that Turkey lacks wider grasp and “institutional knowledge” of the situation.

“Turkey is acting emotionally and in defiance of the diplomatic rules,” the expert said adding that the Turkish media is not very interested in covering the Karabakh conflict. “The Turkish press does not cover this conflict. Even during the days of the military actions, there was very little information about it. The only reliable information was provided by Agos newspaper. There was little information also about the Turkish army’s assistance to Azerbaijan. The issue was covered in 2008, but now that field is close for the press.  We know nothing about it,” Cengiz Aktar said.

“Karabakh” in Georgia: while searching for domestic stability

During the recent flare-up in the Karabakh conflict, Georgia tried to keep the balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan and inside the country.  “However, there was another challenge. There are densely populated Armenian and Azerbaijani regions in Georgia – Samtskhe Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli.  One could see certain mobilization in those regions, certain sympathy with those fighting on the frontline. No one knows how those communities would behave if the war lasted longer. The Azerbaijanis and Armenians would hardly clash directly in Georgia, but many might leave to the front in Karabakh,” said Giorgi Kanashvili, the Executive Director of the “Caucasian House” Center. He believes that the recent processes unveiled the low level of integration of the given communities in the Georgian public and political landscape.

Kanashvili refused to make any forecasts concerning the further developments in the conflict zone. Strange as it may seem, he said, Ilham Aliyev is the only guarantor of the non-resumption of a large-scale war in Karabakh.  “To unleash a large-scale war, the president of Azerbaijan needs, at least, 100% guarantee of victory and retention of power in case of failure. These guarantees he anticipates from the Big Powers, indeed,” Kanashvili said adding that Karabakh is not the key goal of the ruling regime in Azerbaijan. The regime seeks to maintain the domestic political status quo, i.e. to retain its grip on power and minerals, he said. “In this light, it is problematic and consequently impossible for him to unleash a war unless he is sure in his victory,” the Georgian expert explained.

He is sure that the authorities in Azerbaijan may unleash war in Karabakh only in case of serious democratic processes like “the revolution of roses” in Georgia. “Aliyev will have nothing to lose then,” Giorgi Kanashvili said for conclusion.

Prepared by Arshaluys Mghdesyan

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