Nagorno-Karabagh:  Cease-fire fails, casualties increase

The reported death toll in clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has reached about 600, with officials reporting more military and civilian deaths as the fighting continues despite a cease-fire announced over the weekend.

Nagorno-Karabakh military officials said Tuesday that 16 more of their servicemen have been killed in fighting, bringing the total number of dead among military members to 532 since Sept. 27, when the fighting started. Azerbaijan hasn’t disclosed its military losses, and the overall toll is likely to be much higher with both sides regularly claiming to have inflicted significant military casualties on one another.

Azerbaijani authorities said 42 civilians have been killed on their side in over two weeks. Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Artak Beglaryan late Monday reported at least 31 civilian deaths in the breakaway region. Hundreds more have been wounded.

 

AP:  Nagorno-Karabakh fighting raises threat of deadly escalation

The failure of the truce that was supposed to begin Saturday reflects the uncompromising positions of the two South Caucasus nations that have stymied decades of diplomatic efforts. The escalation of fighting raises the specter of a wider conflict that could draw in Russia and Turkey and threaten Caspian Sea energy exports.

 

Roots of the conflict

Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mostly by Armenians, was an autonomous region inside Azerbaijan during the Soviet era. Historic tensions between Christian Armenians and mostly Muslim Azerbaijanis exploded in the final years of the Soviet Union.

In 1988, the region sought to join Armenia, triggering hostilities that morphed into an all-out war as the USSR collapsed in 1991. By the time a 1994 cease-fire ended the fighting, an estimated 30,000 people had been killed and up to 1 million were displaced. Armenian forces not only held Nagorno-Karabakh itself but also seized substantial chunks of land outside the territory’s borders.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a forested, mountainous territory that covers about 4,400 square kilometers (1,700 square miles), the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, has run its own affairs ever since, relying on Armenia’s support.

 

Failed peace initiatives

Ever since Armenian forces routed Azerbaijani troops in the war, international mediators have sought a political settlement.

Russia, the United States and France, which co-sponsored the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have put forward numerous peace initiatives, but Armenia’s stiff resistance to surrendering any land has been a key stumbling block.

Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has relied on its oil wealth to modernize its military and now argues that it has the right to reclaim its land by force after nearly three decades of failed international mediation.

 

Military disparity

While separatist forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian military continue to rely mostly on aging Soviet-built weapons, Azerbaijan has completely revamped its arsenal with state-of-the-art attack drones and powerful long-range multiple rocket systems supplied by its neighbor and ally, Turkey.

More than two weeks of fighting has shown that Azerbaijan has clearly outgunned the Nagorno-Karabakh forces and put them on the defensive. Azerbaijani troops have made significant advances in several areas around Nagorno-Karabakh and showered its towns with rockets and artillery shells.

 

The spill-over  to broader regional tensions

Unlike previous outbursts of hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh, NATO-member Turkey, which has close ethnic, cultural and historic bonds with Azerbaijan, took a higher profile and vowed to help Azerbaijan reclaim its territory.

Armenian officials say Turkey is directly involved in the conflict and is sending Syrian mercenaries to fight on Azerbaijan’s side. Turkey has denied deploying combatants to the region, but a Syrian war monitor and Syria-based opposition activists have confirmed that Turkey has sent hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenian authorities also charge that Turkey provides Azerbaijan with intelligence and even air cover, claiming that a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down an Armenian warplane. Turkey and Azerbaijan have denied the claim, but Azerbaijan’s president admitted that Turkish F-16s have stayed on in Azerbaijan weeks after a joint military exercise. He insisted that they have remained grounded.

 

Conflicting goals

While Armenia aims to preserve the 1994 status quo in the region and desperately needs a cease-fire to contain the damage and regroup, Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s blessing, clearly is bracing for a long fight, hoping to bleed Armenia and force it to make concessions.

The escalation of fighting is a major challenge for Russia, which has a military base in Armenia but also has sought to maintain good ties with Azerbaijan and avoid a showdown with Turkey. Russia and Turkey have learned to accommodate mutual interests in Syria and Libya and have developed strong economic ties, but the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh could now shatter their alliance.

Azerbaijan and Turkey have accepted Russia’s mediation and grudgingly agreed to a truce, but they have made it clear that see the cease-fire as temporary until Armenia agrees to pull back its forces from Nagorno-Karabakh.

Landlocked Armenia, emaciated by three decades of Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades, lacks resources for a drawn-out conflict. But it can’t be expected to yield to pressure. Patriotic sentiments run high, and Armenians of all trades and ages have volunteered to go the front lines.

If Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh start losing ground, Armenia could raise the stakes in the conflict by recognizing the separatist region’s independence — something it hasn’t done yet — and openly challenging Azerbaijan militarily. So far, Armenian officials have denied making any strikes on Azerbaijan from its territory, a claim contested by Azerbaijan.

Armenia has several high-precision Iskander surface-to-surface missile systems supplied by Russia. It hasn’t used the powerful weapon yet, declared yesterday that it might be forced to do so, if Azeri advances continue.

If the Armenian forces target the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, or the newly erected natural gas pipeline called TANAP, Azerbaijan could also up the ante.

During the previous escalation of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan in July, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry boasted of its state-of-the-art missile systems that are capable of striking Armenia’s Metsamor nuclear power plant — a threat the Armenian authorities at the time denounced as “genocidal.”

If Azerbaijan openly strikes Armenian territory, Moscow would be obliged by its military pact with Yerevan to intervene militarily to protect its ally. Turkey could hardly be expected to stay idle too.

 

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Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and www.paraanaliz.com and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.