What are the objectives and further options of the warring side in the Karabakh conflict, and how could this impact the future conflict resolution, and will the parties respect the second cease- fire they have announced on October 17?
The Azerbaijani side, which initiated this war, has placed its objectives in maximal terms. The President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has declared repeatedly since the start of the attacks that his aim was to capture territories lost during the 1993-94 period, including the Armenian inhabited areas of Karabakh, the object of this discord.
He added that there could be negotiations only after receiving guarantees for this aim. Those demands surpass earlier Azerbaijani positions, which promised “highest degree of autonomy” to Karabakh, and declare the solution of the conflict to be a military one. This does not exclude revision of those positions based on war results and international reaction.
Militarily, Azerbaijani forces achieved some success after two weeks of fighting. This success is due to the superior numbers of fighters at its disposal including Syrian mercenaries, and superior air power with Israeli and Turkish advanced drones. On the other hand, Azerbaijani military does not announce its military casualties and therefore we do not know the human price paid for this success. Azerbaijan has strict media control and censorship, and for the moment public opinion strongly supports the war effort. Therefore, Baku could be tempted to continue the operations for maximum gain.
If total victory reveals not possible, then Azerbaijan has two minimum goals: to achieve enough territorial progress to celebrate victory back home. This would ensure popularity for Ilham Aliyev, and shield his regime before the expected economic difficulties and possible social upheaval due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and fall of hydrocarbon income (75% of state budget and 45% of GDP in 2019). In July, during the short fighting on the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan, mass demonstrations erupted in numerous cities inside Azerbaijan, showing a popular demand for war. The question remains what will be considered as “symbolic victory” for the Azerbaijani public opinion that could strengthen Aliyev’s legitimacy? Also, will there be a blowback for the usage of mercenaries either in internal politics or in its foreign relations?
The second aim of Azerbaijan is to change the format of negotiations by including Turkey. The conflict resolution has been mandated to the “Minsk Group” of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), co-chaired by Russia, USA and France. This is equally the aim of Ankara, to become part of yet another international forum with major powers, to increase its international influence. But another aim of Turkey through its presence in the Caucasus is to project power in an area sensitive to two other states, Iran and especially Russia. Of course, Turkey is part of the Karabakh conflict since its early stages, not only diplomatically and by its implication in imposing a blockade against Armenia, but also militarily. By its increasing role in the Caucasus, Ankara strengthens its positions vis à vis Moscow in its broader strategic relationship, and could gain advantages elsewhere especially in Syria. It also strengthens Ankara’s influence over Azerbaijan, from where it now imports 20% of its natural gas.
For now, Ankara failed to ensure its place on the negotiations table: the humanitarian cease-fire deal reached on the early hours of Saturday October 10, between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers mediated by Lavrov in Moscow, the four short points did not mention Turkey, and insisted on preserving the current OSCE format of negotiations.
Militarily, Azerbaijani forces achieved some success after two weeks of fighting.
This success is due to the superior numbers of fighters at its disposal including Syrian mercenaries.
Karabakh Armenian forces lost two villages in the north-eastern of the enclave, where their military positions were unfavourable since the April 2016 four-days fighting. They also lost more territory in the south-east on the border with Iran, especially the town of Jebrayil, reaching to the outskirts of Hadrut. While the portion of Jebrayil is located in flatlands, defences in the mountainous parts of Karabakh that lacks air power favours the Armenian side. While Karabakh Armenians lack adequate defences against the Azerbaijani air power, and have fewer numbers of fighters, their territorial losses are more symbolic than strategic until now.
For Armenia and Armenians elsewhere, the massive Azerbaijani attack, plus active Turkish involvement, created existential angst. Armenians feel that they have no choice but to resist to an Azerbaijani-Turkish alliance that refuses to acknowledge Armenian rights to exist and live in a corner of the Caucasus. This existential fear is a potent force that led to global mobilization among Armenians, not seen for decades.
Diplomatically, Yerevan which represents the Karabakh Armenians within the OSCE negotiations, will have difficulty in preserving the former status quo. For long years, the negotiations were based on a clear formula: Azerbaijan accepts a political formula that guarantees the security of Karabakh Armenians through self-determination, in return Armenian side returns territories it occupied during the 1991-94 war. The delicate question of the territories in between Karabakh and Armenia that of Lachin and Kelbajar were the subject of various creative diplomatic suggestions. With the 2018 revolution in Armenia, the discourse changed on the conflict resolution, creating high hope within the Azerbaijani public opinion, but also a wait and see attitude among its ruling class. The initial discourse was one of democracy and inclusion, about peace between the two peoples and not just between two leaders. Yet, last year Yerevan’s positions hardened, probably because of internal political struggle in Armenia, challenging the negotiations format, creating much confusion. Armenia has to clarify what is the essence of the Karabakh struggle: land or the legitimate rights of Karabakh people?
The fighting of the last two weeks once again raised the passions, fears and mutual hatred between two neighbouring peoples,
making rational negotiations harder than before.
Russia is not a belligerent, adopted a balanced discourse reflecting its leading role as mediator, and might have the final say on the Karabakh conflict. It emerged as the sole mediator, while Turkey is a belligerent, the US absent and Europe divided. Russia has military alliance with Armenia, and two military bases there (Gyumri, and air assets at Erebuni Airport), but also interests in Azerbaijan, and cooperation with Turkey. Moreover, in Kavkaz 2020 military exercises, some 80’000 troops simulated a war in the Caspian area. Russia made clear that any extension of fighting to Armenia might activate the security agreements, but fighting in Karabakh does not seem to threaten yet Russian interests. The current war in Karabakh and especially the Turkish role is a challenge to Russia, but it might also be an opportunity. It is a challenge because it is seen weak to defend its ally Armenia while Turkey is active on the other side of the military operations. A question that remains open is how Russia will react to this new Turkish challenge, with positioning of fighter jets and attack drones, but also deploying large number of Islamist mercenaries to Azerbaijan. The region of the Caucasus remains the Achilles’ heel of Russia, where it fought two bloody wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Opportunity because Russia still keeps the diplomatic initiative, and the current war could offer Russia a new possibility to deploy its peacekeepers in the Karabakh conflict zone, an old Russian aim.
The fighting of the last two weeks once again raised the passions, fears and mutual hatred between two neighbouring peoples, making rational negotiations harder than before. Yet, a political solution to the Karabakh conflict is always possible, but has only one precondition: that conflicting parties listen to the fears and the hopes of the other side.