The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

October 8th, 2020 - by Jonathan Fenton-Harvey / The New Arab

How the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict Could Spiral into a Proxy War

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey / The New Arab

LONDON (October 6, 2020) — The “frozen conflict” between Armenia and Azerbaijan has re-erupted and attracted international concern, with the UN calling for emergency talks this week amid fears of a full-blown war.

Clashes started in late September over the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory, which Armenia captured in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Violence has continued despite ceasefire calls.

Turkey has backed Azerbaijan against what it calls Armenian ‘aggression’, demanding that Armenia ends its ‘occupation’, while adding that its solidarity with Baku would “increasingly continue”.

While some media outlets claim Turkey is sending Syrian mercenaries to fight for Azerbaijan, Ankara strongly denies this. Yet Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that Turkey would “do what is necessary” when asked whether Ankara would offer military support if Baku asked for it.

This could trigger a response from Ankara’s adversaries, namely the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. Both Gulf states perceive Ankara’s assertive foreign policy as a threat to their hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East and North Africa, which are mostly prompted by counter-revolutionary and anti-Islamist agendas.

Abu Dhabi particularly holds enmity towards Ankara, as Turkey has jeopardized its ambitions in various countries, including Syria and Libya, and therefore aims to undermine Turkey wherever it can.

The UAE ‘escalated’ its support for Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar between January and April, sending over 150 weapons shipment flights in that period, while Ankara provided heavy military support to assist Libya’s internationally recognised government and repel Haftar.

Abu Dhabi also moved closer to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria last March, amid Turkey’s military campaign against Assad in support of the Syrian opposition. The UAE largely sought to merge Haftar and Assad into a unified anti-Turkey front. 

In the Horn of Africa, the UAE, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, has also tried to weaken Somalia’s central government since 2017, partly due to fears that Mogadishu was too close to Ankara. Abu Dhabi has since backed the autonomous government of Somaliland.

Even in the Balkans, the UAE’s investments with Serbia have soared since 2008, while it still retains colder relations with Bosnia, which is closer to Turkey, showing competition between Ankara and Abu Dhabi there.

Meanwhile, the UAE has developed stronger economic and defence relations with Armenia after various mutual visits between ministers over the last decade, as Abu Dhabi became an expansionist power. This indicates the UAE also seeks greater influence in the Caucasus region, and bolstering ties with Armenia could be a part of this.

Last February, Armenia’s Minister of High-Tech Industry Hakob Arshakyan led a delegation to the UMEX and SimTEX 2020 exhibitions in Abu Dhabi. Mohammed Ahmed Al Bowardi, the Minister of State for Defense of the UAE met with Arshakyan, and they discussed strengthening cooperation in both countries’ military industries and defence sectors.

Emirati leaders, including UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Price Mohammed Bin Zayed, and Ruler of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, sent cables of congratulations to Armenian President Armen Sarkissian on the country’s Independence Day on 21 September. Dubai’s eminent tower, the Burj Khalifa, also lit up with the tricolour of Armenia’s flag during the Independence Day, further showcasing their solidarity.

Armenia’s president Sarkissian also delivered an exclusive speech to the Saudi state-owned and Dubai-based broadcaster Al Arabiya, calling the international community to ensure Turkey does not intervene in the conflict. This is another case of Saudi and Emirati outlets platforming anti-Ankara views, which they have done previously, and indicates they could already be taking Armenia’s side.

Though Riyadh currently has no diplomatic relations with Armenia, Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman also congratulated Yerevan on its independence day, and the UAE may seek to bring both countries closer.

France has also offered solidarity to Armenia. Emmanuel Macron declared his concerns of what he called Turkey’s “warlike messages,” adding “we will not accept” Ankara aiding Azerbaijan in “what would be a reconquest of northern Karabakh.”

This could trigger a greater alignment between France and the UAE, who already see eye-to-eye on various foreign policy issues and have established strong relations, partly triggered by mutual opposition to Turkey. Ankara and Paris also have growing differences in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Furthermore, while Iran called for a ceasefire between the two, analysts argue that Tehran leans more towards Armenia, with whom it has established an ‘unlikely alliance’ over the last several decades.

Reports suggested Tehran is sending weapons to Yerevan, which the former denies. Anadolu Agency reported that Iran arrested 11 pro-Azerbaijan protestors on 30 September, suggesting a clear position from Tehran.

While such claims could make Riyadh more hesitant to back Armenia, Abu Dhabi’s growing relations with Tehran, despite its normalisation with Israel, may lead to further alignment between the UAE and Iran, to serve its ultimate aim of countering Ankara.

A key actor tipped to become involved is Russia. Moscow has strong cultural links with Armenia, partly due to their shared Orthodox Christian heritage. Vladimir Putin has more widely tried to assert influence over former Soviet Union territory, of which the former Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was a part. It also has a military base in Armenia and the two countries have a military pact. 

Moscow has played a relatively withdrawn role so far. On Tuesday, it called for a ceasefire between both parties and urged Ankara to also support it rather than siding with Azerbaijan.

“We call on all sides, especially partner countries such as Turkey to do all they can for a ceasefire and get back to a peaceful settlement of this conflict using political and diplomatic means,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

As with other conflicts in their early stages, Moscow is currently stand-offish. It also sells weapons to both countries. And given Russia and Turkey’s willingness to compromise elsewhere and maintain their relationship, namely Syria and Libya, a fall-out between the two is unlikely.

The UAE may hope that Moscow takes a greater stance in favour of Armenia against Turkey. Abu Dhabi aims to ride on and benefit from Moscow’s growing regional influence, having bolstered their ties in the Middle East and North Africa, and has even lobbied Russia to take its side in Yemen and Libya.

Though the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is in its early stages, observers should keep an eye on how Ankara’s adversaries respond, namely the UAE and Saudi Arabia, should it escalate further. Both countries would at least use this conflict as an excuse to isolate Turkey.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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