image Photo: Reuters

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict heats up

The decades-old conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia erupted into warfare again this past week, which has now escalated to its deadliest level in the South Caucasus region since the 1990s.

The two sides are fighting over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is recognized internationally as under Azerbaijani sovereignty, although it is populated and governed by an ethnic Armenian majority.

The fighting has increased international concern that other regional powers could be dragged into the conflict, and the United States, France, Russia and NATO are calling for immediate end of the clashes over the mountain enclave.

But prospects for a ceasefire appeared remote after fighting intensified at the weekend, with hundreds killed in clashes involving artillery, tanks and fighter planes since 27 September.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan of being the main instigator of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh during an interview with Russia’s RIA news agency published on Tuesday.

French President Emmanuel Macron has claimed that Turkey crossed a “red line” by deploying Syrian mercenaries to back the Azerbaijani campaign, which Ankara has denied. Videos posted on social media unable to be independently verified by TV7 purportedly show Syrians fighting on the Azerbaijani frontlines as civilians sought refuge from the attacks within churches.

Both sides accused each other on Monday of attacking civilian areas and said the death toll was rising from the deadliest fighting for more than 25 years. Azerbaijan said its cities outside Nagorno-Karabakh had been struck, taking the fighting closer to territory from which pipelines carry gas and oil from the former Soviet republic to Europe.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev demanded that Armenia withdraw its troops from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories, apologize for its military action, and formally declare that Nagorno-Karabakh is not part of Armenia. “We don’t have eyes on any other country’s lands, but what is ours should be ours,” he insisted in an interview shown by Turkey’s state broadcaster yesterday, echoing comments he made in an address to the nation on Sunday.

Armenia, which has a defense pact with Russia denies any assaults on civilian communities and maintains that it has only targeted military compounds in the area. Russian President Vladimir Putin convened his security cabinet for a discussion on the spiraling crisis over the weekend, and it remains unknown how the Kremlin will react to strong Turkish backing of Moscow’s ally Armenia.

Meanwhile, Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne announced yesterday that some of the drone technology his country exports to Turkey will be suspended while it investigates whether it has been used by Azerbaijan. Turkey has openly supplied drones to Azerbaijan in the past, and the Canadian arms control group Project Ploughshares says video of air strikes released by Baku indicates the unmanned aerial vehicles had been equipped with imaging and targeting systems made by L3Harris Wescam, the Canada-based unit of L3Harris Technologies Inc LHX.N.

Ankara responded with fury to Ottawa’s decision. “Turkey expects Canada to follow a policy free of double standards and to act without being influenced from those opposed to Turkey,” read a statement issued by the Turkish Foreign Ministry today, underscoring that, “There is no explanation of blocking defense equipment exports to a NATO ally while … Canada does not see any harm in exporting arms to countries that have military involvement in the crisis in Yemen.” Ankara also insisted that it honors all “obligations under its comprehensive export-control regime.”

Israel has also been drawn into the ethnic conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia declared last Thursday that it had recalled its ambassador to Israel for consultations over Israeli arms sales to Azerbaijan; which is believed to be one of the largest purchasers of defense weaponry from Jerusalem since the two countries formed relations after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Armenian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Anna Naghdalyan stated that “Israel’s workstyle is unacceptable.”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin immediately held a telephone conversation with his Armenian counterpart Armen Sarkissian at the latter’s request. Rivlin’s office issued a statement revealing that “the President expressed his sorrow at the outbreak of violence… and at the loss of life on both sides” in Nagorno-Karabakh. He added that Israel’s intentions are “not aimed against any side” and hope that Yerevan’s envoy will “soon” be returned. The Israeli leader also said that Jerusalem is prepared to send humanitarian aid to Armenia.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry expressed regret over the decision. “Israel attaches importance to our relations with Armenia and sees the Armenian Embassy in Israel as an important tool for promoting those relations for the benefit of both peoples,” read a statement.

As many as 10,000 citizens of Armenian descent are estimated to live in Israel. Most are concentrated in the Armenian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, where many hung Armenian flags from their homes in solidarity this week.

Prof. Efraim Inbar, the President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and frequent TV7 Jerusalem Studio guest, told the AFP news agency that “Azerbaijan is an important country for us.” “We always try to be a good supplier even during times of tension… we have to make sure that we will honor the contracts we make with Azerbaijan,” he said, adding that “It is not our responsibility what they are doing. They can fight with knives, they can fight with stones, people fight with many things.”

Yerevan maintains close ties with Iran and had only just opened its embassy in Tel Aviv on 17 September – just over two weeks before closing it down.

The diplomatic rift with Jerusalem erupted shortly the Flightradar 24 flight tracing site reported that an Azerbaijani cargo plane departed from the Ramon Airport in southern Israel just before the outbreak of hostilities with Armenia.

Both Iran and Azerbaijan are Shi’ite Muslim countries. Previously back in 2012, Iran summoned Azerbaijan’s ambassador for a reprimand over weapons sales from the Jewish State.

While an Israeli Defense Ministry Spokeswoman declined comment, the leading conflict and armaments think tank, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, reported that Israel provided Azerbaijan with some $825 million in weapons between 2006 and 2019. SIPRI’s Arms Transfers Database showed those exports included drones, loitering munitions, anti-tank missiles and a surface-to-air missile system.

Azerbaijan has acknowledged using Israeli-made weapons in battle against ethnic Armenian forces around Nagorno-Karabakh. Ajerbaijani Presidential Aide Hikmat Hajiyev told Israel’s Walla news website that Baku was using “some” Israeli-made drones in fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh but declined to specify how many.

“(We) have one of the strongest (drone) fleets in the region,” he said, adding, “And among them we have Israeli ones, we have other drones as well, but Israeli drones especially, including reconnaissance and attack drones, and kamikaze ‘Harop’ drones, (which) have proved itself very effective.”