More war in Turkey’s backyard

Last week, another round of fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The conflict has been bubbling since the end of the Cold War and has left the Armenians in a state of perpetual poverty with little access to the outside world. A resolution seems difficult to attain because of the external forces at play. Oil and gas, geopolitics and ethnic loyalties have all conspired to turn what would otherwise be an unimportant little mountain region into an outsized destabilizing force. Who are the players in this conflict and what do they want?

Adnan R. Khan: What is the background to these hostilities?

Ilter Turan: After the Cold War, a number of independent states came into being. In the Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia were born. They had historical contestations over territory so when the unifying factor called the Soviet Union broke up, these territorial claims were reborn. The Armenians proceeded to occupy more than 20 percent the territory of Azerbaijan claiming, with ethno-historical reasoning, that it belonged to them.

Adnan R. Khan: A variety of forces are vying for influence in the region. First off, there’s a very powerful Armenian diaspora in the U.S. How has it contributed to this conflict?

Ilter Turan: Armenia is a very poor country. It is landlocked and it does not have particularly good relations with its neighbors. In part, the reason for this state of affairs is the Armenian diaspora that sends material support to Armenia so that it can survive, simultaneously often insisting on the pursuit of irredentist claims. In order to maintain the support of the diaspora, the governments in Armenia feel pressured to pursue irredentist policies which makes it difficult for them to live at peace with their neighbors.

Adnan R. Khan: What about the Russians and their interest in the region?

Ilter Turan: Although the Soviet Union is long gone, the Russian state feels that the Caucasus is still in its own backyard and other countries, including Turkey, should not be there. In order to bolster their presence, the Russians offer military support to Armenia. Parts of the Armenian border are protected not by Armenians but by Russian soldiers. Some observers have argued that occasionally the Russians promote conflict so that their presence as a referee is always needed.

There is also the fact that this is an area where important pipelines of non-Russian gas and oil, including Azeri, but also some Kazakh and potentially Turkmen, can go through. The Russians, by playing an active role and destabilizing the region, may hope to prevent the development of alternative sources of energy which would undermine the Russian market for oil and gas.

Adnan R. Khan: The oddball in all this seems to be France. What is France’s interest?

Ilter Turan: Several, I think. One of them is that France still fantasizes itself to be a global power which it is not and but expresses views on everything. Then, politically speaking, there is a large Armenian diaspora community in France. It is interesting to note is that this diaspora is a French creation. At the end of WWI, France tried to wrest territory near the Syrian border away from Turkey by mobilizing Armenians as part of a French army. These forces were defeated and the French had to offer a home to the defeated. Some moved into Syria but a good many emigrated to France. In this way, France ended up with a substantial Armenian community. I guess Mr. Macron feels obliged to accommodate their irredentist claims to maintain their electoral support.

Adnan R. Khan: So we have powerful diasporas, both in the U.S. and France, supporting Armenia. We have the Russians supporting Armenia. We have Iran, which would like to avoid its own Azeri population from developing any separatist notions, also supporting Armenia. Where does that leave Turkey?

Ilter Turan: Turkey and Azerbaijan have ethnic connections. They speak almost the same language. People in Turkey feel very closely attached to Azerbaijan. Then, over the years, economic relations have developed, including gas and oil pipelines, mutual investments and trade. And geopolitically, it is through Azerbaijan that Turkey reaches the Central Asian republics. It is one of the three major routes. In short, Azerbaijan is important to Turkey culturally, economically and from a geopolitical perspective.

But as you suggest, Turkey, the U.S. and France are at loggerheads for a variety of reasons where Armenian diasporas are the driving force in the latter and Turkey is on the Azeri side. I think the important thing to remember is that at this point is that Turkey is extending only political support to the Azeri goals. And what the Azeris want is not territory from Armenia, but to reclaim the Azeri territory that the Armenians have occupied. The Azeri government appears to be unwilling to stop its military operation until it gets the occupied territories back.

CORRECTION: The date mentioned in our article in the last week’s issue should be 2016 not 2004. We apologise for the mistyping.

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