By Seth J. Frantzman*
Azerbaijan has continued to press its offensive against Armenian-backed forces in Nagorna-Karabach, a disputed area that Azerbaijan views as illegally occupied by a self-declared Armenian republic. The countries have clashed since the 1990s but in recent years the clashes became more pronounced. Azerbaijan, armed with modern drones and weapons, including drones from Israel, has been demanding that progress be made on negotiations over the disputed area.
On September 27 Azerbaijan says that Armenian forces committed “large-scale provocations” and Azerbaijan responded. This has now expanded to include artillery, drone strikes and the destruction of vehicles and killing of dozens of fighters. While both sides tend to portray the other as losing more soldiers, the reality on the ground indicates that Azerbaijan has made progress, taking control of villages and key points along a mountain range.
In conversations with Azerbaijani experts on the ground and also close following of Armenian reports the unfolding events illustrate that the fog of war hangs over the progress on the ground but that there are several points of clarity. Azerbaijan has been clear that its soldiers are shelling and pushing an offensive along the line of contact, including a length of frontline that appears to stretch more than 250km. This is an area of around 13,000 square kilometers. To be specific the sites that are under fire include the Vardenis-Agdere highway in the north to the mountain peak of Murov, the village of Talish and seven smaller villages between Jabrail and Martuni, including the town of Fuzuli.
Azeri sources say that the army decided to launch a major “counter-offensive” on Sunday along the entire front. This included using tanks, UAVs, artillery and TOS rocket launchers. Azerbaijan is a pioneering army when it comes to using UAVs tactically and strategically. It has used them to suppress enemy anti-aircraft units and videos shown on Turkish TV show numerous strikes on these units. This appears to illustrate that the drones are successful. Reporters earlier this year say Azerbaijan acquired Israel’s SkyStriker drones. According to the Drone Data Book published earlier this year the Azeris also have the Aerostar and Orbiter 3 drone and Harop, Heron TP, Hermes 450 and Hermes 950, all from Israel. It also has the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2.
Azerbaijan has declared the frontline area, around 230km from the capital of Baku, a war zone. It has stopped flights for the next several days and is calling up soldiers. Tens of thousands in Azerbaijan are prepared to be called up and the conflict is popular.
Azerbaijan says it struck 12 anti-aircraft units on Sunday. Armenian sources claimed to have downed numerous drones and struck two dozen vehicles as well as hitting helicopters. Both sides put up videos to prove that they are succeeding. Azerbaijan claims that Armenia has illegally occupied this area since 1991 and that it consists of twenty percent of Azerbaijan. Meanwhile Armenia has hinted at wanting to recognize the Artsakh republic as an independent country. Artsakh is like many small self-declared areas that emerged after the fall off the Soviet Union. These include Transnistria, South Ossetia, the Donbass people’s republic and Abkhazia. Azerbaijan strenuously emphasizes that Nagorna-Karabakh, where the Artsakh republic is based, is not a “disputed area.” This is the “territory of Azerbaijan,” officials say. There are also seven Azerbaijani regions around it, “which Armenia was not going to give up all these years peacefully,” a source says. Therefore the war is not about Armenian territory, but Baku getting back what is rightfully its own.
Baku claims it has been patient and that it has a larger army with qualitative advantage. It’s close strategic relations with Israel is one reason for this, as well as cash flows from energy, including an oil pipelines and plans for more gas pipelines. This links Azerbaijan to Europe and Turkey and the international markets. For many years Azerbaijan worked with the OSCE Minsk Group to resolve its claims. “Yerevan has not shown the political will for the peaceful liberation of at least one centimeter of the occupied land,” sources say. Azerbaijan slams the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for being stubborn and not negotiating. Pashniyan has called for all Armenians to support the war effort and rally to the flag. He has been in close contact with Russia’s Vladimir Putin while Azerbaijan has received support from Turkey for its war effort.
Azeri sources say that Azerbaijan will continue the operation and “liberate” more of Nagorna-Karabakh and the seven areas that they claim. They will go forward with or without the support of Turkey, although so far Turkey’s foreign ministry and defense ministry have expressed total solidarity with Baku. Turkey has seemed even more pro-conflict than Azerbaijan over the last months. But Baku’s leadership understands the situation on the ground and believes it can push forward successfully.
Azerbaijan has targeted ammunition depots of Armenia, according to reports. Baku also says that during the first day of the fighting Armenian fighters shelled the villages of “Qapanli of Terter district, Chiragli and Orta Garavend of Aghdam district, Alkhanli and Shukurbeyli of Fizuli district and Jojuq Merjanli of Jabrayil district, using large-caliber weapons, mortar launchers and artillery.”
Azerbaijan points out that it has international law on its side and argues that UN Security Council Resolutions 822, 853, 874, 884 of 1993 demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the armed forces of Armenia from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. In July Azerbaijan and Armenia also clashed in the area of Tovuz and Goranboy. That four-day conflict was a prelude to this one, as well as fighting that took place in 2016. “Full responsibility for the present situation falls on the political-military leadership of Armenia,” Baku says.
Azerbaijan believes its armed forces, having been modernized over the last decades, can achieve victory over the forces of Armenia in Nagorna-Karabach. The question is whether Turkey and Russia will step in to create some kind of deal, the way Turkey has done in Idlib or Libya. Ankara has a track record of fueling conflict and trying to get something from Russia, such as S-400 air defense. Turkey also works closely with Iran. Iran has generally been closer to Armenia than Azerbaijan. Iran has a larger Azeri minority. Russia is also close to Armenia. Some sources in Azerbaijan say there is concern that Turkey could appear to be fully supporting the conflict but also work with Russia at the end relating to issues Turkey has with Russia in Libya and Syria. It is unclear if this is part of Ankara’s calculations. Azerbaijan prides itself on making its own policy independent of these larger players in the region. Having waited decades with no movement or progress via dialogue, Baku thinks this effort is worth the risk. “The winner is the one who has more advanced technological means that ensure successful military operations,” an Azerbaijan contact texted me in response to several questions about how Baku sees the current situation.
There are growing calls for an end too the hostilities. While the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in touch with NATO and also holding discussions with Greece, he sent a lower level officials to express alarm about the battles. This sends a message that the US has not coordinated a response so far. Russia has been more deeply involved, as has Iran. China also has called for de-escalation. China has interests in this area due to its Belt and Road Initiative. The importance of energy pipelines and railroad links should not be overlooked. However Turkish far-right media Yeni Safak has said Iran is sending tanks to Armenia.
Lists of Armenian casualties so far in Nagorna Karabakh show that many of the young men were born in the mid-1990s, many in 1998. That means they were born long after the conflict that shaped this battlefield. Like young Azeris encouraging their government to go further, they are part of a new generation. With a world that no longer abides by the “new world order” views of the 1990s where conflicts were supposed to be reduced and open borders and democracy was supposed to follow, today’s generation from Russia to Turkey and other countries believe that conflict can solve most of these disputes that were frozen for almost forty years.
Large question marks remain. Armenia’s Prime Minister has called for the international community to restrain Turkey from greater involvement. It is not clear if the US will do more in coming days. Turkey’s media has been pushing the war narrative, appearing to encourage more fight. Iran is concerned and wants the conflict to end.
*Seth J. Frantzman is Oped Editor and Middle East affairs analyst at The Jerusalem Post. He has covered the war against Islamic State, three Gaza wars, the conflict in Ukraine, the refugee crises in Eastern Europe and also reported from Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Senegal, the UAE, Ukraine and Russia.
Source: The Jerusalem Post