The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan may produce only losers. Pictured: Rescue teams work at a site hit by a missile in the city of Ganja, Azerbaijan on October 17, 2020. The missile strike levelled several homes in Ganja. (Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)
A small landlocked enclave tucked in a remote corner of Transcaucasia may be emerging as a powder keg that could threaten the security of several nations, among them Russia, Turkey, Iran and the two immediate protagonists Armenia and Azerbaijan.
High Qarabagh, Nagorno Karabakh in Russian, Artsakh in Armenian, Qarabagh Olya in Persian and Azeri covers an area of 4,400 square kilometres, less than half of Lebanon, with a population of 150,000 -- more than 90 percent of them ethnic Armenians. And, yet, in 1924 when Josef Stalin, then in charge of nationalities in the newly created Soviet Union, was carving the extinct tsarist empire into republics, High Qarabagh was attached to the autonomous republic of Azerbaijan, itself invented by Bolshevik chief out of territories known as Aran Shirvan and Nakhichevan.
If Stalin had gone by population, the enclave should have been attached to Armenia, another republic that he put on the map. However, Stalin's gerrymandering game didn't stop there. He put a chunk of his new Azerbaijan, known as Nakhichevan, at some distance from the rest of the republic with Armenia sandwiched in between. He went even further by dividing the Kurdish majority enclave of Lachin between Armenia and Azerbaijan while attaching Talesh, a non-Azeri coastal land to Azerbaijan. Stalin's divide-and-rule strategy, aimed at making the "captive nations" of the Bolshevik Empire dependent on Mother Russia for peace and security. He imposed a similar scheme in Central Asia by turning Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan into patchworks of ethnicities.
When the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1991 it was inevitable that Stalin's geographical doodling would face questions. Seizing the opportunity, the Armenian population of High Qarabagh expelled the Azeri minority in what was to become a model for ethnic cleansing in other places, notably the Balkans. Backed by Armenia, the enclave's ethnic Armenians won a series of military victories and managed to set up their own autonomous republic. At the time, it was evident that the Artsakh rebels had received substantial aid from post-Soviet Russia. This was partly due to the fact that throughout Soviet history, ethnic Armenians, though fewer in number, played a much greater role than the Azeris.
The Soviet central leadership always included an Armenian at political and military levels; and some like Anastas Mikoyan reached the very top of the greasy pole. Even now, ethnic Armenians who decided to say in Russia proper have a high profile presence in the Moscow leadership, among them Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose real Armenian name is Serge Kalantarian.
In contrast, the ethnic Azeris who lived in Russia proper decided to return to their land en masse and were soon rewarded with new wealth generated by two decades of an oil boom. Throughout much of history, Armenians had regarded Russia, a fellow Christian nation, as their protector against Muslim neighbors, especially the Ottoman Empire. This was one reason why newly independent Armenia agreed to host a major Russian military base, which at its peak contained 20,000 Russian troops. In contrast, several Azeri leaders played the anti-Russian card by airing historical grievances against "the occupiers". The firebrand leader, Abulfazil Ilchibey, went even further by promoting a mass de-russification that included a change of alphabet and Russian-style family names. Independent Azerbaijan wanted to join the "Western World", casting itself as the United States' most reliable ally in the region. To emphasise that point, new Azerbaijan forged close relations with Israel to the point of promoting tight military cooperation, and talking of a Baku-Tel Aviv axis.
In the current round of fighting, Azerbaijan enjoys superiority in armament largely thanks to Israeli support. Nevertheless, Israel is anxious not to lose its other regional ally, Armenia. That ambiguity has enabled Turkey to cast itself as Azerbaijan's principal backer while depicting Russia and the Islamic Republic in Iran as Armenia's allies. The Khomeinist leadership in Tehran is especially confused about what line to take. The fighting looms as a security threat to Iran itself, even if only because of its overspill into Iranian territory.
In the past week of fighting, hundreds of shells fired by both sides have fallen into border areas in Iran. The fighting may also produce large numbers of refugees whose natural shelter would be Iranian territory. Tehran also faces pressure from powerful figures within the military and security services who regard Azerbaijanis as kith and kin. At the same time, "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei is anxious not to antagonise Russia, whom he now sees as his principal protector against the American "Great Satan." He has another worry: the introduction of hundreds of Syrian militants into the Azeri forces through Turkey. These fighters have little experience in warfare in the steep mountains of Transcaucasia, especially in the harsh climates of the winter. But, as committed militants of the Muslim Brotherhood, they could enable Turkey to create its own Hezbollah-like "foreign legion", challenging Iran elsewhere, including in Iraq and Lebanon.
Erdogan has tried to partly justify his backing for Azerbaijan by claiming that PKK fighters, supposedly coming from Soleymanieh in Iraq, via Iran, have joined Armenian forces in Qarabagh. He has also revived the theme of "Turkitude" (Turkishness) which he had only recently underplayed in favor of his claim to Islamic-ness as the foundation of Turkish identity. Erdogan's identity crisis was further highlighted by the national census held two years ago, when citizens were asked to cite their ethnic origins. The results had to be doctored because only a minority chose the label Turkish. The survey revealed most citizens remain attached to "mellat" identities they had during the Ottoman Empire, including Daghestani, Chechen, Alevite, Kurdish, Arab, Byzantine, Bulgarian, Udmurt, Circassian, Chechen and even Greek and Armenian. The surprise revelations forced Erdogan to try and fudge the identity issue by claiming Turks were descendants of ancient Hittites dating back to 3,000 years ago.
Tehran's reaction has been marked by confusion. It has refrained from taking a clear position while Khamenei was silent at the time of this writing. After a number of small demonstrations in Tabriz, capital of East Azerbaijan province, four Azeri mullahs identified as Khamenei's representatives issued a joint statement demanding that High Qarabagh be returned to Azerbaijan Republic.
Khamenei's foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati made a similar demand in carefully modulated tones not to anger Russia. The foreign ministry, however, tried to dodge the issue, not even calling in Armenia's ambassador for a routine dressing down.
Ignoring the crisis, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced he was heading for Beijing in the hope of persuading the Chinese to release some of Iran's frozen assets.
The Qarabagh conflict could provoke uncontrollable reactions in Iran where an estimated 20 million Azeri-speakers spread all over the country regard the Azerbaijan Republic as part of greater Iran.
The slogans chanted in Tabriz and Tehran demonstrations included overtly irredentist ones such as "Qarabagh is ours, Azerbaijan is ours."
What are now Armenian and Azerbaijani republics, plus Georgia, were ceded to Iran in the treaties of Amassia (1550) and Qasr Shirin (1639) signed with Ottoman Empire. In exchange the Ottomans received Mesopotamia, today's Iraq, plus Abkhazia and Ajaria and the Armenian part of Anatolia.
If Azerbaijan wins, a coalition of Turkey, Israel and the United States would end up in the winning camp while the Islamic Republic will be seen as indifferent to the aspirations of Azerbaijan, which is supposed to be the third largest Shiite nation after Iran and Iraq. If Armenia wins, the likely co-winners would include Russia and Israel, again leaving Iran isolated. For the past 30 years, the Islamic Republic has been a lifeline to landlocked Armenia, channelling its foreign trade and providing it with electricity. If Armenia loses, Tehran will get a bad mark from Moscow as a fickle friend.
This war may produce only losers. Azerbaijan is unlikely to succeed in regaining full control of the disputed enclave. Armenia has already lost some territory and faces a wave of refugees flowing into the capital Yerevan. Turkey may win a propaganda round as protector of Azeris but would be dragged into a fifth war which, its economy already under stress, it may not be able to sustain. Israel may have to come off the fence and choose one side by losing the other. Russia would lose by seeing militants find a niche so close to itself while being forced to abandon its claim of peacemaker among former Soviet republics. Tehran, too, will be a loser on both geopolitical and ideological grounds. Khamenei claims to be the supreme leader of Muslims throughout the world. Yet, we now see that he cannot even influence events on his doorstep.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.