The clashes since Sunday, 27 September 2020 in the Nagorno-Karabakh region have resulted in the largest number of reported casualties between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the last four years. According to media reports, the death toll is already well into the hundreds, with relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan now in freefall.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
For those unfamiliar, Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region internationally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan by United Nations Security Council resolutions (UNSCRs).The history of the conflict is undeniably complex, yet it is worth highlighting some important historical points of reference. Nagorno-Karabakh was designated as an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan during the 1920s and was part of the independent Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan in 1918-1920. However, during the decline of the Soviet Union, tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia resulted in the breakout of war in 1988,with Armenian forces occupying Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding regions. An era of conflict then ensued between1988-1994,with a ceasefire finally only signed between the two sides in May of 1994. In total, more than 30,000 people died during the war. Since the signing of the ceasefire in 1994, there have been numerous instances of cross-border violence resulting in an estimated 3700+ deaths of both soldiers and civilians. This latest resumption of hostilities and tensions in the region marks a major escalation and deterioration in relations between the two sides.
To those outside the Caucasus, this ‘frozen conflict’ has always seemed distant and an afterthought compared with other more prominent foreign policy concerns and theatres of conflict. And yet, if tensions continue to escalate resulting in the full-scale resumption of hostilities, this could have significant repercussions for the wider region. Turkey, a long-standing ally of Azerbaijan, has demanded that Armenia withdraw from the line of contact, with President Erdogan underlining Turkey’s total solidarity with Azerbaijan, urging Armenia to end its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia, widely regarded as a close ally of Armenia as a result of joint membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation agreement – not to mention its maintenance of a military base at Gyumri in Armenia – has called for an immediate ceasefire. Armenia has been trying to lure Russia into the conflict via its treaty obligations which state that it is bound to defend Armenia in war by claiming that Turkey had shot down an Armenian jet deep inside its territory ,a claim unverified and denounced by both Azerbaijan and Turkey as false. Armenia has also made every effort to portray Azerbaijan, misleadingly, of invading ‘its’ territory.
Looking at the conflict from a wider perspective, Russia and Turkey find themselves once again on opposing sides of another regional conflict outside Syria. The military and weaponry capabilities of both sides should in itself make the world sit up. With France and the United States also involved as a result of their responsibilities as joint co-chairs, with Russia, of the Minsk Group, (set up in 1992 to find a peaceful solution to the conflict),it is easy to see how multiple national actors from across the world are both responsible for trying to mediate the conflict and could be drawn into it. Add Azerbaijan’s southern neighbour Iran into the mix, one can easily conceptualize the potential global impact of further conflict in this tinderbox forgotten region situated between Europe and Eurasia.
A path to peace
It is over 26 years since Azerbaijan and Armenia signed the ceasefire agreement formally ending the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Yet Armenia continues, repeatedly, to provoke its neighbour, both through armed conflict on the line of contact and bellicose statements. Nagorno-Karabakh represents an open wound and sore for the Azerbaijani nation and the near one million internally displaced people and refugees that still cannot return to their homes and displaced land. The United States, Russia, France and the UK have all called for a ceasefire, but this will now only be possible if, and hopefully when, Armenia withdraws from Nagorno Karabakh and all of the surrounding occupied territories internationally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan. International actors, in particular, the European Union and other key players must ensure that the pathway to peace is based upon international law and respect for territorial integrity.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. Those nations who wish to help end this conflict must continually emphasise this on the international stage. The international community, including the United Nations (UN), needs to put pressure on Armenia to halt its expansionist ambitions. This can only be achieved by a collective commitment to uphold international law and implementation of the four outstanding UNSCRs.
I urge the international community to act now and speak up before its too late. At a point in our shared existence when the world is uniting to combat a global pandemic, lest we forget the lessons of the past and forget our shared humanity. During this perilous time, countries should unite and seek common ground in the spirit of collaboration, not continue with expansionist policies that only serve to divide us. Armenia’s actions must not go unnoticed – the international community must speak out and condemn Armenian aggression now. There is a path to peace, but it can only be expedited if the international community is united in its resolve and acts now by calling on Armenia to withdraw from Nagorno Karabakh and the surrounding territories that belong to Azerbaijan in accordance with international law.