While the intensity of the fighting in the Gaza Strip has brought warnings from pundits that the conflict could easily expand into a larger regional conflict, a closer look at the geopolitical facts shows that the warnings from the political pundits are vastly overblown.
The silence from Saudi Arabia, the dominant economic power in the Middle East, is in of itself deafening. This silence is also deafening from Turkey, the dominant regional military power in the Middle East. Joined in that silence is Egypt, which will not allow refugees from Gaza into Egypt. While these powers have issued pro forma expressions of support for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, these countries have carefully restrained from any type of more concrete action. While Iran has blustered and issued veiled threats and has used its proxies to attack American troops in Syria, Iran has more serious national security issues on its northern border and cannot afford an open, or covert, conflict with the United States and/or Israel.
Iran faces a serious threat to her northern frontiers due to the instability in the Caucuses. With Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, carving up Armenia, the prospect of secession sentiments by the Azerbaijanis in northern Iran is of serious concerns in Tehran.
Azerbaijan and Iran
There are between 12 and 23 million Azerbaijanis living in northern Iran, flush against part of Azerbaijan. There are more Azerbaijanis living in the northern part of Iran, than in Azerbaijan itself.
In 1946, the then Shah of Iran led a military expedition, backed by the United States, which regained control of an attempted acquisition of the northern portion of Iran by the Soviet Union. Faced with international pressure, the then Soviet Union withdrew its support from the rebels, and Iran gained total control of its northern provinces.
A Short History of the Conflict Between Azerbaijan and Armenia
The tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia goes back decades. The territory known as Nagorno Karabakh is at the center of the political and military tensions between the two countries. In the latter days of the then Soviet Union, the population of Nagorno Karabakh, primarily Armenian, wanted to separate from Azerbaijan, and join the state of Armenia.
The Nagorny Karabakh province was formed by the then Soviet Union as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast in 1923. The population of the Oblast was 95% Armenian, and within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. The Nagorno-Karabakh legislature passed a resolution in 1988 declaring its intention to join the Republic of Armenia, though no concrete action was taken that year due to the Soviet Union preventing any type of action. Amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union collapsing, the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast declared its independence, with Armenia supporting Nagoro Karabakh, war erupted over who would have sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh region. After 30.000 deaths, and hundreds of thousands displaced because of the war, in 1993 Armenia declared victory and control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Armenia had also conquered some 20% of the Azerbaijan territory.
In 1994, the Russian Federation negotiated the Bishkek Protocol which left Nagorno-Karabakh politically autonomous, with continued political, military and economic ties to Armenia. However, in September of 2020, the use of militarized drones, artillery bombardments from Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan opened a period of clashes between Armenia and the de facto alliance of Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan.
This led to the 2nd Nagorno Karabakh War which ended on November 9, 2020, under a deal brokered by the Russian Federation. The results of the war left Armenia with only a small portion of Nagorno Karabakh. Azerbaijan regained most of the territory it had lost 2 decades earlier. The Lachin corridor was established by the agreement ending the war. This narrow strip of land allowed Armenia to transit from Armenia to the small portion of Nagorno Karabakh it still controlled.
On September 19, 2023, Azerbaijan attacked the Armenian portion of Nagorno Karabakh, and occupied the Armenian portion of Nagorno Karabakh. Shortly thereafter Baku announced that the former enclave of Armenia would be dissolved and incorporated into Azerbaijan. Following this announcement, over 100,000 Armenians fled Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia. Now Azerbaijan is eyeing the Zangezur corridor. The Zangezur corridor crosses Armenia to the other part of Azerbaijan, near the Armenian town of Meghri, which is isolated from Azerbaijan proper. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has publicly said opening the corrido was Azerbaijan’s top priority
Turkey’s Support and Ties to Azerbaijan
The relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey have always been strong. The two countries are the only Turkic countries west of the Caspian Sea. President Erdogan hailed relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan by quoting the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev in that Turkey and Azerbaijan were “…one nation, two states…”
Turkey officially supported Azerbaijan in the September 2023 war. Soon thereafter, Erdogan met with the Azerbaijani President on September 25, 2023, by flying into the Nakhchivan autonomous enclave that is part of Azerbaijan. Nakhchivan is a narrow territory whose borders abut Turkey, Armenia, and Iran. Ankara and Baku would both like to see the Zangezur corridor begin from there.
Shortly after the meeting between the leaders of Turkey and Azerbaijan in Nakhchivan, the two countries held joint military drills in October of 2023. Azerbaijan’s ministry of defense said that the exercises were being conducted in the region of Nakhchivan, Baku and “…and in what the ministry called the “liberated territories” of Karabakh…”
If Azerbaijan should seize the Zangezur corridor, it would connect the two parts of Azerbaijan, and such an event would open opportunities for Turkey to expand its influence on the northern Iranian border. The northern part of Iran has between thirteen million to nineteen million Azerbaijanis living there. This is the same territory that tried to break away from Iran just after WW2. But, back then, Iran had the backing of the United States. Today, it does not.
The Rise of the Sword of Osman
The rise of Turkey is a new phenomenon in the balance of power in the Aegean and in West Asia. Turkey is self-sufficient in food. It has a large population of eighty-five million people. The population is highly educated. Turkey’s territory is the hinge between Asia and Europe. Every fit Turkish male is required to serve in the Turkish armed forces. Turkey has a standing Army of more than 890,000 troops. The only thing Turkey does not have is the oil reserves necessary to maintain itself as a great power. Should Azerbaijan seize the Zangezur corridor, it would expand its borders with Iran, and if the Azerbaijani population in northern Iran should agitate for union with Azerbaijan, and secede from Iran, Turkey would have all the oil reserves she needs. Such a scenario would make Turkey the Hegemon of West Asia, and in competition with Saudi Arabia for dominance in the Middle East.