Fighting has flared up again in Nagorno-Karabakh since Sunday. Both countries seem to do everything in their power to bring the opposition to its knees. The Azerbaijani army uses modern tanks and drones to force the Armenians to surrender. The Armenians, in turn, use anti-tank missiles and artillery to keep the Azerbaijans at bay. On social media, both sides proudly display their direct hits against enemy targets.
How did the conflict start?
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not new. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two countries have been fighting for the Nagorno-Karabakh region. It is a mountainous region, high in the Caucasus. The area is officially located in Azerbaijan, but has been inhabited by ethnic Armenians for hundreds of years.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these so-called Karabakh Armenians sought a connection with their native Armenia, just across the border. But the newly independent Azerbaijan did not want to hear about this and soon sent the army to the region to quell the secessionist movement.
The war did not go as expected. The disorganized Azerbaijani army seemed no match for the Armenian rebels. They knew the area much better, received support from the Armenian army and had the advantage of the terrain high up in the mountains. In 1994 the Azerbaijani army withdrew headlong. 12 to 13 percent of Azerbaijani territory came into the hands of the Karabakh Armenians. They officially declared independence, but in practice the area became part of Armenia. The war has claimed the lives of 30,000 people.
After 26 years, the Azerbaijani army is back. According to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, this is for one purpose only: to recapture the entire region. Because for Azerbaijan, the loss of the war was always a black page, especially for the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis who were displaced during the war.
Because besides Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenians also conquered a number of surrounding regions during the war, all of which were inhabited by Azerbaijans. The Armenians expelled the Azerbaijani civilians from their towns and cities. An estimated 750,000 Azerbaijanis lost their homes to the Armenians during the war. They hope that the Azerbaijani army wins and they can return home.
Revenge as a motive
According to Middle East correspondent Olaf Koens, the keyword in the Azerbaijani motive is ‘revenge’. “It was a long time coming. You notice from everything in Azerbaijan that people are out for revenge. Nagorno-Karabakh has been taken from Azerbaijan, they have worked for years towards a moment when they could reclaim it. The refugees who left their houses are driven and play an important role in this. “
Armenians fear for their future
But the stakes are also great for the Armenians, says Koens. “Nagorno-Karabakh is extremely important to Armenia. Armenians feel it as something that belongs to them, there are a lot of Armenians living there. And whoever served in the Armenian army has also been there.” In addition, there is fear among the Karabakh Armenians that an Azerbaijani victory will not only mean the end of the Armenian state in Nagorno-Karabakh, but that the Armenian community in the region will also be harshly punished.
This assumption is fueled by statements made by Azerbaijani politicians over the years. Azerbaijani President Aliyev stated in 2012 that Armenians do not belong in the Caucasus. According to him, they would be migrants from Iran. And also the former mayor of the Azerbaijani capital Baku, on a visit to Germany, was not blunted: “Our goal is the destruction of the Armenian people.”
Azerbaijan is also said to be actively erasing Armenian cultural heirlooms. Research by the art magazine Hyperallergic showed that in recent years 89 Armenian churches that stood in Azerbaijan have been destroyed. Entire Armenian cemeteries have also been obliterated. Tens of thousands of tombstones were removed to make way for a firing range of the Azerbaijani army.
With the resumption of fighting, the conflict has returned to the attention of the international community. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are calling on their ally (Russia and Turkey respectively) and they seem to be responding.
Turkish President Erdogan last weekend called Armenia the ‘greatest threat to peace in the region’ and pledged to support ally Azerbaijan. For example, according to Reuters and The Guardian, Turkey is recruiting Syrian mercenaries to send them to the front in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia further accused Turkey today of shooting an Armenian warplane from the sky.
The regional superpower Russia is now also involved in the conflict. President Putin has called on both sides to a ceasefire. But according to Olaf Koens, Russia now seems to be slowly taking sides with Armenia: “Both Russia and Turkey have plunged into all kinds of foreign military adventures in recent years. They both have a large army that has been deployed long and frequently outside their own borders.”
Battle between superpowers
It seems, says Koens, that this could escalate further. “Then you will also see in this conflict the consequences of other wars in the region, from the war in Syria to the war in Ukraine. That is very worrying, this is not only a conflict between two countries, it can also quickly turn into a major geopolitical battle between major powers. “
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