By October 2020, Turkey seemed closer than at any time since the Cold War to unambiguous and overt hostilities with Russia. But, then, Turkey was already in some form of conflict with at least 21 adversaries. Turkey and Russia are strategically interdependent, but simultaneously remain great rivals and with deep, historically-developed, mutual animosities. Not surprisingly, the Turkish Government of Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved yet again to carefully instigate a crisis with Russia, this time by triggering a military escalation between Azerbaijan (a U.S., Israeli, and Turkish client state) and Armenia (a Russian and Iranian client state).
This time, the Russo-Turkish conflict was being waged by proxies: Azerbaijan and Armenia, and it was, at least in part, over the viability of the Southern Corridor Gas Pipeline, via Turkey, and the existing Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, both critical to Turkey’s economy. And both of which challenge Russia’s domination of energy distribution to Europe.
There was more to the September 27-28, 2020, military clash inside Azerbaijani territory (at the northern region of the autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh enclave occupied by Armenians) than just the provocation of Russia, however. In this latest round of fighting, a Turkish Air Force F-16 Block 50+ fighter shot down an Armenian Air Force Su-25, killing the pilot. It would have been an easy kill for an advanced fighter against an antique ground-attack aircraft. This was similar in air combat terms to the F-16/Su-24 incident over Syrian territory on November 24, 2015. But the new fighting was broad-spectrum conventional conflict, involving mass use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs), tactical ballistic missiles, and offensive armored formations.
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Some of the fixed trench-lines of the past 30 years have already been obliterated. The question is: can Moscow do anything about it?
Part (but clearly only part) of Turkey’s involvement in escalating the September 27-28, 2020, Azerbaijan-Armenia fighting was also meant to be on a scale that could provide a trigger for Turkey to legally close the Bosphorus sea passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean to Russian naval traffic. This is something that Pres. Erdo?an has long been attempting to achieve while avoiding the direct military wrath of Moscow. The scale of the new outbreak could be seen by the fact that, within 10 days, the death toll had reached around 200, mostly military personnel.
The most recent incident, seemingly deliberately instigated by Turkey, followed a July 12-13, 2020, set of incidents which seemed to have been instigated by Armenian forces against Azerbaijani forces, well north of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The complex motivation behind the Turkish action included the re-assertion of Ankara’s rôle as Azerbaijan’s “big brother”, particularly in the wake of the July 2020 incident, instigated by Armenian forces, which was a major shock to the Azerbaijani Government.
Turkey’s role in the war to which it was not overtly a party was a significant setback for Armenia which — under the new (2018) Civil Contract Party/My Step Alliance Government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan — was starting to make progress with the Armenian economy and in its international relations. Turkey’s role revived the Armenian consciousness of Turkey’s genocide of Armenians in the 20th Century.
One significant reality which Pres. Erdo?an has introduced into many of his wars is the use of Syrian mercenary forces, rather than Turkish troops. Several thousand Turkish-paid Syrian fighters have been brought into Azerbaijan in the past couple of years, to the particular disquiet of Azerbaijan Pres. Ilham Aliyev’s key Israeli security advisors, as well the U.S. Significantly, however, the U.S., during the Barack Obama Presidency (2009-17), trained and equipped these Syrian Sunni Muslim fighters in concert with the Turks.
The Syrian mercenaries were recruited specifically to protect oil and gas facilities, critical to getting Caspian energy to and through Turkey, but the October fighting was more than they had bargained for, and many petitioned to be flown home.
Turkish support for Baku’s claims to recover Azerbaijani territory occupied since the late 20th Century by Armenians (not just the Nagorno-Karabakh [NK] enclave), is a double-edged sword, given Turkey’s history of mistreatment of Armenians. But from Baku’s standpoint, this may have been seen as the best opportunity to recover some or all of its occupied territory, quite apart from addressing the NK issue, and none of Azerbaijan’s allies has had the same willingness to commit forces as Turkey. Indeed, with the pipelines, Turkey has a dog in the fight.
Armenia’s previous Government had consistently refused negotiation on the occupied Azerbaijani territories. even with the offer of full autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan. It is significant that although Armenia maintains land-bridge linkage with NK via the Lachin Corridor, it does not recognize the claimed sovereignty of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Indeed, while Armenia might have been prepared to negotiate the sovereignty of NK, the population of the enclave was not. Increasingly, however, since 1991, Armenians have come to the belief that they must support the enclave, although there has been no movement away from its status as the core of a frozen conflict, caused by the Stalinist movement of peoples into an area.
Western media has painted the dispute as between “Christian Armenia” and “Muslim Azerbaijan”, thus begging the question as to why Azerbaijan is so tightly linked with Israel. Azerbaijan is, in fact, multi-confessional, is the home to a large, discreet Jewish population, favored by the President, and is also the source of the ancient Zoroastrian religion of Persia. Ankara might wish to portray the conflict in religious terms; Baku would not.
A number of Turkish Air Force F-16s were identified on satellite imagery at Ganja International Airport, Azerbaijan, on October 3, 2020, some 50 miles north of Nagorno-Karabakh. They were accompanied by supporting TAF CN-235 light-twin transports. Six TAF F-16s plus supporting aircraft and crews were moved into Azerbaijan for joint Exercise TurAz Qartali-2020, which had been due to conclude on August 10, 2020, but clearly the exercise was designed as a cover for an operational Turkish projection into Azerbaijan for the purpose of the offensive against Armenia.
The question that remained, though, was whether this was to be a serious offensive to regain territory, or merely to bolster Azerbaijan against Armenia’s surprise brief offensive in July 2020. The July skirmish clearly rattled the Azerbaijani leadership to the point that Pres. Aliyev replaced his Foreign Minister and may have triggered Ankara to offer forces to support an Azerbaijani restoration of credible deterrence. But Turkey had been building its proxy (Syrian jihadist) forces in Azerbaijan for some time, so Ankara had some concept that it would utilize those forces against either Armenia, Russia, or Iran, perhaps as a staging operation against the Kurds of the region.
There was, by mid-October 2020, little doubt that Azerbaijani forces, well-equipped with Israeli, Turkish, and Soviet weapons were making massive inroads into Armenian-held territories within northern Azerbaijan. Armenia had begun in July 2020 targeting key Azerbaijani infrastructural assets, particularly as they related to the new Southern Gas Corridor, which was now starting to come on-stream (and bypassing Russian-controlled gas lines). So all of this is part of a massive conflict when seen in the energy dimension, being played out while Washington — as is its wont during an election year — slumbered. The fate of Western European energy dependency was at stake. Little wonder that Russia had pushed Armenia to train its forces specifically for attacks on Azerbaijani energy infrastructure.
But could the conflict precipitate a return to negotiations by Yerevan and Baku over viable borders? It is still a possibility.
By GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Staff
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