As world focuses on the White House, Turkey’s Erdoğan is on the move

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By John J. Metzler

While the world was looking elsewhere and embroiled in the American presidential campaign, a long simmering territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan reignited in late September.

An unexpected ground war in the remote Caucasian mountains followed, pitting two former Soviet territories Armenia and Azerbaijan against each other to regain land in the obscure Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

From the onset UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres condemned the violence and reiterated that, “both sides have the obligation, under international humanitarian law, to take utmost care to spare and protect civilians and civilian infrastructure in the conduct of military operations.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan / Wikimedia Commons

Turkey’s authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan strongly supported his Azeri ethnic kin through Turkish backed military proxies.  Erdogan’s involvement comes as part of a series of  coordinated regional probes into territories adjoining Turkey or near its shores, such as disputed maritime claims with Greece and Cyprus over waters expected to hold vast gas deposits in the adjoining Mediterranean Sea, military support for Libya’s embattled government, and  meddling in Syria’s ongoing conflict.

UN Human Rights authorities based in Geneva, warned of the clear and blatant use of Turkish-backed mercenaries from Syria who were fighting for Azerbaijan.  “The Government of  Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s assistance, relied on Syrian fighters to shore up and sustain its military operations in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone including on the front line,” the report added. “The fighters appeared to be motivated primarily by private gain, given the dire economic situation in the Syrian Arab Republic,” the UN experts stated.

Significantly, “In case of death, their relatives were reportedly promised financial compensation and Turkish nationality.”  “The way in which these individuals were recruited, transported and used in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone appeared consistent with the definition of a mercenary, as set out by relevant international legal instruments,” rights monitors conclude.

Though sending massive arms shipments to Azerbaijan earlier this year, Turkey offered little overt military involvement but  Ankara appears to have engaged in recruitment and transfer of Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan, some of which are affiliated with the Syrian National Army.  Some 2,000 Arabs, many Islamist militants serve as Turkish proxies.

Yet the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, the enduring territorial dispute between Armenia and  Azerbaijan, both former Soviet territories, dates to move by dictator Josef Stalin to redraw the map in the Caucasus; in this case Armenia gained at the expense of ethnic Turkish Azerbaijan.    In 1923, Stalin arbitrarily decided to make the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave an autonomous Armenian populated region of Azerbaijan.

The Nagorno-Karabakh territory, aka Artsakh, is about the size of Rhode Island.  The region separated from Azerbaijan in a war during the early 1990’s.  But now a ceasefire deal brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, stopped the shooting and allows for Azeris to move back to the region at the expense of previously settled Armenians.  Some 2,000 Russian “peacekeepers” have deployed to enforce the agreement.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concern over continuing hostilities between nations “friendly to Russia.” He opined, “Given that Russia is connected with Azerbaijan and Armenia by a shared history, culture and economic ties, it would be highly inappropriate, on our part, to resort to methods as diktat, coercion or pressure.”  Moscow has tactically tilted to the Azeris at the expense of Armenia a longtime Russian ally.

Thousands were killed or displaced on both sides from the fighting during the six-week war.

Though the Armenians comprise an ancient Christian culture while the Azeris are mostly Muslim, this is less a religious conflict than a classic unsettled territorial dispute.

The region represents the vortex of competing geopolitical interests: Turkey, Russia and Iran.

Though geographically part of Imperial Russia and subsequently the Soviet Union and not the Ottoman Empire, many sides including the British played for its fortunes. Why?  The rich oilfields of Baku on the Caspian Sea pump petrodollars into the corrupt Azeri state and its powerful military.  Notably the South Caucasus region provides crucial transit routes for gas and oil to world markets.

Respected human rights monitor Freedom House, rates Armenia as “partly free” whereas Azerbaijan is cited as “not free” having poorer political rights and civil liberties than neighboring Iran or Turkey.

In October President Erdogan stated bluntly, “Turkey wholeheartedly supports Azerbaijan’s just struggle for the liberation of its lands.”  Now having won the conflict, Azerbaijan owes an uncomfortable debt to “Big Brother” Turkey.

Clearly Erdogan views his country as rightfully reviving a neo-Ottoman strategic mindset; one of many Turkish geopolitical probes likely during the coming year largely owing to world indifference.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]