Strange alliances

Updated 12 Oct 2020

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IF politics makes for strange bedfellows, and if war is the continuation of politics by other means, then it’s no surprise that war is a geopolitical orgy, a tangle of limbs and alliances, of overtures and rejections and not-so-secret trysts and thrusts.

Take the hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave located within Azerbaijan’s borders.

Though the world recognises Nagorno-Karabakh as being Azerbaijani territory, it has been governed independently since 1994, and while the breakaway region does enjoy Armenian support, even Armenia does not recognise it as an independent state.

In 1920, Azeri forces tried to gain control but while that operation was ongoing Bolshevik forces took over Azerbaijan. Delighted, Armenia thought that the Russians, culturally and religiously closer to Armenians than they are to Azeris, would hand the territory to them. That delight didn’t last long and the following year Bolshevik forces took over Armenia as well. While the new authorities pledged to resolve the issue it went into cold storage for the next many decades.

Tel Aviv has painstakingly built up its ties with Azerbaijan.

One reason was that, at that point, Stalin didn’t want to annoy Turkey which was and still is Azerbaijan’s number one ally, and which was then being viewed by Moscow as a potential ally that could develop along communist lines. The more compelling reason was that even though both Armenia and Azerbaijan were now part of the USSR, keeping them at loggerheads suited Stalin and his successors, because it placed Moscow in the role of supreme arbiter. With the disintegration of the USSR, hostilities over Karabakh restarted and Azeri forces were pushed back from Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994 resulting in a stalemate that has lasted till now.

Today, while Turkey remains the most vocal supporter of Azerbaijan and is providing not just diplomatic but also military aid, the other regional alliances are a tangled web.

Take Iran for example: conventional wisdom would dictate that it would be a supporter of Azerbaijan, a Shia-majority state, over Christian Armenia but reality tends to be more complex. Iran isn’t delighted at the idea of having Turkey entrenched on its northern border and has domestic concerns to deal with as well in the form of rising Azeri Turk nationalism in Iran itself, which is home to an estimated 12 million Azeris. While largely integrated, in recent years there have been signs of civil unrest in that community, which complains of having its language and identity marginalised by the Iranian government. This nationalism has been amplified in recent years by increased contacts with their fellows in Azerbaijan and satellite broadcasts from Turkey and other Turkic nations.

This nationalistic outreach is consistent with Turkey’s policies under Erdogan, who is actively playing the pan-Turkic card and for whom this war is a great way to play to the nationalist gallery and also distract from growing economic woes and what seems like a solidifying encirclement of Turkey in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. Along with wanting to keep Turkey out, Iran is also wary of the dangers of growing Russian involvement in a region considered by Moscow as being largely within it historic sphere of influence. Thus far Russia has been playing both sides against the middle and waiting to see who emerges on top — at the moment Azerbaijan seems to dominate the battlefield — while also selling arms to both sides.

Of course, a completely victorious Azerbaijan is not quite in Russia’s interests either as Azeri gas is a strategic rival to Russia’s own gas industry which is not only a major source of foreign exchange but also a crucial geopolitical lever for Mos­cow. So Moscow and its neo-ally Iran would both likely want to see the status quo prevail and are thus calling for a ceasefire.

While Iran has lately been at pains to stress its neutrality and dispel the perception that it is backing Armenia, the fact is that historically it has leaned towards Armenia as opposed to Azerbaijan for one major reason: Israel.

Ever since Turkey and Israel’s strategic partnership started fraying some 15 years back, Tel Aviv has painstakingly built up its relations with Azerbaijan with one aim being to establish a monitoring station on Iran’s border. To that end reports claim that Mossad has set up a listening station in Azerbaijan though as a US diplomat said, “nine-tenths of [the relationship] is beneath the surface…”. However, we do know that Israel sells large quantities of weapons to Azerbaijan, which is also a major source of oil for Israel. Of course, with Israel’s growing relations with Gulf states it’s likely that the value of the Azerbaijani alliance will diminish in relative terms. Speaking of the Gulf, naturally the UAE is also out to cause as much discomfort to Turkey as it can and has thus been strengthening its economic and military cooperation with Armenia. Strange bedfellows indeed.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2020