On the 27th of September, 2020 major clashes broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the two Soviet states, including seven surrounding districts that are de facto controlled by the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, but internationally recognized de jure as part of Azerbaijan. This decades-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh- a strategic region that belonged to the Soviet Union until its full dissolution in 1991- which is an ethnic and territorial conflict, started in the early 20th century and continues to date.
History of the conflict
Nagorno-Karabakh is 1700 square miles of the approximate disputed area, of which 95% of the population is ethnically Armenian.
In 1988, the Karabakh Armenians started their protest at the capital Stepanakert, in favor of the unification with the Armenian Republic, which in turn was squashed by the disintegrated Soviet Union. On 22nd February 1988, the first confrontation of the conflict occurred as a large group of Azeris marched from Agdam against the Armenian populated town off Askeran, “wreaking destruction en route”. The Karabakh Armenians demanded that Karabakh be transferred from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia- which led to a full-scale war in the early 1990s. By the end of 1993, the conflict had caused thousands of casualties and created many more refugees on both sides.
The war ended in favor of the Armenian military, and a ceasefire agreement along with significant territorial gains for Armenia and the Bishkek Protocol came into existence. Regular peace talks mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group which is co-chaired by France, Russia, and the US- formed in 1992 to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, resulted in a peace treaty through Russian negotiations with few to no clashes. As many as 930,000 people from either state have been displaced also adding humongous amounts of money costs from both sides ever since.
Between 2008 and 2010, 74 soldiers were killed on both sides. From 2011 to 2013, clashes erupted that led to the deaths of 35 Armenian and over 66 Azerbaijani soldiers. In 2016, a four-day deadly encounter between the two states, where 13 UAV and 1 tank was destroyed by the Armenians leading to the deaths of over 250 soldiers and 30 civilians in total, as ceasefire violations continued over years leading to a humanitarian crisis.
The recent events
On the 23rd of July 2020, Armenia announced its joint air defense system exercise with Russia, and the following week later, Azerbaijan conducted a series of military exercises involving Turkey. The latest, heaviest clashes since 2016, being one step away from a large-scale war, began the morning of 27th September along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Control leaving both sides with casualties. Armenia, Artsakh, and Azerbaijan have introduced martial law along with curfew and total mobilization. Azerbaijan forces launched artillery and airstrikes against civilian settlements including Stepanakert, the capital, and the largest city of the de facto Republic of Artsakh. Intermittent shelling by Azerbaijan’s forces has turned Stepanakert into a ghost town dotted with unexploded munitions and shell craters.
Much of Stepanakert’s 50,000 population have fled, with those remaining hiding down in cellars. The Armenian armed forces then started intensive shelling of Azerbaijani army positions along the front line. The engagements are characterized by heavy artillery, armored warfare, and drone warfare, along with the usage of cluster munitions. Azerbaijan has accused Armenian forces of shelling civilian targets in urban areas, including its second-largest city of Ganja. 427 dwellings of roughly 1200 people in the population, had been destroyed in the area.
On October 8th, 2020, it was reported that half of the population (roughly 75,000) was displaced due to the war, and more than 300 soldiers and civilians have been killed with hundreds more wounded on both sides.
This conflict sparked protests globally. Anti-Turkish graffiti in English and Armenian mark walls all over the Caucasus region. This specific flare-up is potentially the deadliest as it threatens to draw in Russia, Turkey, and other regional players making the attacks even more serious. Armenia repeatedly claimed that Turkey sent Syrian fighters to back the Azeris, but these claims were denied. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that with all their capabilities, they would continue to be by Azerbaijan’s side. Along with Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Israel have expressed support for Azerbaijan.
Iran is accused of supporting Armenia despite its pleas for peace in the region. France, Saudi Arabia, and The United Arab Emirates also support Armenia. All this has only added to the ‘internationalization’ of the conflict.
Resolution of the situation
Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group, an NGO focused on preventing and resolving deadly conflicts, warned that the current clashes could evolve into a bigger escalation than in April 2016, when hundreds of people were killed. The international community is concerned about the prospect of war because Nagorno-Karabakh serves as an energy corridor for pipelines taking oil and gas from Azerbaijan, derived from the Caspian Sea, which produces 800,000 barrels of oil per day. This energy is sold to Eastern and Central Asian markets. Hence, the western powers have called on both sides to immediately cease fighting.
On the 10th of October 2020, the two states agreed to a truce brokered by Russia, after marathon talks were held in Moscow which was advocated by President Vladimir Putin. The truce was agreed based on “humanitarian grounds”, said Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. “The International Committee of the Red Cross would help make the truce work. Although, the specific terms of the ceasefire still need to be agreed.”
Both states, however, accused each other of violating the terms of the ceasefire, within minutes of its effect. The Azeris have not taken to the ceasefire very well. President Ilham Aliyev claimed that they would go to the very end and get what is rightfully theirs and also suggested that, currently a political statement is of importance, but there would be further fighting ahead. Speaking at a briefing in Baku, he complained that the status quo on the ground in the mountainous region did not suit his country and that Azerbaijan hoped and expected to take control of more territory in time. The ceasefire has not been welcomed by the Azeri people either. They believe that after 30 years, this is the first time they have the upper hand. They have military power with more sophisticated weapons. They believe that a long truce or long-term ceasefire will only help the Armenians build their positions.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have rejected the pressure to hold talks and instead pledge to continue fighting, further escalating tensions by switching from cross-border shelling to the use of longer-range artillery and heavy weaponry.
By: Melanie Dsouza
(Image credits: Wikipedia)