by Josh Lalonde
Fighting has broken out between Azerbaijan and the unrecognized breakaway ethnic Armenian region the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (also known as the Republic of Artsakh). The conflict, which began in 1988 when the region tried to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia, has mostly been frozen in place since a ceasefire agreement in 1994. But on September 27 the war was reignited, with each side blaming the other for starting the fighting. While exact casualty counts are not available, hundreds have been killed and thousands wounded on both sides, including civilians.
(UPDATE: A notional ceasefire was announced as this article went to press, but also does not seem to be taking root – details in the conclusion.)
Many countries, including Canada, have called on both sides to cease hostilities and reach a negotiated solution to the conflict. The most significant outlier is Turkey, which has stated its unequivocal support for Azerbaijan and called on Armenia to withdraw “from occupied Azerbaijani territories,” according to state-run Anadolu Agency. (Azerbaijan and Turkey consider the de facto Republic of Artsakh to be an Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory, which Armenia denies.)
Now, if your head is already swimming, dear Leveller reader, fear not. We’re going to back up and take it nice and slow. In fact if you’ve been struggling to parse headlines about a conflict in places you’ve barely even heard of, this is the place for you. We’ll get you all caught up on all the history and politics you need to understand this conflict in the Caucasus, and maybe even to critique the typically banal “both sides be nice” message of the Canadian Liberal government.
For, while Armenian-Canadian organizations have called on Canada to take a stronger line in condemning Azerbaijan and its supporter Turkey, the response from the government of Canada so far has been carefully balanced.
Background to the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
The region of Nagorno-Karabakh has long had a mixed population of ethnic Armenians and Azeris. Although it had a majority-Armenian population, it was included in the Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) of Azerbaijan in 1920 as a result of complex negotiations between Soviet Russia, the nascent Turkish republic, and Britain, which had colonial interests in the area.
The Azerbaijan SSR then became part of the Soviet Union when it was founded in 1924. During the Soviet era, both Armenia and Azerbaijan (including Nagorno-Karabakh) maintained their multi-ethnic character. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians lived in Azerbaijan, especially in the capital Baku, and similar numbers of Azeris lived in Armenia.
However, with the 1980s perestroika (reform) process initiated by then-leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, Armenian nationalists saw an opportunity to assert their autonomy. They objected to what they considered discrimination against Armenian culture in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijan SSR’s attempts to impose an Azerbaijani identity on the region.
The soviet (regional parliament) of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast passed a resolution in 1988 calling on the Supreme Soviet of the USSR to transfer the region from the Azerbaijan SSR to the Armenian SSR. This led to protests in favour of the transfer within Armenia and counterprotests against the proposal in Azerbaijan. These protests soon devolved into pogroms against the ethnic minorities in each SSR. This interethnic violence resulted in the ethnic cleansing of both SSRs, as Armenians fled Azerbaijan and Azeris fled Armenia.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, both SSRs became independent in the early 1990s without having resolved the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. When the newly-independent Azerbaijan rescinded Nagorno-Karabakh’s status as an autonomous oblast, the region declared its independence as the Republic of Artsakh — an Armenian name for the area — after a referendum in December 1991, which Azeri residents of the region boycotted. This led to an all-out war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, during which approximately 30,000 people were killed and one million displaced.
The war resulted in a ceasefire agreement in 1994, which froze the conflict. Ethnic Armenian forces, under the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, were left with de facto control over Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as some surrounding territory linking it to Armenia proper. Yet no UN-recognized state, including Armenia, has recognized Artsakh’s independence. This situation has largely held since that time, with occasional shooting back and forth across the Line of Contact between the two sides, with the exception of a four-day bout of heavy fighting in 2016.
“While Armenian-Canadian organizations have called on Canada to take a stronger line in condemning Azerbaijan and its supporter Turkey, the response from the government of Canada has so far been carefully balanced.”
The conflict is made more complex by the relations of each state with the surrounding countries and other regional powers. Azerbaijan has close ties with Turkey, symbolized in the popular slogan “one nation, two states.” The Azeri language is closely related to Turkish and both countries are majority-Muslim, although Turkey is mostly Sunni while Azerbaijan is mostly Shi’a. The Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR is also the biggest foreign investor in Turkey.
By contrast, Turkey and Armenia have poor relations. This stems from Turkey’s objection to what it considers the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as Armenian lobbying for the recognition of the 1915 Armenian Genocide perpetrated by Turkish forces under the Ottoman Empire. Turkey has kept its border with Armenia shut since the 1990s. This leaves landlocked Armenia dependent on its neighbours Iran and to a lesser extent Georgia for trade with the rest of the world.
Due to the threat of Turkish intervention, Armenia joined the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) with Russia and several other former Soviet republics in the 1990s. It also hosts a Russian military base. However, Russia also has good relations with Azerbaijan based on shared interests in oil and gas production and pipelines, and it sells military equipment to both sides.
Since the ceasefire agreement in 1994, the two countries have engaged in an arms race. Armenia has primarily bought Russian-made military equipment, while Azerbaijan has relied on Israel, Russia, and more recently Turkey. Azerbaijan’s revenue from oil and gas exports has allowed it to heavily outspend Armenia, leading to a tilting of the balance of power in its favour. This has fuelled increasing dissatisfaction within the country over the status quo of Armenian control over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In July of this year, fighting briefly broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Tavush/Tovuz region north of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan announced the death of 11 of its soldiers, including a general and one civilian, while Armenia said that four of its soldiers had been killed.
The clash sparked a mass protest in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku demanding that the country go to war to “liberate” Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenian control. The protesters invaded and temporarily took over the parliament building before being expelled by police.
In the midst of the clashes, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence threatened to bomb a nuclear power plant in Armenia, which would cause a nuclear disaster of devastating scale across the whole Caucasus. The government of Turkey voiced its support for Azerbaijan, and condemned what it called an attack by Armenia.
The fighting brought out intense displays of nationalism in both Armenian and Azeri communities around the world. This included the vandalism of an Armenian school and community centre in San Francisco with hate speech against Armenians, and an alleged attack on Armenian-Canadians in Toronto several weeks later.
Following this round of fighting, Azerbaijan and Turkey conducted joint military drills, demonstrating Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan. The Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the drills, which they said “further aggravate the situation.”
Fighting broke out again on September 27 between Azerbaijan and the Republic of Artsakh, with each side claiming the other had started it. This time, however, it was not an isolated clash, but rather combat along the entire Line of Contact between the Republic of Artsakh forces and Azerbaijan. Heavy fighting using artillery, tanks, drones, and helicopters has continued for days, with no halt as of the time of writing.
Both sides have extensively deployed information warfare. They have posted videos, set to dramatic music, showing the destruction of enemy equipment to generate the perception that their side was winning. They have also made claims that the enemy was targeting civilians, while they struck only military targets. Many of the posts are made in both English and Russian, as well as the local language (Armenian or Azeri), indicating that foreign audiences are being targeted as well as domestic ones.
Both sides have also dismissed as “fake news” claims made by the other side, and Azerbaijan has restricted internet access within the country. Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan as number 168 out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index, while Armenia comes in at number 61. These tactics, combined with the limited access to the area for foreign journalists, make sorting the truth from disinformation very difficult.
On October 2, the Defence Ministry of Azerbaijan claimed that Armenia had targeted a civilian settlement using Tochka-U ballistic missiles, which the Armenian Ministry of Defence quickly denied. No evidence either confirming or disproving the claim has emerged.
However, a video taken that same day seems to show Azerbaijan using an Israeli-made LORA ballistic missile to destroy a bridge connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. If either country has in fact used ballistic missiles, this would constitute a significant escalation, as both have large arsenals and much of each country lies in the range of the other’s missiles.
Other notable incidents in the fighting so far include Armenia’s claim that its air defence systems had shot down four Azerbaijani drones in the vicinity of its capital Yerevan. Azerbaijan has been constantly shelling Stepanakert, capital of the de facto Republic of Artsakh, allegedly using cluster munitions. These are banned under the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions, although neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are signatories to the convention.
Finally, Azerbaijan has claimed that a rocket attack from Armenia proper killed one civilian on October 4 in the city of Ganja, which Armenia has denied. An attack from within Armenia proper could lead to the fighting escalating into a full-on war between the two countries.
On October 7, the Defence Ministry of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic reported 40 deaths among its soldiers, bringing the total since the fighting began to 280. Azerbaijan has not reported its own casualty figures, but Armenia has claimed to have killed over 3,000 Azerbaijani troops as of October 3 — and to have destroyed over 100 drones and 200 armoured vehicles — figures that are likely exaggerated.
The Role of Turkey
Turkey is Azerbaijan’s closest ally and has explicitly sided with them in the current fighting, calling Armenia “the biggest obstacle to peace and stability in the region.” This sets Turkey at odds with nearly every other country that has commented on the issue, and in particular with the Minsk group of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), which is dedicated to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
The three co-chairs of the Minsk group, from the U.S., France, and Russia, issued a joint statement on September 27 that carefully avoided taking sides while calling for an immediate ceasefire and a return to negotiations. The three countries issued another joint statement on October 5, repeating the call for a ceasefire and condemning attacks on civilian settlements, which again did not single out either side.
Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan goes beyond mere statements, however. Even before the current fighting broke out, rumours circulated on social media that Turkey was transferring Syrian mercenaries under its control from Libya and Syria to Azerbaijan. Although Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied these allegations, numerous other sources have since confirmed that approximately 1,000 Syrians, mostly recruited from the Turkish-backed Hamza and Sultan Murad Divisions, have been sent to Azerbaijan. Many of these groups have been accused of crimes and human rights abuses in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria, such as kidnapping, sexual violence, torture, and murder.
The Guardian has reported that “at least 10 Syrians” had been killed in Azerbaijan as of October 2. Meanwhile, Syria researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov posted that at least 55 bodies of Syrians killed in the fighting had been returned to Syria as of October 4, with dozens more expected in the following days.
In addition to the Syrian mercenaries, Turkey has apparently sent drones to Azerbaijan. Videos of drone strikes released by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence show a graphical interface which seems to match that of the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone. There were reports in June of this year that Azerbaijan was buying drones from Turkey, so it is unclear whether the drones in use in Azerbaijan are being operated by Azerbaijan’s military or by Turkey’s. On October 5, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stated on Turkish news channel TRT Haber that “advanced Turkish drones owned by the Azerbaijan military” were being used, the Middle East Eye reports. Turkey has in the past year used these drones to devastating effect in Syria — destroying a number of Russian-made air defence systems similar to those operated by Armenia — as well as to a lesser extent in Libya.
Armenia has claimed that a Turkish F-16 jet shot down one of its Su-25 jets inside Armenia proper on September 29. Turkey and Azerbaijan have both denied this claim, and Armenia has not provided any evidence of this. Armenia has also claimed that Turkish military experts were fighting alongside Azerbaijani forces, again without providing evidence. If these claims were true, it would mean that Turkey is directly involved in the conflict rather than simply backing Azerbaijan.
These concrete forms of Turkish support led Turkey commentator Amberin Zaman to conclude that “Azerbaijan most likely instigated the attacks after receiving assurances of military support from Turkey.” On the whole, it is Azerbaijan that has an interest in changing the status quo, not the Republic of Artsakh or Armenia. It will likely never be possible to determine who fired the first shot on September 27. Yet the rapid escalation across the entire Line of Contact, together with Azerbaijan’s rejection of the OSCE Minsk group’s call for a ceasefire, suggest that Azerbaijan intends to recapture at least part of Nagorno-Karabakh — and that its current operations were planned in advance.
Turkey’s engagement in Azerbaijan is part of a larger pattern of increasingly aggressive foreign policy. It is already involved in the ongoing wars in Syria and Libya, where it employs thousands of Syrian mercenaries. The Turkish air force also carried out a bombing campaign in Iraq over the summer targeting Kurdish militants. Turkish attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq go hand in hand with its suppression of the Kurdish minority at home.
There have also been escalating tensions in recent months between Turkey and a number of other states in the Eastern Mediterranean regarding the delimitation of maritime boundaries and rights to exploit oil and gas resources in the area. Finally, the Turkish military has occupied the northern portion of Cyprus since 1974, in support of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Turkey.
Canada has so far avoided singling out either side to the conflict and maintained a carefully balanced stance. On September 28, a day after the beginning of the current round of fighting, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne and U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab issued a joint statement condemning the fighting. It called for an immediate ceasefire and asked both parties to return to negotiations to end the conflict.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in response to questions, made similar remarks on October 2. Most recently, Minister Champagne issued another joint statement with Secretary Raab on October 6 that again did not single out either side, reiterating “the urgent need to end the continuing military action in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone.” Global Affairs Canada did not respond to detailed questions regarding Canada’s response to the fighting, pointing instead to the October 6 statement.
Controversy has arisen in Canada regarding the alleged use of Turkish drones in the conflict. The Bayraktar TB2 drone identified as being used in the current fighting carries an optical system produced by Canadian company L3Harris WESCAM, as documented in a recent report by the peace group Project Ploughshares.
Global Affairs Canada has said that it is investigating the allegations, and Minister Champagne has said that he would cancel the export permits for the optics if the “investigation determines Canadian technology … is leading to human rights abuses.” Global Affairs Canada suspended military exports to Turkey following the latter’s invasion of northeastern Syria in 2019, but has since issued export permits for WESCAM optics.
On October 5, Minister Champagne announced the suspension of “the relevant export permits to Turkey, so as to allow time to further assess the situation,” which presumably means those issued for the WESCAM optics but does not specifically say so. The minister’s October 6 statement also urged “all external parties and friends of both states to refrain from taking actions that risk exacerbating the crisis,” which might be a veiled reference to the role of Turkey.
The Armenian-Canadian community has called for stronger actions, including a complete ban on military exports to Turkey. A statement signed by a number of Armenian-Canadian organizations called on the government of Canada to “forcefully condemn the unjustified Azero-Turkish aggression.”
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has also called on Canada to “pick a side.” Armenian-Canadians protested outside the Turkish embassy and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on October 3. Another demonstration of approximately 3,000 people took place in Montreal on October 4.
While Canada’s balanced approach is in line with that of the OSCE Minsk group and is presumably meant to avoid antagonizing either side, it is questionable whether it is adequate to the situation. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has stated that “Armenian armed forces must unconditionally, fully, and immediately leave our lands” and has rejected the Minsk group’s call for a ceasefire, while Armenia has stated its willingness to accept one.
In light of this, it seems that Canada and other states must explicitly condemn Azerbaijan’s attempt to change the situation on the ground militarily, rather than simply calling on both sides to stop fighting. Furthermore, Canada has so far been silent on the role of Turkey in the conflict, aside from the possible veiled reference in the October 6 statement.
Liberal MP Bryan May, chair of the Canada-Armenia Parliamentary Friendship Group, posted on Facebook a statement on September 27 condemning “the recent aggression by Azerbaijan against the Armenian people in Nagorno-Karabakh” as well as the “ongoing rhetoric from Turkish leadership.” A clear and decisive statement like this one coming from the government of Canada could help push other countries, including perhaps the Minsk group co-chairs, to take a stronger stance against Azerbaijan.
As of the time of writing, there is little prospect of an end to the fighting. With the support of Turkey, Azerbaijan clearly feels it can now recapture the territory that they lost in the 1990s. So far, world powers, including Armenian ally Russia, show no interest in intervening directly, and have limited their involvement to making statements calling for a ceasefire. There is every reason to expect that the fighting — and in particular long-range shelling of civilian settlements — will continue.
UPDATE: As this article was being prepared for publication, it was announced that the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia had negotiated a ceasefire agreement with Russian mediation. The ceasefire was to come into effect at 12:00 local time (8:00 GMT) on October 10 and last for 72 hours. It would allow the two sides to exchange prisoners and collect the bodies of those killed in the fighting, with the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Finally, it would provide a foundation for “substantive peace talks” mediated by the OSCE Minsk group, according to Al Jazeera.
However, the deadline came and went with no halt to the fighting. Each side accuses the other of having violated the ceasefire first. Both Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov have made statements suggesting that Azerbaijan intends to continue fighting to capture what it considers its rightful territory. Given how difficult it was to negotiate this ceasefire and how quickly it fell apart, it is hard to see a new ceasefire agreement being reached in the near future.