On Sunday morning, Azerbaijani artillery, rockets, drones and combat aircraft began a series of attacks on Armenian positions in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, just two months after clashes in July left at least seventeen dead. The shelling and air strikes were apparently followed by ground attacks.
The new round of fighting has reportedly resulted in civilian deaths and the destruction of multiple armored vehicles and combat aircraft. Both sides accuse the other of inventing the losses. Armenia has declared martial law and is mobilizing its reservists.
The conflict also threatens to involve regional powers Russia and Turkey in support of the opposing nations.
The website of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense claims it was “striking enemy command posts…along the length of the entire front” in retaliation for Armenian artillery fire. The attack, which began around 8 a.m. local time, extended to the Nagorno-Karabakh capital of Stepanakert and reportedly resulted in the deaths of at least two civilians: a girl and a woman.
Screen capture of video released by Armenian Defense Ministry purportedly showing an Azerbaijani T-72 tank being struck by a mine or anti-tank fire.
A spokeswoman for the Armenian Defense Ministry claimed its forces shot down four Azerbaijani helicopters and 15 drones, and destroyed ten tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
It also released multiple videos appearing to show at least five tanks hitting mines or being struck by munitions, as well as several lighter vehicles apparently being destroyed.
A tank struck by a munition may not necessarily be destroyed. However, one video appears to show ammunition stores cooking off internally inside a tank, resulting in horrific jets of flame leaping from the turret. Another video shows a very tightly grouped unit of tanks being hit by shellfire—a significant tactical error.
Photo released by Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces purportedly to show destruction of an Azerbaijani armored fighting vehicle (AFV) on September 27, 2020.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense responded by stating the Armenian claims were “false and disinformation,” conceding only the loss of one Azerbaijani helicopter, the crew of which reportedly survived.
In turn, the Azerbaijani military claimed to have destroyed twelve Armenian 2K33 Osa (SA-8) short-range air defense systems. It released a video appearing to show three being knocked out by drone strikes.
Azerbaijan’s military also claims to have captured a half-dozen villages in territory formerly controlled by Armenian forces. Armenia denied the loss of territory.
Three Decades Of War
The two small Central Asian nations—Armenia counts nearly 3 million citizens and Azerbaijan, over 10 million—have been locked in conflict for 32 years over the fate of the ethnically diverse Nagorno-Kabarakh region, which has an Armenian majority but which was administratively designated an autonomous region in Azerbaijan during Soviet rule. Violent clashes over the region’s status began in 1988, before the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh War. Military actions in Shelli village. Photo ITAR-TASS / Sergei Mamontov; Alexander Nemyonov (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)
Full-scale warfare ended in 1994 after 30,000 deaths and atrocities committed by both sides. Today, Armenian forces back a de facto Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh) Republic which is not recognized by Baku. But Armenian and Azerbaijani forces never stopped skirmishing over the heavily fortified border, even escalating to a brief but intense border war in 2016.
Armenian forces well-entrenched in mountainous terrain have historically prevailed in most skirmishes with Azerbaijan. However, Azerbaijan has over three times the population and can draw on substantial oil wealth—and in the last decade Baku has used it to purchase billions of dollars in advanced military systems.
Israeli drones in particular seemed to have facilitated some Azeri tactical successes, and also conveniently provide drone strike footage which can be used to support narratives of military success.
The unmanned combat aerial vehicle Harop is presented at Israel’s IAI Chalet at the International Paris Airshow at Le Bourget on June 17, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ERIC PIERMONT (Photo credit should read ERIC PIERMONT/AFP via Getty Images)
Looming over the region is Russia, which is supplying powerful weapons like TOS-1 thermobaric rocket artillery to both sides of the conflict despite its alliance with Armenia. Other potent hardware Moscow has sold to the belligerents include T-90 tanks and Mi-35M armored helicopter gunships for Azerbaijan, and Iskander-E ballistic missiles which Armenia could use to strike Azerbaijan’s oil industry.
At the same time, Russia is involved in the OSCE’s Minsk Group alongside France and the United States, which is attempting to mediate a peaceful resolution to the long-running Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Turkey, meanwhile, has openly supported Azerbaijan, and its recent offensive against Armenia, which it Erdogan described Sunday as “an obstacle to peace.” The Turkish leader has in the past invoked shared Muslim faith and ethnic affinity with Azerbaijan. Erdogan also appears increasingly drawn to foreign adventures in places like Libya and Syria in a bid to reclaim the former regional influence of the Ottoman Empire.
There are unconfirmed claims that Turkey may have recruited and airlifted refugee fighters from Syria to support Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, but Ankara denies the allegations.
There are also indications that Turkey may have supported Azerbaijan’s offensive with its own very capable drone forces, possibly performing surveillance flights or even air strikes using precision munitions.
The July Clashes
The current attack was preceded by hostilities begun on July 12 on the northern end of the Armenian-Azerbaijan border, ostensibly after Armenian forces opened fired on an Azerbaijani UAZ jeep heading towards their position. (Azerbaijan claims the Armenian forces opened fire unprovoked.)
Fighting rapidly escalated to involve mortar and heavy artillery bombardments, armored vehicles, and combat and surveillance drones. Azerbaijan employed Israeli Spike-NLOS loitering precision strike missiles against Armenian positions and targeted the Armenian internet with a wave of cyberattacks. Armenia deployed Su-30SM jet fighters on air patrols and domestically built X-55 drones on reconnaissance missions. Both sides claimed to have destroyed well over a dozen drones.
Perhaps most consequentially, on July 14 over 30,000 nationalist protestors gathered in Baku calling for an escalation in the conflict. The protests eventually took on anti-government tone, leading to the storming of the parliament before being broken up.
Fighting petered off a week later, by which time twelve Azerbaijanis were killed, including a Major General and a 76-year-old civilian. The Armenian side lost five dead and one mortally wounded soldier.
Senior U.S. officials barely made any note of the crisis. Paul Stronski wrote for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that “the administration of President Donald Trump has yet to issue a policy on the South Caucasus region, creating a vacuum that other powers—including Iran and Russia—appear eager to fill. The lack of senior level response to the latest violence shows once again that Washington does not see the Caucasus as a priority.”
Given the distractions of the U.S. presidential campaign, U.S. diplomatic disengagement seems likely to continue.
In an article in Foreign Policy magazine, Neil Hauer notes that Azerbaijani governments were toppled twice in the 1990s due to military failures in the conflict with Armenia. Thus the escalation of the protests on July 14 were likely particularly alarming for autocrat Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled Azerbaijan since 2003.
Therefore, the current Azerbaijani offensive may be a bid by Aliyev to stabilize his government by seeking to satisfy nationalistic demands for military escalation and victory, while diverting attention away from domestic problems including economic recession brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and collapsing oil prices.
SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – JUNE 20: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev at Konstantin Palace June 20, 2016 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The Presidents of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia gathered in Saint Petersburg to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflct. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Moscow, in turn, may pressure Baku to deescalate as the attack weakens the credibility of the military deterrence Russia provides Armenia. Reportedly, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has already had telephone conversations both with Armenian foreign minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
Whether the new offensive can deliver military success, real or perceived, for Aliyev’s government and to what degree the fighting may escalate remains to be seen.
Whatever the case, the renewed fighting is a blow to hopes for peace in the region and the civilian communities exposed to deadly heavy artillery and drone strikes.
Article updated 8:40 AM EST on Sunday with new claims, links and videos pertaining to losses in the conflict.
Moscow – Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed on a new “humanitarian ceasefire” to come into force at midnight (2000 GMT) on Saturday, both foreign ministries said.
The statements had the same wording and come a week after the imposition of a short-lived Russian brokered ceasefire, which both sides blamed the other for breaking shortly after it came into force.
The agreement comes after calls to both sides by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urging them to adhere to the ceasefire.
France’s Elysee Palace meanwhile put out a statement saying the agreement came “after French mediation over the last few days and hours, in co-ordination with the co-chairs of the Minsk group [Russia and the US]”.
“This ceasefire must be unconditional and strictly respected by the two sides,” the statement said. “France will pay great attention to that and will remain engaged for a lasting end to hostilities and a quick start of credible negotiations.”
At least 12 people were killed and over 40 injured in Azerbaijan’s second-largest city Ganja on Saturday which came under a missile attack from the Armenian military, alleged Baku.
“Civilians are continued to be saved from the debris of destruction by emergency services,” Hikmet Hajiyev, assistant to the Azerbaijani president, said on Twitter.
“Treacherous and cruel missile attack of Armenia against civilians in Ganja is sign of weakness and desperation of Armenia’s political-military leadership in the face of its defeat on battleground,” Hajiyev said, condemning Armenia for deliberately targeting Azerbaijan’s civilians.
“Two kids are among the dead. Emergency works are still going on. Armenia’s terror and War Crimes continue,” Hajiyev said earlier on Twitter. “Armenia’s foreign ministry in vile manner attempts to deny its state responsibility for this nefarious war crimes,” he said.
He said that preliminary reports pointed out to the destruction of as many as 20 houses due to the missile attack.
Turkey condemns Armenian attack
Condemning Armenia’s attack, Turkey’s ruling party spokesperson reiterated support for Azerbaijan.
“Armenia is killing civilians as a rogue state. It is carrying out brutal massacres. The murderers and their supporters are breaking the law. Attacks against Ganja are crimes against humanity,” Omer Celik said on Twitter.
He said that the attackers must not go unpunished and Armenia should be prosecuted for crimes. The official added that Armenia was killing women, children, elderly and civilians ‘indiscriminately’.
Why are Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting?
Two ex-Soviet republics in the Caucasus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, are engaged in a decades-long territorial dispute which has re-erupted with the heaviest clashes in years on Sunday.
Here are the key factors surrounding their conflict:
At the heart of the standoff between Yerevan and Baku is the contested Nagorny Karabakh region.
The Soviet authorities merged the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory with Azerbaijan in 1921.
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian separatists seized it in a move supported by Yerevan.
An ensuing war left 30,000 dead and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.
Despite a ceasefire mediated in 1994 by Russia, the United States, and France, peace negotiations struggle to move forward and fighting erupts frequently.
The latest clashes on Sunday saw Azerbaijan and Armenian separatists accuse each other of igniting the fighting that left both sides with casualties, including civilians.
It followed a flare-up along the border in July which claimed the lives of 17 soldiers from both sides.
In April 2016, some 110 people were killed in the most serious fighting in years.
Revolts and dynasty
Armenia has been rocked by political and economic instability since it gained independence from the former USSR.
The country’s post-Soviet leadership repressed opposition to its rule, was accused of falsifying ballot results, and was largely beholden to the interests of Russia.
In the spring of 2018, mass street protests brought current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to power. He has since cracked down on corruption and introduced popular judicial reforms.
Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, has been under the authoritarian grip of a single-family since 1993.
Heydar Aliyev, a former officer of the Soviet security services, the KGB, ruled the country with an iron fist until October 2003. He handed over power to his son, Ilham, weeks before his death.
Like his father, Ilham has quashed all opposition to his rule and in 2017 made his wife, Mehriban, the country´s first vice president.
Russia and Turkey
Turkey, with ambitions to be a regional powerbroker in the Caucasus, has thrown its weight behind oil-rich and Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan.
Their alliance is fuelled by a mutual mistrust of Armenia, and Ankara routinely issues strongly-worded statements in support of Baku’s ambitions to reclaim Nagorny Karabakh.
Yerevan harbours hostility towards Turkey over the massacres of some 1.5 million Armenians by Turkey under the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
More than 30 countries have recognised the killings as genocide, though Ankara fiercely disputes the term.
Russia, which maintains close ties with Armenia, is the major powerbroker in the region. It leads the Collective Security Treaty Organisation military alliance of ex-Soviet countries that includes Armenia.
Yerevan relies on Russian support and military guarantees because its defence budget is overshadowed by Azerbaijan´s spending on arms.
Oil and diaspora
Azerbaijan has recently begun leveraging oil revenues as part of a bid to overhaul its image in the West.
Baku has invested in massive sponsorship deals including with the Euro 2020 football championship, which was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Baku was due to host matches this year and Azerbaijan has held Formula 1 Grand Prix races since 2016.
Azerbaijan has also tried to pitch itself to European countries as an alternative energy supplier to Russia.
Reality TV star Kim Kardashian, the late singer Charles Aznavour, and pop star and actress Cher all trace their roots to Armenia.
Some have appointed themselves unofficial ambassadors, like Kardashian who has been outspoken on the issue of the Armenian genocide.
The Iranian governments have not announced any specific strategy or official document on foreign policy towards Central Asia and the Caucasus, particularly about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, principles of Iran’s foreign policy towards the conflict can be understood via analysis of the positions taken by Iranian officials and also Iran’s practical approaches in the last three decades. In his article, Dr. Vali Kaleji, a Tehran-based expert on Central Asia and Caucasian Studies, proposes eight principles for Iran’s foreign policy towards the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This would contribute to a better disclosure of Iran’s approaches as an influential actor in the South Caucasus, especially regarding recent tension between Armenia and Republic of Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Apart from the ancient and long-lasting historical, religious and lingual ties between Iran and the Caucasus, there are 800 kilometers of border lines that connect Iran to this region. The Iranian provinces of Ardabil and Eastern Azarbaijan have 369 kilometers and 200 kilometers of joint borders with the Republic of Azerbaijan respectively. Eastern Azarbaijan is the only Iranian province that shares borders with Armenia. This border line is 35 kilometers long. Iran is also the only country adjacent to the disputed region of Karabakh. None of Georgia, Russia and Turkey are in such close proximity to these disputes. The Iranian village of Khoda Afarin, located on the Eastern Azarbaijan-Armenia border, has been hit by the artilleries of the conflicting parties several times. The sound of the bullets, shells and missiles fired by the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces are heard in other Iranian villages close to the northwestern border. This puts Iran in a sensitive situation so that tension and war in Karabakh region and its surrounding areas directly impacts the security of Iran’s northwestern borders.
In addition to the security and border-related considerations, Iran is in a very different position compared with Georgia, Russia and Turkey. The presence of millions of Azeris in the northwestern provinces of Iran who are sensitive to the position of the Republic of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh issue as well as presence of a hundred thousand of Armenians in Iran who sympathize with Armenia has made the Karabakh dispute outstanding for Iran from an ethnical perspective. The other dimension is the religious considerations that the Shia seminaries particularly in the cities of Qom and Mashhad inside Iran and Najaf in Iraq have about supporting the Shia Muslims of the Republic of Azerbaijan and expect the Iranian government to support the Republic of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh dispute more actively. It is also noteworthy that there is a close tie between the two religious and ethnic considerations in many parts of Northwestern Iran with an Azeri majority population. In the meantime, some pan-Azeri and Pan-Turkish currents activate the religious and ethnical sentiments in these Azeri settling areas of Iran. In many occasions they disseminate false news about Iranian government’s position vis-à-vis the Karabakh dispute.
However, when it comes to the position of Iran’s government on the Karabakh issue in the past three decades, eight principles can be referred to which can clear up many probable ambiguities:
1. Recognizing the government of Azerbaijan’s right to sovereignty over the Karabakh region and the seven regions around it
From the beginning of the Karabakh crisis in early 1990s, the Iranian government has recognized the region of Karabakh and regions around it as part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. This position has never changed during the previous three decades. Basically, Iran’s opposition to the ethnic dynamics and secessionism is one of the fundamental factors in Iran’s foreign policy in the South Caucasus. Iranian society is comprised of various ethnic groups and therefore, Iran opposes any ethnic-political dynamic that is separatist. In this framework, Iran never recognized the independence of Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in spite of good and close relations between Iran and Armenia and also Iran and the Russian Federation. In the past decades, this Iranian approach to ethnic dynamics and separatism has been persistent and is observed in Chechnya, Dagestan in North Caucasus and in Iraqi Kurdistan.
2. Non-recognition of the Republic of Artsakh and other political developments in the Karabakh region
In line with the abovementioned principle, Iran has not recognized any of the internal political developments in the region of Karabakh including the existence of Artsakh Republic and the results of the referendums and elections held in this region by the Armenians. Tehran has rejected all of them as invalid and believes that any political transformation in this region should be after the resolution of the dispute and conclusion of a peace treaty that is consented by all conflicting parties namely the government of Armenia, the Karabakh region and the government of Azerbaijan.
3. The balanced approach and maintenance of relations with both Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan
Iran has fifteen neighbors. This number is only comparable to such countries as China and Russia. Iran’s principal policy is maintenance of good relations with all its neighbors and therefore it has never initiated severing its relations with any of its neighbors. In this framework, from early 1990s Iran has asked for a balanced approach and maintenance of relations with both governments of Armenia and the Republic of Azarbaijan. Therefore, Iran’s position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is different from that of Turkey, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan who have either cut their relations with Armenia or have not recognized it as an independent country. Fred Halliday calls this approach “bunch of flowers policy”. Svante Cornell describes it as the “disinterested player” and for Shirin Hunter it is “pragmatism”.
Regardless of what this policy is named, it has been in accordance to this policy that Iran has provided humanitarian and financial assistances to both Armenia and Azerbaijan from early 1990s. Contrary to some allegations by the pan-Azeri and pan-Turkish allegations, Iran provided the people of Azerbaijan, particularly, the residents of Nakhchivan with gas, electricity and basic goods from early 1990s and hosted thousands of Azerbaijanis displaced by war. Such actions of Iran are mentioned in the memoirs of Abulfaz Elchibey, Heydar Aliyev and also Hashemi Rafsanjani. Add to this the point that the balanced approach and the neighborhood policy of Iran in south Caucasus does not only apply to Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan but also includes Georgia. From this perspective, Iran enjoys a special and outstanding place in South Caucasus, as it is only Iran among the three neighbors of the region that has sustainable diplomatic relations with all three countries of the South Caucasus including Armenia and Georgia as the two Christian countries and Republic of Azerbaijan as the Muslim and Shia country. As a matter of fact, there are no political relations between Armenia and Turkey from 1993 to the present time. Russia and Georgia have also cut their relations since 2008. This grants Iran a unique place in South Caucasus.
4. Opposing the war and using force to resolve the Karabakh crisis
In line with the balanced approach and its neighborhood policy based on maintenance of relations with both governments of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, which was explained under the previous heading, Iran is against any war and application of force to resolve the Karabakh crisis by the Armenian and Azeri parties. As was mentioned in the beginning of this piece, unlike Georgia, Russia and Turkey, Iran is adjacent to the disputed region of Karabakh and therefore any military encounter in this region can easily threaten the security of northwestern border areas of Iran in the two provinces of East Azerbaijan and Ardabil and instigate the ethnic and religious sentiments of millions of people inside Iran. Following such approach, Iran actively entered a process of mediation between Armenian and Azeri parties in 1990s and has supported any initiation for ceasefire and peace building that is agreed by both parties. For this reason, in the clashes of the past few years including the four days wars of April 2016 and July 2020 and also the recent clash starting from September 27, 2020 the Iranian high-ranking officials have immediately called for ceasefire between the two parties in the Karabakh dispute because continuation of the war and clashes close to Iran’s border is a serious threat to the national interests and security of Iran.
5. Maintaining the rights and security of the Armenians of Karabakh in the Karabakh peace plans
Iran’s approach to the Karabakh conflict is not a one-sided one. For Tehran, the rights and security of the Armenians of Karabakh is also important and should be respected. In any peace plan and in the case of any development including the return of Azeri war refugees from the Republic of Azerbaijan to the Karabakh region and the seven regions around it or any other political and legal development such as a referendum, the right to self-determination of the Armenians of Karabakh should be respected. From the Iranian perspective, overlooking this could lead to resumption of conflict between Armenians and Azeris which could in turn trigger a war or conflict in the region and ruin any peace plan in the Karabakh region.
6. Opposing the interference of trans-regional powers in resolution of the Karabakh crisis
In line with its foreign and defense policy, Iran is opposed to any interference of trans-regional powers such as United States and NATO in the resolution of the Karabakh crisis. Similar to other crises in the region including those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria, Iran believes that the Karabakh crisis should also be resolved with the political will of the two countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The neighboring countries like Georgia, Russia, Turley and Iran can join this process in various forms if Yerevan and Baku ask for it.
7. Opposing the stationing of international peacekeeping forces in the Karabakh contact lines along the Iranian border
In line with the principle of opposing the interference of the trans-regional powers in the resolution of the Karabakh crisis, Iran is also opposed to stationing of international peace keeping forces particularly if they include trans-regional forces in the contact lines of Karabakh close to Iran’s border. Instead, Iran supports indigenous and regional mechanisms for maintenance of ceasefire and peace in Karabakh as well as provision of security to its residents both Armenian and Azeri.
8. Mediating the process of peace and dispute resolution upon the request from the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia
In early 1990s the Iranian government actively embarked on mediation between Azerbaijan and Armenia upon their request. This resulted in a peace agreement between Yagub Mammadov (the acting president of Azerbaijan) and Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the then president of Armenia mediated by Iranian president of the time Hashemi Rafsanjani in May 1992. Unfortunately, due to some conditions including the occupation of the city of Shusha by Armenians in May 8, 1992 (only one day after conclusion of the Tehran agreement) this mediation failed. Here, Iran could not repeat the successful experience of mediating in the Tajikistan civil war which culminated in the signing of the peace agreement between the government of Tajikistan and the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) in 1997. In this case, the Russian Federation was also involved. Despite this unsuccessful experience and despite excluding Iran from the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the government of Iran has supported any mediation and initiation for ceasefire and peace between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan on the issue of Karabakh and has always insisted that Iran’s involvement in such initiatives is contingent upon the willingness and request of the leaders of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan.
In light of the eight mentioned principles, Iran has anxiously followed up the clashes between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, started from September 27, 2020 which unlike the two previous four days wars of April 2016 and July 2020 are serious breach of the ceasefire from 1994 to date. The recent clashes in Karabakh have been outstanding in terms of the expansion and volume of the conflict, human and financial losses, the level of preparedness, the curfew and the general mobilization inside Armenia and Azerbaijan and also the all-out political and military support of the Turkish government and army from the Republic of Azerbaijan. These have added to Iran’s concerns about the conditions of the region. Iran’s demand in the current situation is a quick ceasefire by the two parties to prevent more human and financial losses and to curb the intensification of the conflict into an all-out war in the Caucasus that would make the conditions uncontrollable with all the three countries in the Caucasus (Armenia, the Republic of Azerbaijan and Georgia) and the three neighboring countries of Iran, Russia and Turkey the losers.