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The remains of destroyed Azeri tanks in the Nagorno-Karabakh disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijian. Photo taken in 2005. (Credit: Nicholas Babaian/Flikr, Creative Commons license.)

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The Caucasian Powder Keg

The regional picture surrounding the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Chronicles Foreign Affairs Editor Srdja Trifkovic was interviewed by Serbian morning news programDobro jutro (Good Morning) on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We bring you an abbreviated and edited transcript of his remarks in English.

ST:   The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh does not have the same potential to trigger off a major global conflict as some other crisis spots around the world. It provides a typical example, however, of unsettled ethnic and territorial disputes which have resulted from the arbitrary drawing of internal boundaries between constituent republics by the Communist leaders of multiethnic states in the Soviet Union and in the former Yugoslavia alike.

The same problem is present all over the map. Eastern Ukraine and its Black Sea coast is mostly Russian-speaking and culturally closer to Russia than to the notions of Ukrainian nationalism which prevail in Lvov, Galicia, and Podolia. Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave inhabited by Armenians, but Stalin awarded it to the Azeris in the 1920s to buy their political loyalty. Its inhabitants are adamant in their refusal to be absorbed by Azerbaijan. The same dynamics is at play in Transdnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, where people do not want to be ruled by the successor-states which have a legal claim to those lands based on Communist-era borders.

As for the outside forces, Turkey unreservedly supports Azerbaijan, whose people are ethnically and culturally very close to the Turks. They also have a high per-capita income thanks to their reserves of oil and natural gas. Under the last tzars, Baku was already a flourishing center with an opera house, elite restaurants, and seaside villas reminiscent of the French Riviera…

Q: There is a marvellous book on Baku at the turn of the century, The Orientalist, by Tom Reiss. It was a fascinating melange of Armenians, Jews, Russians, and Muslims… such a divided society is not an easy puzzle to solve, is it?

ST: Indeed, and the trouble is that this conflict, like others of its ilk, is structurally unsolvable. The Armenians will not accept Azeri rule, and the Azeris will not give up the territory they regards as rightfully theirs. In my opinion, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has encouraged the Azeris to adopt an aggressive posture in order to draw attention away from some of the regional hotspots where he is involved: from Libya to Syria, from the claim to an exclusive economic zone in eastern Mediterranean, to the renewed hostility with Greece. Turkey’s claims in the potentially energy-rich eastern Med are adamantly rejected by Israel, Egypt, Greece, the Greek government of Cyprus, Lebanon, and Syria. He only has the support of the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Nagorno-Karabakh_Map2The Turks are also in the forefront of expressing support for the Palestinians, in the aftermath of normalized relations between Israel, the Emirates, and Bahrein. Saudi Arabia has already de facto normalized relations with Israel. In the sphere of intelligence sharing and security cooperation they have been close for many years. Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, would like to make that final formal move when he ascends the throne. Ironically, the two governments in the region which are proclaiming loudly their loyalty to the Palestinian cause are non-Arab: Turkey and Iran.

Erdogan is also strongly supportive of Hamas, which is in charge of the Gaza Strip as the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Her has arranged the meeting between Hamas and Fatah in Turkey just days ago, as a result of which the first election in 15 years will be held in the entire area of the Palestinian Authority. The Iranians for their part are projecting support for the Palestinians through the Hezbollah, which is effectively in charge in southern Lebanon, and where the government is in chronic disarray in the aftermath of the explosion in Beirut.

Q: You visited Beirut recently; how badly was the city damaged?

ST: It is genuinely tragic. When I was there last, Beirut looked like a latter-day phoenix risen from its ashes. The new waterfront residential area to the north of the port and facing the marina, which was prosperous and tastefully designed, was particularly badly hit. At its heart is the painstakingly renovated Phoenicia Hotel, which was the Phalangist headquarters during the civil war and had suffered badly. Now it has been devastated yet again.

After an impressive period of growth and renewal over the past 20 years, Lebanon is again beginning to look like a failed state. A new wave of emigration is in full swing. Like in the earlier one in the 1980s, it is mostly Christians who are leaving. They have above-average education and find it easier to adapt and prosper in a new land. After all, they are the descendents of ancient Phoenicians, the most accomplished seafarers and merchants of the ancient world.

Let us not forget Egypt, which I visited recently. It is internally stable, but it faces a geopolitical threat from the creation of the Ethiopian “Grand Renaissance Dam” on the Blue Nile. Egypt is justifiably worried that the dam will reduce the level of the Nile and may have catastrophic effect on the Nile Delta. Of Egypt’s 100 million people, over nine-tenths live on some 5 percent of the country’s territory along the Nile. Even now Egypt cannot feed itself, and throughout the five millennia of its recorded history, it has been vitally dependent on the Nile. Any deterioration may jeopardize the social and political stability which Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has secured.

Last but not least, we have Syria, where the government controls roughly four-fifths of the territory, and in which Turkey has a buffer zone under its control along the joint border. Turkey is fiercely opposed to the autonomy which the Syrian Kurds effectively enjoy… It is yet another headache for Erdogan, largely of his own making, which will not go away—no matter what happens between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the days and weeks to come.

Srdja Trifkovic

Srdja Trifkovic

Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.

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