Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the Russian military’s 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia back in December 2013. Russia has a defense pact with Armenia but also retains close relations with Yerevan’s rival Azerbaijan. (Photo by Sasha
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Foreign powers could increasingly become involved in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh if hostilities are not soon brought to an end. There are already some signs that three regional powers, Russia, Turkey and Iran, may not remain on the sidelines.
On Saturday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for urgent security assistance. The conflict, which began on Sept. 27, has seen the heaviest fighting over the disputed breakaway region of Azerbaijan since 1994.
Pashinian’s call has significant geopolitical ramifications. Russia has a military pact with Armenia that compels it to assist Armenia if that country becomes subject to foreign aggression. Moscow also has a military base in Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city, the 102nd base under the command of the Russian military’s Southern Military District.
The Russian Foreign Ministry responded promptly and positively to Pashinian’s request, affirming that it will provide Yerevan with “all necessary assistance” if the conflict spreads onto Armenian territory. What precise form such assistance would come in remains unclear.
Russia has long sold military hardware to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, which were part of the former Soviet Union. Some think Russia is the only country capable of stopping these clashes.
Azerbaijan has much more recently forged stronger military ties with Turkey, which has offered steadfast support in this conflict.
A Reuters investigation revealed that Azerbaijan bought $77.1 million worth of Turkish military hardware in September just before the outbreak of the current conflict compared to $36 million in August and a comparably paltry $278,880 in July. The total value of arms exports from Ankara to Baku in the first nine months of 2019 was $20.7 million.
Arms sales and political support aren’t all Ankara is furnishing its ally in Baku with. Turkish Air Force F-16 jet fighter-bombers are also based in Azerbaijan, having remained there following a joint military exercise between the two allies in Azerbaijan over the summer.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev recently confirmed the continued presence of “about five to six” Turkish F-16s on his country’s soil.
F-16 fighter jets of Turkish Air Force are seen ahead of Azerbaijani and Turkish Air Force joint military exercise in Baku, Azerbaijan on September 15, 2017. (Photo by Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan / Handout /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
“Our Turkish brothers have left them here as a moral support for us,” said Aliyev on Oct. 26. “But should an aggression take place against us from the outside, then they will see these F-16[s].”
Turkish F-16s were photographed by satellite on the ground at Ganja International Airport early in this conflict but have since moved further west to Gabala International Airport, likely because Ganja was shelled in early October.
The jets’ continued presence there, coupled with Aliyev’s televised confirmation, demonstrates Turkey’s eagerness to deter other foreign powers from militarily intervening in the conflict and enable its Azerbaijani ally to retain gains made in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh.
Meanwhile, one regional power increasingly unhappy with the ongoing violence in Nagorno-Karabakh is Iran.
On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif unequivocally warned that Tehran won’t tolerate “terrorists” in Nagorno-Karabakh. He was clearly referring to the reported Turkish deployment of Syrian militiamen to support Azerbaijan. Many of the Syrian militiamen Turkey has recruited over the years previously fought the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which Iran supports, in their own country. Many of them are also violent Sunni Islamists. Therefore, Iran views their presence anywhere near its borders as a potential threat.
“In recent and even earlier negotiations, we have informed the authorities of Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as Russia and Turkey, that the Islamic Republic of Iran will not tolerate such a thing,” Zarif said.
Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) paramilitary has deployed tanks and other military equipment in the country’s northwestern Azerbaijan province that borders both Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Some shells hit Iran in spillover fire from Nagorno-Karabakh. The commander of the IRGC ground forces, who recently visited the northwest, has stressed that despite this, “security prevails along the borders and there is no threat to the country.”
The commander of the Iranian Army’s Air Defense Force has also claimed that Tehran deployed its most advanced air defense systems on the border.
Earlier in the conflict, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned that the fighting could deteriorate into a regional war, also stressing that Iran found the landing of stray missiles and shells on its territory “totally unacceptable.”
Tehran is seeking to broker peace in the conflict and has preached the necessity of maintaining stability in the region.
Over the years, Iran has maintained closer ties with Armenia than Azerbaijan, even though the latter also has a majority Shiite Muslim population. Armenia’s short 22-mile border with Iran has often been dubbed its “lifeline” since all its other borders, except for Georgia, are with rival countries, namely Turkey and Azerbaijan.
While Iran is not likely to launch any cross-border military intervention, its growing frustration with spillover fire and Syrian militiamen’s presence could see it pressure Azerbaijan and its Turkish backer to end hostilities sooner rather than later.
All these recent developments, especially when evaluated together, strongly indicate that the longer clashes in this region persist, the more likely foreign powers, especially regional ones, will become increasingly involved.