The latest iteration of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has already claimed the lives of dozens of people, had been largely forgotten by the world before hostilities reignited in September. Only the collapse of the Soviet Union was able to bring about the end of the last war between these entrenched enemies in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, the still contested region claimed under international law by Azerbaijan and de facto controlled by its ethnic Armenian majority has fallen under a new spell of violence thanks in large part to external actors vying for a larger war with another neighboring country: Iran.
Three weeks ago, a dispute over a piece of territory in the Caucasus Mountains erupted into a hot war between the two former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia, sending civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh to seek cover in their basements from the aerial drone strikes raining death and destruction from above.
In a video analyzed by Franceinfo, a 1K Orbiter “kamikaze” drone was found intact on the streets of the ethnically-Armenian enclave near the Azeri-Armenian border. As its moniker implies, this class of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is so named because once its operators lock onto a target on the ground the UAV dives into them with an explosive charge.
— Aurora Intel (@AuroraIntel) October 4, 2020
The drone was developed by leading Israeli unmanned aerial systems (UAS) company Aeronautics Defense Systems, which has a manufacturing plant in Azerbaijan since 2011. The discovery of the drone’s use by Azeri forces in the disputed border region has highlighted the pivotal, yet largely underreported, role that Israel is playing in this conflict, giving the Azeri army a decided advantage against the overmatched Armenians.
In addition, Turkey’s clear support of the Azerbaijani state leaves the majority Christian nation of Armenia up against the two biggest regional powers aside from Russia, which five days ago called on both parties in the conflict to respect a second cease-fire agreement brokered on October 10, 2020, in Moscow. The truce was supposed to come into force on Saturday, but heavy artillery fire, missiles, and drones continued to fall in the conflict zone on Sunday, with both sides blaming the other for violating the tentative armistice. The religious nature of the conflict’s origins helps to disguise the active participation of outside interests that are intent on stoking it for their own geopolitical purposes.
Black gold in Baku
Control over natural resources underpins virtually every single military conflagration in the twentieth century and many of raging across the world at the start of the twenty-first. The escalating conflict in the Caucasus is no exception, despite the ostensibly religious motives some would like to ascribe to the parties involved.
While Muslim-majority Azerbaijan might seem like a natural enemy of majority Christian Armenia, at its core, the conflict unfolding in northern Eurasia is one that harkens to the very first oil well that was discovered in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. Baku was the center of the black gold universe on the eve of World War I before Israel even existed as a state and just as Lord Balfour was on the verge of penning the infamous Balfour Declaration, which would eventually lead to its creation.
Today, the apartheid state obtains 40 percent of its oil from Baku, leaving little to the imagination about its interest in the regional conflict. In order to protect those interests, Israel has become one of Azerbaijan’s largest arms suppliers in recent years, providing up to 61 percent of all Azeri arms imports this past year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Claims made last week by an aide to the Azerbaijani president belittled Armenian condemnations of Israel’s role as “exaggerated” after the Armenian foreign ministry recalled its ambassador to Israel over the weapons sales. As if to underscore the Azeri official’s disingenuous statement, an Israeli high court dismissed a call by human rights activist Elie Joseph to halt arms sales to Azerbaijan two days later, citing a lack of evidence.
A powder keg
The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh could easily devolve into a wider war between far more powerful actors, like Turkey and Russia. The latter has a defense treaty with Armenia, while the former’s relationship to the oldest Christian country in the world is beset by its historic refusal to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide – the systematic mass murder and expulsion of Armenians from what was still the capital of Ottoman Empire during and after World War I.
Signs that the conflict is heading in the wrong direction are becoming more noticeable. On Friday, October 16, Russia announced that its navy was beginning military exercises in the Caspian Sea to the north of Baku. Meanwhile, Armenian President Armen Sarkissian said on Saturday that he is ready to travel to European headquarters in Brussels to confront NATO over Ankara’s actions, which include funneling mercenaries from Syria to Azerbaijan.
More importantly, Iran could also be dragged into a larger war and could hold the key to unraveling Israel’s geopolitical motivation for their significant involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Iran shares a common cultural heritage with Armenia, despite religious differences, and counts the Christian nation as a strategic partner.
One day before the second cease-fire was supposed to take effect, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry accused Armenian forces of launching rocket attacks into Iranian territory as a provocation, which led the Iranian Foreign Ministry to issue a statement clarifying that “aggression against our country’s territories by any party” in the conflict would not be tolerated.
Feature photo | A man fences off a tail of a multiple rocket after shelling by Azerbaijan’s artillery during a military conflict in Shushi, outside Stepanakert, the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Oct. 18, 2020. Photo | AP
Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.