Hazal Özcan – ANKARA
As tensions rose between Azerbaijan and Armenia amid clashes at the border and military preparations, a Turkish scholar has said there is a likelihood for clashes to occur until the territorial conflict between the two countries is resolved.
“Armenia and Azerbaijan are ready to clash with one another at every chance possible,” said Prof. Mitat Çelikpala from Kadir Has University, specialized in Eurasian security and politics, in an online interview with Hürriyet Daily News.
“We will face these clashes emerging when least expected until the territorial issue gets resolved between Azerbaijan and Armenia,” Çelikpala said.
The neighbors have been locked in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan, ever since the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since 1994.
Armenia and Azerbaijan frequently engage in clashes. The latest incident involved exchanging fire in the northern section of their border in mid-July. Current encounters between the two witnessed a considerable spike in hostilities in four days of the deadly conflict since 2016.
When asked if the latest clashes can open a new front in the decades-long conflict, Çelikpala said he does not think that is going to be the case.
“I don’t think so. We can understand this as such: The line where Upper Karabakh stands has been an engagement area nearly since the early 1990s. Both sides have strengthened their fortifications and have positions against each other. Thus, if these clashes did not happen on coincidence due to the actions of [both sides], it could have happened to control each other’s preparations or existence,” he said.
Çelikpala also underlined that the Upper Karabakh region is significant due to its location as it is near the energy transportation lines that Turkey established over Georgia and is also near the natural gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia.
“Furthermore, we are mostly discussing the issue with its strategic geopolitical dimension, but the area has water reservoirs as well. Meaning, the water sources are scarce and controversial. Before, both sides were able to carry out agricultural activities with various agreements made with each other. It was one of the regions both sides engaged with one another, which could have triggered sensitivity too,” he said.
On a possible peaceful resolution to the conflict, Çelikpala said that despite the efforts, no concrete solution emerged. He also referred to the process carried out by the Minsk Group, established under the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
“The plans [of the Minsk Group] were constantly vetoed by one of the sides,” he said, adding other initiatives such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which Russia has been carrying out other than the OSCE process.
“But think of it like this: No matter what, this goes back to the historical process. In the modern world’s perspective, Upper Karabakh is within the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, but under the occupation of Armenia,” he said.
“In my opinion, unless the international community finds a solution both sides can agree on, one of the sides will try to solve with clashes,” the professor added. “But I do not know if it can resolve. As you know, everyone has a big brother. Russia immediately gets involved in the issue.”
Çelikpala also conveyed Turkey’s stance about the conflict, saying that Ankara has been overtly taking its position in support of Azerbaijan.
“Before, Turkey was standing by Azerbaijan but was in a more balanced position. As the protocols vetoed, Turkey’s stance is clear: It is with Azerbaijan,” he said. He also added that the recent military exercises, initiatives, military, and defense cooperation between Ankara and Baku are “reflections” of this proximity.
“Of course, it is not possible to do a projection with this, but in my opinion, if the conditions will be suitable, one of the sides will try to solve with the help of military ways,” he said.
Tensions between Turkey, Russia may rise
After the first clashes occurred in the Azerbaijan-Armenia border, both sides carried out military exercises with Turkey, a NATO ally, and Russia, respectively.
When asked how the most recent conflict will affect Ankara’s relations with Moscow, Çelikpala said that Russia and Turkey have a “limited vision” in their relations and have different expectations from the conflicts they support at different sides.
“What both sides understand and expect from the resolution are different. But what are they doing? They are finding daily solutions without colliding and try to proceed,” he said, adding that both sides have much at stakes to risk a conflict.
“Think of it like this: Armenia does not protect its border with Turkey, Russia does. [Russia] sees it as the border of the CSTO. And sees [Turkey] as a NATO country,” he said.
“Russians military bases and defense systems are here. They are controlling Caucasia from here. And [Turkey] has been building a different Caucasia with the trilateral cooperation with Georgia and Azerbaijan for almost 10 years,” he added.
Çelikpala said that both sides’ expectations from the situation in Caucasia are different.
He also added that the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia may lead to tensions between Ankara’s relations with Moscow.
Turkey would not want war
As for Turkey’s approach to the conflict and its expectations, Çelikpala said, Turkey would not want a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
“That’s why there has always been an agreement with Russia, and the Upper Karabakh issue nearly froze for almost 30 years,” he said.
The professor also underlined that both sides have been investing in their militaries and as Azerbaijan started to gain more revenue while energy prices were high, it spent almost as much as Armenia’s budget on its military.
“A huge infrastructure was built. Turkey and Israel are among the countries which Azerbaijan cooperates with, but Russia and China are among the top countries selling arms,” he said.
“Meaning, Russia is the actor who is providing weapons to both sides. In this sense, they think that they control the balance,” he said.
When asked if it was possible for Ankara and Baku to build a joint army, as suggested by an Azerbaijani politician, Çelikpala said that it would not be possible, and both sides would not want to do so.
“Because what Azerbaijan values is its independence, being an independent state. I think that being strategic partners is a discourse that would make Azerbaijan and Turkey happy,” he said.
Armenia getting more isolated
Concerning the other side of the conflict, the Armenian side, Çelikpala said that the country has been getting “more and more isolated” from the rest of the world.
“It has started to become a satellite for Russia,” he said, adding that the domestic problems Armenia has been facing are stemming out of it.
“[Armenian Prime Minister] Nikol Pashinyan, who the [Armenian public] supported started to fail the public’s expectation from 2018 to 2020,” he said. He also referred to the security doctrine Pashinyan announced just before the conflict, and that he did not bring any solution to the territorial conflict.
“This Upper Karabakh issue started to pressure [Armenians] because it is being isolated. [While] for Azerbaijan, it is the opposite,” Çelikpala said.
When asked if the internal pressures can shape Armenia’s foreign policy, Çelikpala said that until this day, it had an impact but did not shape the politics.
“Because of the public’s opinion, when we speak of Turkey, Azerbaijan and the Upper Karabakh issue, is standard. It has become a pattern for Armenia, and they cannot exit this,” he said.
Çelikpala also said that Turkey’s relations with Armenia should be separated from Turkish-Armenian relations, which are “very complex with a historical baggage. It is not something that a politician can do. But Turkey and Armenia relations can be carried out,” he added.
Nevertheless, Çelikpala said that due to Armenia’s approach and Turkey’s political atmosphere, the relations are centered around Azerbaijan.
“When we look at it like this, Armenia’s domestic [politics] started to get ahead of its actions,” he said.