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Members of the Armenian community march towards the Azerbaijan and Turkey Embassies in Buenos Aires, on Oct 10, during a protest in support of Armenia and Karabakh amid the territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh. (AFP)
Members of the Armenian community march towards the Azerbaijan and Turkey Embassies in Buenos Aires, on Oct 10, during a protest in support of Armenia and Karabakh amid the territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh. (AFP)
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Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: Why are they fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh?

  • The long-simmering conflict has erupted again in a Caucasus region where Russia and Turkey vie for influence

Escalating fighting in the South Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan is threatening to draw in regional powers and destabilize an area that serves as an important energy corridor for global markets.

The recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics, mark the latest chapter in a simmering conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh that has consumed the two nations for almost three decades. Populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians, the province is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan.

A truce, brokered by Russia last week after talks between the warring sides that included prisoner exchanges and retrieval of the dead, was breached shortly after it was announced, with each side accusing the other of violating the pact. It was unclear whether any terms of the deal had been fulfilled before the cease-fire broke down.

Why are Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting?

Both sides have traded blame for the current outbreak of hostilities, which began on Sept. 27. As fierce fighting continued for a third week, both sides accused the other of attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.

The Armenian government says Azerbaijan launched missile strikes against Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan denies it hit civilians and blames Armenia’s forces for attacking Azeri cities outside Nagorno-Karabakh, including Ganja. That second-largest Azeri city was struck for a second time following the cease-fire, say local officials and civilians on the ground. Armenian authorities have described the allegations that it has attacked Azeri cities as fake news.

What has been the civilian toll so far?

Each side accuses the other of indiscriminate shelling of civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, on both sides of the line that separates Armenian and Azeri forces. Roads, electricity and gas and communication networks have also been damaged across the region, officials from both countries say, though each denies targeting civilians.

On Tuesday, officials in Nagorno-Karabakh reported that Azeri forces continued to bomb civilian infrastructure and an apartment building was set ablaze overnight. At least 31 Armenian civilians have been killed and some 102 injured since the fighting started, the officials said

Meanwhile, the government in the Azeri capital of Baku reported that Ganja, which already was struck by missiles and rockets on Oct. 4, was targeted for a second time after the cease-fire. The Azeri prosecutor general’s office said 42 Azeri civilians have been killed since the conflict started last month and some 206 had been wounded.

Aid officials fear the worst is to come as children in the region come to grips with their new school year and families try to protect themselves from the coronavirus pandemic. Confirmed infections are approaching 100,000 across Armenia and Azerbaijan.

What are the military forces on the ground?

After nearly three decades of on-again, off-again fighting—including skirmishes in July that killed at least 16 people—the region is heavily militarized. Armenia has a defense agreement with Russia, which supplies most of its military equipment and maintains troops in the country. Azerbaijan also largely relies on Russian equipment but has diversified its suppliers, notably with the purchase of surveillance and attack drones from Israel.

Are Syrian mercenaries in Azeri ranks?

Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of recruiting foreign fighters from Syria, an allegation echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who said he had information showing that mercenaries from Syria had reached Nagorno-Karabakh after passing through Turkey.

Azeri officials say the accusations are “absolutely baseless and groundless" and that Azerbaijan has a professional army that doesn’t employ mercenaries.

The Russian government has complained to Turkey over reports of militants being transferred from the Middle East to Nagorno-Karabakh, according to a statement on Tuesday from the Defense Ministry carried by the Russian state news agency, TASS, and other local media.

The statement stopped short of directly blaming Turkey as being responsible for aiding mercenaries in reaching the conflict zone. But it said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had raised Moscow’s alarm over such reports with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar when the two men spoke by phone on Monday.

The Turkish government has denied aiding mercenaries.

Why has Nagorno-Karabakh been a point of contention?

In 1988, tensions arose in the mountainous enclave, which was then still part of the Soviet Union. Armenians, who are the predominant ethnic group in the area, rose up to demand unification with Armenia. Armenia took over the region during a six-year war that claimed some 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The violence ended with a 1994 cease-fire that froze the conflict along a boundary, known as the line of contact, between the two sides. They never signed a peace agreement.

Armenia says the province is a historic part of its homeland and cites a 1991 referendum—in which the majority ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh decided to break away from Azerbaijan—to justify its support for the region. Azerbaijan, which says United Nations resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh specify that the province is part of its territory, has long threatened to retake the region.

How is the Armenian diaspora reacting?

While Armenia has a population of nearly three million, the Armenian diaspora is estimated at seven million, with large groups living in Russia, the U.S. and France.

The city of Los Angeles, home to a large Armenian community, has been the stage of multiple demonstrations in support of Armenia. Recently, spontaneous demonstrations erupted in Hollywood with participants waving Armenian flags and blocking traffic on a freeway, with the aim of shedding light on the conflict.

How is the Azeri diaspora reacting?

Last week the Congress of Azerbaijani Societies of America, which represents thousands of Azeris living in America, implored the U.S. government to take a stand against what is called Armenia’s “gross violations of international humanitarian law."

The group said it was reaching out to elected officials and the media in an attempt to shed light on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, educate U.S. citizens about the conflict, and try to persuade the U.S. “to exert its influence over Armenia and force the immediate liberation of the occupied Azerbaijani territories."

What makes the South Caucasus a strategic region?

After the downfall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan sought to export its oil and gas without relying on the Russian pipeline network by building its own. A gas pipeline completed late last year runs close to the conflict front line and stretches across Turkey, and is intended to help ease Europe’s reliance on Russian gas imports. Analysts, however, say that Armenian armed forces are unlikely to target Azeri pipelines because significant damage or destruction would dent international support for Armenia.

What else is at stake?

Beyond control of a mountainous territory that is the size of the U.S. state of Delaware and has a population of 150,000, the standoff pitting Armenia against Azerbaijan raises the question of whether country borders inherited from World War II should be inviolable or evolve when they don’t match with ethnic aspirations.

Who are the regional players?

Turkey, which boasts the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s second-largest army after the U.S., has shown that it could rapidly project military forces with recent interventions in Syria and Libya.

Another regional power, Iran—which has relations with both Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, and Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital—has called for a cease-fire and the start of negotiations.

Russia is by far the dominant military force in the Caucasus. Moscow’s military might was on full display in mid-September with the organization of a multinational exercise dubbed Kavkaz 2020, in which troops from China, Iran and Armenia took part. Drills stretched from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.

How have Russia and Turkey responded?

Russia, which has close ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, had so far succeeded in quelling regular flare-ups of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh.

But declarations by Turkey, which is already involved in two proxy conflicts with Russia—in Syria and Libya—are complicating Russia’s efforts to remain neutral and cast itself as a mediator.

If Russia doesn’t intervene, analysts say, it could send a signal of weakness, that Moscow is losing control over its traditional sphere of influence. If it does, they say, it risks losing its role as a mediator, pushing Azerbaijan further into Turkey’s arms.

Azerbaijan says it won’t stop until it reclaims the disputed region. That has raised the pressure on Moscow to support Armenia, where it maintains a military base and which it is bound to defend as part of a mutual defense treaty. Russian President Vladimir Putin said recently that Moscow had no obligation to defend Armenia as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization because fighting had been limited almost entirely to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Who has controlled the disputed territory?

Over the centuries, the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh changed hands many times, coming under the domination of Iran and Armenia as well as the Roman, Ottoman and Russian empires. The British Empire also made a foray into the region.

In the early 1920s, when the Bolsheviks claimed control of the South Caucasus, they first promised to attach the province to Armenia. But in 1921, Josef Stalin, then Soviet commissar of nationalities, transformed Nagorno-Karabakh into an autonomous province of the newly created Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, historians say. Stalin’s decision in favor of the Azeri side was part of a broader gambit to lure Turkey into embracing Communist ideals, they say.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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