The Nagorno-Karabakh clashes flared up once again on September 27, the deadliest violation of the 1994 ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the four-day escalation in 2016. While there had been about two decades of relative stability, the conflict over this territory was never resolved, as the Armenian-majority region is de jure part of Azerbaijan. There had been some significant skirmishes along the border in July, and tensions continued to rise until the recent ongoing clashes. The conflict implicates many other countries, including Turkey, Iran, and the Gulf states. Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan is in line with its combination of nationalism and Islam known as neo-Ottomanism, which encompasses acts from the military adventures to the reclaiming of Hagia Sophia as a mosque. Iran is caught between but not formally aligned with either state, and seems to be working on a “peace deal”. The Gulf states face big decisions, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE navigating their positionality in this space while Qatar could consider the role of mediator.
The Diplomatic Trap Created by the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
Moscow, Paris, and Washington have demanded an immediate ceasefire in the intensifying conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Turkey, Azerbaijan’s main ally, has rejected the appeal, asserting that these three big powers should have no role in peace moves. Russia, France, and the United States co-chair the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which was established in 1992 to mediate the dispute over the enclave when tensions flared up upon the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Nagorno-Karabakh has belonged to Azerbaijan for almost a century, but ethnic and Christian Armenians in the region outnumber Azerbaijanis, who are Turkic and Muslim. The current clashes are located in Artsakh, the Armenian ‘brother-state’ that was established within the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area with an overwhelming ethnic Armenian majority. This conflict carries significant regional implications, the most significant of which might be Turkey’s intervention.
The apparent Azerbaijani instigation of the new hostilities – and a significant degree of Turkish complicity – seems to have been ascertained by a Turkish plan to introduce hundreds of pro-Turkish fighters. Armenian authorities claim that there were at least 89 such mercenaries among the Azerbaijani casualties. The use of mercenaries suggests, as Armenians have noted, that Azerbaijan feels it lacks the necessary strength to capture the disputed territories without external aid. Erdogan’s support for Baku, in the face of multiple calls for de-escalation, suggests that it is next to impossible in the near future.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought intermittently over the 26 years since they gained independence. But Baku might be more determined now because it feels that it can rely on deeper and more comprehensive Turkish support, exploiting Erdogan’s nationalism to pursue a ‘Greater Azerbaijan’ by eliminating the Armenian corridor that separates current Azerbaijan from the territory of Nakhichevan.
Russia enjoys good relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia, but sways in Yerevan’s favor. Armenians host a large Russian base in the municipality of Gyumri, equipped with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and a squadron of MiG-29 fighter jets at the Erebuni air base near Yerevan. Russians and Armenians have held frequent joint military exercises – the latest occurred just three days before the war re-erupted – intended to improve the operational readiness of mechanized troops and air defenses. Armenia also threatened to use two of the most powerful (Russian) weapons in Armenia’s arsenal, including the Sukhoi Su-30SM fighters and the Iskander missiles with a range of 400 km, which would more than match the Azerbaijani rockets. Should it come to that, however, the conflict would escalate to a point where even the urban areas of Yerevan and Baku become targets.
Russian foreign affairs minister Sergei Lavrov has pulled all possible diplomatic strings in an attempt to achieve a ceasefire, even summoning the Armenian and Azerbaijani ambassadors on September 29. Eventually, Moscow managed to get Baku and Yerevan to agree on a ceasefire starting October 10, but it is not holding as planned.
Neighboring Countries’ Stakes in the Conflict:
Ankara risks driving itself too deep into another military adventure while the Libyan and Syrian ones (not to mention the tensions over gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean) have not yet ended. Instead of achieving the ‘strategic depth’ at the heart of the so-called neo-Ottomanism, Erdogan risks running out of cards to play while adding Russia to his list of enemies, driving Turkey into a precarious corner.
In contrast, large Islamic states such as Iran have established closer ties to Christian Armenia than with Muslim (largely Shiite) Azerbaijan. One reason for this is that Baku has close ties to Israel as well as Turkey. Baku has acquired many weapons from Israel, including the LORA missile. In turn, Tel Aviv imports most of its natural gas from Azerbaijan. While Iranian President Rohani has spoken to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan by phone, Iran’s foreign ministry has denied siding directly with Yerevan, instead formally calling for dialogue and diplomatic negotiations.
Iran’s Position: Will it Get Involved?
From a historical and confessional perspective, Iran – which has a sizable Azeri ethnic population of 30 million – might be expected to side with Baku. However, while Shiite, the Azerbaijani people were united under the Persian Empire only until 1813. That year, the Gulistan Treaty, which ended the Russo-Persian War, split the Azeri peoples in two: one group under Iran and the other under Russia (later the Soviet Union). After ‘Russian’ Azerbaijan gained independence following the 1991 USSR collapse, Iran has feared autonomy demands from its own Azeris (Tabriz, an important industrial center, is an Azeri city). And clearly, Tehran faces a considerable dilemma, choosing not to chastise Christian Armenia. But Yerevan has been a loyal ally to Tehran. Still, from a macro geopolitical perspective, Iran borders and has good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and has so far maintained as neutral a stance as possible, hinting that it is working on a peace plan involving both the direct participants and their regional sponsors.
President Rohani has denounced the Turkish deployment of mercenaries from Syria to support Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, evidently fearing that it has the potential to spark a wider regional conflict. Rohani’s comments were likely prompted by the fact that stray gunfire rounds have injured a six-year old child and damaged buildings in Iranian areas bordering Azerbaijan – the mutual border being over 750 km long – which suggests Tehran will be on alert. Nevertheless, Iran’s neutrality has a weakness. Israel enjoys close ties to Baku, which it supplies with armaments (including the Harop aircraft, better known as ‘kamikaze’ drones), and from where it imports anywhere from 40-60% of its oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. Paradoxically, Israel and Turkey are on the same side in that both consider the BTC pipeline as vital to their national interests, and both could react militarily should it suffer damage. In such a situation, given rumors that Baku has agreed to allow Israel use of its airports should it need to attack, Azerbaijan might want to show that it considers Iran a threat. Therefore, Tehran has little choice but to remain officially neutral, avoiding internal flare-ups in its Northwestern region. More importantly, Tehran cannot risk giving its regional enemies even more excuses to isolate or attack it.
Would the UAE and Saudi Arabia Consider Intervention to Challenge Turkey Over its Role in Libya?
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s relationships with Iran indicate their views of and strategies in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. While Riyadh might welcome the strategic complications the situation has created for its two foes Turkey and Iran, Abu Dhabi has a vested interest in backing the Armenian position. It should be noted that Armenia and Saudi Arabia do not have formal diplomatic relations, though that may change given their mutual interest in obstructing Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions.
Indeed, while Riyadh maintains what might be described as an ideological rift with Tehran, the UAE (like Qatar) prefers pragmatism to ideology. Abu Dhabi and Teheran may have had their differences in Syria and Yemen, but they have both approached the pandemic emergency and the ensuing economic fallout with realism. From Abu Dhabi’s perspective, a realistic lens presents a deeper divide with Ankara and Doha than it does with Tehran. Therefore, Abu Dhabi has been slowly re-establishing ties with Damascus, with a view toward contributing funds for reconstruction, and with a plan to weaken the Turkish backed Muslim Brotherhood related forces in Syria as well as Libya.
Meanwhile, Iran has close ties to Qatar, with which it shares the South Pars gas reservoir – the largest in the world. Iran also maintains good relations with Turkey, and has quietly endorsed its efforts in Libya. Iran, if to a lesser extent, shares Turkey’s concerns with Kurdish nationalism and for the various strategic pipeline infrastructure projects involving the Black Sea and the Caspian. In such a context, Abu Dhabi may hope to weaken the links between Tehran, Ankara, and Doha. And even if it does not expect to succeed, it does have an interest in maintaining an understanding with the Persians. Ultimately, the UAE would consider Turkey’s support for Baku as dangerous, and would see a decided benefit in backing Armenia, which might put Abu Dhabi closer to Russian and Iran. In contrast, the Saudis are too ideologically opposed to both the Turks backing Azerbaijan and the Iranians, however, the Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Farhan has recently reiterated his country’s position of supporting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, perceived as taking Baku’s side in the conflict.
Armenia and the UAE decided over a decade ago that they had common goals. Armenia, close to Iran, can benefit from having a powerful and rich friend in the Gulf, particularly one with rich financial resources and powerful alliances (the United States and now Israel). And, while Yerevan and Doha have established various links including travel, Abu Dhabi’s polarity vis-à-vis Ankara makes it a more useful ally. Certainly, bilateral trade between Armenia and the UAE has increased significantly in the past few years and the two countries have signed a number of agreements. Armenia’s foreign policy, regardless of the outcome of the current Nagorno-Karabakh flare-up, will probably focus on building closer ties to Middle Eastern powers, which have vested interests in blocking Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions. This suggests that, given the present context of alliances and interests, Qatar might have a special role to play in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
Can Qatar Play a Role of Mediator?
Turkey risks remaining isolated on all fronts. Indeed, the recently signed Abraham Accords establishing formal links between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain has anti-Turkish connotations. It would not be wrong to interpret Ankara’s neo-Ottomanism as a tool to distract the population with nationalism – an old tactic and one not exclusive to Ankara.
Militarily, Turkey is undeniably a major force in the Middle East, bolstered by NATO membership and a strategic geographic position that allows it considerable impunity vis-à-vis fellow members. Erdogan is nonetheless taking excessive risks, which could lead to ruin at every step. One of these ruinous pitfalls is risking a fallout with Moscow after years of careful efforts to mend a vital relationship, which ensured the completion of the TurkStream gas pipeline on January 8, 2020, and the agreements regulating the joint deployment of Russian and Turkish troops in the Syrian province of Idlib – not to mention the Turkish purchase of Russian S-400 missiles and the potential to buy the Su-57 jet. Nevertheless, an all-out Armenia-Azerbaijan war could easily lead them to a more open confrontation. Clearly, Erdogan must act more cautiously to prevent rising tensions from leading it to a dangerous cul-de-sac with unpredictable consequences.
In such a scenario, Qatar has a major role to play, projecting its diplomatic profile well beyond the GCC. Doha might be Turkey’s closest ally now, as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s anti-Qatar offensive and Turkey’s growing regional role has pushed Doha towards Ankara.
Also, in light of its discontinued OPEC membership, Qatar has also established closer ties with Russia in the past few years. In 2016, commodity trader Glencore and the Qatar Investment Authority (Doha’s sovereign wealth fund) acquired an almost 20% stake in Russian state-owned oil and gas producer Rosneft. This acquisition enabled the emirate to supply the European natural gas market without having to rely on a pipeline to the Mediterranean (going through Syria). Qatar, which has long led the path away from oil and toward natural gas, enjoys a more secure position than its Gulf neighbors.
Faced with Turkey’s growing role in the region, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel have chosen to unite in the Mediterranean front, while the UAE and Bahrain have chosen to confront Ankara by getting cozier with the West through the Abraham Accords. While Qatar has no overt intention to join the Abraham Accords, it has played a role in mediating between Israel and Hamas. This has helped Doha recover significant diplomatic capital, breaking free from the isolation forced onto it by its GCC partners after the 2017 Gulf crisis. The GCC tensions that have pitted the Saudis and Emiratis against Qatar are fueled by a heterogeneous set of factors, dominated by energy and geopolitics, veiled in confessional terms. If Erdogan’s goal has been to restore Turkish primacy in the Islamic world, the Turkish president would have been unable to pursue such a strategy without the diplomatic and financial support of Qatar. Therefore, it is only Qatar that can apply the correct pressure on Turkey to encourage Baku to return to the negotiations table, a pressure that is already established by Moscow on Yerevan. Given Qatar’s good ties with Russia and even Iran, Doha could help draft a ceasefire or even a longer-lasting peace, ensuring that Russia and Iran would stop backing Armenia. The U.S. has mostly ignored this conflict, which only emphasizes the need – and opportunity – for more local or regional diplomatic initiatives.
Aessandro Bruno (@TheAlessandrist) is an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. He is a frequent guest on BBC, CBC, and CTV. He holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Toronto – where he also started a Ph.D. Bruno has worked abroad as a United Nations officer in Libya.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.