Why are big powers so interested in a small local conflict?

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No one could call Nagorno-Karabakh the centre of the civilized world.  It is a small chunk of land in a remote region in the southern Caucuses, flanked on one side by Armenia and on the other by Azerbaijan.  Both, though at one time within the orbit of the Soviet Union, are now small independent states.  Yet a long-simmering tussle between them over ownership of Nagorno-Karabakh has suddenly flared into open conflict, and the world and his wife are busily involving themselves in the dispute.

The US, Russia, France, Turkey, Iran – all now have their fingers in the pie, converting a little local difficulty into a world-wide diplomatic war-game.  The US and Russia have tried, though with little success, to enhance their global image by brokering a ceasefire; Turkey and Iran seem intent on boosting their regional influence by stoking the flames of conflict.  France appears to be using this situation as a proxy for other weightier concerns, and declares unequivocally that it supports Christian Armenia in opposition to Turkey’s equally unequivocal support for Muslim Azerbaijan.

Up in its extreme north, Iran has a border with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Following stray fire from the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran has deployed troops of its IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) across the border region. Its mission, spokesmen declared, was “to protect national interests and maintain peace and security”.  Iran’s national interests are tied to the fact that approximately one-third of its 84 million population are Azerbaijani Turks.  They have not been silent during the recent upsurge.  Waves of protests have broken out in various cities across Iran, including the capital Tehran, orchestrated by  dissidents objecting to Russian military aid getting to Armenia with Iran’s help, and demanding that the border with Armenia be closed.  This issue has rapidly become one more among the many causes of popular protest within Iran.

Officially Iran recognizes Azerbaijan’s claims to the disputed territories, but for decades it has maintained good relations with Armenia.  During the conflict it has been helping president Armen Sarkissian by transferring Russian military equipment across Iran and into Armenia.  When this became known, Iran hastened to deny the story, despite confirmatory video footage.

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Turkey’s involvement in the conflict stems from a long-standing relationship with Azerbaijan.  Turkey was the first nation to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. Former Azeri president Heydar Aliyev once described the two as “one nation with two states”.  Even though Turkey has no border with Azerbaijan, and the two countries are separated from each other by Armenia, they share a Turkish culture.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has backed his vocal support for Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev with military equipment including drones, and also extremist mercenaries recruited in Syria.  With Turkey’s help, Azerbaijan has slowly pushed Armenian forces back and seems to have gained the upper hand in the conflict.

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Erdogan undoubtedly sees the dispute as an opportunity to strengthen his position in the Middle East generally, and in particular in the Islamist world.  Even though Shi’ite Muslims predominate in the capital Baku, it is to the Sunnis , who comprise more than 80 percent of Azerbaijan’s population, that he makes his pitch.  Even so, he has an uphill struggle.  Azerbaijan has been designated one of the most secular of Muslim states – indeed, tolerance and respect for religious diversity are built into its constitution.  This runs counter to the whole tenor of Erdogan’s domestic strategy, which has been to turn back the clock on the secularization and religious tolerance of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk.

Secularization is at the heart of Erdogan’s latest well-publicized spat with French president Emmanuel Macron, with whom he has a multi-faceted dispute.  In recent weeks France has supported Greece and Cyprus against Turkish claims to explore for oil and gas in the Mediterranean.  France and Turkey are also at odds over the power struggle in Libya, backing opposing sides in the dispute.  More recently still, Erdogan denounced Macron’s wholesale condemnation of the beheading of a teacher in France by an Islamist extremist who objected to children being shown cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.  Utterly rejecting any justification for the act, Macron declared war on “Islamist separatism” which, he said, was taking over some Muslim communities in France in defiance of the secularization that is at the heart of the French constitution.

Erdogan denounced not only Macron, but the whole French state, as Islamophobic.  Despite being separated by the Shia-Sunni divide, Erdogan’s charge was echoed by the Iranian regime, as was his call for a boycott of French goods, a move later supported by Qatar and Kuwait.  The exchange descended into personal abuse when Erdogan suggested that Macron needed “a mental health check-up”, a classic case, perhaps, of the pot calling the kettle black.  His intemperate reaction may well have triggered the latest terrorist outrage in France, when three people were murdered in a Nice church.

The Erdogan-Macron antagonism displays itself to the full over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, where the two leaders are at loggerheads. Erdogan has declared that Turkey is “fully ready” to help Azerbaijan recover the enclave, while Macron has announced: “I say to Armenia and to the Armenians, France will play its role.”  No doubt Macron has in mind the fact that hundreds of thousands of French citizens are of Armenian descent.

Nagorno-Karabakh has become a convenient setting for some major world powers to act out their differences or pursue their broader interests. When and how Armenia and Azerbaijan finally resolve their dispute may have consequences far beyond the narrow confines of the Caucuses.

About the Author
Born in London and educated at Oxford University, Neville Teller has worked in advertising, management, the media and the Civil Service, and has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years. He has also written consistently for BBC radio, and in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2006 was awarded an MBE "for services to broadcasting and to drama.” He made aliyah in 2011.
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