The long-range war between Armenia and Azerbaijan shows the devastating impact of high-tech weaponry. In recent months, large-scale artillery, missiles and drone strikes have caused enormous destruction in a landlocked mountainous region of the South Caucasus, Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh.

In the last few days, the fighting has intensified. Civilian areas are now under attack. The Armenians bombed several Azerbaijani cities such as Tarter, Barda and Beylagan, which are close to the line of contact. The city of Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-biggest city, has also been hit in a series of overnight ballistic missile strikes that killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds. 

The Azerbaijanis accuse the Armenians of war crimes. They have promised to take ‘revenge.’ Turkey, which provides infrastructure and support for the weapons used by the Azerbaijanis, have also accused the Armenians of war crimes.

The Armenian defence ministry denied the claim and accused Baku of continuing to shell populated areas inside Nagorno-Karabakh, including Stepanakert, the region’s biggest city. They accuse the Azerbaijanis of starting the war, aided by Turkey. Speaking to a French television network, Armenia’s President accused Azerbaijan of having “started a war” and violating the two recent ceasefires. He also claimed that Turkey “has a completely destructive role” in the conflict.

Turkey strongly backs Azerbaijan in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkish made drones now spearhead Azerbaijani attacks. The war is part of what Turkey’s President Erdogan calls, a quest for Turkey’s “deserved place in the world order.” He sees the conflict as an “opportunity to alter the status quo over Nagorno-Karabakh – in which France, Russia, and the United States have for decades led international mediation efforts.”

Bolstered by a diminished US presence in the region, Turkey supports Azerbaijan. It is a gamble Erdogan is prepared to take, especially because Turkey’s close cooperation with Moscow in many areas means that it is less likely to get drawn into a broader conflict with Russia.

Turkey’s stance, markedly different from that of other big nations, has alarmed the NATO allies. Erdogan has sharpened the war of words with France and also with Canada, which suspended drone technology sales to Turkey “until further notice.” 

Even as the governments of the two countries and their allies accuse each other of violating the ceasefire, the internecine conflict has caused a humanitarian crisis.

Over 1500 people have been killed so far, according to conservative estimates. More than 70 civilians have been killed, hundreds of Armenian and Azerbaijani civilians have been wounded. Hundreds of children have been orphaned.

The towns of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, Hadrut, Martuni and Mardakert have been decimated. Thousands of homes have been damaged and destroyed. The civilian infrastructure – such as schools, hospitals, communications networks and electricity stations – have been destroyed. There are massive power cuts.

Clashes between the two countries have displaced half of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh. Tens of thousands of people have lost their homes. Many who remain in Nagorno-Karabakh are sheltering in bunkers.

Nagorno-Karabakh: A Humanitarian Crisis
A city bombarded and devastated by war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Image: Public domain

A History Of Ethnic Cleansing 

The Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict, for control of the mountainous territory of Nagorno- Karabakh, is the longest-running dispute in post-Soviet Eurasia. The Nagorno-Karabakh is a region of international strategic importance because of the oil and gas pipelines going through it.

With Turkey to the west, Iran to the south, Russia to the north, and huge quantities of Caspian hydrocarbon reserves to the east, which transits through the Caucuses, very close to where the fighting is taking place right now, in the last twenty-five years, it has become even more important.

In the early 1990s, military advances by Armenia and Azerbaijan led to ethnic cleansing. Both sides massacred civilians, the largest and the most notorious being the deaths of hundreds of Azerbaijanis outside the town of Khojaly, on February 25, 1992.

Between 1992-94, when Armenia took control of Azerbaijani areas, over 600,000 Azerbaijanis were displaced from the occupied territories around Nagorno-Karabakh. The OSCE Minsk Group – co-chaired by France, Russia and the US – was formed in 1992 to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, but to no avail. However, a ceasefire was declared in 1994.

While Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, according to international law, ethnic Armenians, who make up the vast majority of the population – about 150,000 people – reject Azerbaijani rule. They have been running their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijani forces were pushed out in a war in the 1990s due to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This lies at the core of the deep sense of injustice in Azerbaijan, which claims to have a right of voluntary return, or restitution, for all those displaced in the early 1990s.

This sense of revenge continued into April 2016. Azerbaijani forces murdered and killed Armenians who were not evacuated. As a result of the military advances, over 300,000 people have been displaced.

The Geo-Politics Of Conflict  

The fighting, which resulted from the fall of the Soviet Union, erupted again on September 27, 2020, with Azerbaijan insisting the region must return to its control.

On its part, Armenia has declared martial law and accused Turkey of meddling in the conflict, sending thousands of mercenaries from northern Syria to the battlefield, a claim rejected by Azerbaijan.

But why did Azerbaijan launch its attack now? Why is Turkey supporting Azerbaijan? The answer is simple: US disengagement.

The United States used to take a much more leading role in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue than it does now. But in the last few years, due to the US’ disengagement in this issue, Azerbaijan has launched a military offensive with the help of Turkey.

Even as the conflict rages on, the two “international bodies,” the United Nations and the European Union, did not do much. The United Nations, apart from making statements to “spare and protect civilians” and calling for the conflict to end, has not done much. They have not launched a peacekeeping force in the region. The European Union, clueless about what was really happening on the ground, was not in a position to stop the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

As the shelling continues, the human cost of war continues unabated. Hundreds of thousands of people are displaced. Thousands are dead, wounded. There is a real risk of egregious abuse of human rights. As evidenced in history, there is a real risk of ethnic cleansing.

As the war rages on, Armenia and Azerbaijan are meeting in the United States to discuss a truce. But what the parties need to realise is that there is no military solution to the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is high time they realise war is destruction, a bellwether for a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, and act on settling the issue.

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