Karabakh: Not an Armenian-Turkish war

Karabakh: Not an Armenian-Turkish war

Burcu Gültekin Punsmann
I was in Armenia as war reignited in Karabakh over the weekend. Certainly our turbulent region didn’t need this additional outburst of violence. Reports of military operations all along the line of contact would indicate that that this escalation of violence hasn’t resulted incidentally. As the operations are being conducted on the Armenia-controlled territories, I believe to have had a chance to be better informed than the Turkish public opinion at large. Similarly I was closely connected with people living in South Ossetia in August 2008 when Georgia decided to use military power to try to reintegrate territories. I valued the way the Azerbaijani government positioned itself in the context of the crisis between Turkey and Russia; acting with well-calculated steps, good at fine tuning and cautiously well-balanced. 

Azerbaijan has constantly reiterated that the status quo - meaning the continuation of the occupation of the Azerbaijani lands - was not acceptable any longer. Military action can’t help though to re-integrate; the lessons learned from the Georgian attempt in 2008 are telling enough. Azerbaijan’s military expenditures have skyrocketed since hydrocarbon revenues started flowing in. Turkey and Azerbaijan have been actively involved in military cooperation. The human toll of a full-fledged war will certainly be very high; the casualties of these few days of violence seem to be above official figures announced on both sides. The degree of psychological preparedness of Karabakh Armenians shouldn’t be underestimated: the population is on constant alert and resolute to fight fiercely back and especially if this struggle is perceived as a struggle for survival. It is very doubtful that the end result of this upsurge of violence would be favorable to Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh might be recognized by a few states, starting with Armenia and Russia. Azerbaijan risks jeopardizing all that it was able to achieve in just a few decades. Azerbaijanis had recovered well from a war that they didn’t want. Its new generation, ready to look forward, is its biggest asset. Glory is not always won on battlefields. Turkey, as probably more than any other country, is as much the result of its victories and its defeats. Power can result from the acceptance of defeat. Doesn’t Europe’s Germany today represent a good example of that? 

Turkey cannot help Azerbaijan win a war against Armenians. Turkey shouldn’t give this hope to Azerbaijan; Azerbaijan shouldn’t believe that Turkey can provide any serious military support, and Armenia shouldn’t be afraid of a Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance. Karabakh is not a Turkish-Armenian war. Turks are not at war against Armenians. Similar to the fact that Turks and Kurds are not fighting each other in Turkey, or that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a religious by nature. Turkey supports the Azerbaijani nation and the military alliance between the two countries is a defensive one. Turks have no reason to be at war against Armenians. The Syrian conflict polarized Turkish society along a sectarian line; Turkish society cannot afford a polarization along ethnic lines because of the Karabakh conflict. Ethnic nationalism would be highly destructive for Turkey. It is the military and political entente with the Russians that is at the cornerstone of the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, not the Caucasian Islamic Army. 

There is no military solution in Karabakh. Iran shares a border with Karabakh and is therefore an important stakeholder in stability around Karabakh. A new war would affect Iran directly as war in Syria affects Turkey. With projectiles hitting Iranian villages over this weekend, a longer military confrontation between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces would trigger its share of refugee influx. Moreover Iran, where ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azeris live peacefully together, can contribute to the peaceful settlement of the dispute and to building trust between populations divided by the conflict. Turkey should be similarly supportive of the diplomatic and confidence-building efforts rather than be a conflict side.

Turkey has a huge stake in having a stable Armenia at her border: Armenia destabilized by what would be perceived as a war of Turks against Armenians in Karabakh, would become a considerable border security risk for Turkey. Relations that Turkey had managed to establish with Erbil bring her an important strategic gain in the pacification efforts of the Syrian and Iraqi borderlands.  Reaching out to Yerevan is of equal strategic importance and meaningful as a preventive diplomacy measure. Turkey should become the security guarantor of Armenia as much as, if not more, than the Russian military base in Gyumri just across Kars. 

Burcu Gültekin Punsmann is a senior fellow at the Ankara Policy Center focusing on regionalism, border studies, peacebuilding and humanitarian aid.