On September 27 2020, explosions broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region once home to pomegranate producing farmers, shepherds tending to their flocks, and local women who welcome travellers at roadside cafes by selling fresh-made Qutab (pancakes) sprinkled with sumac and tea from wood-fired samovars. Nagorno-Karabakh, which was once a symbol of rich heritage and culture, is now the site of mass graves, wired fences, and constant gunfire.
While the region is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, it has been occupied by Armenia for almost 30 years. The situation in Nagorno is a textbook example of a 21st-century conflict over land which has been historically and politically claimed by both sides with the infusion of religious and ethnic intolerance and the interference of two nosy neighbours who stand to gain from the war.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the longest-running conflict in Central Asia and to present date has a confirmed death toll of 20,000 civilians and soldiers.
In the past fighting occasionally broke out, but rarely ever escalated further. However fierce fighting erupted in September 2020 and quickly escalated to a full-scale war. During the conflict both sides were accused of bombing civilian areas in the region. Then, in a sudden and dramatic turn in this decades-old conflict, Armenia surrendered. A ceasefire was signed on November 9 and Azerbaijan declared victory. So how did this conflict come about and what does this Azerbaijan victory mean?
History of the conflict
Nagorno-Karabakh is part of the Caucuses, the region between Europe and Asia. Historically, its population has been mostly ethnic Armenian with a substantial Azeri minority.
In the 18th century an important Azerbaijani town, the citadel of Shusha, was founded right in the middle of this territory. And with that, the region became one that was incredibly important both to Armenians and to Azerbaijanis. The brewing struggle for power in these lands between the ethnic groups stayed in check for most of the 19th century, due to the ironclad rule of the mighty Russian Empire. The Soviets made Armenia and Azerbaijan “republics” within the Soviet Union. They made Nagorno-Karabakh a semi-autonomous region in the Azerbaijani Republic despite its majority-Armenian population. Ethnic Armenians in the area frequently asked to join the Armenian Republic but were prohibited from doing so. Still, there weren't signs of war until the Soviet Union began to loosen its grip. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, tensions resurfaced, and as the two nations declared independence the conflict escalated into a war that left a million people homeless and 20,000 dead.
The first war continued for 3 years and ended with a ceasefire agreement which marked an Armenian victory. Ethnic Armenians were now in control of Nagorno-Karabakh itself and a broad surrounding zone, which was then thoroughly cleansed of all ethnic Azerbaijanis. An example of this was the infamous Khojaly Massacre in 1992. The massacre was later classified as a genocide in which 613 Azerbaijanis were murdered and mutilated, including 169 women and children, who had been killed while trying to escape the siege by Armenian forces. The Armenians proclaimed a republic in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) that no one, not even Armenia, recognised, while hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees were captured and sent to IDPs [internally displaced persons] residing areas where they experienced years of poverty and hunger.
Involvement of turkey
For the next 20 years, the Armenians celebrated their victory by renaming former Azeri towns and reaping the benefits of the fertile conquered land. The Azerbaijani hung their heads in shame as the government spent billions in military expenditures planning their revenge on their neighbours while still maintaining the claim that the lost land was rightfully theirs. During this time both countries maintained a presence along the frontline where skirmishes broke out regularly and in 2016, a 4-day war was also fought. In the media, this conflict was often referred to as a frozen one but it would be more accurate to think of it as a smouldering one where at the slightest provocation a war would erupt. This provocation came with the involvement of Turkey and that sent the whole region ablaze.
In the past few years, Turkey has increasingly intervened in conflicts around the region, to tilt the outcomes in its favour. By sending troops into the Syrian civil war, it captured a part of its territory in 2019. And in 2020, its troops turned the tide of the Libyan civil war in favour of the government, which is helping Turkey claim valuable natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean. Then in July 2020 when Turkey once again saw a conflict to gain profit from, it threw its support behind Azerbaijan -where the majority of its population belonged to a Turkish ethnic group.
The 2020 conflict unfolded with Azerbaijan launching an attack in September and capturing large parts of Armenia including Nagorno-Karabakh in less than a month’s time. Armenia fought back but was left defenceless against the military drones and ammunition, funded by Turkey. There was heavy bombing in civilian areas and Armenian women and children were murdered on the streets. The short war came to a climactic end as the overpowering Azerbaijani forces captured the historic city of Shusha, just 15 kilometres from the capital, Stepanakert. The Armenians desperate to stop the destruction signed a ceasefire treaty which stopped the drone attacks but stripped 20% of their land. Ultimately, the agreement does nothing towards relieving the tensions in this region or reducing the suffering of the refugees. However, the deal calls for the building of trade channels connecting Azerbaijan to Turkey and allows peacekeepers to be kept in the regions to monitor the conflict - which largely profits Turkey.
In conclusion, the cease-fire brokered by Russia in Nagorno-Karabakh may have silenced the fighting but the deep-rooted feud between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the remote South Caucasus has only been updated for an altered balance of power, not resolved. The burning houses of fleeing Armenians promise that it will erupt again. And in the demonic logic of conflicts that touch on elemental religious and cultural narratives, every eruption of violence adds another layer of mortal grievances, pushing a lasting peace further beyond the pale.