When Does Karabakh’s Destiny Fit in the Russo-Turkish Standoff?

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A few years ago, if any Armenian was asked what relevance the Syrian province of Idlib would have with regard to any Armenian issues, a few minor topics would come to mind: its proximity to Der Zor, the Armenian Auschwitz, and scattered Armenian communities there that have been surviving since the Genocide in those rural areas. No one could possibly relate it to Karabakh.

But today, as Idlib has become the focus of global tensions, the political pairing between Idlib and Karabakh demonstrates their existential relevance to each other.

The recent  short-lived Russo-Turkish honeymoon was too good to last. It was destined to come to an end and it ended earlier than anyone had anticipated. Today, the talk in political circles is about the 17th Russo-Turkish war. All the latent tensions between these two parties have come to the surface and their armies are now facing each other on the Syrian battleground. Already, 33 Turkish soldiers have been killed and another 30 have been wounded. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has thus far hesitating in directly blaming Russia for this bloodletting, instead is directing his ire against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which have come under Turkish fire, incurring hundreds of casualties. But military planners in Ankara know full well that the Assad forces could not have achieved that victory without Russian air cover.

Initially, President Erdogan called on President Vladimir Putin to stop the carnage, but his call has gone nowhere. Then, the two  agreed for a summit meeting in Istanbul on March 5, only for the Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov to announce that President Putin has other appointments on March 5.

The latest word is that Erdogan would be heading to Moscow for the coveted meeting. For an arrogant Erdogan, that is humiliating.

In the meantime, the news media and political apparatus in Ankara have been in action, seeking support for Turkish adventurism in Syria.

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Turkey’s diplomatic moves have been accompanied by threats towards different directions but particularly aimed at Russian interests.

For example, Erdogan’s advisor on political issues, Mesut Hakkı Çasın, has announced that Turkey’s response to Russia will be very harsh; there are 25 million Muslims in Russia and they can blow up that country from within.

This is not the first time that Turkey has been weaponizing religion and ethnicity. It is worth remembering that when Germany stopped Erdogan from carrying out his electoral campaign in Germany in 2017, he appealed to ethnic Turks in Europe to have bigger families to increase their numbers and therefore power in Europe, gradually.

On the diplomatic front, he took a trip to Azerbaijan for an extended meeting with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s government last week. He was joined by a large delegation which signed 14 different agreements and he vowed to raise the current level of trade between the two nations from the current $2 billion to $15 billion annually.

What was more significant was the participation of Turkey’s Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar, who signed military agreements with Azerbaijan to supply that country with more modern weapons, and to plan the joint production of military hardware.

More alarming for Armenia was Erdogan placing the issue of Karabakh on the front burner. He stated that the Karabakh issue was Turkey’s issue as much as it was Azerbaijan’s. “It is our greatest desire to resolve the problem of Nagorno Karabakh on the basis of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.

In a joint press conference, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev thanked Erdogan for “supporting the righteous cause” of Azerbaijan and announced that Azerbaijan “will continue to purchase modern weapons from Turkey.”

The impact of this entire political show extends far beyond the Caucasus to warn Moscow that Erdogan is ready to target Russia’s pressure points, with one being in the Caucasus and the other being in Libya; in the latter, Russia supports General Haftar against the government in Tripoli, which in turn enjoys Turkey’s political and military support.

The other move naturally would have been to draw NATO into this conflict. Erdogan has asked for a special session of NATO to discuss the situation in Syria. Article 5 of the NATO alliance treaty calls for collective action if one of the members is attacked; the attack on Turkish forces in Syria would not be considered an attack on all members. But since Erdogan could not invoke action through Article 5, he has invoked Article 4, which calls for consultation between the members in time of crisis. However, since the legality of Turkey’s presence on Syrian soil is questionable, Erdogan has not received more than condolences for the lost soldiers.

Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector (1991-1998) writing in an op-ed on Global Research, has stated, “The best Turkey could get from its Article 4 consultation, however, was a lukewarm statement by Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, condemning Syria and Russia while encouraging a diplomatic resolution to the fighting in Syria that focused on alleviating the unfolding humanitarian crisis regarding refugees. This is a far cry from the kind of concrete military support, such as the provision of Patriot air defense systems or NATO enforcement of a no-fly zone over Idlib, Turkey was hoping for.”

Turkey aggravates the West and Europe to no end and expects to draw the US and Europe its own misadventures.

A disgruntled Erdogan has opened the floodgates of immigrants to let them invade Europe, breaking a 2016 deal with the European Union, after milking it of billions of dollars in order to prevent exactly such a scenario. At the time of this writing, tens of thousands of migrants have been at Greece’s borders, trying to enter Europe.

Moscow has engaged its own political machine to counter Turkey’s initiatives. It has sent 10 warships into the Black Sea. On the other hand, the Secretary of the Collective Security Treaty Organization Defense General Stanislav Zas, who, coincidentally, was visiting Yerevan, has announced that should Armenia be attacked by Azerbaijan, the alliance will support the former. This kind of open statement has been rare by Moscow and even by the alliance, of which Armenia is a member.

Should the confrontation escalate on the Syrian battlefield, not only the destiny of Karabakh is at stake, but the 102nd Russian military base in Armenia may also engage since it is closest to the battlefield.

Many observers believe that the escalation may not lead to open hostilities. Even the fears that Turkey may provoke Aliyev to start a regional war is a remote possibility, because the country is undergoing a transformation. However, Azerbaijan has begun military exercises to inject fear in an already-tense situation.

Amid all the threats of war and diplomatic maneuvers, several ideas are being offered. One initiative, which may end up to be very dangerous for Armenia, was proposed by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu, who has stated that Turkey can solve the issue of Karabakh, if President Putin extends a helping hand. This proposal is within the context of a  political swap; Turkey does not enjoy regional support for its actions in Syria. Europe and the US also have demonstrated  that they are not interested in Turkey’s gamble in Syria. Therefore, Erdogan is looking for a face-saving device for an honorable retreat from Syria. Therefore, Çavusoglu’s deal offers a Turkish retreat from Syria in return for a solution in favor  of Azerbaijan in Karabakh, with Russian leadership.

This reminds us of the deal during the Treaty of Kars in 1921, when Turkey ceded Batumi to Moscow, instead receiving Mount Ararat.

Is this a remote possibility? It’s anyone’s guess.

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