Further conflict on Turkey’s doorstep allows Ankara another opportunity to pursue his revisionist agenda in Eurasia.
By Benjamin Deichman-Caswell '21; Image Source: Reuters/Murad Sezer
The recent outbreak of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region has again demonstrated Turkey’s aggressive opportunism in projecting power through nearby conflicts. On the morning of September 27th, clashes broke out and the fighting quickly escalated to levels of violence not seen since the end of the Karabakh War in 1994. Turkey had been involved in the planning of the Azeri offensive and their support for their Turkic neighbors reflects many recent trends in Turkish interventionism. Furthermore, with Turkey backing Azerbaijan and Russia, although playing the role of regional mediator, aligned with Armenia, tensions between the two nations have once again been brought to the fore.
While internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh region is an ethnically Armenian enclave controlled by Armenia which claims autonomy as the Republic of Artsakh. Since the territorial lines were established in 1994, the region certainly has not been free of conflict; most notably, in 2016, an Azeri offensive gained strategic high-ground before being settled by a Russian-brokered ceasefire and, in July of this year, skirmishes broke out which tested the resolve of Armenian forces in the face of their better-equipped Azeri counterparts. In comparison, the ongoing offensive has escalated dramatically with ongoing fighting on various fronts across the region. The Azeri forces are reported to have made minor territorial gains however these tactical successes have not translated to the accomplishment of notable strategic objectives. Over the course of the fighting so far, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, has been a central target of Azeri shelling, with many civilians and civilian targets being hit, while various cities in Azerbaijan, particularly the second largest city of Ganja, have also been struck by Armenian rockets. It is important to note that for Armenia and its people, given the historic precedents of atrocities and ethnic cleansing perpetrated against them, this conflict carries with it an existential weight.
For Turkey, the conflict to its East presents an opportunity to continue its recent push to establish greater regional influence. Turkey’s adventurism in the eastern Mediterranean is well established, exemplified primarily by its intervention in the Syrian conflict, support for the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya’s ongoing civil war, and hostility towards Greece and Cyprus in asserting maritime territorial claims. Turkey has used these theaters to present the image of itself as both a geo-strategic and ideological leader in the region. However, this assertive posture carries with it risks as Turkey continues to challenge the status quo, particularly in the face of its historic rival for regional power, Russia. The resurgent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has again demonstrated the tactics by which Turkey has projected power when intervening in regional conflicts. In its support for Azerbaijan, Turkey has again provided physical military support while remaining below the threshold for confrontation with Russia and continuing to push historic Turkish interests to the center of the politics of the region.
Two central components of Ankara’s military support to regional allies have been the deployment of weaponized drones and Syrian mercenary forces, both of which have again appeared in Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey has recently established itself as a major player in drone warfare due to its development of the advanced TB2 technical armed drone. Not only have these drones allowed Turkey to turn the tides of conflicts in their own territory, but they have also met regional demand for cheaper and more accessible medium-range alternatives to less accessible options such as the American-made Reaper. In Libya, the provision of twenty TB2 drones to the GNA in the summer of 2019 helped reverse gains made by Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army. The capabilities of the GNA were further bolstered by the presence of some 8,000-10,000 Turkish-supplied mercenaries drawn from Syrian opposition forces. These means of intervention have appeared again in Nagorno-Karabakh where Turkish drones, as well as missiles and electronic warfare equipment, have shifted the balance of military capabilities in favor of Azerbaijan while the arrival of Turkish-aligned Syrian militants has bolstered Azeri ranks on the front lines. Through these means, Turkey has identified a relatively minimal and inexpensive way to shape regional conflicts and assert its geostrategic influence. In addition, these means have allowed Turkey to oppose the interests of Russia while remaining below the threshold for direct provocation or confrontation.
Avoidance of direct conflict with Russia has been another central component of Turkish intervention across the region. In each of the conflicts which Turkey has involved itself in, Russia has also been a key player, generally backing the side opposing Turkish interests. As the United States’ presence has receded in the broader Middle East and North Africa, Russia has grown its influence to fill the void. Russo-Turkish cooperation in the 21st century is in many ways a historical anomaly – driven by shared economic interests and frustration with the post-Cold War status quo – thus the emerging contest for primacy in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean should not come as a surprise. In Libya and Syria, their antagonism has been more overt, with Ankara and Moscow overtly backing opposing forces. In Nagorno-Karabakh, it is more subtle but no less concerning. While Turkey is unequivocally aligned with Azerbaijan, Russia has historically played a mediating role and has provided military resources to both the Azeris and Armenians. In this case, what Ankara has challenged is Russia’s innate interest in stability in its “near-abroad,” something which has been a primary concern for Vladimir Putin throughout his time in power. However, despite close calls, Turkey has managed to assert its interests while remaining on good terms with Moscow and it is likely that the two countries will once again de-escalate tensions even as their interests continue to conflict on the ground.
Turkey’s activity in Nagorno-Karabakh also demonstrates how the Political-Islamist and Nationalist positions of Ankara are shaping their regional posture. In Libya, support for the GNA can, in part, be attributed to the internationally recognized government’s tolerance for Islamist politics. In Syria, their support for rebel factions has come to function as a means of suppressing Kurdish capabilities along Turkey’s southeastern border and preventing the establishment of a Kurdish territory which would be seen as a national security threat of catastrophic proportions. Similarly, in its support for ethnically Turkic Azerbaijan in their conflict against ethnic Armenians – portrayed as historic enemies of the Turkish state – Ankara is again opting to use regional interventions to foment nationalist sentiment and reenforce support for the AK Parti and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian politics.
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh presents many insights into the complex historic and contemporary political, ethnic, and economic tensions in both the Caucasus and the broader Eastern Mediterranean. Once again, Turkey has implicated itself in the developing conflict and its overt support for Azerbaijan demonstrates a number of the characteristics of Turkish interventionism in recent years. The typical elements of Turkish military support have appeared on the frontlines with Turkish drones and other technology strengthening the Azeris while Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries dig-in on the front lines. While on the face of it this conflict appears to be Turkey’s most brazen challenge of Russian interests, it appears as though tensions between the competing powers will not escalate to direct conflict – a balancing act which Turkey has already performed in multiple theaters. Finally, in their support against the Armenian people, Turkey has positioned a historic focus of Turkish concern at the center of their intervention, a move which is bound to strengthen Erdogan’s position through his nationalist base. Ultimately, Turkey appears to have found a playbook for asserting its regional agenda and until it is more harshly reproached by Russia, the European Union, or the United States, it is unlikely that their meddling will be deterred.