Here’s the Ticking Time Bomb That Could Explode After Syria

The U.S. trains one side, Russia arms both in simmering conflict

Here’s the Ticking Time Bomb That Could Explode After Syria Here’s the Ticking Time Bomb That Could Explode After Syria

Uncategorized October 18, 2013 0

Armenian BMP vehicles during 2012 exercise. armenian ministry of defense photo Here’s the Ticking Time Bomb That Could Explode After Syria The U.S. trains... Here’s the Ticking Time Bomb That Could Explode After Syria
Armenian BMP vehicles during 2012 exercise. armenian ministry of defense photo

Here’s the Ticking Time Bomb That Could Explode After Syria

The U.S. trains one side, Russia arms both in simmering conflict

Nagorno-Karabakh is little known outside the region, but since 1994 this mountainous enclave has been at the center of a cold war — turned sporadically hot — between the armed forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

And it’s been getting worse.

The dispute over the region — which was seized by Armenia in a 1988-1994 war — never fully settled down, and snipers from both sides intermittently shoot across the enclave’s border. At least 20 people have been killed there this year. The two countries are not actively at war, but typically around 30 people are killed across the border every year. The clashes are also becoming more frequent.

Landmines left over from the 1994 war are still lethal to civilians. An Armenian farmer from Aygedzor village near the Azerbaijani border stepped on a mine and died Sept. 24, unable to be saved in time as Azerbaijani troops pinned rescuers with gunfire.

Rescuers did finally get to him, but he died before reaching hospital,” Aygedzor village chief Sasun Safaryan said according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

The dispute is a “frozen conflict.” There’s no war, but no peace treaty either and both sides still shoot at each other, and people die. Azerbaijan clearly wants to retake the enclave, but so far appears deterred by the presence of around 3,000 Russian troops along with tanks and MiG-29 fighter jets based in Armenia — the result of an alliance between the two countries.

But there’s a sense that the situation is getting more unstable. At least 10,000 Syrian Armenian refugees have been displaced to Armenia because of the Syrian civil war. Some families have settled in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan accuses Armenia of settling them there deliberately.

“We have information that they already started it — settlement of Syrian refugees in occupied territories — and of course it is a very dangerous process with unpredictable consequences,” Azerbaijan’s ambassador the United Nations, Agshin Mehdiyev, said on Oct. 2. Armenian officials deny this.

Nagorno-Karabakh. Organzation for Security Co-operation in Europe map

Many weapons, small space

Both sides have been preparing for war but it’s impossible to know if and when one will start. It could start tomorrow, years from now or never.

Azerbaijan’s deputy prime minister has said Azerbaijan is willing to fight it out with Russian troops. Isolated and poorer Armenia is on the defensive — its ability to hold the enclave is dependent on its exclusive military alliance with Moscow. But it’s not even for certain Russia will intervene if the war is contained to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan comparatively pampers its military. Baku’s military spending is higher than Armenia’s entire gross domestic product due to the country’s oil wealth, and Baku increased defense spending this year to $3.8 billion annually.

Baku’s weapons include Israeli drones and missiles, Turkish rocket launchers and South African armored vehicles. The United States does not supply weapons — there’s an arms embargo — but does train Azeri troops. Azerbaijan is also a key transit corridor for supplies flowing to NATO troops in Afghanistan.

It’s a curious fact that Azerbaijan is buying billions of dollars worth of Russian weapons including 100 advanced T-90 tanks. But this isn't as surprising as it sounds. The Azerbaijani government may be hostile to a Russian ally, but the political opposition inside the country is even more irredentist and hostile to Armenia than the government.

It’s also in Russia’s interest to keep both sides close, but keep Armenia closer.

“That means it sells weapons to Azerbaijan for cash, but sells them to Armenia at a discount,” Sergei Markedonov of the Moscow-based Institute for Political and Military Analysis told the IWPR.

Azerbaijan’s autocratic president, Ilhan Aliyev, is increasingly vulnerable. Pres. Aliyev was re-elected to a third term on Oct. 9 with 84 percent of the vote, a result widely seen as almost undoubtedly fraudulent. And while it’s able to fund a sizable military with oil exports, the country’s economy is stagnating due to the over-reliance on a declining export. Negotiations with Armenia have gone nowhere.

“Unrest at home might tempt leaders to deflect attention by raising military tensions or to embark on risky attempts to capitalize on their adversary’s troubles,” Lawrence Sheets, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said. That goes for both sides.