In autumn 2020, a 44-day war in the South Caucasus reshaped the dynamics of a decades-old conflict between Azerbaijan and the Armenia-supported Republic of Artsakh. The Azerbaijani full-scale military offense that began on Sunday, September 27, 2020 was the continuation of Baku’s historical policy of genocidal assault on Artsakh and its people.
During the Azerbaijani aggression, a joint force consisting of Azerbaijani Army, Turkish troops, and jihadist mercenaries from Syria – hired and managed by Turkey – captured much of the territory of the Republic of Artsakh, including a portion of core territories that once formed the USSR’s Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR). Armenians have retained control over the remaining territory of former NKAR, including the regional capital city of Stepanakert. A cease-fire agreement mediated by the Russian Federation introduced about 2,000 Russian troops into the conflict zone to serve as a peacekeeping force and to guarantee the security of a land corridor between Armenia and Artsakh.
The dispute centers on the historical Armenian region of Artsakh and surrounding territories that before 1988 were controlled by the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan – one of the 15 ethnic republics of the former Soviet Union (USSR). Following decades of abuse and state-directed anti-Armenian ethnic cleansing campaign that began in 1987, Artsakh voted to secede from Soviet Azerbaijan in 1988 and then, in 1991, began re-building its own state that has a history of many centuries of de-facto sovereignty.
The war’s local and regional consequences continue to unfold. The conflict led to the deaths of at least a few thousand combatants on each side and of hundreds of civilians. Armenians in Artsakh have gained a new sense of insecurity, tempered by the presence of Russian forces, and many thousands of them remain displaced. A new balance of power was established between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and regional powers Russia and Turkey have increased their influence.
As a prelude to the war, in August, 2020 Azerbaijan conducted large-scale military exercises with Turkey, which has been providing strong support for Azerbaijan throughout its conflict. Turkey reportedly also sold Azerbaijan more than $120 million worth of military equipment in the first nine months of 2020, including advanced battle drones. During the war, Azerbaijan relied heavily on the use of these and other drones, including equipment purchased from Israel, to identify, target, and attack Armenian defensive positions and armored units.
Throughout October 2020, Azerbaijani mechanized units made significant headway in the southern lowlands between Artsakh – a largely mountainous territory – and Iran. Azerbaijani forces took territory in the regions of Varanda (Fuzuli), Jrakan (Jabrayil), and Kovsakan (Zangelan) and eventually secured Artsakh’s entire border with Iran. It is here where Baku heavily relied on the manpower of Islamic radicals airlifted to Azerbaijan from Syria by Turkish military contractors.
After moving northward but failing to capture Berdzor (Lachin), Azerbaijan focused on capturing the fortress-city of Shushi (Shusha). In addition to its historical and cultural significance, Shushi is strategically important due to its position on the highway linking Armenia and Artsakh and overlooking much of the region, including Stepanakert, from an elevated limestone plateau on which it is built. Despite heavy Armenian resistance, Azerbaijan captured Shushi on or around November 8, 2020.
As of November 2, 2020, around 90,000 people (out of an estimated 147,000) had fled Artsakh. On November 9, 2020, Azerbaijani President Aliyev, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, and Russian President Putin issued a joint statement that halted the war. By March 2021, over 52,000 Artsakh residents returned to the region from Armenia.
Role of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan is an undisputable orchestrator of the 2020 War, as well as the initiator of almost every single act of violence in the history of the conflict, starting from the year 1905. In fact, Azerbaijan admitted his initiative to start military operations in several speaches of the country’s leader, Ilham Aliyev.
Azerbaijan started the military action by massively attacking Artsakh using long-range artillery systems and battle drones early in the morning of Sunday, Sept 27, 2021.
Since the ceasefire established in 1994, Baku has always made it pretty clear that its goal has never been a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh dispute. Azerbaijan’s rhetoric and actions persistently demonstrated that Baku’s chief objective was threefold: capture Artsakh, expel or exterminate its Armenian population and destroy Armenian cultural heritage in the region. In this context, it is worth remembering that the freshly-minted “Republic of Azerbaijan” – a country that never existed in history in any form – willfully joined Turkey’s policy of genocide against Armenians shortly after being proclaimed on the territory of the Russian Empire in 1918. The massacres perpetrated by Azerbaijanis and their Turkish allies from 1918-20, including the destruction of Artsakh’s capital city of Shushi in March 1920, illustrate the genocidal agenda that was cemented into the foundation of the Azerbaijani state from the beginning.
Azerbaijan has been ruled by the Aliyev dynasty starting in 1965, or, for more than 50 years. Since the death of President Heydar Aliyev in 2003, the country has been headed by his only son – President Ilham Aliyev. In 2020, Azerbaijan – a hereditary oil dictatorship – stepped up the conversion of its petrodollar revenue into the procurement of advanced weapons. Known as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, Azerbaijan and its dictatorial ruler were revealed to establish secret bank accounts in Europe and the US, which were used to bribe Western politicians to suppress publicity about human rights abuses in his country and by his regime.
After capturing Artsakh’s territories in the south and the north, Azerbaijani army immediately launched a new campaign of anti-Armenian cultural cleansing. Before the war, Azerbaijan’s cultural cleansing efforts led to the destruction of hundreds of Armenian Christian monuments. Especially gruesome and large-scale was the annihilation of the world’s largest collection of Armenian cross-stones – khachkars – located in Azerbaijan’s province of Nakhichevan, which was cut off from Armenia and given to Azerbaijan in the 1920s. As of March 2021, it was documented that the Azerbaijani army – following direct instructions coming from Baku’s leadership – almost completely destroyed the St. Mother of God Church of Shushi (1818); severely damaged Shushi’s iconic Cathedral of the Holy Savior (1888); and raised to the ground the newly-build chapel in the city of Jrakan (Jebrail).
Role of Turkey
The bitter reality of the present day is that the Republic of Turkey, once a trusted partner of the West and a NATO ally, has transformed into the world’s most dangerous supporter of Islamic radicalism. The War of 2020 in Artsakh only confirmed this alarming notion.
Since 2002, Turkey’s politics was dominated by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). It grew from an organization lobbying for the restoration of the role of Islam in Turkish society into an authoritarian cult that advocates for Turkey’s neo-Ottoman future and the creation of a pan-Turkic super-state that would stretch from Europe to Siberia, across the Caucasus, Iran, and Central Asia. AKP’s leaders periodically call for the destruction of Israel and prophesize the imminent demise of the European civilization.
Turkey is a country that committed one of history’s most atrocious crimes – the genocide of the ancient and indigenous population of Asia Minor and Armenia during World War I, in which around 2.5 million people were exterminated: mostly Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Christians, as well as non-Muslim Kurds known as Yezidis. The major part of the Genocide was the genocide of Armenians, which began on April 24, 1915, and ended in the early 1920s, killing an estimated 1.5 million people and destroying the millennia-old homeland of Armenians – not only demographically but also culturally and economically.
Turkey’s genocidal project eventually extended into the Caucasus, where Turks found a reliable partner, the Azerbaijanis – Turkoman tribesmen who at that time lacked self-identity and were known to others by their Russian-derived moniker as “Caucasian Tatars.” Turkey-Azerbaijani genocidal friendship was interrupted in 1920, when Russian Bolsheviks invaded the Caucasus and made it part of what later became the USSR. But when the USSR disintegrated in 1991, Turkey and the newly-independent Azerbaijan rediscovered old ties, and began savoring the memory of old crimes.
A major factor of the War of 2020 was a personal connection between two dictators – Recep Erdogan of Turkey and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan. This connection grew stronger after the leadership change in Armenia in 2018, which installed in Yerevan a democratic government. The gradual escalation of Russian-Turkish tensions in Syria and Libya in 2020 also played its role in motivating Turkey to break the decades-long taboo on directly sponsoring military action in the post-Soviet space for the first time.
Role of Islamic terrorists
Turkey’s successful use of Syrian Islamists in Libya laid the ground for the emergence of a multipurpose Turkish-led mercenary force that was cultivated by Ankara for use in proxy wars and jihadi projects in different parts of the world.
Turkey’s recruitment of mercenaries began shortly before Baku and Ankara launched joint military exercises in August 2020, but increased in speed as the date of the invasion approached in late September. Rumors at first pointed towards Libyan mercenaries but quickly were overwhelmed by the information about Syrian Islamist recruits. By the time the war started on September 27, Turkey had hired at least 4,000 Syrian mercenaries at $1,800 for a period of three months. These mercenaries were drawn from the ranks of well-known terrorist groups, including ISIS. Reports coming from Syria showed that the terrorists were recruited under the banner of jihadist war against “Christian infidels.” For example, AsiaNews quoted a source from Syria who explained that the fight alongside the Azerbaijani Army was “because it is part of the Jihad; it is a holy war of Muslims against Christians.”
Syrian mercenaries captured in Artsakh reported that they were offered cash bonuses based on assorted special “achievements,” such as beheading Christians – $100 for a severed head.
Role of Russia
Although Russia has a defense treaty with Armenia, Russian officials pointed out both before and during the 2020 War that the treaty would not cover the disputed territory of the Republic of Artsakh, and that Russia would not send troops to help the Armenians in their conflict with Azerbaijan. Nonetheless, when the war began, Russia took an active part in managing negotiations between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan aimed at ending the military operations.
One major immediate consequence of the ceasefire agreement was the deployment to the conflict zone of Russian forces to serve as a peacekeeping contingent. Per November 9, 2020, agreement, Russia has deployed at least 1,960 soldiers, 90 armored personnel carriers, and 380 vehicles. These forces are said to be from Russia’s 15th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, which is the unit of the Russian army designated for peacekeeping operations. Russia deployed observation posts along the cease-fire line and in the Lachin Corridor to monitor the truce, ensure residents’ safety, and provide security for transit between Armenia and Artsakh. Russian peacekeepers also have secured some historic Armenian churches and other cultural centers in Artsakh.