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Turkey’s Approach Toward the 2020 Karabakh War

After two months of the Karabakh war intensifying, the dimensions of Turkey’s approach toward this war have become clearer. During this period, Turkey has shown that in the Karabakh war it has not been an impartial third party, but has openly stood alongside Azerbaijan and in front of Armenia. Turkey’s behavior and positions in the Karabakh war were similar to those of an engaged party.
November 2020
Jalaleddin Namini Mianji

 After two months of the Karabakh war intensifying, the dimensions of Turkey’s approach toward this war have become clearer. During this period, Turkey has shown that in the Karabakh war it has not been an impartial third party, but has openly stood alongside Azerbaijan and in front of Armenia. Turkey’s behavior and positions in the Karabakh war were similar to those of an engaged party.

Despite most countries seeking a ceasefire and solution through negotiations, Turkey has backed continuing the war until the occupied regions are liberated and have declared readiness for providing any help to Baku in the Karabakh war. The clear sign of Ankara’s support is the tremendous military aid to Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war which( along with the arms bought from Israel) has been influential in determining the direction of the war. The major motives for Ankara for taking such an approach in the Karabakh are assessed as follows: The Armenians enmity not being focused on Turkey, deepening the influence in Azerbaijan all the more, and opening diplomatic activities in the southern Caucasus.

As the Karabakh war enters its second month, a clearer assessment of turkey’s approach toward the Karabakh war can be made. During this period Turkey has shown that it has not been an impartial third party, but has openly stood alongside Baku. The behavior and positions of Turkey have been similar to those of an engaged party. Despite most countries seeking a ceasefire and solution through negotiations, Turkey has backed continuing the war until all occupied regions are liberated and have declared readiness for providing any help to Baku. Even Turkey’s grand approach ( namely in the media) is indicative of its discontent with Azerbaijan’s agreement on the temporary humanitarian ceasefire. The clear sign of Ankara’s support for Baku is its remarkable military aid to Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war which( along with the arms bought from Israel) has been influential in determining the direction of the war. Now the question is why Turkey has taken this unique approach toward the Karabakh war. The Karabakh war is important for Turkey for three reasons:1-The Armenians’ enmity not being directed at Turkey; 2- Deepening its influence all the more in Azerbaijan;3- opening diplomatic activities in the southern Caucasus.

The world’s Armenians have these goals: International recognition of the Armenian genocide and forcing Turkey to accept it; Having an independent Armenian state, and finally, the Armenians’ right to govern Karabakh. The Armenian genocide recognition has been the most important goal of the Armenians and the main pivot in shaping a unique identity for the world’s Armenians. This goal goes beyond Armenia and has support from non-Armenians – specially in the west. Turkey is the main culprit in this issue and so far, with all it can, has tried to resist the recognition of April 24 as the day of the Armenian genocide. For Turkey, the recognition of the Armenian genocide is not only accepting a painful international event, but Turkey’s concerns are about the consequences of the recognition of this event. The Armenians believe the ottoman government, by a premeditated plan, since 1915, de-Armenianized the east of Anatolia, and by settling the Turks in Armenian-dwelling regions and forced expulsion of the Armenians took these regions away from them. In fact, from the standpoint of the Armenians, the genocide is a justification for their land claims on eastern Anatolia. Besides the land claims, the compensation claim is another source of concern for Ankara. In this regard, the intensifying of the Karabakh war has heavily put the Armenians under pressure and marginalized the Armenian genocide, which is in the interest of Ankara. Ankara prefers the enmity of the Armenians not to be focused on Turkey and the Karabakh war puts Azerbaijan alongside Turkey at the top of the list of the enemies of the Armenians. Also, the Armenians have a status of an occupier in the Karabakh issue which can overshadow their victimization in the genocide event.

Turkey’s specific view toward its relations with Azerbaijan is one more factor that hinders Turkey from playing an impartial role in the Karabakh war.

Turkey’s officials have stated this special view as “ One nation, two governments”. It is to be noted that the most important factor in connecting Turks around the world, is their linguistic commonalities, and among the Turkic dialects, the Azeri Dialect is the closest to Istanbul Turkish. For this, Azerbaijan is the closest Turkic-speaking country to Turkey and this matter has always been influential in ethno-oriented approaches of Turkey’s foreign policy specially for Turkey’s nationalists. In addition to the special bond mentioned above, the gas and oil pipeline between the two countries, vast cooperation between Baku and Ankara on various grounds including the economic and military grounds, Turkey’s neighboring with Nakhchivan, and the plan for a railway, link between Baku and Nakhchivan through the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway and finally their common border with their common enemy are among the driving forces toward special relations. In the meantime, Turkey has always noticed the geopolitical status of Azerbaijan in balancing relations with Russia and Iran and as a gate for entering the Caucusus. Of the special relations of the two countries, what has been more apparent in the karabakh war is the wider military aid to Azerbaijan by Turkey which has been influential in tipping the military balance to the Azeri advantage and Armenian disadvantage in the war. Breaking the Armenians’ 30-year-old defense line from northern, eastern, and southern directions and retaking the four occupied cities and their surrounding villages are the results on the ground for this military supremacy. Organizational change in the Azeri army from eastern(Russian) to western (Nato system), equipping the army with advanced weaponry, holding military training courses, and holding common military drills are among the actions Turkey has taken to strengthen Baku’s war machine. Equipping the Azeri army with the UAVs manufactured by Turkey is of more importance. These UAVs (along with the advanced weapons received from Israel) have decreased dependence on land-based operations and increased the aerial and technological dimensions of it. Also, there is news that Jihadis have been dispatched from Syria to Karabakh through Turkey( which has been confirmed by France, US, Russia, and Iran) and that turkey’s advisory military forces and F-16 aircraft have been present in the war, an accusation that Ankara and Baku have rejected. Also, Turkey’s share in military aid and media support is considerable. Turkey’s role in the Karabakh war is to the extent that Pashinian, the prime minister of Armenia called the war “ Turkey invasion into the southern Caucasus to resume Armenians genocide after 100 years”. Turkey’s all-out support for Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war is considered Ankara’s historic investment in developing relations with Baku and deepening its influence in Azerbaijan, which for many years can profit from without paying a heavy price. Turkey’s motive for siding with Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war is playing an active role in the southern Caucasus. During the years of the rule of the AK party, Turkey has become an assertive state in the region. While this country has over  600 Kms  land border with the south Caucasus it has also a history of intervening and influencing the regional developments but in recent decades it has lacked any status and diplomatic part in this region. Playing a role in this region ( according to Davutoglu’s Strategic Depth Doctrine) has been the intention of the AK party since its inception, but Armenia prevents any Turkey's role in the southern Caucasus. To break the Armenian block in the south Caucasus, the AK party government, first, took the strategy of normalizing relations with Armenia in 2009 by mediation from Switzerland ratified two memorandums of understanding as “establishing diplomatic relations” and “ developing bilateral relations” with Yerevan which could not follow through with after Baku’s reaction and domestic pressure from nationalist groups( on the Armenian side, too, there occurred some problems in the administrative process and enacting the said agreement). Now with its reliance on offensive policy, specially taken following the failed 2016 coup, Turkey is trying to remove Armenia’s block in the south Caucasus by way of war and without normalization of ties with Yerevan. Aliyev’s emphasis on Turkey’s participation in the process of the ceasefire and political settlement of the crisis and his request for creating a new form for solving the Karabakh problem have been shaped in this direction. Ankara expects Aliyev to insist on these viewpoints until their materialization. Erdogan has broached this problem in his phone calls with Putin and so far there has been no objection announced by Moscow. This is while, France, the US, and specially Armenia have been against giving any part to Turkey in the Karabakh ceasefire; even Armenia has questioned Turkey's membership in the Minsk group of the EU’s organization for security and cooperation. Turkey has suggested solving the Karabakh crisis by Formula 2+2  ( Russia and Turkey + Azerbaijan and Armenia) through cooperation with Moscow. The issue of importance in this relation is that while Iran has included Turkey in its plans to solve the Karabakh crisis, Turkey, in any way, is not interested in Iran having a role in the diplomatic process for the crisis.

For Turkey’s main incentives in taking the approach of backing the continuation of the war in Karabakh, mentioned above, there are some other probable motives. While Ankara has been under pressure for not achieving its goals on the three fronts of Syria, Libya, and the eastern Mediterranean, and is suffering from the political problems arising from aggravating economic conditions due to the corona pandemic and the political problems arising from the AK party voter support reduction, the Karabakh war has overshadowed all these problems resulting in mobilization of all political parties in support of Erdogan’s administration. Also, some analysts have pointed to Turkey’s interest in opening a third front in the south Caucasus for exploiting it in handling its differences and competition with Moscow in Syria and Libya also Ankara’s interests in intensifying the Karabakh war have been noticed.

   (The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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