Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 October 2020

Trump has an opportunity to intervene in Nagorno-Karabakh

The Russian President Vladimir Putin must be burdened these days by his predicament in Syria, where Turkey is stepping up its threats in Idlib, reflecting his rival Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ascendancy from Nagorno-Karabakh to Libya. Mr Putin appears to have few cards left to play. Mr Erdogan, well aware of this, is driving the blade deeper in the Russian side in its precious near-abroad doctrine.

Mr Putin needs US President Donald Trump’s help to rein in Mr Erdogan, particularly his insidious weapon of radical Islamic mercenaries prefected in Syria with his regional partners, as part of his neo-Ottoman revivalism.

If this weapon metastasizes in the Muslim republics surrounding Russia, including Chechnya, it could be very dangerous.

The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has expanded and claimed thousands of casualties, according to monitors.

Azerbaijan has also attacked Armenia, potentially giving Russia the right to activate a defence pact and enter the war alongside Armenia.

This would mean direct combat with Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey, which is exactly what Russia does not want: war with Turkey.

The situation is also potentially embarrassing to the US president, who is trying to steer clear of this conflict, but pressure from about 1.5 million Armenian-American voters in the US election could make this position costly.

Nagorno-Karabakh is not recognised as an independent state but Armenia has pushed for its independence.

Mr Erdogan has surrounded himself with a ring of hatred and animus towards his egomania and neo-Ottoman expansionism, but he doesn’t seem to be deterred by any of it. His bet is on European division and weakness, Russia’s tied hands, and the preoccupation of the US administration with the November 3 election but also on some kind of magic in his personal relations with Mr Trump.

The contested region Nagorno-Karabakh
The contested region Nagorno-Karabakh

Mr Erdogan’s calculation has made him conclude that no power wants war with his country – not Egypt, or Iran, or the EU, or Russia, or the US. But his arrogance and his use of mercenaries could expose him to blowback or accountability. He needs these foreign adventures to cover up his insurmountable domestic political and economic crises. But someone must remind him that today's calculations may not bear fruit tomorrow.

It will not be the hesitant Europeans. The US president must spare a minute to consider the dangerous developments in Nagorno-Karabakh, where there is little hope for a diplomatic solution as Turkey and Azerbaijan push for a military one, believing now is the last chance to accomplish it.

The US president must spare a minute to consider the dangerous developments in Nagorno-Karabakh

The eruption of the conflict recently there has taken on a new dimension.

There is military co-operation between Turkey and Israel alongside Azerbaijan in its campaign against Armenia, including supplying it with advanced drones.

It is remarkable that Israel and Turkey are co-ordinating militarily in Azerbaijan, when Mr Erdogan has deployed militias in a way that threatens Russia in the eastern Caucasus, and when Mr Putin has helped Mr Netanyahu immensely in securing Israel’s priorities in Syria, including the annexation of the Golan Heights.

Timur Haligov, an Azerbaijani Turkish father embraces the body of his 10-month-old baby girl, Narin, who was killed by overnight shelling by Armenian forces. during a funeral ceremony, in Ganja, Azerbaijan, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of striking its second-largest city with a ballistic missile that killed at least 13 civilians and wounded 50 others in a new escalation of their conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. (Can Erok/DHA via AP)
Timur Haligov, an Azerbaijani-Turkish father embraces the body of his 10-month-old baby girl, Narin, who was killed by overnight shelling by Armenian forces, during a funeral ceremony, in Ganja, Azerbaijan, October 17. Can Erok/DHA via AP
A woman sits in the ruins of her house  in Terter, Azerbaijan after it was hit by Armenian shelling during fighting over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. AP
A woman sits in ruins of her house after shelling by Armenian artillery, in Terter, Azerbaijan. AP

Mr Erdogan has sent mercenaries to Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus with a view to revive his Muslim Brotherhood project, previously endorsed by the Obama administration in the name of 'moderate Islamism'.

The Trump administration must not fall into the trap of such labels, and must act to rein in Mr Erdogan’s dangerous project, even if it doesn’t want to extend direct help to Russia in Libya or the Caucasus.

Nurses treat a patient wounded in Azeri shelling in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. AP
Nurses administer medicine to a patient wounded from shelling by Azerbaijan's artillery in a hospital, during a military conflict in Stepanakert, the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, October 17. AP

Indeed, investing in Mr Erdogan’s project means investing in the revival of the splinter cells of ISIS and Al Qaeda. Mr Trump must awaken to his danger and act decisively.

The Trump administration must pressure his partners in Nato to also adopt a strict position against Turkey, which has disregarded the interests of its allies in the organisation, and work collectively with the transatlantic allies to overcome European divisions.

Regarding Russia, while America has understandable doubts about Russia’s strategic objectives in Syria, Libya and Europe, there is room for dialogue on the Caucasus to contain the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, given the wide-ranging dangerous implications.

Mr Erdogan’s projects must be of concern to Mr Trump, not just Mr Putin. While a Turkish quest to counterbalance Russia in the Caucasus may be logical in terms of grand strategies, the attempt to impose new facts on the ground using radical mercenaries poses a serious threat to security in that region and the whole world.

This may be an opportunity for Mr Trump, with Russia drawn into a quagmire in Syria, and in need of America’s assistance to curb Mr Erdogan’s projects. It is also an important moment for Mr Trump to rein in the military appetites of Turkey, Azerbaijan and put pressure on Armenia before the situation becomes uncontainable.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute

Updated: October 18, 2020 03:35 PM

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