Karabakh: Diplomatic Attention Needed to Address Growing Risks

An Azeri serviceman stands guard at the frontline with the self-defence army of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan
An Azeri serviceman stands guard at the frontline with the self-defence army of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Photo: Zulfiya Safkhanova/Reuters

On February 25, Armenian troops alongside allied separatist forces in Karabakh attempted to carry out sabotage in the Khojavend – Fizuli sector of the Nagorno-Karabakh line of contact (LoC) that separates Azerbaijani – Armenian military zones. While around five Azerbaijani soldiers were killed, the latest flare-up in the frontline demonstrated the ever-present risk of a new wider escalation of the conflict. As a result of the deadly ongoing skirmishes in the frontline, the bodies of the killed Azerbaijani soldiers remained in the neutral zone between two sides including Major Agshin Abdullayev and Senior Lieutenant Tural Hashimli. It took two days before Azerbaijan has removed the bodies of servicemen from the neutral zone.

The Defence Ministry of the separatist regime in Nagorno-Karabakh accused Azerbaijan of launching night attacks in the south-eastern section of Khojavand (Martuni) with the TR-107 rocket launcher. Azerbaijani Defence Ministry, however, accused the Armenia-backed forces of initiating provocative incursions in hope of gaining certain strategic points.  

Shortly after, in retaliation for the provocative measures of Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, the aerial footage released by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry on March 1, shows the mass artillery attack of Azerbaijani forces destroying an Armenian military compound and hitting several vehicles carrying Armenian soldiers. Moreover, according to the statement of the Ministry of Defence of Azerbaijan, as a part of the provocative measures on March 2, the Armenia-backed special forces carried out an unsuccessful attack on Azerbaijani positions in Aghdara – Tartar direction.

Notwithstanding the fact, since the re-escalation of tensions along the line of contact, the extent of Armenian losses has once again emerged as a sharply contested issue.  The only casualty the Armenian government has acknowledged since tensions re-escalated is a contract serviceman, Nver Babajanyan (b. 1980), who reportedly died of shrapnel wounds.

Bu məqaləni həmçinin azərbaycan dilində oxu

“No doubt that by aggressive and provocative measures in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia is keen on legalizing the occupation of Azerbaijani lands. The four day war in April 2016 revealed the weakness and incapability of Armenia to stand against the counter-attacks of Azerbaijani forces in the frontline. Now Armenia attempts to shift the balance of power in the region by threatening Azerbaijan to use Iskander missile System” said retired general of Azerbaijani Armed Forces Yashar Aydamirov.  

Simultaneously, Armenian authorities claims that the ongoing unrest in the frontline between Armenian – Azerbaijani forces was a planned action, referring to the latest visit of Defence Minister Zakir Hasanov and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Najmaddin Sadigov the line of contact, two days before the current clashes started.  In the meantime, the intensified clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh has occasionally coincided with the 25th anniversary of Khojaly Massacre in which 613 Azerbaijani civilians died at the hands of Armenian troops. Commemorative marches took place across Azerbaijan and in Tbilisi on February 25, which led to further protests and demonstrations against “escalating Azerbaijani aggression” organized by pro-separatist Armenian groups.

Obviously, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh region has always been critical since the ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, albeit only temporarily. To this day, the two countries continue fighting across the line of contact, including incidents of the downing of helicopters from both sides and the use of heavy artillery in and around civilian areas have increased. Even today, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains a war of trenches – a classical confrontation between conventional forces composed of tanks and heavy artillery.

The first generation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis who have no direct experience of each other is coming of age, shaped by hostile rhetoric. Following the April 2016 clashes, youth spontaneously marched in Baku to celebrate their army’s success. In Yerevan, speculation about possible concessions provoked Karabakh war veterans to storm and occupy a police station, killing two officers. Although the fresh flare-up of violence has not yet triggered large protests, there have been some expressions of discontent, since there is a deep dissatisfaction in the members of Sasna Tsrer (a militant organization of Karabakh war veterans) with the current government’s policy towards Nagorno-Karabakh. The members of the organization claim that power in Armenia was usurped in 2008, and it is time to take it down.

Without any significant deal on the diplomatic negotiations, the risk of new hostilities in the region in 2017 is very high. The recent clashes should acts as an alarm for all those involved in the long-stalled Karabakh peace process. Without a significant diplomatic breakthrough, the risk of further serious hostilities in Karabakh this year is very high. At the minimum, further skirmishes could result in civilian casualties and displace civilians from both sides. While it remains to be seen if the recent violence escalates, one fact remains clear: such escalation would have destabilizing effects far beyond Nagorno-Karabakh.

This article was originally published on EurasiaNET.Org