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Frenemies in the Caucasus: Turkey vs. Russia and Iran

Frenemies in the Caucasus: Turkey vs. Russia and Iran
Frenemies in the Caucasus: Turkey vs. Russia and Iran

After a long three months of overheated summer in the eastern Mediterranean, the conflict between Turkey and Greece came to a point of cautious calm. The Hellenic Navy Forces retreated to Salamis Base, a few days after Turkey withdrew its Oruç Reis research ship and escorting frigates back to Antalya, in mid-September. Yet, the Turkish military, hardly, had a chance to breathe before it found itself involved in the renewed war on the Caucasus Mountains.

On September 27th, the world woke up to the disturbing news of the re-eruption of the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region. In August, Armenia launched an attack on the Azerbaijani border city of Tovuz, which led to the killing of 12 Azerbaijani soldiers and one civilian. Because of the intense mobilization of Syrian mercenaries, by both parties, the current episode of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is expected to be the deadliest; even worse than the 1990s conflicts, which left behind tens of thousands of dead, from both sides.

Turkey is backing Azerbaijan, due to several historical, cultural, and political reasons. Azerbaijani people are Turkic by ethnicity. The Turkish military is the de facto parent organization of the Azerbaijani military. In the 1990s, the two countries signed bilateral agreements on defense cooperation and strategic partnership. According to these agreements, the two countries should provide “military support” to each other “upon demanding the right to self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.” In that capacity, the Turkish military works closely with the Azerbaijani military, through providing technical military consultations and personnel training in Turkish military institutions. In addition, Turkey and Azerbaijan's armed forces are constantly executing joint military drills in Azerbaijan.

In the most recent meeting between Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, and Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, in August; Aliyev said that his country aims to use the “powerful military-industrial potential” of Turkey, and thus, “Turkey will become Azerbaijan’s number one partner in the field of military-technical cooperation.” Russia, which is currently Azerbaijan’s top military exporter, felt threatened. The Russian officials and media, last month, warned against Turkey’s plans to establish a military base in Azerbaijan. If true, the proposed Turkish Military Base shall counterbalance the intensive and extensive Russian military presence in Armenia.

Armenia is politically, economically, and militarily controlled by Russia. In Armenia, Russia plays the traditional role of the protector state of Orthodox Christians. Russia controls the Armenian economy, culture, and politics. There is a strong long-term military presence of Russia, including militia deployment and training, inside Armenia. Russia has a military base in Armenia, which serves Russia and its ally Iran, more than it serves Armenia. In that sense, the hardline Islamist regime in Iran is supporting the Orthodox Christian Armenia against the Muslim Azerbaijan. Although it might sound counterintuitive, it is just another proof of how Armenia is merely seen as a province of Russia, rather than an independent state.

Long story short, this new episode of war in the South Caucasus is much bigger in size and influence than in Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is a war between old frenemies: Turkey on one side versus its closest allies/competitors, Iran and Russia, on the other side. For the international community, Turkey is doing the world a favor by confronting America’s top enemy (Iran) and Europe’s and NATO’s top enemy (Russia). For the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, this war shall give the region a chance to breathe and work quietly on finding political solutions to chronic crises, particularly in Syria and Libya, free from the pressure of Turkish political and military intervention.


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