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Turkey's disruptive Caucasus power play risks regional war

Three big reasons why the world should care about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

| Turkey
The blast site hit by a rocket in Ganja, Nagorno-Karabakh region, pictured on Oct. 11: in a hyper-nationalistic world the danger of smaller conflicts fueling regional wars is much greater.   © Reuters

Andrew North has reported widely from across the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia. He is a regular commentator on Asian affairs.

When fighting broke out in the southern Caucasus this month between Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, even professional foreign-policy watchers had to remind themselves of the where, who and why of this never dormant conflict.

While it may look like an obscure local quarrel over some landlocked mountains that is of little concern for the world beyond, there are at least three big reasons why the latest flare-up in this three-decade-old struggle in far west Asia matters.

First, with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan backing for Azerbaijan in words, weapons and reportedly Syrian mercenaries too, it is another demonstration of the Turkish leader's disruptive ambitions to turn his country into more than just a regional power.

Snubbed by the European Union in its bid for membership, Erdogan has pivoted eastward, using both soft and hard power. It is a strategy that has been labeled neo-Ottomanism, with much of Turkey's efforts trained on the former Ottoman Empire territories in the Middle East, West Asia, and southern Caucasus.

Erdogan has cast his support for Azerbaijan's offensive to retake Nagorno-Karabakh as part of a wider quest for what he calls Turkey's "deserved place in the world order." In the same speech, he linked that to existing Turkish interventions in Libya and Syria.

Erdogan used similar language when he met China's President Xi Jinping last year, likening Beijing's dream of achieving its "deserved place" on the world stage with Ankara's aspirations. Turkey's so-called Middle Corridor plan, connecting with Georgia and Azerbaijan, could be a key component of China's Belt and Road Initiative, said Erdogan, adding soft power specifics to the geopolitics.

Turkish Airlines has also been playing a role in this soft power offensive. Measured by the more than 310 destinations it was serving before COVID-19, Turkish Airlines is now the world's largest carrier. White goods have helped too, with Turkey's Beko fridges, washing machines and ovens now selling in nearly 150 countries.

Meanwhile, the battle for Nagorno-Karabakh -- Artsakh to the Armenians -- has become a marketing opportunity for Turkey's hard power. Turkish-made combat drones have given the lowly-regarded Azeri military a potentially decisive edge, with Turkish arms manufacturers hoping for lots of new orders from around the world. One of the reported selling points is that -- as with the fridges -- Turkish drone suppliers have good after-sales service.

Tayyip Erdogan signs a drone at a military airbase in Batman in February 2018: Turkish suppliers have a good after-sales service.   © AP

This gets to the second reason why this Caucasus flare-up matters: it is a preview of the way more conflicts are likely to be fought in the future. Nearly 20 years since the U.S. became the first nation to use armed drones to kill during its post 9/11 invasion of Afghanistan -- after Israel had first pioneered them for surveillance uses -- the capability has gone global. At least 100 nations now have military drones, and more than 20 countries have models that can fire missiles.

That said, there is now a lot more competition in the drone-making business, with China, the U.S. and Israel even bigger players than Turkey. And Israel is getting plenty of publicity from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with its own kamikaze drones also being used by the Azeris.

Relations between Turkey and Israel might be in a trough over a host of Middle East issues, but in the Caucasus, they are on the same side -- albeit for different reasons. Israel sells weapons to Azerbaijan, which in return supplies Israel with oil and gives it eyes on Iran. Though Azerbaijan has, like Iran, a Shia-Muslim majority, Tehran is backing Christian Armenia. Then there's Russia, which has troops in Armenia but also sells arms to Azerbaijan.

That's the third major reason why Nagorno-Karabakh may matter more than many realize. In a hyper-nationalistic world where the U.S. is increasingly turning inward, the danger of smaller conflicts fueling regional wars is that much greater.

The U.S. is involved through the Minsk Group peacemaking initiative, along with Russia and France. But as the trio have been trying to come up with a solution since 1992, they are unlikely to deliver now. One cease-fire attempt has already collapsed and, with the U.S. election just weeks away, no one is expecting Donald Trump to act. Even Moscow seems unsure how to respond, with its interests divided and crises in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus consuming attention. The United Nations has called for a cease-fire, but is again struggling to prove its relevance.

What is most striking is how other Asian powers are staking out positions on Nagorno-Karabakh. Afghanistan and Pakistan have come out strongly for Azerbaijan, while Indian public opinion is firmly on Armenia's side. One Indian TV channel went so far as to call the conflict the "gateway to World War III," claiming that thousands had already been killed in mass drone assaults.

Ratings-motivated disinformation aside, there are real warning lights flashing. More than two weeks since fighting broke out, there is no end in sight -- with hundreds dead, at least 70,000 people displaced, and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani warning of a regional war if the fighting continues. With the U.S. wrapped up in itself and Russia still making up its mind, Turkey's Erdogan appears to be in no mind to stop.

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