Vali Kaleji, Senior Researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies and member of IRAS Institute academic council
When the former presidents of Turkey and Armenia, Abdullah Gül and Serge Sargysan, sat down to watch the match between their two national football teams in Bursa Stadium in Turkey on 14 October 2009 in line with protocols to normalize relations between the two countries, the Azerbaijani flag was banned from the stadium. In return, Azerbaijan’s government also collected Turkish flags from some of Baku’s famous streets and roundabouts. Azerbaijani president, Ilahm Aliev, refused to take part in the Dialogue of Civilizations Summit in Istanbul as a sign of protest. Former Azerbaijani foreign minister, Tofiq Gasimov (1992-1993) likened Turkey’s actions against Armenia to a knife in the back of Azerbaijan. Even though the normalization protocol between Armenia and Turkey ultimately failed with the criticism of Nationalist currents in Armenia and Turkey and pressures by the Armenian diaspora, the developments clearly reflected the attitude of the Turkish Justice and Development Party leaders towards Armenia at that time. Now, a decade later, not only is there no protocol to normalize relations between Yerevan and Ankara, there are also no signs of Ahmet Davutoglu’s “strategic depth doctrine” and “zero problems with neighbors” following tensions between Turkey and Syria, and Greece and Armenia, except in name. Against this backdrop, the author is not convinced that Turkey has become involved in recent conflicts between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan on such a large scale solely on the basis of traditional pan-Turkism or neo-Ottomanism. This has been an unprecedented move since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988-1994). As such, other reasons and motives must be looked for. It seems that “the simultaneous strengthening of national feelings (secular parties) and religious feelings (Islamist parties) inside Turkey through the two ethnic and religious factions supporting Azerbaijan, while intervention in Syria and Libya only provokes religious and neo-Ottoman sentiments, and tensions with Greece in the eastern Mediterranean also evoke national and historical sentiments”, “confrontation with the Russian Federation and opening a third front of conflict in the Caucasus after Syria and Libya”, “securing the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey oil and gas pipeline and railway line, especially since the July 2020 skirmishes in the Tavush region was on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border with Georgia, 300 km from Karabakh”, “preventing the spread of war from the Karabakh region to the Nakhchivan autonomous region near the Turkish border”, and “balancing tensions in the Caucasus with the Eastern Mediterranean: Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan vs Greece and Cyprus”, are the five important motives for Turkey to provide such unprecedented political and military support to the Republic of Azerbaijan in its recent conflict with Armenia, which goes far beyond the level of support given by secular and nationalist governments in Turkey, and even Erdogan's government, in the four-day war in Karabakh in April 2016. Considering the points and considerations mentioned in this analytical note, efforts are made to reach a better understanding of Turkey’s motives behind its large scale support for the Republic of Azerbaijan in its recent face-off with Armenia.
Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan have always enjoyed a very high level of relations, always referred to by Heidar Aliyev as “one nation, two states”, except for a very short period of time after the signing of the protocol on the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey in 2009. Over the past three decades, the leaders of both countries have always traveled to Baku and Ankara as their first foreign destination after winning elections. Despite establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey severed diplomatic ties and closed its land and air borders with Armenia in 1993 when it saw the advance of Armenian forces in areas outside Karabakh as a threat to the Republic of Azerbaijan, which continues to date. In addition to linguistic, ethnic, and cultural ties between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkey, a combination of political, defense, and economic factors have also played a role in the close relations between the two countries. Russian military bases in Armenia, Azerbaijan’s withdrawal from the Collective Security Treaty in 1999, Baku's closer defense-military ties with Turkey as a member of NATO, the construction of several oil and gas pipelines including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines, Azerbaijan’s participation in the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States led by Turkey, and finally the setup of a joint council of strategic cooperation between the two countries, have been but a part of extensive ties between Baku and Ankara over the past three decades. Despite all the ties mentioned above, the political and military support given by the Turkish government and army to Baku in the two conflicts between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan in the summer of 2020, which was far beyond any level of support by secular and nationalist governments in Turkey over the past decades, and even by Erdogan's government in the four-day war in Karabakh in April 2016, cannot be elucidated by citing such ties. As such, other reasons must be found to explain Turkey’s new incentives in its unprecedented political and military support for the Republic of Azerbaijan. In view of Turkey’s domestic circumstances and the situation in the Middle East, Caucasus, and eastern Mediterranean, the following reasons and motives can be expressed for Ankara's unprecedented political and military support for the Republic of Azerbaijan.
1. Reinforcing nationalist sentiments inside Turkey given the previous history of the Turkish Justice and Development Party (JDP) leaders in normalizing relations with Armenia
One major step taken by JDP leaders after taking power in 2003 was to make efforts to normalize relations with Armenia in line with Ahmet Davutoglu’s “strategic depth doctrine” and “zero problems with neighbors” policy. To this end, the then Armenian president Serge Sargysan, and the then Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, met on the sidelines of Davos World Economic Forum in January 2009 in Zurich, Switzerland. Subsequently, on 10 October 2009, Ahmet Davutoglu and Eduard Nalbandian, the respective Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers, signed two bilateral normalization protocols in Zurich, Switzerland (which came to be known as the Zurich Protocols), in the presence of representatives from the Minsk Group, namely Sergei Lavrov (Russian FM), Hilary Clinton (former US Secretary of State), and Bernard Kouchner (former French FM). The first protocol pertained to the establishment of diplomatic ties and the second to the expansion of ties in various sectors.
The normalization protocols were widely criticized in Armenia, Karabakh (known as Artsakh Republic by Armenia), the Armenian diaspora, the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Turkey. Armenians and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) in particular, interpreted the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia without the Turkish government formally recognizing the Armenian genocide as the Sargsyan government betraying the historical demand of the Armenians. The Armenians of Karabakh saw the move as the end of Armenian support for them and the nationalist currents inside Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan also saw the move by the Islamist government ruling Turkey as a knife in the back of ties between the two brother countries and another sign of the JDP leaders distancing themselves from Ataturk's ideals. Eventually, all the pressures led to both countries recalling the normalization protocols. And with Turkey’s intervention in Syria, escalating conflicts over the Kurdish position and Mosul in Iraq, only a name remained of Ahmet Davutoglu’s “zero problems with neighbors” and “strategic depth doctrine”.
Under these circumstances, the Turkish government's neo-Ottoman policies entered a new era inside Turkey and abroad, encompassing a wide range of measures ranging from a change of usage for Hagia Sophia church to intervention in Libya, and creating tensions in the eastern Mediterranean with Greece. Under such circumstances, Turkish leaders, especially Recep Tayyip Erdogan, desperately need the support of nationalist sentiments and the nationalist and secular currents of Turkey in addition to the religious sentiments and historical affiliations of the Ottoman era to advance their internal and external goals. Under such circumstances, a widespread political and military support for the Republic of Azerbaijan in its military confrontation with Armenia can narrow a good part of the gap between Erdogan’s Islamist government with Turkey’s nationalist and secular current (even if short-term and temporary), consign the memory of past normalization attempts between JDP leaders and Armenia to history, continue to portray the Turkish government as committed and loyal to Ataturk’s nationalist ideals, and create new potential for the mobilization of Turkish political and popular forces in recent conflicts with Greece in eastern Turkey which enjoys very close, historical relations with Armenia. Therefore, in these difficult circumstances, Turkey is in dire need of strengthening its domestic solidarity during its political and military interventions in Syria, Libya, the eastern Mediterranean, and escalating tensions with the EU and the US. Hence, political and military support for the Republic of Azerbaijan on a large scale is the only way to align its national (secular parties) and religious forces (Islamist parties) to support the Turkish government, while intervention in Syria and Libya only entails the provocation of religious and new-Otthoman sentiments and conflict with Greece in the eastern Mediterranean only provokes nationalist and historic feelings. In effect, support for the Republic of Azerbaijan has the simultaneous advantage of both “religious” and “ethnic” fronts mobilizing various political forces in Turkey in supporting Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in these challenges times for the country.
2. Conflict with the Russian Federation on a third front in Caucasus after Syria and Libya
In recent years, Turkey has been involved in indirect and proxy conflicts on two fronts with the Russian Federation in the region, first in Syria and second in Libya. Despite bilateral cooperation between Turkey and Russia, and trilateral cooperation between Iran, Turkey, and Russia, differences between Turkey and Syria over the situation in Edlib remain unresolved. In Libya, Turkey is the main supporter of its national unity government (based in Tripoli) led by Fayez al-Sarraj. In contrast, Russia supports General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of Libya’s national army in the east of the country. In particular, in the military agreement reached with Ankara in the Fayez al-Sarraj events, Turkey pledged military aid to the Libyan army and police force should Tripoli require it. These new measures taken by Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean have caused tensions between this country with Greece, Egypt, and other countries. In these circumstances, a widespread political and military support by Turkey for the Republic of Azerbaijan and opening up a third front of conflict in Caucasus – a region behind Russian borders of strategic importance – will provide Turkey with more breathing space to move its goals forward in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria, and Libya. Staging the Caucasus 2020 drills with the participation of Russia and Armenia, and the joint drills between Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan within a short period of time in July and September 2020 is a further sign of conflict between Moscow and Ankara. Also, conflicting news about the passage of terrorist and Salafi forces, in particular Syrian Turkmens, through Turkey can be analyzed in the same vein.
3. Providing security for the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey oil and gas pipeline
A constant reason for the lack of political will on the part of major regional and international powers to resolve the Karabakh problem has been its lack of strategic importance and geoeconomic attraction for them to incur political and financial costs in the absence of communication corridors and energy transport lines. But, in July 2020, when conflict between Azerbaijani and Armenian armies reached Tavush in Armenia and Tavus in Azerbaijan for the first time in three decades (rather than the Armenians of Karabakh and Azerbaijani army), 300kms away from the conflict zone in Karabakh and next to the borders of both countries with Georgia, the equation changed because this is where the Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and gas pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line cross. The Ukraine crisis in 2014 diverted Europe’s attention to the Shah Deniz gas field in the Republic of Azerbaijan and increased the region’s importance by twofold. The South Caucasus Pipeline which connects the Republic of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey as the main route of the Southern Gas Corridor to the Republic of Azerbaijan by connecting to the two TAP and TANAP pipelines is of vital strategic importance for Turkey who has an eye on the economic profits of energy transit to Europe and political interests and strategic considerations arising from Europe's dependence on energy transport lines passing through Turkey, moderating many of Europe's political and economic pressures on the country. Thus, unlike the previous conflicts between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, which took place along the Karabakh lines, Turkey reacted strongly to the recent military conflict outside Karabakh between the two countries, namely in Tavush, and has sided with the Azerbaijani government and army by giving it political and military support on a large scale against Armenia (September 2020) due to its concerns over the expanding scope of conflicts inflicting damage on energy transport lines and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway network.
4. Preventing the spread of war from the Karabakh region to the Nakhchivan autonomous region near the Turkish border
The expansion of the war between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan to Tavush in Armenia and Tavus in Azerbaijan, 300kms away from the Karabakh disputed region, next to the two countries’ borders with Georgia in July 2020 clearly indicated that the scope of conflict can be extended to areas outside of Karabakh. The Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic as an area outside the Republic of Azerbaijan is in danger of being drawn into the military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It must be remembered that within a short time after the protests in Armenia in April and May 2018, which led to the resignation of Serge Sargsyan and coming to power of Nikol Pashinyan, the Republic of Azerbaijan launched the Gyunnyut Operation in Nakhchivan from 20-27 May 2018. At the time, the Command of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Azerbaijan based in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic reported that their forces had seized the villages of Gonut, Arpa, and Dareh Liz in Shorur in Nakhchivan which had been controlled by Armenian forces since 1992, as well as several strategic heights including Aq Bulaq, Qizil Qaya, and Mehri Daq near the village of Gonut in a military operation. Regardless of the accuracy and credibility of these reports, the mere military operation in the Nakhchivan region in the vicinity of the disputed Karabakh region was very notable in itself. Therefore, Turkey is concerned about the possibility of the conflict between the warring parties spreading to other areas, especially to Nakhchivan bordering Turkey, with possible missile, air, and drone strikes on Iravan and Baku, dragging Turkey into a crisis on its eastern borders (albeit short in length) in addition to its western border with Greece and southern borders with Syria and Iraq.
5. Balancing tensions in the Caucasus with the eastern Mediterranean: Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan vs Greece and Cyprus
The Eastern Mediterranean conflict, which began with Ankara and Athens claiming the right to explore gas reserves, and culminated in the deployment of warships to protect the reserves that the two countries claim are in their territory, created a volatile situation in the Mediterranean Sea. In the conflict, the EU, US, UAE, Egypt, and Israel sided with Greece and Cyprus, leaving only the Republic of Azerbaijan to side with Turkey. Ilham Aliyev explicitly supported Turkey's position in the eastern Mediterranean when receiving the credentials of the Greek ambassador in Baku. Hence, it seems that Turkey's strategic isolation in the recent tensions with Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean has caused it to pay more serious attention to its only strategic backup in the Caucasus, namely the Republic of Azerbaijan, in order to balance tensions in the two regions by giving large scale political and military support to Azerbaijan versus Armenia. This, in return, has set France against Turkey in both the Caucasus and eastern Mediterranean conflicts where France has traditionally enjoyed close historic ties with Armenia, and the Armenian diaspora is also highly influential in Athens and Paris. As a result, Turkey has enjoyed greater domestic solidarity than in the past few months by recalling nationalist and ethnic sentiments in its support for the Republic of Azerbaijan, entangled Russia in the developments in Caucasus rather than focusing on Syria and Libya, shown its high degree of sensitivity and will for military intervention to the Armenian side in case of damage inflicted on the energy transport lines and communication corridors between Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey and the spread of war to Nakhchivan. Finally, it has ended its strategic isolation against Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean with the help of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Hence, these considerations indicate that Turkey has not intervened in the recent conflict between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan on such a large scale solely due to Pan-Turkism or Neo-Ottomanism sentiments, which is unprecedented since the end of the Karabakh war spanning from 1988-1994.