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Fighting in the Caucasus: Erdogan’s Ottoman Ambitions
By Con Coughlin
Originally Published by the Gatestone Institute.
The emergence of Turkey as a key player in the latest eruption of violence in the disputed Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh needs to be seen within the context of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambition of recreating the Ottoman Empire.
As the bitter fighting intensifies between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan over the disputed territory in the Caucasus Mountains, it has emerged that Mr Erdogan is supplying the Azeris with weapons and mercenaries in their campaign to reclaim control of the enclave.
Apart from supplying conventional weapons, there have been suggestions that Turkish-made cluster bombs — which are banned under international law — have been used in attacks on Armenian positions.
In addition, Ankara has been accused of sending Syrian rebels to Azerbaijan to help with its campaign to reclaim the enclave.
Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan, which could prove to be decisive in the conflict, stems from Mr Erdogan’s determination to recreate the glory of the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey formed the epicentre of the Muslim world.
Although the territory that now constitutes modern Azerbaijan was never under direct Ottoman control, the local tribes came under the influence of Muslim Turks, to the extent that many Azeris today speak a form of Turkish dialect.
More recently the bond between Turkey and Azerbaijan has resulted in the two countries undertaking joint military exercises on a regular basis.
Never one to miss an opportunity to expand Turkey’s influence in the Muslim world, Mr Erdogan has been quick to lend his backing to Azerbaijan in its bid to reclaim control over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Within hours of the conflict erupting, the Turkish president tweeted, “The Turkish people will support our Azerbaijani brothers with all our means as always,” adding for good measure that Armenia was “the biggest threat to regional peace.”
The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s when the territory, whose population is primarily Armenian, opted to break away from the control of neighbouring Azerbaijan, a country composed mainly of Shiite Muslims.
The decision prompted a bitter war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1992 after both countries gained independence from the Soviet Union, claiming the lives of an estimated 30,000 people.
Since then an uneasy truce has settled on the region as a result of a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994.
The latest outbreak of violence — the most serious to affect the region since the early 1990s — began at the end of last month, after Azerbaijan was accused of launching a full-scale assault against Armenian positions in the mountainous enclave, prompting a full-scale mobilisation of Armenian forces.
During the recent fighting, it is estimated that more than 300 people have been killed and thousands forced from their homes as the fighting has intensified.
On one level, Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan is not surprising in view of its long and troubled relationship with the Armenian people, with the Turks accused of being responsible the systematic mass murder and expulsion of around 1.5 million Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.
Even so, Mr Erdogan’s intervention in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute puts him at odds with another major power with aspirations to increase its influence in the region, namely Russia.
Russia regards Armenia as an important regional ally, and maintains an important military base at the country’s second largest city, Gyumri.
Consequently, Mr Erdogan needs to proceed with caution so far as his support for Azerbaijan is concerned. Otherwise he could find that Russian interest in the Caucasus presents a formidable obstacle to his plans to recreate Turkey’s Ottoman glory.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.