Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan intensified in early October over Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed region in the South Caucasus at the centre of a conflict that has lasted for more than three decades.
The South Caucasus is sandwiched between Russia to the north, Iran to the south and Turkey to the west. Out of these three regional powers, Turkey’s vocal and military support for Azerbaijan has bolstered Baku’s confidence to refuse mediation in the conflict. Meanwhile, Moscow – which has historically been an important mediator in this conflict – is also committed to protect Armenia under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a regional security alliance.
Iran, however, has adopted an official neutral stance and has repeatedly offered to mediate over the past three decades. It’s doing the same today, with Iranian officials stating they are working on a peace plan.
The first war over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in the late 1980s, resulting in Azerbaijan losing 20% of its territory to Armenia.
Tehran made an extensive effort to broker a ceasefire in 1992, only to see it violated by the Armenian militia within hours, discrediting Iran’s role as a mediator.
Although another ceasefire was eventually brokered in 1994, numerous rounds of negotiations, as well as regional and international mediation, most notably by the OSCE Minsk group, have not led to peace – or even a partial resolution of the dispute. While conflict has repeatedly flared up along the front line since then, for example in 2016, the current escalation, which began on September 27, is by far the most serious.
Iran is in no real position to mediate now, particularly given its own turbulent relationship with Baku, as well as international sensitivity over Iran’s increased regional influence. The only reason Iran repeats its offer of mediation is to confirm to Armenia and Azerbaijan – and their respective ethnic minorities and supporters inside Iran – that Tehran remains neutral. Such neutrality is important for Iran’s own domestic stability.
Until the early 19th century, Georgia, Armenia and the territories of the present-day Republic of Azerbaijan (known then as Arran) were under Persian control. Iran then lost these territories to Russia following its defeats in two wars.
The 1918 collapse of Russia’s Tsarist empire and the weakening of Moscow’s hold on Arran provided the opportunity for nationalist parties. Supported by the Ottoman Empire, they created the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, which was integrated into the Soviet Union in 1920.
While, prior to 1918, there had been no political entity on the north of the Aras river with the name Azerbaijan, the people of Arran shared Turkic ethnicity and language with those in the north-western provinces of Iran, historically called Eastern and Western Azarbaijan.
This makes today’s 9 million population of Azerbaijan brethren of 16% of Iran’s population – another 20 million people. Iran is also home to more than 100,000 highly respected and well-integrated Armenians. They have strong and at times useful connections to the global Armenian diaspora, which has influential lobbies in western countries, especially the US.
With such an ethnic mix, any official support by Tehran for either Armenia or Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabach conflict could deepen the social faultlines to the point of conflict. It would also add to the various social dilemmas that the Iranian state is already facing, arising from economic hardship caused by US sanctions, rampant corruption and mismanagement, as well as public dissatisfaction with the state’s repressive policies.
At a time when social cohesion is in tatters, taking sides could easily result in widening ethnic divisions that could put Iran’s political and territorial integrity at risk.
Wary of Baku
As I have explained in my own research, with a shared Shia religion and civilisational background, Iran could have been Azerbaijan’s natural ally – especially as Armenia is a non-Muslim country. But Azerbaijan’s constant expansionist approach towards Iranian territories since its independence makes such an alliance highly unlikely, no matter who rules Iran.
Azerbaijan has made significant investments
in promoting separatist ideas among Turkic Iranians and maintained an appetite for integrating the Iranian provinces of Eastern and Western Azarbaijan into the republic. This has been one of the main reasons why Iran’s ruling Shia theocracy is reluctant to take Azerbaijan’s side, despite the fact that the majority of Azerbaijan’s population is also Shia.
Baku’s partnerships with the US and Israel, as well as its secular government with an adamant resistance to any influence from Iran, also increase the Islamic Republic’s hesitance to support Azerbaijan.
Armenia, on the other hand, has not demonstrated any expansionist policies towards Iranian territories. Nor has it developed relations with Iran’s nemeses – the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia – to a degree that undermines its cordial relations with Tehran. Still, it would be counter-intuitive for Iran’s Shia theocracy to overtly ally with a Christian republic against another Shia majority country.
This is why the best option for protecting Iran’s security and stability is for Tehran to maintain its neutral stance while supporting international initiatives to resolve the conflict.
As the nine-year Syrian civil war enters its final turn, Turkey and Russia, long-time allies in Syria, are on the brink of war over the Syrian province of Idlib.
Both sides are sending stern messages of warning as diplomacy to end the conflict has so far failed to de-escalate the situation.
What has led to the stand-off?
In September 2018, Turkey, Russia and Iran signed an agreement (also called the Sochi accord) to create a de-escalation zone in Idlib, where violent hostilities were prohibited.
Under the agreement, opposition forces were classified as jihadist and mainstream. Mainstream forces were to pull heavy weapons out of the zone and jihadist groups to vacate it completely. All sides, including Turkey, set up military observation posts.
Claiming that jihadist groups did not leave the zone after more than a year, Syrian government forces launched an offensive in December 2019. The offensive displaced more than 900,000 civilians.
This was followed by the Syrian government forces attacking a Turkish observation post and killing 13 Turkish soldiers.
On February 3, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan openly defied Russia with a visit to Ukraine, where he pledged US$200 million in military aid.
On February 15, Erdogan warned:
The solution in Idlib is the (Syrian) regime withdrawing to the borders in the agreements. Otherwise, we will handle this before the end of February.
Russia blamed Turkey for failing to meet its obligations and continued to allege Turkey was supplying weapons to what Russia considers terrorist groups.
Erdogan countered these claims by saying Russian and Syrian government forces were “constantly attacking the civilian people, carrying out massacres, spilling blood”.
The greatest fear is an all-out war in Idlib and the inevitable civilian suffering. With more than a million civilians trying to survive in makeshift camps, a United Nations representative has warned of “a real bloodbath”.
Why is Idlib so important?
Capturing Idlib has immense strategic significance for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as it is the last opposition stronghold in Syria.
Backed by Russia, Assad has been conducting a successful military offensive against jihadist opposition forces throughout the country to regain and consolidate his power since 2015. He has allowed remnants of these groups to escape to Idlib as a deliberate strategy to gather all opposition forces in one location.
So far, Idlib has been controlled by a range of opposition groups. The most powerful is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which was formed by a large faction that split from the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in 2017.
Capturing Idlib with the help of Russia and clearing the province of all armed opposition would allow Assad to declare victory and end the civil war.
Turkish and Russian clash of interests in Syria
Erdogan had three main goals in his Syrian involvement. First, prevent the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria. The Turkish fear such a development could inspire the large Kurdish-populated southeast regions of Turkey to pursue similar ambitions.
The second is to fight a proxy war in Syria through jihadist groups to topple the Assad regime and establish an Islamist government. Erdogan hoped this would extend his political influence in the Middle East and his ambitions to make political Islam dominant would be achieved.
A third aim is to do with maintaining his 18-year rule in Turkey amid political and economic problems. A war in Syria serves to silence critics.
Erdogan calculated he could achieve his goals if he was to have forces in Syria and collaborate with Russia and Iran. The cost was distancing Turkey from the Western block and increasing its international alienation.
Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Syrian government wanted to balance Western and particularly US power in Syria, and if possible to push US out of Syria. Even though their relationships were fragile from the start, these four countries were extremely careful on the diplomatic table and presented a powerful bloc against US involvement in Syria.
The Russian strategy in Syria has been clear from the start – support the Assad government until it regains control over all Syrian territory and defeats all opposition forces. Then Russia can control Turkey so it does not cause serious armed conflict with the Assad regime, while protecting Russian interests in Syria and the greater Middle East.
Russia has invested enormous funds in support of the Assad government. The only way to recoup its costs and have return on investment is if Assad achieves a full victory. Nothing short of capturing Idlib will suffice, even if it means open conflict with Turkey.
What is likely to happen next?
Erdogan is caught in a dilemma. He is unable to influence the Syrian opposition parties in Idlib, but he is also not prepared to forsake them. If he withdraws support, they may possibly retaliate with terrorist attacks in Turkey.
Another flood of Syrian refugees is a serious problem for Erdogan. He lost local government elections in 2019 largely due to the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey.
It is hard to predict what Erdogan will do in Syria. He is either bluffing or is determined to stay the course, even if it means war. He has shown he is not afraid to make bold moves, as demonstrated with his October 2019 military operation in northern Syria and recent military involvement in the Libya conflict.
Bluffing or not, Putin is not backing down and will not hesitate to take on Turkey in Syria. In doing so, Putin will continue to support the Assad forces with equipment, military intelligence, air power and military expertise, rather than being involved in open military conflict. This strategy allows Russia to claim Syria is exercising its legitimate right to defend its sovereign territory against a foreign Turkish military presence.
It is likely Erdogan will avert the risk of war at the last moment. He has involved the US, which has expressed its support for Turkey and hopes to see Assad gone. He has used his NATO membership card and the European fear of another Syrian refugee flood to bring European powers onside at the diplomatic table.
Erdogan will be happy and claim victory if he manages to enlarge the safety zone with a continued Turkish presence there. Russia would only accept this on the condition that all jihadist opposition groups leave Idlib. On these terms, both sides could claim a win from the present dangerous tension.
The likely Russian response is to go all the way in Idlib, regardless of what Turkey does. Any Turkish military success in Syria is highly unlikely. Russia completely controls the airspace and could inflict serious damage on Turkish ground troops.
It is in Russia’s interests to finish this costly civil war once and for all. It is only a matter of time before the Assad government captures Idlib diplomatically or by force.
“Remaining and expanding”. The propaganda tagline of Islamic State (IS) has rung hollow since the collapse of the physical caliphate. But recent developments in northeastern Syria threaten to give it fresh legitimacy.
US President Donald Trump lifted sanctions on Turkey after he announced the Turkish government agreed to a permanent ceasefire in northern Syria.
In a televised speech, he pushed back against criticisms of his decision to remove 1,000 troops from Syria, abandoning their Kurdish allies.
This decision allowed Turkish forces – a hybrid of Turkish military and Free Syrian Army rebels, including jihadi extremists – to surge across the Turkish border and begin intense bombardment of towns and cities liberated from IS.
Just how quickly and how far IS will rise from now remains unclear. One thing that’s certain, however, is that IS and the al-Qaeda movement that spawned it, plan and act for the long-term. They believe in their divine destiny and are prepared to sacrifice anything to achieve it.
In speaking about the resurgence of IS, we risk talking up the IS brand, the very thing it cares so very much about. But the greater risk is underestimating the capacity for reinvention, resilience and enduring appeal of IS.
And complacency and short-sighted politics threaten to lead us to repeat the mistakes of a decade ago that saw a decimated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) insurgency roar back to life.
From violent beginnings
In 2006, Sunni tribes in northwestern Iraq killed or arrested the majority of ISI fighters with US support, reducing their strength from many thousands to a few hundred.
But with no backing for the Sunni tribes from the poorly functioning, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and the draw-down of US troops, ISI launched an insurgency in Syria before rising triumphant as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
ISIS quickly became the most potent terrorist group in history, drawing more than 40,000 fighters from around the world, and seizing control of north eastern Syria and north western Iraq.
The final defeat of the IS caliphate in north eastern Syria came after five hard years of fighting and 11,000 lives from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely composed of members of the Kurdish YPG.
To the US, the SDF fighters were local partners and boots-on-the-ground after multiple false starts and expensive mistakes from allying with rebel groups in the Free Syrian Army. Without this SDF alliance, the IS caliphate could not be toppled.
Trump’s betrayal could open up ISIS recruitment
Donald Trump’s betrayal of the SDF in recent weeks is disastrous on several levels. It ignores the threat IS represents and validates ISIS’s central narrative.
What’s more, it contributes to the very circumstances of neglect, cynical short-term thinking and governance failures that lead to giving the IS insurgency an open pathway for recruiting.
Trump’s reckless move to withdraw 1,000 special forces troops from Syria comes from an impatience to end an 18-year long “Global War on Terrorism” military campaign of unprecedented expense.
This is somewhat understandable. After almost US$6 trillion of US Federal expenditure and two decades of fighting, surely enough is enough.
But the inconvenient truth is IS and al-Qaeda jihadi fighters around the world have increased, in some estimates nearly four-fold, since September 11.
Still, betraying the SDF and pulling out of Syria for small short-term savings risks jeopardising all that has been achieved in defeating the IS caliphate in northwestern Iraq.
IS hardliners in overcrowded camps
IS will never return to its days of power as a physical caliphate, but all the evidence points to it tipping past an inflection point and beginning a long, steady resurgence.
IS has thousands of terrorist fighters still active in the field in northern Iraq. They’re attacking by night and rebuilding strength from disgruntled Sunni communities, as well as having thousands of fighters lying low in Syria.
But in recent months, the tempo of IS attacks has shifted from Iraq to Syria with the previously hidden insurgency reemerging.
As many as 12,000 terrorist fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, are detained in prisons run, at least until this week, by the SDF. Many are located in the border region now being overrun by the Turkish military and the Syrian jihadi it counts as loyal instruments.
Elsewhere, in poorly secured overcrowded camps for internally displaced peoples (IDPs), tens of thousands of women, many fiercely loyal to IS, and children are held in precarious circumstances.
In the Al Hawl camp alone there are more than 60,000 women and children linked to IS, including 11 Australian women and their 44 children, along with 10,000 IDPs.
The IS hardliners not only enforce a reign of terror within the camps, but are in regular communication with IS insurgents. They confidently await their liberation by the IS insurgent forces.
Liberated ISIS fighters
The hope of being freed is neither naive nor remote. Already, hundreds of fighters and IDPs have escaped the prisons and camps since the Turkish offensive began.
From mid-2012 until mid-2013, IS ran an insurgent campaign called “Breaking the Walls”. It saw thousands of hardened senior ISIS leaders, and many other militants who would later join the movement, broken out of half a dozen prisons surrounding Baghdad.
Suicide squads were used to blast holes in prison walls. Heavily armed assault teams moved rapidly through the prisons, blasting open cells and rushing the hundreds of liberated terrorist fighters into tactical four-wheel-drives. They were to be driven away in the desert through the night to rebuild the senior ranks of ISIS.
The liberated fighters were not only more valuable to ISIS after their time in prison, with many switching allegiances to join the movement, they were better educated and more deeply radicalised graduating for what they refer to as their terrorist universities.
It would appear the same cycle is now being repeated in northeastern Syria.
The five-day ceasefire negotiated by US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan ends today.
Despite the shaky ceasefire, the risk of economic sanctions from the US and worldwide condemnation, Turkey is likely to stay in Syria for a long time.
The anticipated clash between Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government is also unlikely to eventuate, for three three reasons:
Erdogan’s main aims require the army to stay in Syria for the long term
Assad’s and Erdogan’s goals in northeastern Syria strangely overlap
The coordinating role of Russia in Syria prevents the need for Erdogan and Assad to clash in open warfare.
Has Turkey achieved its objectives?
Even though Turkey has been building its forces on the border for some time, the US-allied Kurdish YPG (which Turkey considers a terrorist group) was caught by surprise. They were busy fighting Islamic State and not expecting the US to allow Turkish forces across the border. Battle-weary YPG forces were no match for the powerful Turkish army.
As a result, Kurdish commanders begged the Trump administration to intervene. The ceasefire deal was struck to allow YPG forces to withdraw beyond what Turkey calls a “safe zone”. Trump declared the ceasefire to be a validation of his erratic Syrian policy.
Turkey’s immediate objective of establishing a 32-kilometre deep and 444-kilometre wide safe zone across its border with Syria will likely be achieved.
Yet establishing this zone is just the precursor to Erdogan’s three primary objectives. Those are to resettle millions of Syrian Arab refugees in northeastern Syria, as a result helping to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish administration and, finally, to ensure his political survival by maintaining his alliance with the Turkish nationalist party (MHP).
The June 2019 political loss of the important city of Istanbul to the main Turkish opposition party, primarily due to Syrian refugee debates, has been an important trigger for Erdogan to act on his Syria plans.
These objectives require Turkey to remain in Syria at least until the end of the Syrian civil war. This would mean the status of northeastern Syria and its Kurdish population were clearly determined in line with Turkey’s goals. These outcomes could take many years to eventuate.
So, any withdrawal before the primary objectives are met will be seen as a defeat within Turkey. Erdogan wants to enter the 2023 presidential elections claiming victory in Syria.
Erdogan’s and Assad’s goals overlap
With the US no longer a serious contender in Syrian politics, Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin are the only leaders capable of stymieing Erdogan’s objectives.
Prior to Turkey’s military intervention, the relationship between the Kurdish leadership and Assad administration was one of mutual avoidance of conflict. Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, they have never clashed militarily.
The expected outcome of this policy was that the Kurds would have an autonomous region in northeastern Syria and an important role in post-civil war negotiations. Assad had no choice but to agree to this in order to stay in power.
The Turkish intervention opens new possibilities for the Assad government. The speed of the alliance between the YPG and Assad indicates the Syrian government senses an opportunity.
The Kurdish-Assad alliance allows Assad’s forces and administration to enter areas they could not enter before. Assad wasted no time in wedging his forces in the safe zone by seizing the major Kurdish town of Kobani in the middle of the Syrian-Turkish border.
Despite the Kurdish-Assad alliance, resettling Syrian Arab refugees in Kurdish regions will weaken Kurdish claims to the region and suit Assad’s goal of a unified Syria that he totally controls.
There is another immediate benefit for Assad. Idlib is a strategic city in northwestern Syria and the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition to Assad. Resistance groups defeated elsewhere were allowed to gather in Idlib. Careful negotiations took place in the past few years to avoid an all-out bloodbath in Idlib.
Assad will almost certainly ask Turkey to abandon its patronage of Idlib and opposition forces l
ocated there. In return, Assad will allow a temporary Turkish presence in northern Syria.
So, although Kurdish forces signed a deal with Assad, it is highly unlikely this will evolve into active warfare between Turkey and Syria. Instead, the situation will be kept tense – by Assad forces remaining in Kobani – to allow Erdogan and Assad to get what they want.
Russia will prevent a Turkey-Syria clash
This is where Russia and Putin come in. Russia is an ally of both the Turkish and Syrian governments. To save face, Erdogan is unlikely to sit in open negotiations with Assad. Negotiations will be done through Putin.
When Putin and Erdogan meet on October 22, the main negotiating points will be to prevent a war between Turkey and the Russian-armed Assad forces. Erdogan will ask the Russian and Assad governments to allow Turkey to stay in the zone it established. In return, Russia will request further concessions on Idlib and perhaps more arms deals similar to the S-400 missile deal.
A deal between Erdogan and Assad suits Russia because it serves the its main objectives in Syria – keep Assad in power to ensure Russian access to the Mediterranean Sea and weaken NATO by moving Turkey away from the alliance.
If the Kurds realise Assad has no intention of fighting Turkey, they may decide to take matters into their own hands and engage in guerrilla warfare with Turkish forces in northern Syria. While this may deliver a blow to Turkish forces, Erdogan will use it to back his claim they are terrorists.
Regardless of what happens, Turkey will stay in northern Syria for the foreseeable future, no matter the cost to both countries.
The eventual winner in Syria is looking to be the Assad government, which is moving to control the entire country just as it did before the 2011 uprising.