The fog of war in the Caucasus: 3 scenarios

Source: Today’s Zaman

There has been much debate recently on the risk of an escalation of armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with the main fear being that a minor local accident could provoke a full-scale war.

Discussions have increased due to stagnation in the peace process and rumors of an airport operating in occupied territories of Azerbaijan by de-facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh. But contrary to local experts, I believe that such a scenario is less likely along the Line of Contact (LOC), where local army commanders cannot act without permission of the highest command, namely the leadership of the two countries.

Indeed, war is seen as a last resort, a negative development for both sides. In the case of Azerbaijan, the country could lose the trust of energy consumers, which has been especially important since 2012 — Azerbaijan wants to be part of large-scale gas pipeline projects that link directly to European markets. The risk is also that the war will not bring peace, only another period of stagnation. Moreover, while many military experts predict the overall victory of Azerbaijan, there is also a slight chance that this victory will be Pyrrhic one, due to the inevitable loss of political and financial stability — anything Azerbaijan has to offer will be compromised or lost.

There is a domestic political dimension to war: the general public in Azerbaijan is not confident in the negotiations and prospects for a peaceful solution, and the prevailing belief is that war is the only option in order to liberate the occupied territories. This majority supports a quick military solution, and there is pressure on the government to take such an action. The thinking is that it is “better to die once rather than each and every time,” and this camp is not completely satisfied with the government expenditure on the military budget, which from their point of view is useless in the absence of action.

There is a possibility of war, but not in the sense that local and international experts think, in terms of a local incident on the LOC turning into full-scale conflict. A local incident between combat soldiers seems a less likely trigger than a political provocation — for instance, starting flights from the Khojali Airport in occupied Nagorno-Karabakh. The flights have yet to commence, but Azerbaijani officials have already blasted the potential move as a clear violation of their country’s airspace. The airport has been ready since May 2011, but for more than a year its opening has been delayed “for technical reasons.” Armenia understands that according to the international civil aviation code, Azerbaijan has the right to take action to stop flights from this airport.

The scenario could unfold as follows: Armenia declares that the first flight will be from Yerevan to Karabakh. To reduce the risk of an Azeri response, the first passengers would probably include politicians, children and people whose death would be a PR nightmare for Azerbaijan. In this case, Azerbaijan declares before the international media that they will not tolerate such action, and ask for pressure on Armenia; then, contrary to Armenian expectations, Azerbaijan sends short-range missiles to the take-off and landing strip at the Karabakh airport, forcing the plane to fly back to Yerevan. Armenian experts have agreed that a big danger for the Armenian air defense may lie in sudden missile or artillery strikes, as well as the fact that Khojali airport is just 40-50 kilometers from one of the big air defense systems located in either Terter or Ganja in Azerbaijan. If missiles cause human casualties, it is likely that Armenia will respond indirectly, through the international media. In the case that Armenia takes a hard line position, they will again raise the question of de jure recognition of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh separatist entity as an independent republic. If this happens, the second stage will consist of Azerbaijani military action, which most probably will escalate into a full-scale war.

The second war scenario is the “almost local war” scenario. As stated above, one potential spark would be an Azeri answer to the Armenian recognition of the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan could launch military action with the aim of taking back the occupied territories, using its air force in the first stage. The difficulty here is how to predict and manage the reaction of the international mediators. One option is that Russia will tolerate Azerbaijani action, and allow it to take back two or three adjunct territories. It may then declare that, in accordance with both the 1994 ceasefire agreement — which clearly stipulates the deployment of peacekeepers by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the 2008 Moscow Declaration — in which both conflict parties agreed on the “non use of force,” Moscow will deploy CIS peacekeepers to Karabakh. In this scenario, conflict resolution will be fully in Moscow’s hands, and Russia will consolidate and build its presence in region.

The less likely war scenario is a “planned war.” Prominent local experts believe that in the future Azerbaijan will refuse to continue negotiations and initiate military action to take back the occupied territories. However, the “planned war” is a part of the “final resolution” of the Karabakh conflict. In one “planned war” scenario, the Azerbaijani side starts a war mainly using air forces and Special Forces, liberating the Aghdam and Fuzuli territories (which are partially occupied), then, at the intervention of international mediators, stops the war, and the parties immediately open talks for a peace deal. This scenario involves, crucially, defeating the secessionist political entity (so-called Karabakh authorities). A historical example is the case of Srpska Krajina in Croatia, when, in 1995, Croatia’s four-day blitzkrieg resulted in the restoration of Croatia’s territorial integrity.

Finally, the quote from the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” tells us more, as “the strongest of all warriors are these two: time and patience.” In this context, we can add one more: political will, which will be decisive on the question of whether to live in peace or war.

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