Remnants of a conflict seemingly settled 26 years ago have flared up again this past week in the South Caucasus region. Azerbaijan and Armenia resumed conflict on September 27th, reviving long-existing tensions between the two previous Soviet republics. The current battle is concentrated on Nagorno-Karabakh: an Armenian ethnic enclave located within Azerbaijan. The 1994 Bishkek Protocol officially ended a bitter six-year war over the area, but anger between the two sides has continued; according to the New York Times, the violence has now escalated to a level unseen since the signing of the treaty.
On Sunday October 4th, Armenian forces attacked the Azerbaijani city of Ganja, the second-largest city in the country. In response, Azerbaijan’s military fired missiles into Stepanakert—Armenia’s most prominent urban area—the next day. Both sides appear to be using Russian long-range missiles. The targeting of residential areas is increasingly concerning as casualties rise. Although there is no consistency in the numbers provided by each state, both sides have reported civilian deaths. According to Al Jazeera, the total death toll sits at around 250 as of Tuesday. However, some representatives from Azerbaijan estimate this number to be about ten times higher, reporting the death of at least 2,300 Azerbaijani soldiers. This violence does not offer hope of a timely end as both countries are currently operating under martial law.
Amnesty International’s investigation into Monday’s Stepanakert bombing revealed Azerbaijani forces had used cluster bombs to attack Armenia’s capital city, raising important questions about civilian safety and human rights. Amnesty International defines cluster bombs as indiscriminate weapons due to their broad-reaching radius which makes them inefficient for targeting select groups. Furthermore, estimates predict that “between 5 and 20 per cent of cluster bomblets fail to explode,” putting nearby lives at extreme risk. Cluster bombs are currently banned under the United Nations Convention on Cluster Bombs which 108 states have signed onto, therefore solidifying it as international humanitarian law. Although neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan have agreed to this treaty, the danger that these bombs pose to noncombatants urges both countries to practice restraint. If weapons like these are not avoided, civilian lives will be lost at alarming rates.
Although some global powers are advocating for de-escalation of the conflict, involvement of other strong nations may increase the extent of violence and widespread impact. Turkey has fully aligned with Azerbaijan, providing weapons and unconditional support. In keeping with this alliance, it seems that Syrian military forces are now being deployed in support of Azerbaijan, ensuring exacerbation of the current chaos. On the other side, Armenia and Russia share a mutual defense pact, creating concern over Russia’s role in the conflict. While this agreement is not applicable within Azerbaijani territory, the conflict’s front lines continue to be blurred leading some to think that Moscow will step in if violence continues.
Amidst this instability, the international community is calling for a ceasefire. Representatives from the United States, France, Canada, and the U.K., as well as President Vladimir Putin of Russia, have all expressed the necessity for peaceful negotiations and an end to the violence. Additionally, the Security Council of the United Nations has implemented multiple resolutions requesting Armenia’s withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh.
These pleas, however, are falling on deaf ears. A ceasefire at this point seems unlikely given Azerbaijan’s sweeping demands of Armenia. Azerbaijani President Ilham Alyev has laid out four conditions for negotiation which require Armenia to: leave the territory “not in word but in deed,” acknowledge Azerbaijan’s “territorial integrity,” offer a concrete timeline for withdrawing from the region, and apologize. Despite these high expectations, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan agreed on Tuesday that Armenia was willing to enter into negotiations as long as “mutual concessions” were guaranteed. The United Nations Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) Minsk group has been tasked with mediation. Iran has also offered to contribute to mediation attempts in order to maintain regional stability. Though a ceasefire is likely not sufficient to end the bitter tensions in the region, this willingness to have a conversation offers a glimmer of hope within the conflict.
The current clash holds important global implications. The South Caucasus region plays an important role as home to oil and gas routes; if disrupted, the energy market and gasoline economy could be negatively impacted. Additionally, as coronavirus cases continue to rise, some are concerned that wartime conditions may lead to an increase in deaths from infection. Finally, with civilian lives threatened, the world is experiencing a humanitarian crisis and may soon also face a refugee crisis. As violence persists, the international community must rapidly move towards peace talks and continuing protection of innocent civilian lives.
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