Conflict in the South Caucasus and the Middle East

By Prof. Alan Whitehorn, Kingston ON, 20 May 2024

Armenia and the South Caucasus were part of the former Soviet Union and are often considered, in geopolitical terms, to be in the so-called Moscow-influenced, ‘Russia’s near abroad’. It may be useful, however, to recognize the significant connections of the South Caucasus to the Middle East. After all, Armenia is relatively close (under a 1,000 km) to each of the capital cities of Tehran (Iran), Baghdad (Iraq) and Ankara (Turkey) and not much further from Israel and Lebanon (under 1,300 km).

In international affairs and recent conflict, Turkey has been a crucial military ally of Azerbaijan during the latter’s wars with Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) in 2020 and 2023. Over the previous decade, Israel has been a major weapons supplier to Azerbaijan, particularly advanced drones that proved critical for Baku’s swift and decisive victory in the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan war. Historically, Iran has been greatly concerned with the Ottoman Empire’s/Turkey’s rival ambitions in the South Caucasus, the Middle East and beyond. Azerbaijan’s recent victories, along with its border incursions upon Armenian territory, have fostered further apprehensions in Tehran about the growing Baku-Ankara military-political axis. This is particularly so given that historically Azerbaijan has encouraged ethnic Azeri separatists in Iran which pose even potential threats to the territorial integrity of Iran.

In recent years, there has been increased speculation about Israeli military cooperation with Azerbaijan, not only as it relates to timely deliveries to Baku on the eve of war of high-tech drones, but also possible Israeli military and intelligence use of Azerbaijan routes for covert and overt actions against Iran. Such an avenue may be more likely to be employed, as war in the Middle East expands and intensifies. Israel’s grave concerns about the Iranian government’s continuing hostility to Israel influenced Tel Aviv’s willingness to sell arms to the Azerbaijani dictatorship. This geo-political fact was both understood and resented in Yerevan and adversely affected Israeli-Armenian relations. Tensions over an Australian-Israeli developer’s controversial land acquisition efforts to obtain a 98-year lease to a significant portion of the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem, combined with subsequent violent acts and threats by Jewish militant settlers against Armenian community members, have further complicated relations between the Israeli and Armenian governments.

Flags of Israel and Iran divided by barb wire / xbrchx Adobe stock

Ongoing and spiraling conflicts in both the South Caucasus and the Middle East have been key features of recent history. Efforts at peace negotiations and attempts at comprehensive treaties have often been marked by profound disagreements, deadlocks, significant setbacks and even failures. Sadly, it is not uncommon for disputes and conflicts to spill over from one region to another, particularly in an age of major power rivalries.

Thus, while viewing Armenia and the South Caucasus from the re-emerging Cold War perspective of instability, ‘frozen conflicts’ and re-occurring wars in the former Soviet sphere, we can also look at the South Caucasus as being a part of the larger and complex Middle East region. We are witnessing an ongoing tragic saga of conflict and prolonged suffering. For much of the extended region and the many peoples involved, there have been too many victims of war, too many displaced civilians, too many long-term refugees and far too many orphans of genocide. My grandmother was one such orphan in the region in 1915. Our family still lives with that bitter legacy more than a century later.

A version of this article was originally published in Peace Magazine (April 2024) under the title “Surprising Partners and Enemies [in] the South Caucasus”.

Alan Whitehorn is an emeritus professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada and a former JS Woodsworth Chair in Humanities at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of Reflections on Vladimir Putin & Russia’s Foreign & Military Policy (2022); Karabakh Diary: Poems from the Diaspora (2022) and editor of The Armenian Genocide: The Essential Reference Guide (2015).

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