Callous Nagorno Karabakh Aggression

Photo source: International Community of the Red Cross

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

In 2018, Armenia underwent a peaceful revolution, called Velvet Revolution, sweeping long-time ruler Serzh Sargsyan from power, where protest leader Nikol Pashinyan became the prime minister after free elections.


It was a revolution akin to revolution in other post Soviet states. But, in August 2019, Pashinyan told crowds of ethnic Armenians assembled in the main city in Karabakh, Stepanakert that ‘Artsakh is Armenia, full stop’. Artsakh is the Armenian name for Karabakh. The remarks angered Azerbaijan, and were repeatedly condemned by President Aliyev.


Pashiyan's statements led to the escalation of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Fighting then eventually broke out in July 2020, on the international border, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, some 300km away from Nagorno-Karabakh. During the war, Armenia had introduced marital law and total mobilisation, while Azerbaijan introduced martial law, a curfew and partial mobilisation. By the end of July 2020, Turkey's military, was also taking part in large-scale joint exercises in Azerbaijan. 


As the peace deal nurtured, tens of thousands of Christian Armenians took to the streets to denounce Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for keeping the conflict unresolved.


Due to the political unpredictability, the new fighting erupted on 27 September 2020. Azerbaijan was believed to have fired the first shots, according to the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). Azerbaijan had also revealed that it was launching a counter-offensive in response to Armenian aggression. Some two thousand people were killed as a result. In the process, Azerbaijan occupied more than a dozen heights near the Armenian villages of Kut and Verin Shorzha, and began building fortifications. 


Several reporting journalists revealed that Armenian and Azerbaijani posts were seen on the hills, sometimes with less than 15 metres distance between them. During the conflict, two roads connecting Armenian province of Gegharkunik with Azerbaijan province of Kalbajar and further with Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh were completely closed. 


The roads, seen by journalists, were scattered with hundreds of large wire baskets filled with stones and poured round of concrete. The locals in Armenian dominated border villages such as Verin Shorzha were afraid to shepherd their cows and sheep to their usual pastures during the war, as they didn’t know where the respective military positions were located, and where danger lurked. To be on the safer side, some villagers grazed their cattle near Armenian cemetery from the 10th century, where tombstones had long been overgrown with red moss, to earn an income. However, the Azerbaijanis had even fired on their herd and injured several animals. 


In other border village of Kut, near the outposts of Armenian military, they had planted potatoes only in fields that were out of the line of fire. However, when it was time for hay harvest, they weren’t able to prepare fodder for the winter, due to fears.


From the Armenian positions, Azerbaijani soldiers were seen stacking stones to build a wall. However, during the war, the military representatives of both sides even met at the contact line to discuss the situation and outstanding issues. In the process, the situation often got out of hands, according to DW journalist Ashot Gazazyan. Representatives of both sides allegedly poked and hit each other with rifle butts, shot in the air and even cursed each other. They even sustained injuries such as bruises and cuts. Videos of such brawls kept surfacing on the internet. In one recent video, an Armenian soldier was even killed. 


According to an article by Misha Ketchell in The Conversation: ‘there are repeated references to southern Armenia as the historical territory of Azerbaijan at the highest levels of Azerbaijan’s government. The idea that the encroachments in Syunik are somehow connected with these utterances, and Azerbaijan’s vocal insistence on a fully fledged transportation corridor across the province has raised tensions even further.’


International Partnership and Truth Hounds had conducted multiple field investigations, during the offensive, where they found a total of thirty two indiscriminate bombing of civilians, eight cases of extrajudicial executions, systematic abuse and torture of prisoners of war and civilian captives, despoliation of the dead, deliberate targeting of places of religious or cultural significance, and the deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical transport and medical personnel in the region.


‘Our field investigators found evidence that Azerbaijani forces tortured and executed prisoners of war and lay captive Armenian civilians. Armenia/Nagorno-Karabakh forces, in return, also tortured Azerbaijani prisoners of war, executed wounded combatants and mutilated the bodies of dead Azerbaijani soldiers,’ Brigitte Dufour said, IPHR director. ‘Ignoring the atrocities detailed in our report would give European Partnership countries carte blanche to wage war without respecting the Geneva Conventions.’


Just five months after the end of the recent fighting, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev inaugurated the so-called ‘Military Trophies Park’, a grotesque collection of war memorabilia, including helmets belonging to Armenian casualties and unabashedly racist wax mannequins of Armenian soldiers. But, international community must not sweep this war, and its war crimes, into the dustbin of history.


Nagorno-Karabakh is a strategically important mountainous region in southeast Europe. For centuries, different powers in the region, both Christian and Muslim, have crossed swords for control there. 


The roots of the conflict are complex. Modern-day Armenia and Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union when it formed in the 1920s. But, it was only when the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s the Nagorno-Karabakh's regional parliament officially voted to become part of Armenia.


As a reaction, Azerbaijan sought to suppress the Armenian separatist movement. This led to ethnic clashes, after Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence from Moscow. 


Armenian forces gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and areas adjacent to it, during the First War between 1988 to 1994, before a Russian-brokered ceasefire was declared in 1994 called Bishkek Protocol. The war, however, resulted in displacement of more than 700,000 Azerbaijanis, and 500,000 Armenians. There were a total of up-to 16,000 Azerbaijani civilian deaths and 4000 Armenian civilians were also killed in episodes of ethnic cleansing. According to Karabakh State Commission, and Azerbaijani State Commission, hundreds went missing too.


After Bishkek Protocol, Nagorno-Karabakh remained part of Azerbaijan, but since then has  been mostly governed by separatists, in a self-declared republic, run by ethnic Armenians, and backed by the Armenian government. 


Peace talks have taken place since then, mediated by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, a body set up in 1992, and chaired by France, Russia and the United States. However, clashes continued, and a serious flare-up in 2016 also saw the deaths of dozens of troops on both sides.


The conflict is further complicated by geopolitics. In 1993 Turkey shut its border with Armenia in support of Azerbaijan during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. In other words, it also means that it may escalate tensions between Turkey and Russia, due to historical grievances, and possibly undermine the political future of the region. 


Russia’s role, although, is somewhat obscure since it supplies arms to both countries, and is in a military alliance with Armenia called the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. But, the CSTO has revealed itself as the empty box many suspected it to be, both during the war, and during the recent border skirmishes.


Although, in a statement released in October 2020, Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary of the president of the Russian federation said: ‘Russia has always taken a balanced position on the matter and has traditionally good relations with both countries. We are also in contact with Turkey regarding the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.’ These statements seem to be even more restrained than statements coming from United States or France.


Following the capture of Shusha, the second largest settlement in Nagorno Karabakh, fighting had come to an end in November 2020, when both sides agreed to a Russian backed peace deal. Under its terms, Azerbaijan holds on to several areas that it gained control of during the conflict, and Armenia will withdraw troops from them. Almost 2,000 Russian peacekeepers will be monitoring the truce, along the Lachin corridor, between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, for a mandate of at least five years.


Azerbaijan might have an upper hand in the war. Armenia had fumed when Recep Erdogan and his counterpart Ilham Aliyev visited Shusha, a lost Armenian city during the 2020 war.

But, despite the ceasefire, there is no scope in Yerevan or Baku to conduct genuine inquiries into the conduct of their militaries, or to enact key institutional and legislative reform to prevent unnecessary civilian suffering in future conflicts. Hence, this impunity gap must be bridged by the international community, through independent investigations, to establish a trustworthy historical record, and justice mechanism to establish accountability for war crimes. 


The 2021 Armenian election was also seen as a litmus test, by many, despite being won again by Nikol Pashinyan, as polarised Armenians went into polls, casting their choices. The repercussions of Nagorno Karabakh conflict had been on their minds, as Armenia’s nationalist opposition had been time and again maximising the perception of their prime minister as incompetent and weak. There even had been accusations of leaked documents that reveal secret territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. However, the ceasefire doesn’t mean that the conflict is resolved. Peace is postponed because the conflict remains frozen.


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