War between Armenia and Azerbaijan highlights Turkey–Israel tensions 
26 Nov 2020|

On 10 November, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan informed Armenia that he was surrendering to end his country’s war with Azerbaijan. That prompted massive protests which put  the future of the government and the surrender itself in doubt. While the official ceasefire terms announced by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan do not mention Turkey and make provision only for Russian peacekeepers, it seems that Turkish soldiers will take part in monitoring and implementation of the deal alongside about 2,000 Russian peacekeepers as part of a separate agreement between Ankara and Moscow.

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the latter backed heavily by both Turkey and Israel, is not merely a continuation of the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has called the conflict the ‘Second Karabakh war’. Yet this war was planned, organised, and is being overseen for the first time by Turkey, which has provided Azerbaijan with armed drones as well as a mercenary army of Syrians. These, alongside Israel’s provision of sophisticated drones and missiles to Azerbaijan, have accounted for its remarkable military success.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has watched and learned from Russia and Iran over the past decade how to effectively employ proxies and mercenaries to rewrite regional orders and control conflicts at little political or financial cost and, after developing a powerful drone capability, the student became the master. Combining an endless supply of Syrian mercenaries with a deadly drone armada and a small backbone of Turkish soldiers, Erdogan’s new capabilities exploded onto the regional scene in 2020 by first smashing the forces of the Assad regime and its backers in Syria and then those of warlord Khalifa Haftar and his allies in Libya.

Erdogan’s moves to co-opt Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory universally recognised as Azerbaijani despite Armenia’s conquest of it in a war in the 1990s, are part of an apparent drive to involve Turkey in more and more conflicts, and to bypass international forums for dealing with conflicts. Erdogan’s goal appears to be to divide up the region with Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, as has happened in Syria and Libya.

Ankara seems to be using each conflict as a bargaining chip in every other so that these strategic competitors can define spheres of influence, while undermining international and especially US influence, a goal that unites all three.

Erdogan also wants to force Azerbaijan to choose between Turkey and Israel. In 2011, Turkish ambassador to Azerbaijan Hulusi Kilic reportedly said the country should ‘reconsider’ its relations with Israel and that it needed to stand by Turkey in opposition to Israel. He also made vague threats about ‘possible problems’ with the oil pipeline used to supply Israel with Azerbaijani oil via Turkey. A retired US diplomat told Mark Perry in Foreign Policy in 2012 that a massive arms deal between Israel and Azerbaijan in 2010 had Erdogan ‘sputtering in rage’.

Turkey and Azerbaijan have extremely close historical and ethnic ties, and leaders from both sides refer to their relationship as ’two states, one nation’. Following clashes with Armenia that erupted in July, Erdogan promised Azerbaijan all possible military assistance, a pledge reiterated in August. This was not simply rhetoric: Turkey reportedly began recruiting Syrian mercenaries to invade Nagorno-Karabakh immediately after the flareup in July. It also surged its supply of drones, ammunition, and other weapons to Azerbaijan in August, with sales increasing from less than US$300,000 to more than US$77 million by September.

Finally, from 29 July to 10 August , Turkey and Azerbaijan held massive military exercises. This wasn’t just signalling. According to Russian daily Kommersant , a group of 600 Turkish advisers stayed in Azerbaijan to plan and oversee operations against Armenia, and Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and ground forces commander General Ümit Dündar arrived in Azerbaijan in late September to launch them.

Israel’s energy and military ties to Azerbaijan have long been close, and one senior source at the Israeli Defence Ministry recently told Asia Times, ’Azerbaijan would not be able to continue its operation at this intensity without our support.’ Yet Israeli concerns about Turkish aggressiveness have been growing significantly in the past few years.

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen reportedly told his counterparts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE about two years ago that ‘the real threat is from Turkey’, and Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz recently decried Turkey’s destabilising actions across the region. Indeed, Turkey under Erdogan has been slowly severing its partnership with Israel in all areas outside of trade.

Turkey now poses a range of challenges to Israel including its support for Hamas, its close relationship with Iran (despite strategic differences in Syria), its regional struggle for military and ideological supremacy with Gulf states, and its attempts to undermine Israel’s gas deals with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and others. To this list must now be added the Azerbaijan war.

Israel has reportedly been supplying Azerbaijan with sophisticated weaponry since the 1990s war with Armenia. Israel and the Aliyev regime established comprehensive strategic relations, particularly in the energy and security spheres, including the joint manufacture of sophisticated drones and sales of advanced weaponry. Israel is Azerbaijan’s top weapons supplier, and Azerbaijan is one of Israel’s vital oil suppliers via the pipeline running through Turkey.

Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general who spent more than 30 years in senior positions in the Israel Defense Forces and government, recently told an Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council webinar, ‘Israel does not have any interest or idea who should control Nagorno-Karabakh, but Israel had and has and will continue to have in the future good relations with Azerbaijan’. It was also one of the first and few Muslim countries to support Israel in the 1990s.

Turkey’s involvement in the latest Nagorno-Karabakh war was an extremely negative development for Israel, politically and because Turkey could now obtain and ultimately replicate Israel’s most advanced weaponry. No matter how deeply embedded Israel is in Azerbaijan technologically, militarily and economically, Turkey’s influence there will likely always be greater.

It’s not clear that Azerbaijan can continue balancing the two now that Erdogan has apparently directly taken the reins of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.