A Delicate Balance: Relationships in the Levant and the Caucasus

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

The ongoing conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine, and Nagorno-Karabakh are posing complications for an already complex network of ties in northwest Asia, a journal article explains. 

At the end of June, Armenia officially recognized a Palestinian state, joining nearly three-quarters of the 193 United Nations member states who have already done so. Israel’s Foreign Ministry was quick to summon the Armenian ambassador for a “harsh reprimand conversation.” 

Israel has been a long-time supporter of Armenia’s rival Azerbaijan and played a critical role in Baku’s campaigns in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020 and 2023. The Gaza war and the growing international isolation of Israel offered a prime opportunity for the Armenian government to retaliate. The ongoing conflict has pushed states like Armenia and Azerbaijan to pick and choose their allies.  

For Azerbaijan, the post-Soviet rise of Iran was perceived as an immediate threat. Israel echoed the sentiment, and their relationship grew on this shared fear. At the same time, Baku’s other key ties are faltering: in May, Turkey suspended trade with Israel over its war, which has impacted Azerbaijan’s positive relations with Ankara. 

For Armenia, the past few years haven’t been easy. In late April, a ceasefire-monitoring center in Nagorno-Karabakh closed its doors as Russian peacekeepers withdrew. Russia has pulled out of many of stations around the world as its war in Ukraine continues to strain resources, a withdrawal that has empowered Iran, who appears to be stepping up as an Armenian ally. 

These complex and changing relationships are explored in a new Middle East Policy article from Emil A. Souleimanov, professor of security studies at Charles University. He examines how the ongoing conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine, and Nagorno-Karabakh have disrupted the delicate balance of the region. 

For Azerbaijan, the alliances have a surprisingly strong basis. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Azerbaijan—arguably the most culturally, linguistically, and geographically like Turkey—created relations based on the “organic” nature of their similarities. On the other hand, the country’s alliance with Jerusalem is much more about material factors than identity. Because of tense relations with Arab producers, Baku’s oil is a necessity for Israel; meanwhile, Jerusalem’s purchases are vital to Azerbaijan’s economy. Most importantly, however, both states center their relationship around their shared concern over Iran’s power. 

The perception that Iran is a danger to the states is founded on years of threats, which have only been heightened during the Gaza war. In March, Tehran declared that they “‘won’t stay indifferent’ to Israel’s ‘united front’ with Azerbaijan.” Azerbaijan is unlikely to leave behind its Israeli partners, though, as the country provides almost 70% of Baku’s military equipment. 

Meanwhile, Armenia has also become embroiled in tense relations. Before aligning with Yerevan, Tehran considered Azerbaijan a serious potential threat because of the state’s secular, pro-Western government and potential support for political activity by the large Azerbaijani population in Iran. The First Karabakh War in 1994 brought Tehran close to Yerevan and Moscow. However, during the Second Karabakh War in 2020, Russia remained neutral, and Armenia’s resulting defeat weakened trust. The relationship between Iran and Armenia remains strong, though, as Tehran’s fear of Azerbaijani power is only rising. 

The timing of the military operation in Karabakh in 2023 had strained this complex regional web, but the Gaza war has pushed tensions to a dangerous tipping point. The disillusionment of Turkey with Israel and Azerbaijan has all but eliminated its support for Baku, and the government in Ankara is increasingly bending to pressure to draw back relations with Jerusalem. On the other side of the border, Armenia is weakened as Russia continues to withdraw from the region, though Tehran’s support has strengthened—albeit less for Yerevan and more for an Azerbaijani defeat. 

At the center of it all lies Azerbaijan: as Souleimanov notes, “the Azerbaijani government has sought to avoid backing Israel and antagonizing Islamic countries like Iran. But this neutrality has drawn the ire of the Muslim world.” He argues that if the ongoing war in Gaza draws Israel into a larger conflict, Turkey would be a necessary partner for Baku’s survival, an increasingly unlikely outcome. If the war spreads, Iran is also likely to take advantage, and among its first targets is likely to be the Israel-aligned, relatively weak Azerbaijani state. 

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Emil A. Souleimanov’s Middle East Policy article, “Unlikely Alliances: How the Wars in Karabakh and Gaza Shape Northwest Asian Security”: 

  • Azerbaijan’s invasion of the Armenian-occupied separatist republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 and 2023 revealed the ever-changing relationships in the Middle East and South Caucasus. 
  • In the Caucasus, Russia has begun to reduce its peacekeeping force in Karabakh, which has placed Yerevan at risk and forced them to seek new partners, including the West. 
  • Turkey and Azerbaijan have a history of cooperation that has extended into recent conflicts. 
    • After years of economic and energy cooperation, Turkey engaged in the Karabakh invasions, albeit hesitantly, fearing Russian and Iranian responses. 
  • Israel and Azerbaijan have also had good relations in recent years. 
    • Israel was the second state following Turkey to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence. 
    • The countries share two major strategic objectives as Israel seeks Azerbaijani oil and both states work to contain Iran. In return, Azerbaijan receives significant arms support, which has been critical in the Karabakh wars. 
  • Azerbaijan has attempted to use its intermediary role to encourage better relations between Turkey and Israel. 
  • Armenia has alliances with Russia and Iran, but as Russia withdraws, Iran appears to be gearing up to provide more extensive support. 
    • Iran has supported Armenia for decades in the hope of minimizing the secular, Western-aligned influence of Azerbaijan, but the strategy has largely failed. 
    • Following the failure to defend Armenian forces in the 2020 Second Karabakh War, where Moscow remained neutral, Tehran fears that Baku has gained the upper hand. 
  • The Gaza war has significantly impacted the relationships between all states. 
    • Turkey’s rising dispute with Israel has contributed to the unraveling of the Baku-Ankara-Tel Aviv triangle. 
    • Azerbaijan has maintained aggressive rhetoric towards Armenia beyond the Karabakh area, which has further raised tensions in Iran. 
  • Azerbaijan’s future choices are tenuous. 
    • Baku is unlikely to launch further major assaults against Armenia to minimize the risk of Iranian intervention. 
    • Azerbaijan may also distance itself from Israel, which will likely be mutual as neither seeks to further sour relations with Iran. However, such a disconnect may put Israel at greater risk of Iranian attack without the Azerbaijan buffer zone. 
    • Baku has indicated willingness to engage in talks with Iran regarding the Aras corridor, which would reestablish full diplomatic ties. 
    • Azerbaijan will be pushed to rely further on Ankara, which has declared that it would support Baku in the case of the attack, though no formal agreement exists. 
  • Azerbaijan’s neutrality on Israel and Iran has drawn ire from the region. 
  • Continuing conflict on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and the potential external spread of the Gaza war indicates these multidimensional conflicts are far from over. 

You can read “Unlikely Alliances: How the Wars in Karabakh and Gaza Shape Northwest Asian Security” by Emil A. Souleimanov in the Summer 2024 issue of Middle East Policy. 



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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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