Turkey’s Involvement in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict Risks Destabilizing the Middle East

  • 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.

Views from the Region


Turkey’s foreign entanglements and military adventures are once again at the center of regional discussions regarding the country’s role in the Middle East and more broadly. Seemingly emboldened by Turkey’s involvement in Libya and Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has now waded into yet another conflict, this time to the north of Iran, between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In a bid to avoid any significant political and economic costs associated with the intervention, Mr. Erdogan has decided to use Syrian mercenaries, thus adding another layer of complexity to the intervention. Iran, which shares a border with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, has criticized Turkey’s involvement, expressing concerns about the conflict taking on a more regional character and possibly spilling into Iran itself.

Jordanian journalist and political commentator Osama Al Sharif argues in an op-ed for The Jordan Times that Turkey’s increasingly assertive role in the region is turning the country into a “regional disruptor“: “With the latest intervention in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is extending his country’s foreign adventures from North Africa to Caucasus, raising questions about Ankara’s controversial role as a major regional disrupter. Erdogan’s populist approach to regional crises reflects a desire to reshape Turkey’s place in the international arena…. With all these conflicts reflecting badly on Turkey’s economy, currency and human rights, Erdogan is now over-reaching and may soon find himself facing multiple foreign policy challenges…. In the end, while complaining about a distorted world order, Erdogan has become a major disrupting force in that very order!”

Writing for the Jerusalem Post, Emily Schrader goes so far as to accuse Turkey of being behind the violence between the two countries, accusing Turkish president Erdogan of being “drunk on power” and accusing his regime of possibly committing human-rights violations in the process: “The sudden outbreak of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan is more than likely orchestrated in part by Turkey, given the current Turkish regime’s increasingly aggressive international policies. From Libya to Syria to Greece to Iraq to Azerbaijan, and yes, even to Israel, Turkey’s actions are far beyond acceptable by any standards of international law – or morality…. Erdogan has made his foreign policy intentions crystal clear in recent years, and the international community would do well to heed the warning. Turkey is a bad-faith actor that has committed, and is committing, gross human rights violations – not only against its own population with censorship and oppression of journalists and dissidents, but in Syria, Libya and potentially Azerbaijan.”

However, it is possible that, in pursuit of a greater regional and international role, Mr. Erdogan is running the Turkish economy into the ground. That, at least, is one of the issues raised by Hany Ghoraba — a political analyst and author — in an op-ed for the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram: “The growing costs of its military adventures abroad and of maintaining an army of mercenaries have been burdening Turkey’s coffers and the Turkish economy in general. Erdogan believes that these adventures will help him to attain ill-gotten political gains, but these will not come cheap. The Turkish lira has been falling on the international exchanges to a low of 7.8 lira against the dollar, and it is projected to lose more of its value. Calls for a boycott and expected European sanctions have left Turkey’s economic position battered and having negative prospects, according to international credit-rating agencies Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s.”

Turkey’s worsening economy and Mr. Erdogan’s falling domestic standing may also be reasons for what this Gulf News editorial points out is the Turkish president’s ever-growing reliance on Syrian mercenaries for Turkey’s military adventures: “The question of Erdogan’s use of Syrian mercenaries first arose last year, when Turkey deployed thousands of them in Libya to fight against the Libyan National Army in its push to capture the capital Tripoli, which has been controlled for years by religious extremist militias. Now he is using them against Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan…. These extremist mercenaries, who fought their Syrian government for years in the civil war, are being increasingly used by Erdogan to serve his foreign policy ambitions, [which] seem to have no boundaries — even if they mean igniting and inflaming conflicts.”

Of course, Turkey has not been alone in taking advantage of the volatility in the region, withAhmed Al Jarallah—chief editor of the Kuwait-based Arab Times—adding that Iran has been all too willing to do its part to fuel the flames of conflict and distrust in the Middle East: “When two ideologically contradictory groups which have been at war with each other for decades combine efforts, there is no doubt that the one they seek to confront has great strength that cannot be defeated by either one of them on their own…. The Ottoman and Persian camps are trying to play on the internal contradictions in several countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Lebanon. This is aimed to gain a foothold in the regional power equation that is currently forming in the Middle East. They are relying on the opportunistic forces that have not been able to achieve any of its goals for decades because their ideas contradict the natural logic of political development.”

However, as Arab News commentator Baria Alamuddin asserts, Turkey’s involvement in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict risks bringing the conflict into Iran, endangering the latter’s fragile ethnic balance along its northern border: “Turkey’s recruitment drive for Syrian mercenaries for Caucasus deployment began weeks before these latest hostilities, demonstrating the falsehood of Azeri/Turkish claims that they were simply responding to Armenian provocation…. The deployment of cheap, disposable Syrian and Libyan mercenaries, and generous credit lines from the Qataris, allow Erdogan to ride a wave of expansionist neo-Ottoman nationalist sentiment, without thousands of citizens returning in body bags…. Turkey’s use of militias just above Iran’s northern borders risks triggering ethnic conflict and separatist tendencies throughout the Islamic Republic.”

It is against this background that one can understand this week’s statements by Iranian officials as reported by Tehran Times calling on Turkey and others to bring the conflict to a close as soon as possible: “Ali Akbar Velayati, a top foreign policy adviser to the Leader of the Islamic Revolution, has called on Armenia to return the occupied parts of the Republic of Azerbaijan, including seven cities…. ‘The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, two neighbors of Iran, and some developments such as the involvement of the Zionist regime, Turkey and Takfiri terrorist groups in this war and the occasional firing of bullets and mortars toward Iran’s soil are among concerning issues that must be immediately stopped,’ Mehr on Tuesday quoted Velayati as saying.”

The Turkish reaction to the criticism and the charges directed at its president and the country’s overall foreign policy approach has been one of frustration and concern for what the Daily Sabah’s Burhanettin Duran considers a growing “anti-Turkey rhetoric…. The latest escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh reignited anti-Turkey rhetoric in the international arena. Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership, threw its weight behind Azerbaijan to help the country reclaim its Armenian-occupied territories…. The minds behind the ideologically charged fight against Turkey cannot seem to make up their minds. Is Erdoğan an Islamist leader of the Muslim Brotherhood? Is he a neo-Ottomanist? A pan-Turkist or a Eurasianist? Or, perhaps, a leader who embraced nationalism to make up for his declining popularity? A neo-Kemalist?… The same people who do not question the military presence of the United States, Russia, or France in those parts of the world keep attacking Erdoğan in an attempt to contain Turkey. Ankara faces the charge of expansionism whenever it attempts to help manage crises in its own part of the world.”

  • 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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