Three Lessons from Nagorno-Karabakh

Source: Annahar
Ahmed J. Saade
The separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. (AP Photo)
The separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. (AP Photo)
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The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict offers a mosaic of information on the political developments that have been shaping the Middle East in recent years, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Here below, we look at the major takeaways to be drawn from this event. 

1 - The Russians and Turkish have proven (once again) to be masters of foreign policy.
Let's face it. Some governments are simply smarter than others at getting what they want. Indeed, 2020 has proven to be a great year for Russian and Turkish foreign affairs (and a catastrophic one for France by the way). The Turks, with their unconditional support of allies that has now become their political trademark and has given them international credibility, are once again proving to be valuable allies who can be counted on, this time to Azerbaijan. 
The Russians, with their different but equally effective “under the table” strategy, have also achieved tactical moves along NATO’s borders – particularly its southern flank. Both superpowers (any claim that either of them is not a superpower would be a naive and subjective statement) now have their feet in Libya and are there to stay.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, just as they did in Syria and Libya, Russians and Turks fight, but remain “politically cordial”. Their political maturity has taught them that a full-blown confrontation would have disastrous consequences for both parties. Indeed, any Russian-Turkish conflict can be illustrated as the follow dialogue: “I want this, you want that. Ok, let’s fight and see who wins. Let the best man win but let’s stay friends, otherwise Western countries will take advantage”. 
Trump was not wrong when he called Erdogan and Putin “world-class chess players”. They might not be familiar with Game Theory (mathematical analysis of the various actions to take against an opponent), but they clearly seem to master it.

 2 - Does “Iranian ideology” still exist?
While some Iranian officials have recently come forward to claim the regime's unconditional support for their "Azerbaijani brothers", there has been mounting evidence of Iranian assistance for Armenia against the Chi'a majority country. Iran, it has been shown, is providing a crucial logistical platform for the entry of Russian tactical support to Armenia.
It is noteworthy to point out that Iranian officials were under increasing pressure recently, as important pro-Azerbaijan protests have taken place in some Turkish-speaking provinces of Iran. This, in parallel to the regime's de facto religious umbrella, certainly had a role to play in bringing about these “forced” declarations. Simply put, the Iranian regime was risking (and perhaps still is) its credibility within its international Chi'a audience.
The question remains: Why is Iran supporting Armenia and not a Chi’a majority country? The answer is a matter of geopolitical strategy, which seemingly is now of greater importance to Iran than its ideological values. Indeed, “exporting the revolution” and “fighting imperialism”, the two missions that constitute the backbone of the regime’s legitimacy, appear to be fading. In fact, if we look at the military conflicts and political struggles occurring in the MENA, Iran mostly sides with counterrevolutionaries and reactionary movements.
In this direction, Iran’s interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is part of a game of chess opposing it to Turkey, and Iranian support for Armenia is an attempt to curb Turkey’s increasing influence in the region. Clearly, Turkey is the only credible challenger of Iran in the region – the Arabs definitely are not.

3 – For Gulf states, Turkey is a bigger problem than Iran.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, as evidenced by their media activity, Gulf states (headed by the UAE as is now often the case) back Armenia against Azerbaijan, siding with Iran and Russia. One might ask why, as they clearly have no business in the region. The answer is simple, and summarizes their entire foreign policy: Standing against Turkey everywhere, no matter what. Be it in Libya, Syria (yes, Syria) or Tunisia, be it in the Eastern-Mediterranean conflict opposing Turkey and Greece where the UAE has no business, or even the Kashmir issue where Gulf states have sided with India against Pakistan, and now Nagorno-Karabakh, this is their stance. 
Gulf regimes propagate the idea that Iran is public enemy number one, but where are they actually fighting this enemy they dread so much? In Yemen, Emiratis and Iranians are sharing the spoils and have divided the territory between themselves. In Syria, they all backed Assad. In Libya, they jointly support Haftar against the GNA. In OPEC, Saudi Arabia and Iran are hardline allies.
Actually, one of the main reasons why Iran has not fully suffocated yet under US sanctions is because the UAE is providing a financial breathing window to Khamenei’s regime.
Undoubtedly, a distinction must be made between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on this matter. Saudis do have an ideological/moral/political problem with Iran, but Emiratis do not. In fact, Iran is a vital economic and political ally for the UAE. Nevertheless, Emiratis (which is the de facto leader of GCC policy) have been able to form a close partnership with Saudis by singling out the one concrete threat for both regimes’ existence, Turkey. The Turkish political model poses a risk to Saudi hegemony on the Sunni Muslim world, and Erdogan’s fast increasing popularity among Sunnis – which isn’t slowing down anytime soon - constitutes a major issue for this moral dominance. Consequently, Iran has moved to second place in their list of enemies, while Turkey now occupies the top spot. However, is the Emirati-Saudi strategy doing any favor to Saudi Arabia’s popularity in the Muslim world? It seems not.

2020 has proven to be a difficult year for many. Inevitably, it announces the start of a decade full of radical changes that could reshape the Middle East as we know it. 
Ahmed J. Saade is a Doctoral Researcher in Macreconomic Policy at Cranfield University. He holds a teaching position at UCL’s (University College London) department of Economics, and is a member of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. The Economics Group he belongs to is consistently ranked among the best in the world.

Note: Any statement in this article that seems to allude to the author’s personal opinion is coincidental. The author seeks to offer an objective analysis of the overall developments occurring in this region of the world.


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