Washington has little leverage in the South Caucasus

Reports of planned meetings between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Armenian and Azerbaijan counterparts on Friday come against a backdrop of the U.S. government’s noticeable change in tone to the adventurism of its de jure ally, Turkey, in the Greater Middle East. For many reasons, however, U.S. influence with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is quite limited.

The various elements work together with the ongoing U.S. election season to dramatically reduce the leverage the country has with the two belligerents over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The U.S. can offer its services as an honest broker, but that is useful only if the two sides to the conflict, and their third-party supporters, truly seek a negotiated resolution. Thus far, the evidence for such a commitment to a settlement is not there.

The principal parties fighting each other in the South Caucasus have not demonstrated a commitment to a ceasefire they agreed to under pressure from the U.S., Russia and France, the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. Whether the Armenians or the Azeris are guiltier of violating the ceasefire carries little relevance to ending the hostilities, for both sides have staked out mutually irreconcilable demands. More importantly, each side believes it can rely on third parties – of most importance, Turkey for Azerbaijan and the Armenian diaspora for Armenia – to sustain it against its Caucasus enemy.

In addition, among the Minsk Group’s co-chairs seeking to impose a ceasefire and subsequent negotiations, only Russia is close enough to use, or threaten with, its military power to induce the two parties to abide by a ceasefire and negotiate. Thus far, Erdoğan has shown little to no inclination to use his influence with his Azeri counterpart, President Ilham Aliyev, to halt the fighting and end the death of innocent civilians on both sides.

Turkey is providing sophisticated military equipment such as drones to Azerbaijan, reportedly giving its military a battlefield advantage over the Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and neighbouring territory. One great value of drones in combat is that it reduces the ability of enemy forces to conceal their positions and movements; eyes in the sky, even if not carrying missiles or bombs, give a great advantage in real-time to battlefield commanders.

More worrying is the possibility that events will draw in other participants. As has happened in Syria, rival third parties providing covert or overt aid with little regard for the people in the conflict zone can extend the duration of the conflict for years. There is no suggestion that neighbouring countries are interested in joining in the conflict as of yet, though reports of Turkey-allied Syrian fighters or other foreign fighters supporting Azerbaijan appear credible.

Russia has supplied weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and there are a significant number of Russian military and security personnel in Armenia, though their presence in Nagorno-Karabakh seems to be negligible if any at all. If recent history in Syria is any guide, this situation could change quickly – one can easily imagine Turkey, Russia, Iran and possibly Arab states providing significant assistance without acknowledging they were doing so.  

Given Erdoğan’s increasing tendency to employ his self-anointed status as leader of the oppressed Muslims rising up against Western Islamophobia, one must be prepared for him to make this an ‘us-them’ conflict, Muslims versus the rest (or the West). Unfortunately, there are many in the West willing to see any conflict involving Muslim and non-Muslims as a clash of civilisations or cultures rather than of localised national territorial or other material interests.

If Erdoğan pursues that route, he risks further isolating Turkey not only from the West, but Arabs and the Persians of Iran, as well as numerous smaller ethnic groups who, though Muslim, are not enamoured of Turkey determining their national destiny as the Ottoman Empire did for centuries. What the ethnic Azeris of Iran, who make 25 percent of the national population, have to say about this will more likely be driven by national and ethnic, not religious, sectarianism.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s economy continues to haemorrhage from measures to stop, or at least slow, the spread of COVID-19 and poor financial management by Erdogan’s team – which presents the U.S. and the European Union with a difficult conundrum:

Should they use financial sanctions to induce Erdoğan to abandon his adventurism in the South Caucasus, North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean? Would doing so risk a financial collapse in Turkey leading to massive refugee flows into the EU? Or should they apply targeted sanctions on travel and the like on senior Turkish officials, though with COVID-19 travel restrictions, who would notice? They have few levers to move Erdoğan away from his religio-nationalist adventures – but do they have the will to do so?

Once again, Erdoğan’s manoeuvres look to go unchecked. Even if he reverses course, it will only be after having sent a message to his supporters and others that he is not to be trifled with and that the West and Turkey’s neighbours dance to his tune, not he to theirs. But this is perilous, for though he likes to portray his country as the successor to benign Ottoman rule of Muslim and non-Muslims of the Middle East, Arabs and others read the history of Ottoman tutelage quite differently.

With a worsening economy, Erdoğan may even find at the next election that modern Turks do not think of the days of Ottoman rule as fondly as he does.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.