Vicken Cheterian

Why Turkey is a factor of War, and not of Peace in Karabakh Conflict?

The majority of Turks in Turkey have no idea about Azerbaijan, they do not know its people, history or culture. They hear about them from their TV screens only when war erupts. Still, they are certain about their deep friendship and strong ethnic solidarity with Azerbaijan, and their antagonism towards everything Armenian.

Ankara has openly sided with Azerbaijan against Armenia in the Karabakh conflict. Since Sunday, September 27, as war erupted between Azerbaijani and Armenian all along the Karabakh frontline, Turkish leaders made one declaration after another showing their support to one side, and their opposition to the other. Although it is obvious that the attack was initiated by Azerbaijan – in early afternoon of Sunday, hours after the war erupted, Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence spokesman announced that seven villages were “liberated”, yet Turkish leaders accused Armenia of being the aggressor. 

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote on his Twitter account: “Armenia, which has added a new one to its attacks on Azerbaijan, has once again proven that it is the biggest threat to peace and security in the region. The Turkish nation continues to stand by its Azerbaijani brothers and sisters with all its means, as it has always done.” 

I want to discuss here: why Turkey supports Azerbaijan? And is it really helping Azerbaijan by its actions, or could it support “peace and security in the region” by following a different policy?

One explanation often given for Turkey-Azerbaijan alliance, as the quote above reveals, is the supposed brotherly links between Turkish and Azerbaijani peoples. This supposes ethnic, cultural, historic proximity between Turks and Azeries, the kind of closeness that supposes Turks and Armenians do not have. In this equation, Armenians become foreigners, strangers, people that are disliked because they are different. 

Yet, any person with a minimal knowledge of history, of Turkish, Ottoman, Armenian and Azerbaijani history, would tell you that such an assumption is wrong. Ottoman Turks lived together with Armenians, have closely shared history and culture, while Azerbaijanis were not only foreigners to them, but also their enemies. Turkic dynasties from todays Azerbaijan evolved in a different cultural and political space, that of Iran, where they played key roles in empire building, as Safavid and Qajar dynasties witness. Ottomans and Safavids – two Turkic dynasties - were mortal enemies, while Armenians living in Istanbul or Ankara were called “millet-i Sadiqa” for their precious services to the Ottoman Sultans. 

The majority of Turks in Turkey have no idea about Azerbaijan, they do not know its people, history or culture. They hear about them from their TV screens only when war erupts. Still, they are certain about their deep friendship and strong ethnic solidarity with Azerbaijan, and their antagonism towards everything Armenian. 


Turkey is in fact opposing Armenia, rather than supporting Azerbaijan in this conflict. When we see the chronology of how Turkish policy evolved towards Armenia-Azerbaijan, this becomes evident. Turkey was the first state to recognize Armenia’s independence in 1991, but it neither established diplomatic relations, nor opened the border. The Turkish-Armenian border is kept as it was during the Cold War. Even worse: the only rail-link that existed, the Kars-Leninakan (now Gyumri) connection, was suspended in 1993. As early as in 1991 Turkey put two preconditions to Yerevan: that Armenia should stop pursuing international recognition of Genocide, and second that Armenia should abandon any demand for compensation from Turkey, mainly territorial demands from Turkey. The third condition was that Armenia would give up Karabakh, was added later, only in 1993.  

By putting these three conditions, Turkey made the Karabakh conflict unresolvable. First, it linked the Karabakh conflict resolution with the unrecognized and unaddressed question of the Armenian Genocide. Karabakh conflict is complicated enough in itself, difficult for two newly independent states to face. While adding on this the extremely complex and negated Armenian-Turkish history, a history that includes the crime of genocide, it becomes impossible to address by diplomatic means.

But Turkish interference had other negative consequences as well. For Armenians, who are still haunted by the mass trauma of Genocide, make them feel that any defeat, even any concession in the Karabakh question is an existential threat for them. Those fears are proven true by the everyday policies and declarations of Turkish politicians. Moreover, Azerbaijan, a young and inexperienced republic, took over the hard line Turkish view of the early 1990s: the Azerbaijani political elite sees the conflict with neighbouring Armenia exactly through this genocidal experience, combining a complex vision of genocide perpetrators and the imagination of being victims themselves. This line of thought – that Azerbaijanis have been victims of Armenian massacres for two hundred years, and that the conflict could be resolved by extracting Armenians from the region – has become the dominant thinking in Azerbaijani ruling classes. 

What was the result of such policies now followed for three decades? Turkish choices pushed Azerbaijan to maximalist positions. In negotiations, Baku is telling its Armenian counterparts the following: “You have to give up the territories, you have to give up Karabakh self-determination, and if you don’t do it we will attack you, and don’t forget, we have the bigger army.” And you wonder why years of diplomacy failed?

Diplomatic failure comes with high price. Armenia and Azerbaijan, both poor, post-Soviet countries in need for major investments in every single field, spent billions of dollars for weapons. They keep large armies and their borders are reminiscent to the trenches in Europe during World War I. Every year young men die on those fronts. But for thirty years, there has been no change in the situation. 

Is there an alternative to Ankara’s failed policies? Yes there is. Turkish President Abdullah Gül and his foreign minister at the time Ali Babacan, with their “football diplomacy” showed us that there was one. In 2008, Gül went to Armenia to watch a football match in Yerevan, and started negotiations process that led to the two Zurich protocols that addressed the two initial Turkish preconditions: one protocol was to establish diplomatic relations, and the other to open the border. There was no third protocol on Karabakh conflict, and Gül consciously tried to disentangle the Armenia-Turkish complex relations form the conflict of Karabakh. 

This project failed because Azerbaijani leadership opposed it vehemently. Aliyev saw in Zurich protocols “betrayal” of Turkey”. They found a strong partner in Ankara – in the person of Erdogan, who refused to ratify the protocols. Another decade was lost.

Turkey today is more involved in the Karabakh conflict than ever before. There is circumstantial evidence of Turkish military advisors operating Bayraktar drones, sending Syrian mercenaries in their hundreds, and even of Turkish special forces operating on frontlines. Now, what will this new Turkish enthusiasm achieve? In the “best case”, Azerbaijan will take some positions in the no-mans-land, or some destroyed and abandoned villages, so that Ilham Aliyev celebrates victory. His regime, after spending billions of dollars right and left, is now in crisis and urgently needs good news from the fronts. 

What will be the result of Turkish support to the Azerbaijani offensive? It will radicalize the Armenian side even further, make them determine that no dialogue is possible with Azerbaijan. Then, Russia will intervene. Moscow has not only a military pact, but also two military bases in Armenia. Ankara-Moscow relations are already tense over Idlib these days, and the Russians see Turkish moves as meddling in their traditional zone of influence. In the last major military manoeuvres Kavkaz-2020, where 80’000 soldiers took part, they simulated landing a Caspian nation. Guess which one? 

There is also Iran, already unhappy with Azerbaijan-Israel cooperation, now has to watch not only increasing Turkish meddling in its northern borders, but also the arrival of Syrian fighters as well. By sending Sunni militants to Azerbaijan, a Shia majority country, did Ankara calculate the harm it will do to the Azerbaijani social fabric on the long term?

Turkish policy in the Karabakh conflict is conditioned by its unresolved historical past, and its will to bring Armenia to its knees. By following such a policy, Ankara is not helping Azerbaijan, but pushing it to a corner. But Ankara has a choice, it could choose to become a factor of peace and security, only if it looks into the mirror to see its own past.