Israel's front-line in the South Caucasus

The JC essay

By Tim Judah, February 6, 2012

Aghdam is as far as you can go. Travel east, cross Turkey, pass the snow-capped twin peaks of Ararat, cross Armenia and finally you get to Nagorno-Karabakh. As the Soviet Union collapsed, this was the front-line in a brutal war pitting Armenians against Azerbaijanis, or Azeris. Thousands died and more than a million fled their homes. Today, Aghdam is an extraordinary place. Once a bustling Azeri town, it is now nothing but ruins for as far as the eye can see. But what the eye can't see is that this long-frozen front-line is also now part of the global struggle waged between Israel and its enemies.

When Armenian forces took Aghdam in 1993, they destroyed it. Scrap-metal merchants still root around for pipes and iron, while the silence is broken as a man on a horse whistles and yelps, driving his cattle across what was once a busy, provincial Soviet street.

Today, the sky is clear. Just clouds floating across this windswept empty quarter of the south Caucasus. Often it is not. Flying westwards, come Azerbaijan's Israeli drones. And flowing westwards, too, a few miles from here, as much as one third of Israel's oil. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, a Knesset committee has been debating the vexed issue of whether the fate of the Armenians in 1915 at the hands of the Ottomans constituted genocide.

All these elements, in what many see wrongly as a peripheral and forgettable part of the world, wedged between the Caspian and Black Seas, seem like random facts. They are not. They are all part of the geopolitical game being played by Israel, Turkey, Iran, Russia, the US and energy-hungry Europe.

Step back a moment. In the wake of the collapse of the Russian Empire, until the triumphant reconquest of Bolshevik forces in 1920, the three south Caucasian countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia all declared themselves independent. They were to become Soviet republics but, as everywhere in the region, people and borders did not sit together well.

In relations between the two countries, Azerbaijan, whose population is nine times smaller than Turkey's, calls the shots

Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, had a predominantly Armenian population but was surrounded by Azeri populated regions. Stalin decreed that it should be an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan. Another large region, Nakichevan, which had a majority Azeri population, was to become an exclave of Azerbaijan, physically separated from the republic by Armenia and bordering Iran.

In the late 1980s, as the USSR began to crumble, Armenians and Azeris were drawn into conflict. With the Soviet collapse, Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war. Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence. A million people, more Azeris than Armenians, fled or were ethnically cleansed. The Armenians conquered a corridor to link Karabakh to Armenia. But not just that. In Soviet times, the region covered 4,400 square kilometres. When the guns fell silent, the Armenians controlled 12,000 square kilometres.

Talks on a settlement of the conflict have ground on ever since. But the geopolitics of the region have changed. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan emerged from the war, and from the Soviet collapse, shattered and poor. Turkey closed its border to Armenia. With its frontier to Azerbaijan also sealed, Armenia's only land routes out are via Iran and Georgia. Armenia remains poor and its population of about three million has dropped dramatically in the past 20 years, mostly thanks to emigration.

The situation could not be more different in Azerbaijan. Baku was famous more than a century ago for one of the world's first great oil booms. Now it is booming again. Oil has seen the country's GDP explode from $5.2 billion in 2000 to $51 billion in 2010. In 2005, oil began flowing along a major new pipeline from Baku, via Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, to Ceyhan, on the southern coast of Turkey. According to Elmar Mammadyarov, the Azeri foreign minister, Israel buys 30 per cent of its oil from Azerbaijan, which it gets via the pipeline.

It is hardly surprising then that Israel regards Azerbaijan as a strategic ally. But the pipeline is extremely vulnerable. At one point, it runs a mere 12 miles from the front-line with Nagorno -Karabakh. In the event of a new conflict - possible, if not immediately probable - the Armenians would cut the pipeline with artillery and rocket oil platforms in the Caspian. But the Azeris want Karabakh back, or, at least to start with, the "occupied territories" (those parts held by the Armenians but, like Aghdam, outside the boundaries of the old autonomous region). Last year, the Azeris invested $3.2 billion in their military; more than Armenia's entire budget.

For Europe, the current strategic game is to gain access to gas from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, which can flow to the European Union via Azerbaijan, but avoid Russia. It has troops in Armenia and a radar station in Azerbaijan but it wants control of future pipelines because of the power and influence that they would give it.

Energy security for the West is important for the US, here as elsewhere, but there is another element at play. Azeris are Shi'ite Muslims, but 70 years of the Soviet experience have made them mostly secular. Meanwhile, the giant to the south is Shi'ite Iran, which the Azeris often accuse of meddling in their affairs.

Azerbaijan's record on human rights is poor. But it is a vital staging post for US and western forces en route to Afghanistan. Most countries remain coy about selling it arms, in no small measure because of Nagorno-Karabakh. Israel is not. Last year, for example, an Israeli-Azeri joint venture opened to produce drones. You don't have to look hard on YouTube to find a film of Ilham Aliev, the Azeri president, visiting the plant in March and pausing to sign a drone's wing.

B ut it is what you can't find that is important. Three years ago, the US Embassy in Baku wrote a cable on Azeri-Israel relations, which was then published by Wikileaks. There is no reason to believe that anything substantial has changed. The cable notes that President Aliev described relations as similar to an iceberg, in that "nine-tenths of it is below the surface".

The cable discussed a 2008 agreement about arms and equipment that Israel would sell to Azerbaijan. Relations, it said, are "discreet but close" and "each country finds it easy to identify with the other's geopolitical difficulties and both rank Iran as an existential threat." Azerbaijan fears Iranian Islamist influence but Iran fears Azerbaijan, too. Up to 30 million Iranians are ethnic Azeris. While many are well integrated into Iranian society, over the years there have been protests demanding greater cultural and language rights. If the existing low level of conflict between Iran, Israel, the US and perhaps others turns into a shooting war, it is hard to know whether Azeri secessionism might develop in Iran. In August, the Iranian armed forces chief warned President Aliev of a "dark fate" if he continued the relationship with Israel. There have also been accusations from Iran that Azerbaijan is attempting to foster ethnic conflict. A key area of co-operation with Israel is in intelligence. This, said the cable, is "extensive".

There are estimated to be some 30,000 former Azeri Jews in Israel and they act as a bridge between the two countries. Their leaders always say that there was no antisemitism in Azerbaijan, and that this is one reason for the close relations between the two countries. Yet Tom de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, says that it would be a mistake to believe that Azerbaijan's enthusiasm for close relations with Israel is more than an elite phenomenon. Most Azeris, he says, "generally buy into a Muslim consensus with regard to Israel and the Palestinians."

Enter Turkey. Until 1937, the Azeris, as a political nation, did not exist; they were simply Turks. In the new Soviet order, that changed. Since independence, relations with Turkey have been very close - most watch Turkish television and its influence is important. Yet, it sometimes seems as if, in relations between the two countries, Azerbaijan, whose population is nine times smaller than Turkey's, calls the shots. In 2008, a period of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement ended abruptly after Azerbaijan objected on the grounds that this should not happen before the Karabakh issue was resolved.

L ast October, Turkey agreed to a major deal not only to buy gas coming from Azerbaijan but also to transport it westwards. Just before that, however, the Turkish ambassador in Baku reminded the Azeris of how Turkey had listened to Azeri objections to its rapprochement with Armenia and now expected a payback in terms of relations with Israel. This was brushed off. Business between Israel and Azerbaijan is booming and an Azeri oil and gas company is prospecting in Israeli waters.

All this is monitored carefully in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Relations with Israel have been good, but for two nations which have shared such a tragic history, "we could have done a lot better", argues Salpi Ghazarian who runs Yerevan's Civilitas Foundation.

In the dark days of war with Azerbaijan, Iran supplied fuel to Armenia and now supplies it with gas. As Brenda Shaffer, of Haifa University, points out: "Iran talks about Islam and helps the Christian Armenians."

And if the interests of the state come before ideology then that is true for Israel, too. For fear of offending Turkey, the Knesset has never recognised that the fate of the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, in which up to 1.5 million people died, amounted to "genocide".

Now, in the wake of the collapse of its relations with Turkey, a Knesset committee very publicly discussed the matter in December. But, when it comes to a final decision on the matter, it is more than likely that Israel will weigh up whether this could affect relations with Azerbaijan, although Shaffer doubts it would, as they are, she notes, above all relations of "state interests".

One Armenian official said wryly that Armenia hoped that the Knesset discussion was not just "situational" given the state of Israel-Turkish relations. Still there are at least two other issues which prevent good relations becoming far better, quite apart from Israel selling weapons to Azerbaijan.

Armenia is concerned about the dwindling number of Armenians in Israel and especially property in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. Armenia also does not want to jeopardise the position of hundreds of thousands of Armenians across the Middle East. "We exercise great care of the physical protection of our people," says the official. Put simply, says Ghazarian, in view of the precarious position of Christians in the Arab world, Armenia does not want to give anyone a reason to make Armenians in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere insecure.

Meanwhile, for most people, the south Caucasus is out of sight, out of mind. But, as the 2008 Georgian war with Russia showed, it is also a volatile place. Nagorno-Karabakh is often described as a frozen conflict. It is today, but tomorrow it may not be. The region is, like Israel's own surroundings, a rough neighbourhood, but the links between the two are far deeper than most people know. In May, the Eurovision song contest will be held in Azerbaijan. Remember that when you hear the words: "Hello Baku, this is Jerusalem calling."

Tim Judah is a journalist who specialises in Balkan affairs

Last updated: 11:32am, February 6 2012