Israel's role in Nagorno-Karabakh

In the autonomous region, Armenia and Azerbaijan are the bloodiest fighting since the 1990s. The role of the regional power Israel in this conflict receives very little attention. Israel is firmly on Azerbaijan’s side. It was recently announced that internationally outlawed Israeli-made cluster bombs were being used in Stepanakert. The Israeli-Azerbaijan partnership is based on three pillars: arms supplies to Azerbaijan, oil supplies to Israel, and the fight against the common enemy Iran. The victims of this symbiosis are the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a battlefield. In July, the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the autonomous region of the South Caucasus flared up again, recently escalating into the bloodiest fighting since the 1990s, when Azerbaijan began bombing civilian positions in the capital Stepanaker and elsewhere on the morning of September 27. Both sides have been fighting each other for two weeks now, repeatedly firing rockets and artillery at civilian positions. Images of completely destroyed homes went around the world. The fighting turned into fierce material battles, destroying dozens to hundreds of tanks, fighter jets and drones. The figures for the casualties of the recent battles vary massively depending on the source and are likely to be between a few hundred and several thousand, with dozens to hundreds of civilians killed on both sides. 75,000 people had to flee their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh after a week and a half of fighting – more than half the population. Almost all women and children are on the run. After the imposition of martial law and the initiated general mobilization, every single man in Nagorno-Karabakh is now potentially on the gun. A ceasefire officially came into effect at noon local time on Saturday. This was negotiated in Moscow between the foreign ministers of both warring parties under mediation by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Literally minutes after the ceasefire came into effect, both sides accused themselves of breaking the agreement: Armenia had shelled the second-largest city of Ganja and Azerbaijan Stepanakert with rockets, including civilian deaths on both sides. The agreement, it seems, is not worth the paper it is written on.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one of the oldest ongoing war conflicts in the world. The region’s position as a “geopolitical sandwich” between Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the Middle East offers as much explosive as the nationalism of all sides, fueled by ethnic and religious tensions. In addition, “modern capitalist nation-states have been formed on both sides, each of which wants to be homogeneous in its own right,” as the Armenian lawyer and ver.di official Hovhannes Gevorkian explains. “Nationalist thinking is deeply rooted and has traumatized the region.” What is it all about?

Nagorno-Karabakh between the fronts

Nagorno-Karabakh is an exclave in Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus, inhabited almost exclusively by people of Armenian origin, with an area about the size of Beijing. Under international law, however, Nagorno-Karabakh and its capital Stepanakert are controlled by the Armenian military. The mountainous Lashin corridor is the shortest connection to Armenia. Together with a few other formally Azerbaijani-controlled areas, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was proclaimed in 1991, which was renamed the Republic of Arzach in 2017, but is still simply referred to as Nagorno-Karabakh. The Republic of Arzach is as large as Qatar and has a population comparable to that of Paderborn.

Israel's role in Nagorno Karabakh

Historically, the South Caucasus, especially the Nagorno-Karabakh region, is a melting pot – conquered and dominated over the millennia by Christian Armenians, Muslims and Arabs, populated by Persians, Kurds and Turkic tribes. In 1805, the Muslim Khanate of Karabakh became a Russian protectorate, and after the end of the last Russo-Persian War (1826–1828), tens of thousands of Persian Armenians settled in what is now Nagorno-Karabakh, resulting in an Armenian majority ethnically. In the course of the genocide of the Ottoman Empire from 1915, hundreds of thousands of Armenians fled to the South Caucasus. According to the last Census in 2015, 99.7 percent of the population is of Nagorno-Karabakh of Armenian descent, in addition to 238 Russians and 132 people of other origins.

In 1921, Stalin finally laid the foundation for today’s political conflict when, against all international law and against the declared will of the local population, he transferred To Azerbaijan in the Machiavellian divide-et-impera policy of Nagorno-Karabakh: the geographical region of Nagorno-Karabakh was granted the status of Autonomous Oblast Of Nagorno-Karabakh and the rest, about twice as much of the territory of today’s Republic of Arzach was directly annexed to the territory of the Azerbaijan Socialist Soviet Republic (with similarly disastrous consequences reverberating through history, such as Khrushchev’s donation of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954).

In 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh asserted its right to self-determination under international law and declared its independence, which was confirmed by a referendum by a large majority. However, no sovereign country in the world recognizes the Republic of Arzach – not even Armenia, for fear of unnecessarily fueling the conflict with Azerbaijan. However, several other unrecognized republics do so, as do eight US states, the heavyweight California among them. There are also foreign representations of the Republic of Arzach in Beirut, Berlin, Yerevan, Moscow, Paris, Sidney and Washington, which in fact amounts to at least a partial recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh by the respective governments. In the future, similar to the Palestine-Israel conflict, certain land exchanges between the two parties can and must be an integral part of negotiations to achieve a sustainable peace, Hans-Joachim Dübel appeals, but “a reintegration of Nagorno-Karabakh into the state of Azerbaijan cannot be discussed from an international point of view”.

The UN Security Council in 1993, as well as the Council of Europe in 2005, adopted several resolutions that favour Nagorno-Karabakh under international law. But Stalin’s illegitimate donation of the region to Azerbaijan in 1921 and the positive independence referendum in 1991, in particular, make it clear once again that the situation is often more complicated at second glance. At least Western media – I do not have this hope among politicians – must question the narrative that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan under international law, or at least put it in the appropriate context.

Israeli cluster bombs on Nagorno-Karabakh

Last Monday, Amnesty International published a report proving that internationally outlawed cluster munitions were used in civilian areas in Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert. It was “probably fired by Azerbaijani forces,” it said. “The repeated use of bombs in civilian areas has been proven and well documented,” explains Hovhannes Gevorkian, pointing out “what a frightening scale the use of such bombs can be.” The use of this weapon is rightly outlawed in the cluster bomb convention of 110 countries, 13 others have signed, but not ratified. Cluster munitions explode in the air into dozens to hundreds of smaller bombs, which then rain down on surfaces sometimes larger than a football field on the ground. Due to many small explosions, people are literally sifted by flying shrapnel and bleed inwardly. Up to 20 percent of the submunition does not explode, so entire areas are mined for decades. “The use of cluster bombs is prohibited under international humanitarian law under all circumstances,” said Denis Krivosheev, acting head for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International. “Attacks with cluster bombs on residential areas are absolutely appalling and unacceptable,” Krivosheev said.

Amnesty International experts have been able to prove that the bombs used in Stepanakert are Cluster Munitions of the Type M095 DPICM from Israeli production. Last but not least, this raises the question of what role Israel actually plays as an important regional power in this war. Israel does not hold here to Christian Armenia, but to Muslim – like arch-enemy Iran Shia – Azerbaijan. This partnership is based on three key components: arms, oil, Iran.

Arms for oil

According to figures from the Arms Transfers Database of the renowned Stockholm Peace Institute SIPRI – which counts only one year’s weapons systems, uncontracted contracts – Israel was the second largest arms supplier to Azerbaijan, behind Russia, behind Russia, far ahead of Belarus in third place. According to SIPRI, Israel accounts for 25 percent of all arms shipments to Baku in the last decade. These include a variety of drones, guided missiles, surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles and assault rifles. But arms exports have increased dramatically, especially in the last five years, so that in the five-year period 2015-2019, with around 740 million US dollars, as much as 60 percent of arms deliveries to Azerbaijan came from Israel, and Russia is “only” in second place with 31 percent. In a public appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December 2016, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev boasted that he had bought Israeli weapons worth “nearly 5 billion dollars,” more than significant sums, given Azerbaijan’s gross domestic product of about 38 billion U.S. dollars. Israel is a major global arms exporter and has delivered to 42 countries over the past five years. From this perspective, too, small Azerbaijan stands out from these 42 countries: with 17 percent of all Israeli arms exports, Azerbaijan ranks second as the recipient behind India, well ahead of third-placed Vietnam. Israel is therefore by far Azerbaijan’s most important arms supplier, and Azerbaijan, for its part, is Israel’s second most important recipient of arms.

A few days before the start of the war, two Ilyushin cargo planes of the Azerbaijani military landed in the Israeli Negev desert to “prepare and increase the Azerbaijani forces for the latest fighting,” as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz was able to determine from flight data. When cargo planes full of war tools are picked up and a war breaks out immediately afterwards, the idea arises that the Israeli government had previous knowledge of this war. If this speculation were true, it would be a real scandal, since the Netanyahu government should have done everything possible to prevent the illegal war of aggression. Otherwise, it would indirectly become an accomplice to this crime. Shortly after the start of the war, two more Azerbaijani cargo planes landed in the Negev, probably to replenish the empty Azerbaijani arsenals: Israeli supplies are central to the conduct of this war.

The Armenian leadership is indignant at the increasing arms cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan, as well as Israel’s involvement in the current war. On October 1, Yerevan withdrew the Armenian ambassador from Israel in protest. Four days later, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin successfully smoothed the waters in a phone call with Armenian President Armen Sarkisyan. Apparently, the Armenian side could be told that future arms exports to Azerbaijan would be stopped out of consideration. “In two or three days” Israeli arms deliveries are likely to cease, the recalled ambassador Armen Smbatyan says, “I was given an oral promise.” The Times of Israel, however, sums up, citing several Israeli analysts, that it is “unlikely that Israel will drop lucrative arms sales to Azerbaijan.” Israel has led Armenia by the nose.

Arms sales to Azerbaijan are simply too important for Israel from a strategic and economic point of view. But this dependence is based on reciprocity. As a high-tech and industrialized nation, Israel has an immense energy demand, but it is well known that it has little fossil-fuel reserves of its own and only marginally promotes itself. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has abundant oil reserves and is an important regional producer. Oil exports to Israel began in 1999, and Baku quickly suspended Russia and Kazakhstan as major exporters. According to MIT, Azerbaijan has been By far Israel’s largest crude supplier over the past decade, at more than 37 percent. In 2019, imports amounted to 1.33 billion US dollars.

So we are dealing with a relationship of dependence between Israel and Azerbaijan, which, as a mini-variant, is almost reminiscent of seven decades of US-Saudi relations: arms for oil. But this strategic partnership is still based on a third pillar, which for Israel is basically all about: Iran.

The bad Iran

Ethnic Azerbaijanis live on both sides of the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. Tehran is known to be the protector of the Shia, and Azerbaijan is the only country in the world with a Shia majority, along with Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. Iran and Azerbaijan also share joint oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Sea. On the surface, therefore, one might assume that both countries are strategic allies, but Iran is allied with Christian Armenia, and Tehran and Baku are more hostile to each other. On the one hand, this has historical-nationalist reasons. For example, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tehran wanted to prevent the unification of all Azerbaijanis at all costs – Iran is about twice as many as Azerbaijan itself, revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei among them – and to nip the emergence of separatist tendencies in the bud. Baku relied entirely on Western corporations for its oil exploration in the Caspian Sea – that is, US ships just off the Iranian coast. This cooperation manifested itself not least in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, through which Israel also receives its Azerbaijani oil. On the other hand, Azerbaijan is closely involved in NATO structures through the Partnership for Peace programme. For example, the country provided the US aggressor with several military bases for its war in Afghanistan.

This close involvement with the US-led West and opposition to Iran makes Azerbaijan the ideal partner for Israel. In 2012, a much-publicized article was published in the US journal Foreign Policy, citing several senior US military figures, suggesting that Azerbaijan had granted Israel access to the decommissioned Sitalchay Air Force Base on the Caspian Sea, which would be more or less equivalent to the establishment of an Israeli foreign base. Azerbaijan would indeed be the perfect haven for Israel in war scenarios against Iran. In a war, it would act as an outpost right on Iran’s northern flank. In the event of airstrikes, Israeli fighter jets would not have to undergo elaborate air refueling missions, but could simply turn north and land after their bombs were dropped on Iran. The Foreign Policy report on an Israeli base in Azerbaijan has never been watertight, but it is generally considered certain that Azerbaijan would still play an important role in a war against Iran. A Reuters investigation also from 2012, citing Azerbaijani military sources, suggests that Israeli jets could use a Serbaidkhan airfields for their military operations. It seems impossible that Europe would join in an Israeli war of aggression against Iran, and with the US elections in November, Washington’s position here is also more than uncertain. With the military rapprochement with Azerbaijan, Israel is cleverly diversifying its war options.

The cooperation of the intelligence services of the two countries against Iran, which has now lasted a good ten years, is assured. In 2012, an Israeli intelligence agent told the Times of London: “Our presence here in Azerbaijan is calm, but of great importance. … it brings us very close to Iran. … This is Ground Zero for intelligence work.” Other sources call Azerbaijan “eyes, ears and springboard” for Israel’s surveillance of Iran. That same year, Tehran accused Azerbaijan of having collaborating with the Israeli Mossad in the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Azerbaijan and Israel have established a close strategic partnership over the past decade and a half, with the mutually lucrative triad of arms, oil, and the fight against Iran. Azerbaijan benefits from world-class military equipment made in Israel. And the Netanyahu government, which is extremely skilful here, benefits from cheap oil, and above all through the gradual establishment of a military and intelligence outpost right on the doorstep of its arch-enemy, Iran. The victims of this symbiosis are the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, who are killed by Israeli drones and outlawed cluster munitions.