Conflict tensions will likely remain high between Azerbaijan- and Armenia-aligned forces along the Line of Contact (LoC) in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) region in the near to medium term despite two Russia-brokered humanitarian ceasefires Oct. 10 and Oct. 18.
The ceasefire was billed as a “humanitarian pause” implemented to allow the warring parties to exchange prisoners and the dead. While gunfire and localized clashes are considered normal along the LoC, the continued use of heavy weaponry and ongoing offensives on Armenia-controlled towns indicate Azerbaijan remains on a war footing and may be willing to use conflict to achieve its objectives.
Tensions between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces along the NK Line of Contact are likely to persist in the near term. There is a high probability the ceasefire will eventually fail, leading to renewed hostilities.
Shaky Humanitarian Ceasefires
Fierce clashes, including the use of heavy weaponry, drone strikes, and combat maneuvers, have continued in the days since the Oct. 18 ceasefire, particularly in southeast NK. Although less intense and widespread than before the ceasefire, armed clashes were reported in the Fuzuli-Jabrayil, Aghdara-Agdam, and Gubadli-Zangilan sectors as recently as the morning of Oct. 20. Additionally, artillery and rockets have reportedly continued to strike Azerbaijani districts, including Agdam, Goranboy, Tartar, and Agjabedi, in recent days.
The latest ceasefire has, however, been more effective than the Oct. 10 ceasefire. While the scale of hostilities was reduced following that agreement, heavy fighting continued in numerous areas along the LoC. Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces continued to shell areas outside the conflict zone, including Stepanakert, NK, and Ganja in Azerbaijan.
Increased Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Late September
Intensive clashes began Sept. 27 when Azerbaijani forces and ethnic Armenian forces in NK exchanged artillery fire; each side blames the other for firing first. Exchanges of gunfire and even artillery fire have not been unusual since the 1994 ceasefire, particularly since intensive clashes took place in April 2016. However, the current escalation is unprecedented due to the scale of the fighting, the shelling of urban centers, the direct involvement of a regional power, and the state of war and military mobilizations announced in both countries.
Major combat operations Sept. 27-Oct. 11 largely focused on the Armenia-controlled Fuzuli-Jabrayil and Martuni (Khojavend) sectors along the south and southeast of the LoC. Azerbaijan claims numerous towns were “liberated” in this sector, including Ashagi, Nuzgar, and Horadiz, all considered non-strategic. However, Azerbaijani forces also claim to have captured strategic heights in the Murovdag mountains along the north of the LoC Sept. 29, and unconfirmed reports allege that the strategic town of Madaghis, along the northeast, was occupied Oct. 3. While fierce clashes were reported along the northern and northeastern segments of the LoC, Azerbaijan sent vast numbers of troops and armor to the Fuzuli-Jabrayil sector in a clear indication of where their major objectives lay.
Azerbaijan claimed to have occupied the strategic and symbolic cities of Jabrayil and Fuzuli in the days immediately before the Oct. 10 ceasefire. The heaviest fighting Oct. 11-17 was reported in the heights surrounding Hadrut, in southeast NK, and Talysh, which Azerbaijan may have occupied Oct. 13. Azerbaijani forces have since pushed fighting into the southern Gubadli-Zangilan sector, where clashes began Oct. 19 in disregard of the Oct. 18 ceasefire. Heavy fighting has been reported in Xanliq (Ishkhanadzor) and Mincevan (Micnevan) Oct. 20. While Azerbaijan has not released military casualty figures, Armenia has reported over 630 soldiers killed. Given that both Armenia and Azerbaijan have engaged in a vigorous information war, exacerbated by poor journalistic standards and limited media freedoms, it is extremely difficult to obtain a full and clear picture of the military situation on the ground.
Conflict Extends beyond NK Line of Conflict into Civilian Areas of Armenia and Azerbaijan
It is clear that both sides have hit civilian areas with artillery, rockets, and drone strikes. Armenian forces have launched numerous rocket attacks on the city of Ganja, with similar attacks sporadically targeting other locations, including Barda, Yevlakh, and Beylaqan, and villages in the Agjabadi, Agdam, Horadiz, Tartar, and Goranboy districts. Armenian forces launched what appears to have been an isolated rocket attack on Mingecevir, approximately 50 km (31 miles) northeast of the line of contact, Oct. 4. While reports indicate property damage and injuries in all of these incidents, neither the national government in Baku nor the local municipal governments have released any details on the extent of damage caused, the number of persons injured, or the number of missiles striking the locations in question.
In Armenia, there have been reports of strikes against targets near Vardenis, a town about 18 km (11 miles) from the border with Azerbaijan. In NK, Azerbaijan has conducted numerous heavy strikes against Stepanakert since Sept. 28 and sporadic strikes against other urban centers.
Lessons from The Four-Day War April 2-5, 2016
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in a frozen conflict over NK since a 1994 ceasefire deal ended an all-out war between them. Acute conflict tensions along the LoC regularly escalate into clashes, and hostilities are usually characterized by sustained but geographically isolated exchanges of gunfire and artillery fire on military positions. However, following the intensive clashes of April 2016, subsequent rounds of hostilities have taken on a different nature. Rather than being tit-for-tat, exchanges of gunfire, or tactical engagements over minor objectives, it has become increasingly apparent that several rounds of clashes since April 2016 have been more intensive and strategic.
The April 2016 clashes are instructive when considering the ongoing clashes in NK. The Azerbaijani offensive on the strategic heights of Lalatapa and around the village of Talysh in 2016 was premeditated. Considering Azerbaijani forces gained many of those heights, the offensive could be regarded as successful. Additionally, the Azerbaijani military reportedly overwhelmed Armenia-aligned forces in several places, affirming Azerbaijani military superiority. Given the premeditation and outcome of the April 2016 clashes, the latest outbreak of hostilities and their sustained nature should come as no surprise.
Turkey’s Controversial Role in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
The latest hostilities remain unprecedented in their scale. The geographic spread of clashes, the mobilization of military reserves, the extent to which civilians have been targeted in urban centers, and Turkey’s controversial role make this round of clashes unique. Azerbaijan and Turkey claim Ankara has only provided support in the form of weapons and training; however, the extensive use of Turkish drones, particularly the Bayraktar TB2, and the alleged presence of Turkey-aligned Syrian forces continue to be concerning.
It is worth noting that Azerbaijan has been heavily investing in Israeli, Turkish, and domestic drones in recent years. While the drones used during the April 2016 clashes were almost entirely reconnaissance and patrol units, the recent clashes have revealed deep investments in drone warfare. Azerbaijan has conducted numerous strikes with so-called suicide drones, such as the Orbiter1K and Orbiter-3, which were produced by Azad Systems, an Israeli-Azerbaijani joint venture. These drones essentially double as missiles. Azeri forces also make extensive use of tactical drones such as the Israeli-made Hermes 450, which can be used for surveillance and electronic warfare. Despite these investments, observers continue to allege that Turkey has allowed Azerbaijani forces the use of Turkish command and control systems and numerous Bayraktar TB2s from early in the conflict.
Numerous media reports allege that Syrian volunteers from Turkey-controlled regions of northern Syria have been deployed to Azerbaijan. The reports further allege that Turkey began recruiting these fighters from as early as Sept. 22, several days before the fighting commenced. While it is difficult to verify these reports, which both Turkey and Azerbaijan deny, various social media posts and images suggest Syrian Arabic speakers have been present at some points on the NK front line, including near Hadrut. The alleged early recruitment of Syrian fighters causes concern, as it may reveal that Turkey had foreknowledge of the conflict. If true, this would suggest the most recent hostilities were premeditated. While the presence of Syrian fighters has been reported, it has not been verified.
Mutual Distrust Undermines Resolution of the Conflict
Azerbaijani forces have continued significant combat operations in the wake of both the Oct. 10 and the Oct. 18 ceasefires. Minor ceasefire violations could be understood as the warring parties jostling to improve tactical positions before the onset of winter. However, ongoing combat operations go beyond localized clashes, potentially revealing a deeper Azeri strategy to recapture the lowlands to the south and southeast of NK.
Baku has indicated a willingness to talk, provided Armenian forces first vacate NK; Yerevan is willing to talk, provided Azerbaijan first guarantees Karabakhi security. The conditions for a comprehensive peace deal do not currently seem to exist. Azerbaijan’s position in any future negotiations will be strongly influenced by their current military superiority, overt Turkish support, and a pro-war domestic audience. In talks following the April 2016 clashes, Baku and Yerevan agreed to strengthen conflict monitoring and introduce an investigative mechanism to deal with tensions though neither process has been implemented. Given the hardening of Azerbaijan’s negotiating position, Baku is unlikely to allow any measures that may undermine its military advantage. Azerbaijan’s territorial advancements in the ongoing hostilities may encourage Baku to periodically engage in active conflict until it has entirely reclaimed the disputed region. In the short term, Baku may be forced to halt major combat operations as its forces approach the easily defensible highlands of NK with winter closing in. However, a renewed round of hostilities is considered likely sometime after the spring thaw at Azerbaijan’s convenience.
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