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Allied backs Azerbaijan to “make Turkey great again”

Nearly two decades ago, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political party came to power, it formulated a foreign policy summarized in the succinct phrase: “Zero problems with neighbors.”

But nowadays, it is difficult to find conflict anywhere in Turkey’s enlarged neighborhood – the Middle East, North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean – in which Erdogan’s government does not play a role.

Turkey is now the driving force behind the battle for Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave located in Azerbaijan, a close ally of Turkey. As the latest military action erupted on September 27th, Erdogan̵

7;s government welcomed its “Turkic brothers” and rudely rejected calls from European allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to push for a negotiated agreement.

It may seem a strange time for Erdogan, whose personal popularity has waned, as he resorts to increasingly authoritarian measures to secure his power, to plunge into another ugly and complex regional quarrel. But the 66-year-old leader and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, have a long history of playing the nationalist card when discontent grows at home.

“All this coincides with the internal rhetoric of Erdogan and the AKP to make Turkey great again,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scientist at the Carnegie Europe think tank.

In some ways, the conflict is welcome to distract Erdogan. Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, Turkey’s once thriving economy had shaken and, as elsewhere, the public health crisis has exacerbated fiscal problems. As the pandemic worsened when the death toll in the country approached 10,000, the government’s disorganized response to COVID-19 was poorly received even by the traditionally supportive business community.

At a time like this, Azerbaijan, with its close linguistic and ethnic ties to Turkey, is creating a perfect celebre cause, said Alan Makovski of the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington – just like neighboring Armenia, with which relations are historically hostile, creating a perfect foil. .

“When you look at the polls of which countries the Turks consider their friends, Azerbaijan is always on top,” Makovski said.

Turkish media, largely loyal to the government after years of official attacks on independent trade outlets, have glorified Azerbaijan’s exploits in the battle for Nagorno-Karabakh, which ethnic Armenians call the Artsakh Republic.

As fighting escalates, many analysts point to the culmination of a decades-long military partnership.

Turkey has played a huge role in helping build the Azerbaijani army. The Caucasus state surpassed Armenia when the two fought their last major battle, in the years before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Svante Cornell, director of the Institute for Central Asia and the Caucasus, said Azerbaijan “learned the lesson that the inability to organize a proper military force is the reason they lost.” This conflict ended in a shaky truce in 1994.

Helped in recent years by unexpected energy revenues, Azerbaijan has begun to systematically develop its military strength. Turkey has intervened with structural support, advanced training and numerous arms sales, to a dramatic effect.

“There is a clear imprint of the Turkish army on Azerbaijan,” Cornell said.

As in Libya and Syria, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a proxy for Turkey’s long-running rivalry with Russia, which has a defense alliance with Armenia and a military base in the country. Some analysts believe that authoritarian leaders like Erdogan are using the moment to weaken the influence of the United States and Europe.

“Obviously, Erdogan has the ambition to position Turkey as a regional leader and has not yet hit a wall,” said Niku Popescu, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He likened Turkey’s bid for influence in the South Caucasus, Russia’s backyard, to Moscow’s entanglements in Syria and Libya, which are more in Turkey’s immediate sphere.

“It’s a gold rush mentality,” Popescu said. “You go, you move fast, you mark your territory. If you have to drill a few noses in the process, do it, but grab as much terrain as you can. “

Despite decades of enmity between Armenia and Azerbaijan, recent fighting has almost certainly not erupted spontaneously, said Ezgi Yazichi, who analyzes the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for the Washington-based Institute for War Studies.

Turkey and the government in the Azerbaijani capital Baku “probably prepared and coordinated for potential Azerbaijani intervention to challenge Armenia’s claims in Nagorno-Karabakh for months with sales of Turkish drones, joint military exercises and reported on the mobilization of Syrian proxies in Azerbaijan.” Yazici wrote in an email. “Even if Azerbaijan decides to launch an offensive on its own, Erdogan’s actions have certainly facilitated and probably encouraged Azerbaijani action.”

The Turkish leader does not hide a broader agenda, describing his government’s position as an expression of “his deserved place in the world order.” Both by supporting Azerbaijan in the current fighting and by claiming a role in mediating a possible peace, the Turkish leader sees an opportunity to boost his prestige, Ulgen said.

“This allows Turkey to argue with the international community that it has become more influential and important,” he said.

In battle zones, of course, the issue of regional jockey is far from theoretical. With the increase in civilian casualties on Thursday, Armenia has accused Turkey of not allowing emergency planes to fly over its territory, and aid groups have warned of an impending humanitarian crisis.

Popescu predicts that Armenia may eventually agree to give up some territory around Nagorno-Karabakh. But any agreement is unlikely to be in line with the maximalist demands made by Azerbaijani leaders with Turkish support, including a call for Armenian forces to leave the enclave, Ulgen said.

“It’s not very realistic,” he said. “Turkey’s goal is to move, to prepare for political negotiations – to have a place at the table.”

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