The recent flare-up of fighting in the south Caucasus is nasty. After the break up of the Soviet Union, Armenians and Azerbaijanis fought an unpleasant war over the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh with casualties of around 100,000 and one million displaced.
Armenia prevailed then. Now Azerbaijan, with the help of Turkey, is having another go. And this is not just your regular military-supplies-and-observers assistance. It looks like unemployed jihadists from the Syrian wars have been bought in as mercenaries.
Of course there is more history to this than can be dealt with in 700 words (try The History of Armenia by Simon Payaslian if interested). Turkey’s tensions with Armenia and its support for Turkic neighbour Azerbaijan are longstanding; ditto for difficulties in its relationship with Russia, to whom Armenia is most likely to turn in extremis.
But even as a ceasefire is being patched together, it still leaves open the prior question of ‘why this and why now’?
Armenia may not have great diplomatic support in this conflict (if you credit this piece in the National Review). But given their history, they see this conflict as existential and have fought doggedly, backed by their diaspora. An easy and useful military or political victory for Azerbaijan / Turkey looks to be a stretch.
And whatever the geopolitics, it’s hard to make a positive case for Azerbaijan’s breaking the status quo and attacking territory inhabited by another ethnic group. Even if neither Russia nor America are drawn in more, both Azerbaijan and Turkey’s relations with them should become more difficult.
Turkey’s actions should therefore be seen as part of a pattern of wider assertion under the leadership of President Erdogan: the heightening of tensions with Israel, Greece and Cyprus; intervention in the Syrian war; directing flows of unwanted refugees into Europe; backing one side in Libya’s civil war.
You can – at a stretch – say this just looks like a regional power dealing energetically with its local interests. But it seems more like a sea change in the foreign policy of the first century of the Turkish state, when it was plucked from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. The focus then was inward, risk-averse and seeking to build a strong national consensus.
But whereas the old Turkey – while fiercely jealous of its core interests, like protection of the Turkish minority in Cyprus – was restrained from adventurism by its commitment to NATO membership and its hope for economic and political integration with Europe, President Erdogan is much more willing to take risks and encourage enemies.
His willingness to suborn the peace poses the traditional question for the American global policeman. Are you willing to use force or coercion when fear of, or respect for, your authority fails? The answer so far is no, and is unlikely to change, particularly while the US is in an election campaign and international outrage has been muted.
But it’s a timely reminder to little states, far from the fighting, that force can be a first resort, wars can breed fast and the global policeman does not always spring to his thankless task.
And it should also be a lesson for global citizens, particularly for President Erdogan. When you decide to cut loose from your carefully-managed behaviour, start to take risks and thumb your nose at the global policeman, you probably won’t have quite the level of external support you used to have.
Perhaps it really is time for Turkey to shake off the caution of the last century and become a regional superpower. But does President Erdogan have enough internal support to cope with the bumps and lumps?