Armenia and Azerbaijan’s war over Nagorno-Karabakh is getting deadlier

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a long-disputed territory has entered a dangerous and politically fraught stage, one that could see the region’s deadliest conflict in two decades get a whole lot worse.

For the past six weeks, the Caucasus rivals have engaged in their second war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory about the size of Delaware. The area is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but it’s claimed and governed by ethnic Armenians. The two sides haven’t reached a lasting diplomatic resolution to the dispute since the first war that killed 30,000 people or more ended in a 1994 ceasefire.

This conflict — which since September 27 has killed anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 people, including civilians — is a lot different from the last one.

For one, Azerbaijan has the unequivocal backing of Turkey. Turkey shares deep linguistic, ethnic, and religious ties with its neighbor, and has now shared with it weaponry and troops for the fight. Azerbaijan also has advanced technology this time around, including drones that dive-bomb to kill opposing forces. The last conflict saw Armenia win, which is why ethnic Armenians control Nagorno-Karabakh; this time, though, it looks like Azerbaijan may prevail.

On Sunday, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev claimed his military overtook Shusha, which experts say is considered the cultural capital of the breakaway territory. His country lost the city during the first war, and its recapture sent hundreds of people into the streets of the Azerbaijani capital of Baku to celebrate.

“It means more to the Azerbaijani people than any other part of Karabakh, I’d dare say even including Stepanakert,” the region’s capital, said Roya Talibova, an Azerbaijani who was internally displaced by the violence of the first war and is now a PhD student at the University of Michigan.

Many of Azerbaijan’s best-known composers, poets, and writers are from Shusha, she noted, which is why “you just cannot have lived and breathed in Azerbaijan without feeling that attachment to the city.”

On Monday, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense released a video showing the country’s flag raised above a Shusha building and draped over a city sign, and troops saluting in a square.

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The country of Armenia and the ethnic Armenian government of Nagorno-Karabakh, however, dispute Azerbaijan’s claims. Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s president, tweeted on Monday that “The battles for #Shushi continue,” using the Armenian name for the city.

While that statement is a denial that Azerbaijan has overtaken Nagorno-Karabakh’s cultural center, it’s also a confirmation that there actually is fighting happening for control of that city.

That’s important, and very troubling, news.

Kevork Oskanian, an expert on the dispute at the University of Birmingham in the UK, told me this means “fighting has moved from what was the captured territory around Nagorno-Karabakh into the heart of the region. That’s qualitatively different, also in terms of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.”

In other words, the war was already bad. What might come next could be far worse.

The next stage of fighting could be “more dangerous and potentially tragic”

The city of Shusha (or Shushi), the region’s second-largest settlement, is located high on a hilltop roughly nine miles south of Stepanakert. It basically oversees the capital, which means Azerbaijan’s forces could use it as a base from which to shell the city.

Azerbaijan having such an advantageous position, according to Oskanian, would make “holding on to [Stepanakert] much more difficult” for the Armenians. “It would be a major setback.”

Locals seem to see it that way. About two-thirds of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population has already fled the territory, experts estimate, and some dispatches indicate Stepanakert is “now nearly empty.”

Videos have surfaced online of major traffic jams as civilians flee fighting, giving credence to unconfirmed reports of a growing exodus from the Stepanakert area. It’s unsurprising, especially as other videos circulate allegedly showing Azerbaijani troops summarily executing Armenians.

If Azerbaijani troops move further into the cultural and regional capitals, experts are concerned the conflict could see ethnic cleansing of the people who have remained behind, marking a “more dangerous and potentially tragic” stage of the war, Oskanian said.

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Talibova, the University of Michigan PhD student from Azerbaijan, argues the situation isn’t so dire.

“I think the intention is not to harm the civilians and let them move out while the clashes last,” she told me. “If the Azerbaijanis make the same mistake, the displaced Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh will relive the horrors of Azerbaijani [internally displaced persons] for years to come, and Azerbaijan will one day have to pay a high price for the same mistake.”

“Once the territories are taken back, they will be asked to return,” Talibova said.

Even if ethnic cleansing doesn’t come to pass, though, the conflict could still worsen.

Russia has a defense treaty with Armenia, which it could choose to honor if Azerbaijan neared a complete takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow may also decide to enter the fray on its own. On Sunday, a Russian military helicopter was shot down over Armenia on Sunday, killing two crew members and injuring another. Azerbaijan admitted responsibility, but claimed it was an accident. The Russian helicopter was likely part of the country’s deployment to Armenia to defend against a full-scale invasion.

If Russia were to step in, Turkey might also since it backs Azerbaijan. At that point, Turkey — a NATO ally — might face off against Russia in the Caucasus, perhaps escalating the conflict into a greater global problem.

The main hope now, experts say, is for the two warring countries to set aside their differences and come to some sort of political agreement. But three previous attempts at ceasefires — each individually brokered by Russia, France, and the US, the three nations charged with finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict since the 1990s — quickly failed. And with Azerbaijan’s new gains in Nagorno-Karabakh, it has little incentive to stop fighting now, despite fresh efforts.

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“The temptation to go for full military control over the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh is more likely,” said Laurence Broers, the Caucasus program director at the Chatham House think tank in London.

Azerbaijan’s government seemed to confirm that. “We are pretty much sure we will be going until the end, as the president said — we will be liberating all the occupied territories of Azerbaijan from occupation,” Leyla Abdullayeva, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, told Al Jazeera on Sunday.

If that’s the goal, then much more bloody fighting awaits the militaries of Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“The stakes keep getting higher in a conflict that won’t deescalate or go away,” Broers told me.