Heavy shelling and armed clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces continued today in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh border region, despite a joint call from France and Russia for a ceasefire and a de-escalation of the violence. 

According to BBC reports, the French and Russian presidents Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin spoke directly on the matter. They agreed to mutually press the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments to enter into an immediate ceasefire and exercise “maximum restraint.” 

Conflicting reports about the situation on the ground are adding to concerns. Azerbaijan released a video showing what they alleged to be the destruction of two “enemy” tanks, while Armenia is claiming the deaths of nearly a hundred service personnel and civilians. The Armenian defense ministry reported on Tuesday that a Turkish F-16 had downed an Armenian SU-25. Turkey dismissed the report as “cheap propaganda.” 

New reports are suggesting that hundreds of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries have been brought into the region as well. Early estimates put the number of fighters in the thousands, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights countered these claims saying that the number is closer to 850.

“Most of the Syrian fighters sent to Azerbaijan are of Turkmen descent, and they went to Azerbaijan under the pretext of ‘defending the national cause,’ while the Turkish-backed Arab factions refused to send their fighters to Azerbaijan,” SOHR sources added.

A new report from SOHR, suggests that the Syrian fighters Turkey is rapidly relocating to the Nagorno-Karabakh region are hardened commandos who had previously fought in the Jabal al-Turkmen and Jabal al-Akrad battles in northwest Syria. The influx of these fighters in support of Azerbaijani forces suggests a possible kinetic move to oust Armenian forces from the contested border region. 

International Involvement and Syrian Presence

As the fighting intensifies, neighboring countries and world powers will have to work quickly to quell the hostilities lest the violence boils over into a fully-fledged war in the border region. Iran and Georgia, both of which share borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan, have called for restraint. Qatar, who is currently hosting the inter-Afghan peace talks, has offered to mediate a resolution. But the most powerful influence would likely come from the Minsk Group or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Minsk Group is co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States. 

The Department of State released a statement last Sunday urging both sides to “avoid unhelpful rhetoric and actions that further raise tensions on the ground” adding that “participation in the escalating violence by external parties would be deeply unhelpful and only exacerbate regional tensions.”

The statement is as much directed at the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments as to Russia, Iran, and Turkey. 

Background of the Nagorno-Karabakh Region

The Nagorno-Karabakh region has long been contested. During the Soviet era, the region, though composed of a majority of ethnic Armenians, was designated as part of Azerbaijan.

In the 1980s, as the Soviet Union crumbled, tension flared into a regional war between the two countries. The war raged until 1994 and ended in a tentative ceasefire. Tens of thousands were killed in the war while another million people are estimated to have been displaced. Reports of ethnic cleansing and mass killings were attributed to both sides.

As part of the ceasefire agreement, the Nagorno-Karabakh region remained part of Azerbaijan. Yet, it has since been administered by separatist Armenian-backed governments which sought to declare the region a republic.

In 2018, a peaceful Armenian revolution removed long-time ruler Serzh Sargysan from power. He was replaced by protest leader Nikol Pashinyan in a free election. Pashinyan opened talks of de-escalation of tensions with Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliev. In 2019, the nations agreed to take “concrete measures to prepare the populations for peace,” according to the BBC.

While it’s unclear what sparked the recent clashes, it’s possible that they resulted from the celebration of Armenian independence on September 21st, the date that marks its separation from the former Soviet Union.

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In a statement commemorating the event, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had underscored U.S. intentions to support Armenian independence. 

“We commend Armenia’s ongoing efforts to combat corruption through transparency, due process, and increased accountability to citizens,” Pompeo wrote. “We will continue to support you in these efforts.”

Such a benign statement alone is likely not enough to ignite violence. But renewed clashes highlight the growing regional tensions between Syria, Turkey, Iran and Russia and could become yet another proxy battle space for the United States as it seeks to combat increased Russian aggression and contain Iranian influence regionally.