On September 27, intense fighting broke out in the rugged Nagorno-Karabakh region of the southern Caucasus, shattering a shaky peace that had held for nearly three decades. About the size of the state of Delaware, the separatist enclave is home to almost one hundred fifty thousand people, the vast majority of them ethnic Armenians. But the self-proclaimed “Republic of Artsakh,” backed by the Armenian military, has long been recognized as belonging to neighboring Azerbaijan. Now, with a stronger economy and more advanced weaponry than Armenia, oil-rich Azerbaijan has begun reasserting its claims, originally granted in the Soviet era by Joseph Stalin. After three weeks of worsening violence (much of it conducted via trench warfare in the mountains and remote drone strikes in cities) and two shattered ceasefires, a hundred civilians and thousands of combatants are dead, hundreds more injured, and seventy-five thousand people—about half of the total population of Nagorno-Karabakh—are displaced.
The brewing war between Armenia and Azerbaijan hasn’t received much attention from Western media, but there are reasons to be gravely concerned. Beyond the growing humanitarian crisis, the conflict threatens to draw in larger regional powers like Turkey, Russia, and Iran. Turkey, a NATO ally, has acted particularly irresponsibly: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has loudly proclaimed his support for the Azeri incursion while calling on Armenia to abruptly withdraw from a region it has effectively controlled since 1994. What’s worse, Turkey has added fuel to the fire by hiring and sending hundreds of Syrian mercenaries into the region to fight against Armenia. Should the conflict expand into Armenia itself, Russia, which brokered the initial ceasefire but still sells weapons to both sides, would be treaty-bound to defend it. And Iran, which borders both countries to the south, has a sizable Azeri minority; it, too, has indulged in some bellicose rhetoric, after a misfired Armenian missile landed in its territory.