STEPANAKERT (various media sources) — According to officials from Armenia and the Republic of Mountainous Karabagh, Azerbaijan launched a broad offensive on April 1, prompting a counterattack. At least 50 people have died in heavy fighting. After an abortive ceasefire unilaterally declared by Azerbaijan on April 3, a new ceasefire was declared at noon on April 5 by officials from both Azerbaijan and Karabagh. News reports from the front lines state that the fighting had died down in general, yet the Karabagh government has claimed several violations of the ceasefire by Azerbaijani artillery, leading to fire returned by its own forces.
Since the signing of a ceasefire in 1994, years of negotiations primarily under the leadership of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group have failed to reach a lasting political settlement. Sporadic fighting continued, with the intensity of clashes escalating in recent years.
The recent fighting included the use of tanks, helicopters, heavy artillery, rocket systems and drones. Colonel Viktor Arustamyan, a deputy chief of the Karabagh military headquarters, told Reuters that the recent fighting “was the most serious aggravation of the situation since the 1994 ceasefire.” The first day of fighting was the bloodiest, with Azerbaijan reporting 12 soldiers killed and Karabagh officials reporting 18 dead. A 12-year-old boy was also reported killed during the fighting. On April 5, Azerbaijan said that 16 soldiers had been killed in the last two days of fighting before the ceasefire was announced. Karabagh officials said 29 of their soldiers had been killed since the fighting started, and another 101 wounded. Both sides have claimed to have killed hundreds of opposing soldiers, while reporting losses of their own in the dozens.
According to Armenian sources, on April 1 and throughout the morning of April 2, large-scale offensive military actions were conducted by Azerbaijani forces. Missile artillery units shelled both Karabagh Armenian defense positions and civilian settlements, including with MM-21 (Grad) multiple rocket launchers. The latter at 8:30 on April 2 hit Martuni, Karabagh, killing 12-year-old Vaghinak Grigoryan and wounded two other -. Four other civilians were later wounded. On April 3, Armenian sources state that 3 Armenian civilians in Talish who had not been evacuated were killed (Valera Khalapyan and his wife Ramela, as well as Marusya Khalapyan, born in 1924).
“On early morning of April 3, the adversary carried out new attacks in the Horadiz-Nyuzger direction by using armored vehicles. Defense Army units and civilian settlements in Martakert and Talish were bombarded. These attacks were suppressed. The battles in the Kazakhlar-Nyuzger and Tapkarakoyunlutalish directions continued throughout the day. On the morning of April 4 the adversary carried out new attacks by using armored battle vehicles. The attacks were blocked. Battles continued throughout the day,” Arustamyan said. He reported that the adversary for the first time fired the TOS heavy flamethrower system, without result, and tried to use a UAV, which was destroyed by the Defense Army.
By April 4, Arustamyan said that Azerbaijan lost 18 tanks, 3 battle vehicles, 1 military/engineering hardware, 2 helicopters, 6 UAVs and 1 MM-21 artillery system while Karabagh lost 7 tanks. On the other hand, its forces had advanced 2-300 meters and gained control of five military positions in the Kazakhlar-Nyuzger direction, and 3 positions in the Talish-Matakhi-Tapkatakoyunlu area. However, the Armenians claimed to have taken the offensive and regained some territories from the Azerbaijanis during the last period of fighting before the ceasefire.
Reporting from Karabagh, Hetq Chief Editor Edik Baghdasaryan stated on April 5 that there was no truth to the claim made on April 4 by Azerbaijan that its forces had captured the village of Mataghis in the northeastern district of Martakert.
However, as Richard Giragosian, director of the independent think tank Regional Studies Centre in Armenia said, “there is very little in terms of deterrence or even leverage to prevent a repeat of renewed hostilities,” since no external forces were involved in supervision.
During the conflict, Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov said troops had been instructed to target the Karabagh capital of Stepanakert if the separatists did “not stop shelling our settlements.” The town is home to about 50,000 people. The Karabagh forces promised a “crushing response” if that threat were to be carried out.
The representatives of the Minsk Group countries issued a statement on April 5, saying, in part, they “strongly condemn the outbreak of unprecedented violence along the Line of Contact. … We urge the sides to cease using force immediately. There is no military solution to the conflict.”
French, American and Russian officials, leaders of the Minsk Group, were preparing a series of high-level visits to Azerbaijan, Karabagh and Armenia to work for a more stable peace. Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke with Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev and Armenian President Serge Sargisian during the evening of April 5, urging a full cessation of hostilities and compliance with the ceasefire regime, according to a Kremlin statement. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was scheduled to travel to Yerevan on April 7, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will go to Azerbaijan.
On April 2, US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the violence and ceasefire violations, calling for a lasting negotiated peace. Like the other Minsk Group members, he did not place blame for the initial aggression on either side. After the April 5 ceasefire, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, “It’s a very nascent ceasefire but we are encouraged that it does seem to have taken hold. We’re actively engaging with both sides to urge them to strictly adhere to the ceasefire.”
French President Francoise Hollande made a statement on April 2 similar to that of John Kerry. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told reporters in Paris after talks with his German counterpart that “We can see that military conflict cannot be the solution.”
On April 5, President Serge Sargisian gave a speech to the ambassadors of OSCE participating states in Yerevan to explain Armenia’s point of view (see text of speech on page XX). Significantly, he declared that Armenia would recognize the independence of Karabagh if military actions continued on a larger scale, and pointed out that war could have consequences affecting Europe as well as the South Caucasus.
Iran also attempted to mediate, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif telephoning his Armenian counterpart Eduard Nalbandian on April 5 prior to the ceasefire announcement as well as meeting with his Turkish and Azerbaijani counterparts in the Iranian city of Ramsar.
Many other countries condemned the fighting. The Cyprus Ministry of Foreign Affairs on April 4 denounced the use of force and urged Turkey to refrain from further destabilizing the situation, while asking Azerbaijan “to respect the status quo ante.”
Fearing an All-Out War
Outside states fear that an all-out war over Karabagh could drag in the big regional powers, Russia and Turkey. Tensions have soared between the two countries since Turkey downed a Russian jet over the Syrian border last year, an incident in which the pilot and a marine sent on a rescue mission were killed. Russia has accused Turkey of supporting the Islamic State and other terrorist groups and has imposed sanctions against Turkish goods and travel to Turkish resorts.
Moscow has a defense alliance with Armenia, while NATO-member Turkey backs its ethnic Turkic kin in Azerbaijan. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on April 5 condemned what he said were Armenian attacks, and stressed that Turkey would stand by Azerbaijan. He declared in parliament that “the whole world needs to know that Turkey will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Azerbaijan against Armenian agression and occupation until the end of time.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on the same day called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict which would maintain Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Earlier, Russia’s foreign minister had said Ankara’s support for Baku was one-sided.
Hetq Chief Editor Edik Baghdasaryan stated on April 5 that various Karabagh Defense Ministry representatives confirmed the presence of armed combatants from Turkey fighting alongside Azerbaijani soldiers. “They suffered the most losses and they started the panicked retreat,” said Baghdasaryan.
While Azerbaijani ambassador to the United States Elin Suleymanov on April 2 claimed that Armenians instigated the clashes, most outside observers seem to feel that Azerbaijan had more to gain from starting a clash than Armenia. Frustration from no concrete results to international mediation over decades despite large numbers of displaced Azerbaijanis were exacerbated recently by the economic crisis in Azerbaijan due to the fall in oil prices. For example, Azerbajani ambassador to the United States Elin Suleymanov in a telephone interview said, “Everyone understands that the status quo is not only unacceptable, but also unsustainable, and it cannot last for another two decades like it has been.” Increasing dissatisfaction with the authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan has led to open protests, and nationalism is one way to deflect attention from domestic problems. At the same time, large spending in recent years of oil revenues on the Azerbaijani military gave its leadership a sense of confidence in the possibility of military success.
The fighting has led to a renewal of patriotic feeling in Armenia, according to Armenian news sources. Hundreds of people from across Armenia have reportedly signed up in recent days as volunteers to defend Karabagh. The Defense Ministry of Armenia is publishing stories of the heroism of Armenian soldiers on the frontlines. For example, according to Armenpress, Press Secretary of the Defense Ministry Artsrun Hovhannisyan posted on his Facebook page the story of 4th rifle brigade commander, 26-year-old Captain Armenak Urfanyan. “Captain Urfanyan along with his crew engaged in a long lasting firefight with the enemy. Under the pressure of overwhelming enemy forces, he ordered his crew to retreat, and continued the battle alone, eliminated an enemy tank and 10 enemy soldiers. In the end, he threw several grenades and didn’t let the enemy surround him. He used the last grenade to sacrifice himself by eliminating the approaching enemy. Glory to our heroes,” he wrote.
Armenians in the US and elsewhere have been vocal in their support of Karabagh too. On April 3, the Armenian Assembly of American condemned the Azerbaijani attacks and renewed its call to reinstate and enforce Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, prohibiting assistance to Azerbaijan until it ceases offensive actions. It urged the Obama administration to hold the aggressor party accountable. On April 5, it sent a letter to US Secretary of State Kerry reiterating these points, and adding that Turkey was also responsible for the bloodshed. It also stated that Karabagh should again have a place as a negotiating party in the Minsk process.
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) on April 2 condemned the Azerbaijani attacks and regretted that Secretary Kerry during his public remarks with Aliyev did not mention any American concerns about the violence. The failure of the Obama administration to confront Azerbaijani aggression, the ANCA statement continued, “gave Aliyev the green light to launch these attacks on Karabagh.” It demanded immediate action instead to stop the attacks and ensure a lasting peace with self-determination and freedom for the people of Karabagh.
On the same date, it initiated an online action portal where supporters of Karabagh peace could contact US government officials. This was paired with a social media effort urging US leaders to stop Aliyev.
Many American congressmen have reflected the views of the Armenian-American populace. On April 4 Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Frank Pallone (D-NJ) declared: “I strongly condemn Azerbaijan’s escalation of hostilities against Nagorno Karabagh, and I join the Obama Administration in urging an immediate de-escalation of the conflict,” said Rep. Pallone. “President Aliyev continues to defy international calls to reach a negotiated settlement that will ensure a lasting peace in the region. It is unacceptable for Azerbaijan to continue on its current belligerent path, and I urge the Obama Administration and the OSCE Minsk Group to demand accountability on the part of Azerbaijan and continue to work toward implementing proposals that promote peace.” His Republican counterpart, Rep. Bob Dold, concurred, saying: “Once again we are reminded that Azerbaijan continues to say one thing and do the exact opposite. Rather than obscure the reality with allusions towards even-handedness, I hope that the Obama administration will continue to work with Nagorno-Karabagh and the OSCE Minsk Group to come to a peaceful resolution where Azerbaijan is held accountable for their actions.”
House Select Committee on Intelligence Ranking Democrat Adam Schiff (D-CA) stated he is “deeply disturbed by and condemns” the escalation in violence, and concluded: “Until Azerbaijan faces strong and meaningful consequences over their policy of escalation and violence and its self-serving refusal to agree to international monitoring of the Line of Contact, there is little chance of resolving the conflict and avoiding further bloodshed.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Senior Democrat Brad Sherman (D-CA) called Azerbaijan’s attacks “deeply disappointing.” He proposed that “US assistance to Azerbaijan be cut off until it ceases its aggression, renounces violence, and commits to a purely peaceful resolution of the conflict.”
(See the editorial in this issue on this topic on page 18.)
— Aram Arkun