While the world is struggling against the devastating consequences of COVID-19 and already dealing with the second wave of the pandemic, Azerbaijan has started a large-scale war against Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) a de facto independent republic in the South Caucasus. Though Azerbaijan has attempted several times in the past to disrupt the ceasefire, this recent attack is unprecedented in its scale and tactics. The main distinguishing factor is the explicit involvement of Turkey in the war. For the first time since the attack against Armenia by Ataturk’s army in 1920, Turkey is once again involved in a military operation against the Armenians of the South Caucasus. Moreover, Turkey has recruited and transported Syrian rebels to Azerbaijan to take part in the attack. Their use is a massive stain on Baku’s international image, but consistent with the genocidal rhetoric that we have come to expect from Azerbaijani officials, including a threat to bomb Armenia’s Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant in July 2020.
The Azerbaijani-Turkish joint venture of transplanting Sunni-affiliated extremists into Shia-majority Azerbaijan has the potential to turn the region into a new hub of sectarian violence and create a security breakdown for the wider region.
As usual, international bodies are trying to maintain balance by calling on both sides to stop the fighting and to return to the negotiating table. The statements from prominent international organizations and world leaders create an atmosphere of zero accountability for Azerbaijan, which instigated the fighting.
For the EU, this resumption of a new conflict in the Eastern Partnership zone is a direct threat to the Union's security. At the European Council’s special meeting on October 1-2, the Council addressed the topic of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and issued a statement of concern. The European Council is a collegiate body that defines the overall political directions and priorities of the European Union. It comprises the heads of government of the EU member states, along with the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. The meeting concluded:
“The European Council calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities and urges parties to recommit to a lasting ceasefire and the peaceful settlement of the conflict. The loss of life and the toll on the civilian population are unacceptable. There can be no military solution to the conflict, nor any external interference. Azerbaijan and Armenia should engage in substantive negotiations without preconditions. The European Council expresses its support for the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs and asks the High Representative to examine further EU support for the settlement process.”
The statement is standard text, without a tailored approach. However, the most important part was the discussion on the topic and the statements made by French President Emmanuel Macron before the meeting:
“To be very clear, the strikes that Azerbaijan undertook on Sunday, to our knowledge, were not justified, and I brought this question to resident Aliyev. We have information, as of today, which confirm that Syrian fighters have left the battle scenes of Islamic jihad in Syria and transited through Gaziantep [in Turkey] to join the theater of operations in Nagorno-Karabakh. This is a very serious revelation, a new one, which changes the reality of the situation...”
Two important aspects about President Macron’s remarks should be noted. First, Azerbaijan is identified as the side that started the war, without provocation. Second, the Armenian side’s claims that they are fighting against Syrian jihadists have been verified by international intelligence. In his previous statements, the French President emphasized that France will not allow Turkey to commit another genocide against Armenians.
The topic of sanctions against Turkey is in the discourse of the EU. After the Council meeting concluded on October 2, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the EU could impose sanctions on Ankara if Turkish “provocations and pressures” continue in the Eastern Mediterranean. For context, Turkey is also violating international law in pursuing an aggressive gas exploration effort in the Eastern Mediterranean, threatening Greece and Cyprus. Turkey’s involvement in the attack against Artsakh adds to grievances by the EU regarding Turkey’s aggressive policy in Syria, Libya, Greece and Cyprus. The same day, Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz tweeted that the EU should impose sanctions against Turkey if it continues to violate international law.
Following the Council’s meeting, the European Commissioner for Crisis Management and Humanitarian Aid Janez Lenarčič announced that the EU will allocate €500,000 in aid for the civilian population affected by the conflict, on both sides of the contact line. Lenarčič said, “The fighting in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict zone has already claimed civilian lives. International humanitarian law must be respected and the protection of civilian life and infrastructure ensured.” The package marks the first ever direct support to the people of Artsakh by the EU.
Several initiatives were undertaken in the European Parliament. On October 2, on the initiative of MEP Stelios Kypmouropoulous (Greece, EPP), 24 members of the European Parliament sent written questions to the President of the European Council, Charles Michel. The questions are related to the European Council’s actions for an immediate cessation of hostilities and ceasefire. It tries to reveal whether the President of the European Council is willing to exert all necessary pressure on the government of Azerbaijan to stop hostilities and to withdraw its troops. Another question is related to the Council’s willingness to prepare a list of individuals on whom to impose financial sanctions. The EU currently accounts for 51% of Azerbaijan's exports and 16% of Azerbaijan's imports.
There are several calls and initiatives from MEPs trying to raise awareness about the Azerbaijani aggression and show their unconditional support to the people of Artsakh. After the European Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee (AFET) meeting, MEP Fabio Massimo Castaldo (Italy, NI) announced that Turkey’s interference is unacceptable and called for direct European Commission involvement in the Artsakh issue.
In a Facebook post, MEP Assita Kanko (Belgium, ECR) wrote, “We are reminded once again of Turkey's continuing role in threatening to destabilize the European neighborhood. These are issues the High Representative and the Council cannot ignore. We need a geopolitical EU that becomes reality, otherwise, the instability around the EU's external borders will continue to increase.”
MEP Martin Sonneborn (Germany, Greens/EFA) also took to Facebook, presenting an in-depth historical background of the Artsakh conflict by explaining why the Republic of Artsakh is a fully functioning state that should be acknowledged.
Other actions and calls were also undertaken by MEPs Costas Mavrides (Cyprus, S&D), Lefteris Christoforou (Cyprus, EPP), Frederique Ries (Belgium, RE), Demetris Papadakis (Cyprus, S&D), Charlie Weimers (Sweden, ECR) and Eva Kaili (Greece, S&D).
Moreover, six members of the liberal Renew Europe parliamentary group sent a written question to the High Representative/Vice President of the European Commission to Josep Borrell about Turkey's unacceptable involvement in the Azerbaijani aggression against Artsakh and the Republic of Armenia. It is important to mention the letter MEP Fragkos Emmanouil (Greece, ECR) sent to High Representative Borrell, urging the EU to take action and denounce Turkey's involvement in the military attack against Armenia.
The coordinators of the two largest parliamentary groups, the EPP and S&D, in the AFET committee, MEPs Michael Gahler (Germany, EPP) and MEP Tonino Picula (Croatia, S&D) are calling on Azerbaijan to stop its military attack on Artsakh. The list is very long and it is growing by the day.
While statements are encouraging, real action is yet to come. The EU should be straightforward toward Turkey and Azerbaijan by imposing economic sanctions, including an arms embargo.
The EU’s Global Strategy reads, “We will therefore act promptly to prevent violent conflict, be able and ready to respond responsibly yet decisively to crises, facilitate locally owned agreements, and commit long-term. We will take responsibility foremost in Europe and its surrounding regions while pursuing targeted engagement further afield.”
It is time for the EU to put those principles into practice.