What’s in a Name: Terrorism in the South Caucasus

An eruption of serious violence in the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was all but inevitable. The outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; however, feels different according to analysts. The stakes have been raised with Turkey’s growing role but also with the participation of mercenaries in the conflict. French President Emmanuel Macron has confirmed the participation of Syrian fighters from various jihadist groups to assist in Azerbaijani military operations. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkey is responsible for dispatching these proxies.

The regional implications of the use and even the allegations of terrorism in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are critical. Neighboring Iran has fought hard to maintain a neutral position in relation to the conflict; however, Karabakh’s now explosive potential and the use of mercenaries will demand an increasingly assertive role from Tehran. Iran is thus expected to ramp up security along its northern border and increase diplomatic efforts to calm the strife between its neighbors. Russia, a mediator and weapons supplier in the Karabakh conflict, has serious concerns over the participation of mercenaries in the latest escalation. In a statement Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service said, the South Caucasus is now “like a magnet” for extremists from the Middle East and has the potential to become “a new launch pad for international terrorist organizations.”

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is already plagued by fierce and indiscriminate violence, has just added another front. There is now an information war on the use of mercenaries, with both Armenia and Azerbaijan accusing each other of supporting terrorism. While Azerbaijan’s use of paid fighters from abroad has been established, Baku is now trying to distract from damages to its reputation by accusing Yerevan of recruiting terrorists to do its dirty work in the conflict. 

Propensity for Terrorism?

Following the 1915 genocide of Armenians, organizations like Operation Nemesis doled out assassinations to escapee the genocidaires of the Ottoman Empire. Later in the 1970’s the bloody theatre of the Lebanese civil war would give birth to more Armenian terrorist organizations like the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG), both of whom sought to exact revenge for the Armenian genocide by killing Turkish diplomats.

The memory of these groups are still strong in Armenia. Stickers, books, and posters commemorating the assassins of ASALA or Soghomon Tehlirian are abundant. In an interview with regional outlet Eurasianet, a young Lebanese-Armenia commented that if Azerbaijani sponsored ethnic cleansing of Armenians were to occur in Karabakh today “another ASALA will come.” This thought, that ASALA will once again operate to serve Armenian interests doesn’t exist just in the minds of Armenians but also in Azerbaijan and its defense partner Turkey. 

Claims that Armenia has deployed members of ASALA, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are plentiful in Azerbaijan and Turkey. Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to Turkey Khazar Ibrahim has claimed that the Armenian military is cooperating closely with terror groups who “do not shy away” from deliberately attacking non-combatants. Part of the reason these rumors have caught on so well in Azerbaijan and Turkey is the belief in the Armenian’s propensity for terrorism. This is purportedly evidenced by Armenia’s celebration of figures such as Monte Melkonian. Melkonian not only played a supporting role in the Armenia victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh war but was also a key member of ASALA. He is revered as a hero in both Armenia and Armenian-controlled Karabakh. Melkonian’s likeness hangs on the rear view mirrors of automobiles across the nation and even has a military college named in his honor

However unpleasant the commemoration of Melkonian may be, this ignores that ASALA has been defunct since the 1990’s, with their last registered attack occurring in 1997. This is also not the first time that Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of harboring Kurdish militants in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is anything but speculation that Armenia has deployed Kurdish fighters to the conflict zone in Nagorno-Karabakh according to Azerbaijani diplomatic and Turkish security services. Azerbaijani and Turkish news outlets as well as pro-Azerbaijani analysts frequently cite Cairo 24 as confirmation of this information, without actually linking to the story. Cairo 24 is described by the above as a news website that reads more like a tabloid, using loaded words and stereotypes in attempts to appeal to readers emotions. More importantly, articles concerning the involvement of PKK or YPG members do not name sources for the accusations. 

I know you are, but what am I?

Allegations of terrorism serve two functions in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. One is a useful narrative and the other is of more strategic use. Both factions of the Karabakh conflict have always attempted to employ shocking labels that may catch the attention and support of the international community as well as prevent domestic opposition to compromise. Characterizing any event of mass violence as genocide, has featured prominently among these labeling attempts. Baku alleges that that Armenian forces committed genocide in Khojaly against Azerbaijani civilians. Yerevan has maintained that today’s escalation of the Karabakh conflict proves that Azerbaijan and Turkey have genocidal intentions against Armenians.  

Now, in the minds of these opposing sides, perhaps the label terrorism will catch the eye of a world that has largely ignored the tragic events taking place in the South Caucasus. Charges of terrorism, like genocide, could potentially fuel public outrage and prompt normally impartial observers to take decisive stands on the issue. Domestically, both nations use these loaded labels in a war metaphor, à la war on terror. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) describes that this war metaphor implies that military action against the enemy is necessary and more importantly, that only one side may win. 

With a war on terror, those advocating for peace or compromise with the other side may subsequently be labelled as sympathizing with terrorism. As both sides name each other as terrorists, negotiating with the enemy legitimizes their operations and this cannot be allowed with the maximalist positions emanating from Baku and Yerevan. The resulting “no-concessions” for terrorists strategy is a bad omen for the future of peace in the region. 

An example of the “war on terror” mentality taken from Armenian social media. 

An Expanding Field

The second function of the label of terrorism is more material in nature. One should not discount Turkey and Azerbaijan’s assertions that Armenia is using mercenaries from ASALA, PKK, or YPG in its confrontations in Karabakh with Azerbaijan. While this may be unsubstantiated, Turkey has done much more for much less in the name of protecting its national security. 

Before Ankara’s incursion into Syria, it labeled the territory controlled in northern Syria by the YPG a “terror corridor.” Turkey’s military is also regularly carrying out operations in Iraq to eliminate the presence of PKK rebels and Ankara remains “determined to take the measures it deems necessary for its border security no matter where it may be.” The allegations of Armenia deploying ASALA, PKK, and YPG may help legitimize further participation of Turkish forces in Azerbaijani military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The End Result

As of now the casualty count is ever-increasing and a total win remains a distant fantasy for either side. Azerbaijan accepting mercenaries into the fold has not only complicated an already precarious situation on the ground but risks turning itself into a pariah stateJihadist contingents and mercenaries may have participated on the side of Azerbaijan in the war of the 1990s but with little success. With the game having changed so radically and the dangers associated with using paid militants having increased, will the ends justify the means?

Armenian terror threats may be ludicrous but the consequences of such statements are no laughing matter. Labels of terrorism will ultimately erode any real chance for peace in the South Caucasus, making compromise illegitimate and rationalizing harsh responses.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.
Renée Rippberger
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Renée Rippberger is a human rights researcher and policy graduate intern for The Advocates for Human Rights. She recently completed an International Master in Central and Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology of Law, Criminology and Deviance from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Currently based in Yerevan, she has worked with numerous Armenian organizations on issues faced by the South Caucasus. Her research interests include human rights, white collar crime, genocide studies and de facto states in post-Communist Europe and Eurasia.

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1 reply

  1. If we compare Khojaly to Rwanda, the Azerbaijanis did not face a genocide. I lived there for some time and asked them why they called it genocide because it didn’t fit the whole criteria for it to be termed as such. Nevertheless, agreed that both camps are using incorrect terminology. I guess it’s an emotional/sensitive issue, and they are trying to get the world as emotional as they are.

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