Azerbaijan-Armenia Update: 28 September, 2020

Apologies for not getting the update published sooner but today grew busier than expected.

Fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces continued into its second day, feeding worries about the conflict escalating to a full-blown war that will draw in a number of regional powers. Casualties have been reported by both sides, and according to various third-party sources a high number of civilians have been killed or wounded so far. Azerbaijani defense officials have released video purportedly showing Azerbaijani drone strikes on Armenian air defense vehicles. The Armenians released their own video yesterday supposedly of Azerbaijani tanks and other armored vehicles coming under fire and exploding. There is no way right now to confirm the authenticity of either side’s videos, but it would not be outside the realm of possibility for some, or even all of them to be less than authentic.

The increasing concern about this conflict touching off a regional war is not hyperbole. Russia has maintained close economic ties with Azerbaijan and Armenia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. But Armenia is deeper inside of the Russian sphere, holding membership in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization. Azerbaijan is a member of neither. Azerbaijan’s closest ally is Turkey. Having these two major powers on opposing sides has raised some eyebrows. There is a possibility that an expanded conflict could bring Russia and Turkey into the fighting, however, at this point the chance of that happening is minimal.

Unconfirmed reports have been circulating about Syrian mercenaries in Azerbaijan preparing to join the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Earlier reports claim that Turkey has brought the Syrians to Azerbaijan.

Turkey Discovers Large natural Gas Field In The Black Sea

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his nation’s largest ever natural gas discovery today. It is a 328 billion cubic meter field in the Black Sea that could be part of a bigger reserve. Erdogan has hinted that the gas could start being extracted by 2023. The field, if as large as Turkey claims, will also give Ankara the advantage when the time comes to renegotiate its existing natural gas import agreements. Turkey presently relies on imports to cover almost all of its energy needs. Energy import bills have been a consistent drag on its currency for years. In 2019 Turkey paid out $41 Billion on energy imports, these payments putting a large dent in the nation’s currency reserves.

 Most importantly, the find will have a positive effect on the Turkish economy down the line. The Turkish Lira is responding positively to the news, a marked contrast from the unprecedented slide it has endured lately. It won’t last, however. Turkey’s economic troubles are too broad to be solved by a major natural gas find. Rising inflation, and interest rates, record unemployment, and a recession are some of the obstacles the Turkish economy is trying to overcome right now.

Erdogan also said today that Turkey will increase exploratory operations in the Mediterranean. There are presently ongoing territorial disputes with Greece and Cyprus concerning Turkish operations in contested waters. Last week’s collision between Turkish, and Greek warships seems to have cooled tensions for the time being, and forced all of the involved parties to take a deep breath.

Eastern Mediterranean Heating Up

The Eastern Mediterranean has gone from lukewarm to a rapid simmer over the past week. In Lebanon the political winds of change appear to be descending upon Beirut following the massive explosion at Beirut’s port facility on 4 August. The incident reinvigorated protests, and heavy anti-government sentiment across the nation. This morning the Lebanese government saw the writing on the wall and resigned. In an address earlier today Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation, and his intent to “take a step back,” and “fight the battle for change alongside them.” Diab went on to denounce the political ruling class and lay blame for the explosion squarely on their shoulders. Diab’s cabinet resigned earlier in the day, and it appears now that at least some of them will remain on in a caretaker role until a new government is formed.

The dissolution of Lebanon’s government is drawing considerable attention from Western nations, as well as from some of Lebanon’s neighbors and longtime allies. Questions about the future are being asked, with no answers readily available. What shape will the new government take? Is the present mood in Lebanon one that will see the removal of Hezbollah and its influence from Lebanese government and society? How far is Hezbollah, and Iran willing to go in order to keep the nation afloat and in their corner? Three of many questions that will need to be considered as the situation plays out in the coming days and weeks.

The Greek-Egyptian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) deal is drawing a decidedly negative reaction from Turkey-as was anticipated. The deal is seen as a direct challenge to the EEZ established by Turkey and the Western-recognized government of Libya. On Monday, Turkey issued a Navtex international maritime alert to conduct ‘seismic research operations’ south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo over the next two weeks. The Turkish research ship Oruc Reis and two auxiliary vessels are presently underway to the area. Turkish naval forces are also presently conducting a two-day naval exercise off of Kasetellorizo and Rhodes. The exercise was announced on 6 August, the same day Greece and Egypt signed their EEZ agreement. Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with his military chiefs today as both sides exchanged accusations of fueling regional tensions.

While all of this was going on today the lira continued its tailspin, reaching record lows against the dollar and euro. Despite Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hopes, Turkey’s foreign adventures do not seem to be having a positive effect on the economy. Turkey is dealing with serious economic, and domestic issues. The lira has a history of being influenced by domestic politics. If the economic outlook does not improve soon enough, Erdogan may be faced with the unpalatable choice of either having to request IMF assistance, or call snap elections. Either one will cost him a fortune in political capital and perhaps leave Erdogan and his government in a vulnerable spot at the wrong time.

Talking Turkey: 3 August, 2020

Turkey’s reach has been exceeding its military, and diplomatic means in recent months. Erdogan’s efforts to deepen its footprint in the Mediterranean, and Middle East is placing his nation in real danger of becoming overextended at some point in the not-too-distant future. The occupation of northern Syria, decisive intervention in Libya’s civil war, and seeking economic advantage in the natural gas-rich waters of the Eastern Mediterranean are the better-known Turkish adventures of late. There are others going on in places like the Horn of Africa, and in the Persian Gulf region too. Erdogan has been assertively going after perceived threats and enemies to Turkey, while simultaneously prowling after economic interests that hold the prospect of a jackpot level payout down the road.

Unfortunately for Erdogan, there are two factors coming into play which threaten to hinder, or perhaps entirely derail Turkey’s ambitions at some point. As mentioned in the above paragraph, Turkey is running a very real danger of overextending itself in the near future. The Turkish armed forces are stretched thin. Since the failed coup in 2016 Turkey’s military has lost thousands of capable officers to show trials, and purges. Operations in Syria and Libya are costing billions of dollars, and Turkish troops are taking losses in both places. In short, the Turks cannot afford a new military commitment now or in the near future.

The second factor working against Turkey’s regional ambitions is the absence of a clear vision. Ankara’s moves certainly haven’t been guided by ideology, or political alliances on the international front. This is where Turkish actions, and ambitions become confounding as it is working with its allies and friends on some fronts, while directly opposed to them on others. Syria and Libya are two prime examples. Turkey’s military incursions into Syria were frowned upon by many of its NATO allies. However, many of those same nation-states fully support Turkey’s intervention in Libya. In recent years Ankara has deepened the relationship between Turkey and Russia at a time when tensions between Moscow and the West has skyrocketed. The Turks committed to buying SA-21 surface-to-air missiles from Russia which forced the United States, to cancel the sale of F-35 Lightnings to Turkey.

Compounding Turkey’s burgeoning issues on the foreign front is the current state of the Turkish economy. Turkey is working to prevent a currency crisis in the face of economic turbulence brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. That topic will be touched on later in the week as we hopefully have the opportunity to expand the discussion on Turkey.

Greek-Italian EEZ Agreement is Signed

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Amid a high level of tension in the Mediterranean brought on by Turkey’s deal with the Libyan government demarking their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) Greece and Italy signed an agreement establishing an EEZ for the two nations in the Ionian Sea. The agreement was signed today by the Greek and Italian foreign ministers, making official the demarcation of maritime zones which has been pending since 1977. While its fair to say the agreement has been a long time coming, recent Turkish moves in the Mediterranean are responsible for pushing demarcation to the front burner. The agreement will have considerable ramifications for the area but it is, at heart, a hedge against Turkish hegemonic ambitions in the natural resource-rich Eastern Med region.

This may not be the only EEZ agreement Greece signs this month. Athens is in negotiations with multiple neighboring states to reach similar agreements. Again, keeping Turkey in check is the primary motivation fueling these moves. In fact, sources in the Greek Foreign Ministry have hinted that an agreement with Egypt could be signed as early as next week. If Greece and Egypt complete a deal it will be benefit Cairo’s continuing campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which has received significant funding from Turkey.

It has become possible that the war in Libya has the potential to drag on for an extended period of time with no clear winner. If this comes about it allows Turkey to maintain its foothold in Libya, meaning the EEZ agreement between Ankara and Tripoli will take effect, and be enforced. The rest of the Mediterranean is waking up to this possibility. Italy and Greece are already making moves and now it is a question of who will move next. Israel and Cyprus are also major players in this game. They will be heard from sooner or later.