07 October 2020
Full Report: Turkey
- Erdogan will strongly back Azerbaijan in conflict with Armenia to further boost nationalist support amidst ongoing economic difficulties
- Risk of confrontation with Russia in Caucasus will ensure Ankara retains degree of pragmatism and will engage in dialogue with Moscow
- Economic challenges will ensure Erdogan maintains pro-nationalist agenda, including via further hydrocarbon explorations in east Mediterranean
President Erdogan stated on 5 October that Turkey would stand with Azerbaijan “until victory”, reiterating sentiments he had expressed in a phone call to Azerbaijan’s president on 27 September after clashes broke out with Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on the same day. A day later, on 28 September pro-Syrian government media claimed Turkey had deployed 1,000 jihadist fighters from Syria to Azerbaijan to support it in the conflict, although Ankara denied this allegation. Separately, on 5 October, shipping data showed that the Turkish drill ship Yavuz had withdrawn from the eastern Mediterranean Sea where it had been conducting hydrocarbon exploration in Cypriot territorial waters.
Turkey: Erdogan will strongly back Azerbaijan in conflict with Armenia to further boost nationalist support
Control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan since both countries gained independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This has continued despite intermittent peace talks following a ceasefire agreement reached in 1994. Ankara has consistently upheld a pro-Azeri stance due to strong ethnic and trade links between the two countries. Indeed, their close relationship has given rise to the expression “one country two states”, which will, alongside a historic enmity towards Armenia, have naturally incentivised Turkish support to Azerbaijan following the outbreak of renewed fighting. That said, whilst this support could plausibly involve the deployment of Syrian jihadists from Turkish-controlled areas there, it is likely that media reports have overstated their involvement at this stage.
Alongside the motivation to support a close regional ally, Erdogan’s firm backing for Baku also likely aims to continue his strategy of boosting nationalist sentiment in the country at a time when support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is waning amidst economic hardship, exacerbated by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Indeed, this was highlighted by the country’s first interest rate increase in two years on 24 September, a move which contradicted Erdogan’s longstanding aversion to higher interest rates indicating that he had been forced to compromise in order to stabilise the lira.
Erdogan’s support for Azerbaijan will allow him to depict himself as the defender of the wider ethnic Turkic community, particularly following reports that Armenia is deploying Kurdish fighters, which though likely heavily overstated, will further incite nationalist tensions in Turkey. Indeed, the issue has received bipartisan support, with the main opposition Republican People’s Party and the nationalist Good Party signing a joint declaration condemning the Armenian attacks with the AKP on 28 September. The focus on the fighting in the Caucasus will also help divert attention from the fact that Erdogan has scaled back his aggression in the eastern Mediterranean to avoid threatened EU sanctions (see our 23 September report), which has recently provided a highly effective means of stoking nationalist sentiment.
Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh appears likely to continue in coming weeks, and Erdogan will continue to offer strong support to Baku throughout, although a direct deployment of the Turkish army is unlikely. This is particularly the case given Moscow views the Caucasus as within its sphere of influence and Armenia continues to push for President Putin’s direct support under the terms of a military cooperation agreement, which risks turning the conflict into a proxy confrontation between Turkey and Russia. Consequently, Ankara will retain a degree of pragmatism and is likely to engage with Moscow over the conflict, as it continues to do regarding military tensions in Syria. Meanwhile, Turkey’s economic challenges will ensure Erdogan continues to adopt a staunchly pro-nationalist approach. This will ensure he does not abandon hydrocarbon exploration in the east Mediterranean, and indeed such provocative activities in Greek waters will likely rise in future in line with any calming of tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia.