While publicly supporting Azerbaijan’s 24-hour offensive into the Armenian-occupied portions of Karabakh, Turkey’s long-term interests and the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might be developing a more constructive approach to Armenia.

Ankara’s top geo-political interests in the region include establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia, setting up direct trade routes to Azerbaijan and other Central Asian Turkic republics, and reducing Western and Russian influence in the Southern Caucasus by increasing its own footprint. 

Beyond the short- and medium-term geopolitical benefits, better relations with Armenia could bolster Ankara’s global prestige. Turkish sources who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, describe the ongoing normalization as “a once-in-a-lifetime, historic opportunity.” 

Much of impetus for the normalization talks comes from Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s domestic reform agenda and his desire to move Armenia from the Russian sphere of influence and toward the West. 

The Erdogan government believes better relations with Armenia are as important as upholding the needs of Azerbaijan — possibly Turkey’s closest regional ally — as well as its own geopolitical interests

Ankara’s other geopolitical interest is establishing a so-called “Zangezour corridor” that would link mainland Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan, which is landlocked between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran. 

Zangezour corridor

The corridor would open a shorter and more secure land route from Turkey to Azerbaijan as the Turkish government seeks to deepen its trade and political ties with Azerbaijan and Turkic Central Asian republics. Both Ankara and Baku are trying to get Armenia to open the corridor. 

Ankara might also want to play nice with Armenia in order to limit Russian, Iranian, and even Western meddling in the South Caucasus. 

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has limited its influence, Iran is another matter. During and after the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia — which resulted in Baku’s recapturing of Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh regions — Iran sided with Armenia out of concern that a stronger Azerbaijan might trigger secessionist sentiments among Tehran’s own Azerbaijani minority. 

Tehran has opposed the Zangezour corridor projects, fearing that it would close off Tehran’s land links to Russia via Armenia and Georgia.  Ankara will likely work to sweeten the deal by offering expanded logistical access to Iran through Armenia as well as Azerbaijan. Earlier this week, Erdogan said Iran was now signaling “positive” messages over the corridor plans.  

Similarly, Turkey does not want France or the United States to gain prominence in the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute. Until the 2020 war, France and the United States were members of the so-called Minsk Group, which was set up to mediate a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Both Western nations, however, were perceived as favoring Yerevan due to their large number of citizens of Armenian origin. The Azerbaijani victory in 2020 meant that their services were no longer needed. 

Ankara wishes to limit Washington’s footprint in the Caucasus due to US military action in neighboring Iraq and Syria that has worsened Ankara’s security outlook. Turkey also wishes to keep its NATO ally, at arm’s length in order not to avoid countermoves from Russia and Iran, complicating Turkish plans toward the south Caucasus and Central Asia.

Better relations critical 

Several Turkish bureaucratic sources emphasized to Al-Monitor the critical need to rebuild relations with Armenia, and Erdogan and his cabinet ministers are following through. Since 2021, Erdogan has begun negotiations with Pashinyan through one of his most trusted foreign policy hands, Serdar Kilic, a career diplomat whose previous posting was as Turkey’s ambassador to the United States. 

Last June, in a first for a Turkish president, Erdogan invited Pashinyan to his swearing-in ceremony and held a phone call with him on Sept. 11. Ankara’s engagement with Yerevan has continued since the latest Karabakh war.

On Wednesday Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and his Armenian counterpart Ararat Mirzoyan held a phone conversation.

One source even painted a near-fantastical picture on how a Turkish-Azerbaijani-Armenian peace could be “sold” to the citizens of the three countries. Erdogan would be joined by Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev near Mount Ararat or another location of historic and cultural importance and embrace, signal to the world that they were leaving their nations’ troublesome past behind. 

Coming from Turkish national security bureaucrats, who are traditionally skeptical toward the Armenian government and diaspora due to dark history in the 1970s and 1980s, visualizing such an image showed that the thinking of some in Ankara is changing.

Both sides have legitimate historic grievances in the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute. During World War I, hundreds of thousands of Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire were forcibly deported or killed. Many others converted to Islam to save their lives in an episode known as “Mets Yeghern” (Great Catastrophe), which many scholars as well as the United States and several other European powers recognize as a genocide. 

Turkey, however, sees the deportations and killings as an unfortunate result of Armenian support for the armies of Imperial Russia during the war.

The embers of those painful memories ignited the Karabakh conflict in the 1990s. The region was an autonomous territory within Azerbaijan during Soviet times, but its population was mostly Armenian. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian forces occupied Karabakh as well as surrounding Azerbaijani lands and established a breakaway administration. 

But Azerbaijan liberated most of its lands from Armenia in the fall of 2020, including parts of Karabakh. Despite the introduction of Russian peacekeepers as part of a ceasefire in November 2020, negotiations between Baku and Yerevan failed to produce a permanent peace treaty or resolve the status of the Armenian administration in Karabakh. Thus, Azerbaijan undertook the one-day operation, which triggered a mass exodus of the area’s Armenian population.

Source : Al Monitor

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