The presence of mercenaries from Syria in Nagorno-Karabakh during the conflict of September 2020 brings us back to the participation of Chechen volunteers and the Afghan Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (حزب اسلامی گلبدین) in this same region during the 1988-1994 war.
Situated in the South Caucasus at the intersection of the Slavic and Muslim worlds, Nagorno-Karabakh crystallises the tensions between Islam and Christianity and bears the hallmarks of a holy war with, on the one hand, the Armenians who claim to be the predominant members of the Armenian Apostolic Church (Հայաստանեայց Առաքելական Եկեղեցի) and the duodecimal Azeri Shi’ism (اثنا عشرية) who are fighting each other in this territory.
In Armenia, but also for countries such as Orthodox Russia, Nagorno-Karabakh is a Christian outpost on the border with the Middle East, encroaching on Azerbaijan in a region, the South Caucasus, which brings together several religious traditions.
In order to understand the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is therefore important to master the religious groups in the Caucasus and their aspirations in order to understand why they are or are not participating in the war that has been waging between Yerevan and Baku for several centuries.
The religious mosaic of the South Caucasus
The South Caucasus consists of three countries recognised by the international community – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – and three states partially recognised by the international community – Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia – living between three major countries, Iran, Turkey and Russia.
This pattern is all the more complex because within Russia itself, in the North Caucasus, there are Muslim peoples, including Chechnya and Dagestan, who wish to emancipate themselves from Moscow’s tutelage in order to create the Emirate of the Caucasus (Имарат Кавказ).
Consequently, it is more relevant to speak of the South Caucasus as a Christian enclave with Abkhazia (a mixed state with Muslims, Orthodox Christians and pagans), South Ossetia (Eastern Orthodox Christians, with large minorities professing uatsdin or Islam), Georgia (Orthodox Christians), Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh (autocephalous Christians) in the Muslim world.
In all these states, affiliation with Islam or Christianity is an important identity factor, except in the case of Abkhazia, which embodies a model of cohabitation between them. As such, the partially recognised territory of Abkhazia is singular in that a large part of the inhabitants practise Abkhaz neopaganism in addition to Islam and the Orthodox religion.
In the South Caucasus, the Christians, with the exception of the Abkhaz and South Ossetians, tacitly support each other, with Georgia providing support to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and vice versa. Moscow takes a similar approach with agreements that aim to support economically and militarily the Armenians who appear to be a Christian stronghold in the region, especially given that Russia has been on bad terms with Georgia since the fall of the USSR. However, the Chechens and Dagestanians, who are nevertheless members of the Russian Federation, do not support this approach by Moscow and prefer to support the Muslim Azeris in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
For the Azerbaijanis, the situation is complex because they are Shiites whose main ally in the region is Sunni Turkey. Baku and Ankara are therefore close with the concept of “one nation, two countries” but the religious proximity is even more so with Iran which is a predominantly Shiite country.
Who is fighting and for what reasons in Nagorno-Karabakh?
The Armenians support the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh who are also ethnically Armenian. While the Azerbaijanis are fighting the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to regain control over the territory.
Turkey and Iran
The Azeris have the support of Turkey, which has opposed the Armenians since the genocide of 1915 and wishes to strengthen Ankara’s presence in the Caucasus and the Middle East. The Grey Wolves (Bozkurtlar), an ultra-nationalist Turkish armed organisation, were involved in supporting the Azeris against the Armenians.
To the support of Turkey in 1988-1994 and 2020 was added that of Iran, more moderate, but willing to show its solidarity with Shiite Azerbaijan.
Muslim mercenaries in 1988-1994 and 2020
The Chechens and Dagestanians are mostly Sunnis but support Baku insofar as increasing the presence of Islam in the South Caucasus strengthens their project of a Caucasian Emirate. Moreover, Chechens are mercenaries and have military know-how and a solid reputation, so it is customary for them to participate in conflicts around the world in return for payment or to appropriate the resources that the inhabitants leave behind. Chechens and Dagestanese were involved in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988-1994.
Members of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (حزب اسلامی گلبدین) from Afghanistan also supported the Azerbaijanis in 1988-1994 to show their support to the Muslim world against the Soviet Union which was in Afghanistan during the 1979-1989 war. To these were added the Mujahedin (مُجاهِد).
The Syrian mercenaries are also there in September 2020 for similar reasons to the Chechens and to support a Muslim country against the Christians, offering an example of transition from one war zone to another.
Michael Lambert is an Associate Researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, focusing on the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room) and the U.S. Department of State activities in Europe and Central Asia.
He received a doctorate (DPhil) in History and International Affairs from Sorbonne Université in collaboration with the INSEAD – Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires (BFC’15D) in December 2016.
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