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Servicemen of Talish military unit attend Sunday service at Gandzasar monastery in May 2017. The Talish unit suffered heavy casualties in the April 2016 escalation and since then has been one of the main hotspots along the Line of Contact. CRISISGROUP/Olesya Vartanyan

Nagorno-Karabakh’s Gathering War Clouds

Armenia and Azerbaijan are once again on collision course along increasingly active front lines in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Mediators Russia, France and the U.S., should pressure Yerevan and Baku to tone down inflammatory rhetoric, agree to talks and take steps towards peace.

Executive Summary

A year after Nagorno-Karabakh’s April 2016 violent flare-up, Armenia and Azerbaijan are closer to war than at any point since the 1994 ceasefire. Political and security conditions that prompted the April 2016 escalation have become more acute and both sides claim a new wave of escalation already has begun. Since mid-January 2017, deadly incidents involving the use of heavy artillery and anti-tank weapons have occurred with varying degrees of intensity; May saw a significant increase, including reports of self-guided rockets and missiles used near densely populated areas along the Line of Contact (LoC), the heavily militarised area that divides the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides since the 1994 ceasefire. The settlement process has stalled, making the use of force tempting, at least for tactical purposes; today, both sides – backed by mobilised constituencies – appear ready for confrontation. These tensions could develop into larger-scale conflict, leading to significant civilian casualties and possibly prompting the main regional powers to intervene. Russia, France and the U.S. need to put their differences aside and apply concerted high-level pressure on the parties to unlock the current paralysis and mitigate risks of renewed violence.

This results from an opportunity lost. In the wake of the April 2016 escalation, which claimed at least 200 lives and swept both societies in a frenzy of pro-war sentiment, a new opening presented itself for the conflict settlement process led by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Minsk Group, co-chaired by the U.S., Russia and France. Although two meetings were held between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in May and June 2016, they produced no tangible result. Instead, since late summer 2016, escalation has ebbed and flowed, claiming dozens of lives. The heads of state have refused calls to restart negotiations, preferring to visit the “front line” and issue threatening public statements.

The past year has exposed the fragility of conflict settlement efforts, now caught in a standoff. Armenia – concerned about Nagorno-Karabakh’s security and angered by Baku’s increased assertiveness – insists on a lowering of security risks before substantive talks can start. Azerbaijan – frustrated with the longstanding status quo and concerned that additional security measures could further cement it – insists substantive discussions cannot be delayed. In their May and June 2016 talks, the two presidents agreed in principle to strengthen peace monitoring and introduce an investigative mechanism to lower tensions, while committing to substantive talks to address key sticking points in the settlement process. Although these were left unspecified, they would have to include returning some Armenian-controlled lands in the conflict zone to Azerbaijan’s direct control, and addressing the status of the rest of the Armenian-populated disputed area as well as security arrangements in the whole conflict region. So far, there has been neither monitoring, nor an investigative mechanism, nor substantive talks.

Armenia and Azerbaijan’s leaders view each other with deep mutual distrust, unable to acknowledge each other’s interests. Effective channels of communication – whether between them, their respective governments, or military commanders in the conflict zone – are non-existent. The result is a standstill in which any incident is liable to spiral out of control, especially given the shared view in both societies that another conflict is inevitable, and that a “final solution” to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem is necessary, even if it means a new war.

Basic principles of any viable settlement are well known: variants of a land-for-status formula coupled with strong international security guarantees. But these are predicated on mutual concessions that neither party shows any interest in making. Instead, positions have hardened since April 2016. Baku has become more assertive in emphasising the legal basis of its claims, seeking international acknowledgement that its territories have been annexed and suggesting Western sanctions should be imposed; it also is trying to restrict international actors’ engagement with Nagorno-Karabakh, imposing restrictions on economic activity in, or visits to the region. It simultaneously is applying greater force to pressure the Armenian side. For its part, Armenia says it will respond in kind. In the worsening security environment, it has shown no appetite for discussions to unblock the current stalemate, and has launched a new “nation-army” program likely to further increase war rhetoric and societal militarisation. De facto Nagorno-Karabakh has even declared its readiness, if attacked, to advance deeper into Azerbaijan’s densely populated territory along the Line of Contact to gain a new security belt and strengthen its hand in future negotiations.

As tensions rise, international mediation stagnates. Russia remains the most influential foreign player, yet its role is complex. It is prima inter pares in the Minsk Group, but also chief arms supplier to Azerbaijan and Armenia, both of whom suspect Russia is more interested in expanding its influence in the region than in resolving the conflict. Only when it cannot do enough alone is Russia prepared to share responsibility with the other OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, France and the U.S., but Paris and Washington have been pre-occupied with domestic political transitions. Neither Baku nor Yerevan trust Russia, the Minsk Group, or the broader international system.

[S]uspicion of Russian motivations – in Baku, Yerevan and elsewhere – remains high. But diplomatic paralysis would be too risky and costly, and time for effective mediation is running out.

In light of growing threats of confrontation, the mediators’ primary task should be to resume regular communication between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders and insist that Yerevan and Baku soften positions that have calcified over the past 23 years as well as tone down martial rhetoric that fuels their publics’ belligerence. They should more pointedly describe to these publics the risks and costs of escalation. And they should push Yerevan and Baku to agree to immediate measures to restore confidence and security, including: increasing the number of OSCE personnel to monitor the conflict zone; establishing an OSCE-led investigative mechanism to hold the two sides accountable, while introducing a degree of transparency regarding their military arrangements in the conflict zone; and establishing regular contacts between their respective field-based militaries. In parallel, Armenia and Azerbaijan should launch substantive discussions on outstanding issues, including the return to Baku’s control of territories adjacent to the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, international security arrangements, and return of displaced persons.

Moving in that direction will require Russia, the U.S. and France to iron out their differences, work in unison and overcome Baku’s and Yerevan’s distrust. Russia bears special responsibility given its role and the suspicions both sides nurture regarding what motivates Moscow. To assuage concern about the prospect of Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone, for example, Moscow could invite all OSCE Minsk Group members to explore options for a future multinational peacekeeping force. Likewise, it also could provide additional transparency on its arms sales to Armenia and Azerbaijan.

With their leaderships’ buy-in, the three co-chair countries need to insist that Yerevan and Baku revise their positions. That won’t be easy. Both the U.S. and France recently have gone through complicated political transitions, and suspicion of Russian motivations – in Baku, Yerevan and elsewhere – remains high. But diplomatic paralysis would be too risky and costly, and time for effective mediation is running out.

Yerevan/Baku/Stepanakert/Brussels/Vienna, 1 June 2017

I. Introduction

Even as mediators reiterate the longstanding mantra that there is no military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been seized with a renewed appetite for conflict in the wake of the April 2016 escalation. Bellicose sentiment on the ground is rising, seriously limiting space for compromise.

This report analyses the current military, political, social and diplomatic aspects of the conflict. The next section outlines risks – both humanitarian and in terms of regional spillover – surrounding the possible renewal of active conflict. The third section describes post-April 2016 developments and radical changes in the public mood in all three societies affected by the conflict. The fourth section lays out reasons for the failure of attempts since April 2016 to negotiate a de-escalation of the conflict and broader arrangements for peace.

Although this report takes into account the parties’ key legal as well as political narratives and positions, it does not advocate any particular stance in the ongoing dispute. It also acknowledges that the current population of de facto Nagorno-Karabakh – which the report refers to as Nagorno-Karabakh society – does not include ethnic Azerbaijani internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled the territory during the conflict in the 1990s.[fn]Azerbaijan’s government estimates the war in NK in the 1990s led to 790,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from NK and surrounding territories and around 350,000 refugees from Armenia (data from 2015, at http://www.stat.gov.az/source/others/aggression.jpg). The Armenian government reports 413,000 ethnic Armenians, mainly from Azerbaijan proper, became refugees and IDPs during the war; Crisis Group Europe Report N°166, Nagorno-Karabakh: Viewing the Conflict from the Ground, 14 September 2005, p. 2.Hide Footnote

II. Ongoing Risks of War

The relative stability in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone experienced for nearly two decades since the 1994 ceasefire began to significantly deterioriate in 2014. But the April 2016 four day escalation, during which Azerbaijan gained control of two strategically important pieces of land in Nagorno-Karabakh, was a watershed.[fn]For more details of the April escalation, please, see Crisis Group Europe Report N°239, Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?, 4 July 2016.Hide Footnote Since then, the danger of large-scale confrontation has been constant.

Evidence from both sides suggests that a new wave of escalation already has begun and is accelerating along the Line of Contact. Since mid-January 2017, intense exchange of fire has resumed, with the use of not only small arms, but also grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles. With warmer weather come opportunities to test tactics, including military sorties in the dense mountainous forests and use of heavier military equipment along the region’s valleys. Since the April 2016 escalation, the Armenian side has been refurbishing trench structures, and both Armenia and Azerbaijan have procured new weapons and improved surveillance and communication systems.

Both sides see summer-autumn 2017 as a critical period during which the enemy could intensify military actions. The Armenian side cites elevated expectations among the Azerbaijani public coupled with Baku’s assertion that it imminentely wants to reestablish control over Nagorno-Karabakh.[fn]In the conflict settlement process, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh is represented by Armenian officials. The de facto Nagorno-Karabakh leadership has voiced its full support to Armenia’s government in the settlement process. This report will refer to the “Armenian side” when discussing the settlement process and negotiating positions. It will refer to the societies of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh when discussing public processes.Hide Footnote Azerbaijan warns that – at the very least – Yerevan might consider provoking a conflict in order to regain control over the two strategic heights lost in April 2016. Leaders refuse to meet and channels for official and even ad hoc exchange between the parties’ military commanders have been missing for years.[fn]During the Vienna meeting between the presidents in May 2016, according to President Sargsyan, Armenia was ready to agree to a meeting of the two countries’ militaries only after an increase in the number of OSCE monitors and introduction of an incident-investigative mechanism. See https://youtu.be/lXlgNPANWps. It is unclear whether Azerbaijan was ready to give a green light to regular meetings on a military level.Hide Footnote In an atmosphere of deep mistrust and no dialogue, the sides could misread each other’s intentions, interpreting activity along the front line as an attempt to launch a larger-scale operation.

Nagorno-Karabakh based military display heavy weaponry in May 2017. CRISISGROUP/Olesya Vartanyan

Signs of danger loom. Since the April escalation, the Armenian side has strengthened its positions along the Line of Contact and reinforced its military personnel; these actions have bolstered local military forces’ confidence in their ability to counter any attack. Likewise, it has installed video and thermal imaging cameras along Armenian positions, thereby reducing the likelihood of an unexpected Azerbaijani attack. Toward the end of the winter, an internal consensus emerged within the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh leadership that – in the event of an Azerbaijani attack – the Armenian side should not only defend their positions, but also attempt to advance deeper into Azerbaijan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, officials, military and politicians, Nagorno-Karabakh, February 2017.Hide Footnote Preliminary planning by Nagorno-Karabakh-based military suggests advancing 15km beyond the established Line of Contact, which, they believe, would force the enemy to abandon hostilities, or at a minimum establish a new buffer zone that could break the enemy’s will to conduct regular attacks and become a new negotiating bargaining tool.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s success in the April 2016 escalation cemented confidence in the army and reinforced hopes that Baku could regain control of at least some territory through military means. Since then, Azerbaijan has been further increasing its expenditures on weapons and professionalised its army;[fn]In 2015, Azerbaijan spent $3 billion on its military, a 165 per cent rise compared to 2006. President Aliyev boasted that Azerbaijan’s defence budget was bigger than Armenia’s national budget. Crisis Group Report, Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?, op. cit., p. 11.Hide Footnote over the past years, it has continued to procure heavy weaponry and military equipment, mainly from Russia but also Israel, Pakistan, Turkey and other countries.[fn]85 per cent of Azerbaijan’s arms imports came from Russia according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2015”, April 2016. Crisis Group interviews, officials, analysts, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote Azerbaijan’s army was quick to build new subterranean trenches along the two strategic heights seized during the April escalation, giving it a notable tactical advantage in the event of a larger escalation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews in Baku in March 2017 and de facto NK in February and May 2017.Hide Footnote The positions it acquired north-east of the Line of Contact in April 2016 ensure Azerbaijan’s control over the village of Talish, previously the biggest settlement in the area, giving it a strategic vantage point over the mountainous gorge leading into Nagorno-Karabakh’s densely Armenian-populated Martakert region. Similarly, the southern positions it gained on the Lalatapa mountain provide it with a strategic vantage point over Nagorno-Karabakh’s south and parts of the south east, including the Armenian-populated areas of Hadrud and Martuni.

A full-scale war is in neither Armenia’s nor Azerbaijan’s interests. Both sides possess ballistic missiles with which they could target significant civilian, economic and military infrastructure deep inside each other’s territory.[fn]Sergey Minasyan, “Deterrence in the Karabakh Conflict”, Caucasus Institute, 2016, pp. 110-116.Hide Footnote Both sides seem to recognise broader dangers should such escalation occur: engagement of two major regional powers, Russia and Turkey, which have treaties with, respectively, Armenia and Azerbaijan.[fn]According to their 2010 Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support, Baku and Ankara are to support each other in case of aggression against either of them. Armenia is the only South Caucasus country that is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russian-led military alliance of six former Soviet republics. On a bilateral level Armenia and Russia have the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Aid of 1997, updated in 2010, which evokes military cooperation in case of foreign attack and threat to territorial integrity and sovereignty. Crisis Group Report, Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?, op. cit., p. 3.Hide Footnote However, this mutual deterrence does not preclude more limited military operations aiming to seize control over new territories which, in turn, could spiral out of control and lead to the outbreak of a larger regional war.

There are other, limited, constraints. Both sides regularly share online video clips of incidents along their front-line positions, anticipating use of such material to demonstrate who launched the first strike.[fn]Videos can be found on the official YouTube channels of Azerbaijan’s (at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCp9m21a2rI1_0DItLvHcuCw) and de facto NK’s defence ministries (at https://www.youtube.com/user/TheNkrArmyChannel/videos).Hide Footnote In the short term, this could deter the parties, neither of whom wishes to be held responsible for the outbreak of war.[fn]After the 2008 war with Russia, Georgian authorities used excerpts of intercepted phone calls registering reported movement of Russian military vehicles into South Ossetia, to cast doubt on the emerging narrative in the West that Georgia was to blame for starting the war.Hide Footnote But the evidence, such as it is, would not be independently obtained and thus likely would be seriously questioned by outside actors and the other party, given the heavy use of propaganda materials by both sides.

A. Military Tactics

Much of Nagorno-Karabakh is inhospitable terrain for military operations. The Armenian side controls its mountainous, densely-forested interior and the north, which is protected naturally by the Murovdag mountain range.[fn]Aleksandr Golts, “Обострение конфликта в Нагорном Карабахе – поражение России” [Escalation of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – Russian defeat], Snob (https://snob.ru), 5 April 2016.Hide Footnote As a result, military action can take place only along the remaining 150-km segment of the Line of Contact that stretches from the Martakert district to the Iranian border.

Detailed Map of the Conflict Zone International Crisis Group, May 2017

The map above details the conflict zone. Since the 1992-1994 war, the Armenian side has controlled the territory of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts – five in full (Jabrail, Zangilan, Gubadli, Lachin and Kelbajar) and two in part (Agdam and Fizuli). Most Azerbaijani IDPs come from Agdam and Fizuli districts, making up 40 per cent of the total displaced population, according to Azerbaijani official sources.

But remote combat can take place all along the roughly 200-km Line of Contact. Since mid-winter, both sides have used drones, grenade launchers and artillery.[fn]Drones are purchased from or produced with the support of Israeli manufacturers. Crisis Group Report, Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?, op. cit., p. 8.Hide Footnote Given the terrain, neither side has an obvious technical advantage in artillery; both essentially use the same Russian-manufactured weapons, though Baku has diversified its weapons suppliers, especially in areas other than artillery.[fn]Interviews with NK-based military, February and May 2017.Hide Footnote

In the event of escalation, remote combat likely will be combined where feasible with use of infantry and heavy military equipment and potentially air force support, dragging the parties into a broader conflict with much larger military and civilian losses. Armenian experts recognise Azerbaijan’s clear technical and quantitative advantage in weaponry and equipment.[fn]Sergey Minasyan, “Deterrence in the Karabakh Conflict”, Caucasus Institute, 2016, pp. 118-121.Hide Footnote Some Azerbaijani experts assert they also have a quantitative advantage in troop numbers. An increasingly important variable in the eyes of these experts is Azerbaijan’s demographic advantage.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote Its population has boomed over the past decade and currently outnumbers that of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh roughly four-to-five fold.

On the other hand, Armenian experts point to their side’s familiarity with the territory where ground combat most likely would take place. It has built up its fortified positions in Nagorno-Karabakh over years, including cobweb entrenchments that in certain areas extend for hundreds of metres. A range of hills along approximately half of the 150-km north-eastern section of the Line of Contact would make it difficult for Azerbaijani forces to advance infantry forward. The Armenian side, of course, would face similar obstacles in regaining lost territory.

Circumstances differ around the central and south-eastern sections of the Line of Contact, which are strategically important to both sides. These locations stretch along a valley, making it easier to use heavy military equipment. Main roads linking Armenian settlements in the northern and southern parts of Nagorno-Karabakh pass through the valley, which also offers access to the city of Agdam, destroyed during the war in the 1990s, and the capital of de facto Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert.

Losing control over this valley could prompt the Armenian side to abandon military efforts within the conflict zone and resort to ballistic missiles capable of reaching most of Azerbaijan’s urban areas and infrastructure.[fn]Armenia’s leadership states that it is ready to use force, including ballistic missiles, if Stepanakert suffers an attack that it is unable to contain and counter. “President Serzh Sargsyan participated at the 11th convention of the homeland defenders voluntary union”, Official website of the President of Armenia (www.president.am), 18 February 2017, http://www.president.am/en/press-release/item/2017/02/18/President-Serzh-Sargsyan-attended-meeting-of-Yerkrapah/.Hide Footnote Azerbaijan almost certainly would respond in kind, with missiles based in the exclave of Nakhichevan inside Armenia.[fn]Experts in Baku cited readiness to use missiles based in Nakhichevan in response to an Armenian missile attack. Crisis Group interview, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Yet despite these apparent advantages, this valley constitutes Azerbaijan’s most vulnerable point along the Line of Contact due to the presence of densely populated Azerbaijani villages directly behind its positions. Although Armenian and Azerbaijani troops are separated by about 100-200 metres in this location, exchange of fire is far less frequent than at other points along the Line of Contact. From Armenian trench fortifications, one could make out the roof tops of local houses and hear the sound of a tractor during an early 2017 visit. Any confrontation along this corridor would lead to serious losses among Azerbaijan’s civilian population.

B. Potential Humanitarian Implications

An increase in military activity inevitably would provoke serious civilian casualties and displacement. Located within the 15-km zone in which the Armenian side likely would advance in the event of an escalation are densely populated settlements of ethnic Azerbaijanis. Armenian sources calculate some 600,000 ethnic Azerbaijani inhabitants would be forced to leave their homes, while Azerbaijani sources estimate about 300,000.[fn]Crisis Group interview, high-level de facto official, Stepanakert, February 2017. Regions of Beylagan, Aghjabadi, Barda, Goygol and Goranboy as well as Naftalan city are located roughly within 15-25km of the closest point of the Line of Contact.Hide Footnote Azerbaijan also notes the presence of energy infrastructure close to the Line of Contact,[fn]The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline passes several dozen kilometres north of the Line of Contact.Hide Footnote which might be targeted should an escalation occur.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Baku, Brussels, spring 2017. In April 2016, Armenian media quoted sources in the de facto NK Defence Ministry suggesting they would seek to harm Azerbaijan oil and gas infrastructure. “Карабах готов нанести удар по нефтяным коммуникациям Азербайджана”, Newsarmenia.am (http://newsarmenia.am), 5 April 2016.Hide Footnote Likewise, about 7,000 ethnic Armenians live within a zone extending 15 km from the Line of Contact into Nagorno-Karabakh,[fn]Crisis Group interview, de facto official, Stepanakert, February 2017.Hide Footnote most in the nothern part which also hosts the Sarsang water reservoir, essential to the region’s agriculture and mining businesses. A prolonged military assault with heavy military equipment could allow Azerbaijan to strike deep into the region, including targets in Stepanakert.

Around 150,000 people currently live in Nagorno-Karabakh, half of them in Stepanakert. During the April escalation, residents encountered gaps in the civil defence systems, such as Soviet-era bomb shelters, that were locked or decrepit. In Stepanakert, local authorities and residents renovated some facilities after the April escalation, but few checks have been conducted to confirm their stability, and local authorities did not offer courses to the local population on what to do in the event of war and where to find the nearest points of help.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Stepanakert, February 2017.Hide Footnote Stocks of produce and basic medicine supplies are limited; both likely would be reserved for the most vulnerable residents unable to leave the region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, January and February 2017.Hide Footnote

Diplomats note that significant civilian casualties and reports of atrocities could prompt external intervention, notably on the part of Russia, which arguably could invoke them as justification.

International diplomatic and humanitarian actors worry that if large-scale violence restarts, neither party is likely to protect civilians or prevent ethnic cleansing and other war crimes.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, representatives of international organisations and diplomats, Yerevan, Baku and Tbilisi, spring 2017.Hide Footnote In November 2016, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) communicated one case each against Armenia and Azerbaijan related to atrocities committed during the four days of conflict, requesting information from the two governments.[fn]See “T.M. and Others v. Armenia and 4 other applications”, 25 November 2016, and “K.S. and N.A. v. Azerbaijan and 21 other applications”, 25 November 2016, European Court of Human Rights (http://hudoc.echr.coe.int). These incidents include the brutal killing of three elderly ethnic Armenian residents in the village of Talish.Hide Footnote The de facto Nagorno-Karabakh ombudsman also documented several violent incidents involving Azerbaijani soldiers committing atrocities against Armenian military recruits.[fn]See de facto ombudsman’s detailed report. “Artsakh Ombudsman’s Second Interim Report on Atrocities Committed by Azerbaijan during the 2016 April War”, at http://www.ombudsnkr.am/en/docs/Report_PUBLIC.pdf.Hide Footnote Online videos and photographs depict an Azerbaijani soldier displaying the head of an Armenian soldier to several ethnic Azerbaijani villagers.[fn]The videos filmed on a mobile phone were pubished on social media but later removed. The de facto authorities shared copies with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote Similar atrocities are cited in the appeal to ECHR against Armenia, including mutilation of bodies of Azerbaijani soldiers killed during the April 2016 escalation.[fn]“T.M. and Others v. Armenia and 4 other applications”, op. cit.Hide Footnote None of these claims appears to have been investigated and remain unpunished.

Diplomats note that significant civilian casualties and reports of atrocities could prompt external intervention, notably on the part of Russia, which arguably could invoke them as justification.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian official, January 2017.Hide Footnote

III. Shifts in Public Moods and Policies

The April 2016 flare-up led to the most significant conflict-related shift in political and public life in Azerbaijan, Armenia and de facto Nagorno-Karabakh since the end of the 1992-1994 war. The four-day escalation prompted an enormous rise in patriotic feeling on all sides, solidifying demands for a “final solution” to a conflict that has smouldered for two decades. While Azerbaijani society was buoyed by victory, Armenia went through a period of despondency that, at least in part, shaped the outcome of elections that set the country’s political direction for years to come. Nagorno-Karabakh society, for whom the escalation revived painful wartime memories, witnessed some of the most far-reaching internal changes, with political and economic development projects now sidelined in favour of renewed focus on military strengthening.

A. Azerbaijan’s Society

As a result of the April escalation, and for the first time since the 1994 ceasefire, Baku managed to alter the much-resented status quo on the ground. In so doing, it dispelled the Armenian army’s invincibility myth born of its victory in the 1992-1994 war and resulting capture of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts. Although Azerbaijan gained control of only two strategic heights in the conflict zone, that was enough to restore its people’s confidence in their army, not seen in action since its vast investments in technical upgrades, new equipment and training starting in the mid-2000s.[fn]Azerbaijan has been boosting its military since 2006. In 2015, Azerbaijan spent $3 billion on its military, more than Armenia’s entire national budget. Crisis Group Report, Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?, op. cit.Hide Footnote Buoyed by this new-found confidence, Azerbaijanis appear to believe that a full return of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone to Baku’s control – including by force – might be possible.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Azerbaijan, early 2017.Hide Footnote

1. Popular pressure on the government

The April 2016 escalation prompted a wave of patriotism and jubilation throughout Azerbaijani society unseen since the early 1990s struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. Groups of young people marched with flags and posters in support of the military. Citizens hung Azerbaijani flags from their windows. “Everyone expressed solidarity last year – even those who criticise corruption and human rights abuses were united behind this need to retake Karabakh”, said a liberal-minded youth activist.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Few Azerbaijanis questioned their government’s version that the April 2016 conflict was provoked by Armenians who occupied the conflict zone and used force to protect the status quo for two decades, refusing to compromise on settlement proposals.[fn]For analysis of April 2016 events, see ibid. Accounts of the April events differ; the Armenian side believes Azerbaijan pursued a pre-planned attack.Hide Footnote For the first time in many years of such provocations, according to this official version, the enemy finally received a “response that was deserved”.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, analyst, Baku, early 2017.Hide Footnote  Many now appear to believe not only that the government’s multibillion-dollar investment in the army was warranted but also that it should make use of its modernised army to settle the conflict.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts and representatives of the IDP community, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Many also question the decision to cease hostilities after four days instead of permitting the army to make more significant territorial advances.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Azerbaijan, March 2017.Hide Footnote According to a poll conducted shortly after the escalation, 65 per cent of Baku residents supported continuation of military activities with only 25 per cent calling for a halt.[fn]Opinion poll conducted by independent ACT Azerbaijan, https://goo.gl/SaeCIV, May 2016, p. 5.Hide Footnote Several opposition politicians publicly criticised authorities – something that rarely happens in the tightly controlled country – accusing them of lacking the political courage to continue the war to “a successful outcome”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition representatives, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote

The generation that fled the 1990s conflict feels responsibility toward their children, fearing they ‘will not know what Karabakh was’.

Such sentiments were particularly prevalent among Azerbaijanis displaced during the 1992-1994 conflict from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent Armenian-occupied districts. A disabled IDP from Shusha/Shushi now living in a compact settlement centre outside Baku claimed many of those who travelled to front-line regions to support the army were disappointed when a ceasefire was so quickly declared.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, IDPs on the outskirts of, and in settlements near Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote Although the government has worked to address IDP socio-economic issues, many remain economically vulnerable and unintegrated into Azerbaijani society. While they enjoy free or low-cost education, health care and electricity as well as some special employment opportunities, they are unable to elect municipal representatives, which limits their capacity to voice concerns.[fn]For more detail, see Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°67, Tackling Azerbaijan’s IDP Burden, 27 February 2012.Hide Footnote IDP representatives say they dream of returning to Karabakh. The generation that fled the 1990s conflict feels responsibility toward their children, fearing they “will not know what Karabakh was”. As one IDP representative said, it was “up to us to ensure we do not leave this problem unsettled and lingering for the next generation to struggle with”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, IDP representatives, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote

President Ilham Aliyev, who has consolidated power since succeeding his father, Heidar Aliyev, in 2003, saw his approval ratings soar.[fn]Heidar Aliyev ruled Azerbaijan for thirteen years during the Soviet era and for ten years since 1993 when his country became independent.Hide Footnote He claimed that the ceasefire was a temporary but necessary pause required to give Armenia an opportunity to retreat peacefully, and that international mediators were prepared to pressure Armenia for concessions.[fn]“Speech by Ilham Aliyev at the official reception on the occasion of the Republic Day”, Official website of the President of Azerbaijan, May 2016, at http://en.president.az/articles/19986. “Speech by Ilham Aliyev at the military unit in Tartar district”, Official website of the President of Azerbaijan, May 2016, at http://en.president.az/articles/19730.Hide Footnote But the popular mood could sour if the quick return of Nagorno-Karabakh promised in the months following the escalation fails to materialise and the public begins to suspect that Baku’s gains were insubstantial.[fn]Youth activists and liberal-leaning opposition figures in Baku report that the sense of solidarity has begun to weaken as it becomes apparent that the government used force for merely tactical purposes, to force Yerevan to engage in negotiations and that the skirmishes led to many casualties for few real gains. However, most agreed that criticism is confined to a narrow segment of society, mostly active on social media. Crisis Group interviews, youth and opposition activists, analysts and former diplomat, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote With every passing month, it becomes harder for the government to justify delays in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, especially amid reports of Azerbaijani casualties. After an armed clash in late February 2017, which left six Azerbaijani soldiers dead, a well-known member of parliament called on the government to end the Nagorno-Karabakh matter via full-scale war.[fn]Azerbaijani MP, Zeynab Khanlarova, called for a full-scale war, expressing her grievance for human loss. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPlKdRr353M. Similar sentiments were voiced by representatives of those displaced by the conflict during Crisis Group interviews in Baku in March 2017.Hide Footnote

Flush with the sense of victory, the public appears increasingly unwilling to accept casualties without accompanying military success and territorial gains. Since early 2017, the Ministry of Defence regularly publishes videos shot from drones and security cameras in an attempt to document damage inflicted on the enemy.[fn]Videos were released on the official YouTube channel of Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry. Armenia denied all reports of casualties and front-line operations coming from Baku.Hide Footnote Observers in Azerbaijan agree that the loss of a new war, or even of the two heights seized in April 2016, would seriously undermine support for the government and potentially awaken public grievances vis-à-vis the authorities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Baku, early 2017.Hide Footnote Many in the fragmented opposition also blame the government for flirting with the Russian leadership, which mediated the April 2016 cessation of hostilities and which a large number of Azerbaijanis, regardless of political affiliation, believe is using the conflict as leverage to pressure both countries and secure broader regional influence.[fn]See statements by Azer Gasimli from the Republic Alternative Movement, http://cumhuriyyet.org/xeberler/558-azer-qasimli-qarabag-prinsiplerim.html; Ali Karimli, chairman of Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, https://www.meydan.tv/az/site/politics/13493/; Jamil Hasanly, leader of National Council, https://www.azadliq.info/129805.html. Local media subsequently attacked Karimli and small groups of protesters from pro-governmental youth groups gathered in front of his house. Crisis Group interviews, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote

2. A tougher stance

In the wake of the April escalation, Aliyev announced additional measures to improve military training and equipment.[fn]The defence ministry was the only state institution not to endure budget cuts following devaluations of the Azerbaijani manat in 2015 resulting from falling oil prices. Vafa Zeynalova, “Azerbaijanis Struggle After Currency Devaluation”, IWPR, 18 January 2016. The armed forces likewise were spared staff cuts experienced by other governmental institutions. Crisis Group correspondence, conflict expert, Baku, February 2017.Hide Footnote Baku also hardened its legal approach to the conflict, calling Yerevan’s actions an “annexation” – alongside “occupation” – arguing that the international community should use coercive measures against Armenia, similar to those applied against Russia in response to its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Azerbaijani officials, Brussels, Baku, December 2016, March 2017.Hide Footnote In addition, Baku imposed progressively stronger restrictions on travel to and business in Nagorno-Karabakh, arguing that engagement with the area’s de facto authorities enhanced their legitimacy and thus bolstered their claim to independent status. It also alleged that economic cooperation developed the breakaway entity’s capacity while depriving Baku of “income from Azerbaijani territory”, especially profits derived from the extraction of metals and other natural resources.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Azerbaijan Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Since 2005, Azerbaijan has been compiling a list of people who visit Nagorno-Karabakh without notifying central authorities or obtaining permission. It comprises approximately 620 citizens of various nationalities, including politicians, researchers and journalists.[fn]The list has been updated and made public on the website of Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry at http://www.mfa.gov.az/content/915.Hide Footnote  Punishment used to entail a ban on entry to Azerbaijan, but in 2016 Baku additionally launched its first criminal investigation against a listed individual and secured their extradition from Belarus.[fn]Russian-language blogger Aleksandr Lapshin, citizen of Russia, Israel and Ukraine, was arrested in Belarus and transferred to Azerbaijan in February 2017. He was criminally charged for violation of Azerbaijan’s state border regulations and calls against Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity; “Press release on the case of Alexander Lapshin”, Republic of Azerbaijan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 8 February 2017 at http://www.mfa.gov.az/en/news/909/4673. Amnesty International called for immediate release of the blogger; “Azerbaijan: Extradited blogger should be released immediately by Azerbaijani authorities”, Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org), 10 February 2017.Hide Footnote The government issued international search warrants via Interpol for three European Parliament members and several foreign archaeologists on the list.[fn]“Baku blacklists EU lawmakers, researchers over Karabakh visits”, RFE/RL, 23 February 2017, http://www.rferl.org/a/azerbaijan-blacklist-eu-lawmakers-researchers-karabakh/28326645.html. Official statement by Azerbaijan’s General Prosecutor’s Office – http://www.genprosecutor.gov.az/az/news/5/1555/azerbaycan-respublikasi-bas-prokurorlugunun-metbuat-xidmetinin-melumati.Hide Footnote In February 2017, Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor’s Office reportedly launched an investigation into a number of businesses suspected of “illegal economic activities” in Nagorno-Karabakh.[fn]“Azerbaijani prosecution opens probe into foreign companies operating in Karabakh”, Sputnik, 4 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Seeking to bolster their claim to complete territorial reintegration, some in Baku emphasise that ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis can live together without conflict. As one source close to the government explained: “we need to counter any possible perception that there may be incompatibility”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote Tellingly, although generally not supportive of track II initiatives, Baku backed a December 2016 non-governmental Armenia-Azerbaijan Platform for Peace favouring complete restoration of Azerbaijan’s control over the conflict zone.[fn]Three ethnic Armenians participated in the initiative; they are considered traitors in Armenia; “Ставка на маргиналов” [Stake on marginals], Zham magazine, 10 January 2017; “Созданная в Азербайджане платформа искажает сущность Трэк 2” [The Platform established in Azerbaijan distorts the essence of Track 2 processes], Armedia, 8 December 2016. That said, none played a significant role in Armenia’s public life or originally hailed from NK.Hide Footnote

B. Armenia’s Society

Armenian society sank into despondency after the April escalation, losing trust in its leadership’s ability to protect Nagorno-Karabakh’s territory or population. The April flare-up, particularly the leadership’s failure to mount an adequate military response, got the election year off to a difficult start in Armenia, which is in the process of transforming its semi-presidential system into a parliamentary republic.[fn]This followed a 2015 constitutional referendum; the process of transition began with the April 2017 parliamentary elections and will be completed by spring 2018 with presidential elections.Hide Footnote The government’s capacity to make unpopular concessions in Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations will be even more constrained during this significant constitutional transition.

1. Public mobilisation and anger

During the first hours of the April 2016 escalation, hundreds of Armenians rushed to the conflict zone to volunteer in the Nagorno-Karabakh-based army. Citizens from the capital as well as from distant rural villages collected food, clothing, gasoline and even motor vehicle components. This unprecedented social mobilisation, fuelled by reports of casualties, quickly turned into a major challenge for the Armenian leadership. Speculation about alleged misconduct by the top military command has been a leading topic of debate for months; Armenians contrast the heroism of front-line recruits to purported lack of ammunition and food at military positions and recount stories of tanks stuck half-way to the front-line because of stolen diesel.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society activists, journalists, local residents, Yerevan, October 2016, January 2017.Hide Footnote

An open parliamentary investigation into the government’s response and alleged misconduct by top officials might have addressed these concerns and allowed the military to respond to accusations.[fn]A Western diplomat working on Armenia’s security issues dismissed speculation concerning the army’s poor performance, viewing it as symptomatic of deep-seated public frustration with high-level corruption. Crisis Group interview, January 2017.Hide Footnote But the government avoided an open debate ahead of the April 2017 elections, choosing instead to take other steps. The government reported the arrest of several officials responsible for military procurement, though without providing details of the investigations.[fn]Hovannes Movsisian, “Senior Defense Ministry Officials Arrested”, RFE/RL Armenian Service (http://www.azatutyun.am).Hide Footnote It also reshuffled the Joint Staff and dismissed some army personnel.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Armenian high-level official, Yerevan, January 2017.Hide Footnote  Armenian political party leaders travelled to the Line of Contact to investigate claims of misappropriation of defence resources and parliament’s Defence Committee organised a closed-door discussion of the army’s performance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, parliamentary members, Yerevan, October 2016, January 2017. Crisis Group interview, Armenia’s National Assembly staffer, Yerevan, January 2017.Hide Footnote

These measures did little to appease an already frustrated public, which expected punishment of the ruling elite.[fn]According to a poll conducted before the escalation, more than 50 per cent of Armenian youth did not trust the main state institutions, including the president and parliament. See “Independence Generation Youth Study 2016 – Armenia”, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/georgien/13149.pdf, p. 54.Hide Footnote “[For years] the nation was ready to turn a blind eye to corruption in cabinets, because we believed this government could at least protect the country in case of war”, said an analyst in Yerevan. “No such political immunity was in place after the April war”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Growing dissatisfaction came to the surface in July 2016 during a violent incident in which a group of disgruntled Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans known as “Sasna Tsrer” stormed a Yerevan police station to demand the president’s resignation, killing two police officers and taking hostages.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan leading a march to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Armenian side's seizure of the town of Shusha/i in Nagorno-Karabakh during the 1992-1994 war, in May 2017. CRISISGROUP/Olesya Vartanyan

2. The government’s pre-election response and opposition criticism

Though “Sasna Tsrer” chiefly was motivated by concern over possible government concessions in negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh, the incident sparked a far broader challenge to the authorities. Hundreds of people poured out into the streets of central Yerevan protesting lack of accountability, corruption and oligarchic ties between the government and business community.[fn]Ani Karapetyan and Elen Aghekyan, “Armed Standoff in Armenia: Why It Happened and What It Could Mean”, Freedom House (https://freedomhouse.org), 2 August 2016.Hide Footnote Treading carefully so as to manage the twin challenge, the government spent two weeks negotiating the rebels’ peaceful surrender to avoid further demonstrations. As the incident illustrates, the authorities face little manoeuvring space in talks over Nagorno-Karabakh; they have used this to argue against pressure from Moscow and the Minsk Group to move ahead on substantive negotiations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts, Yerevan; diplomats, Brussels, Yerevan, all spring 2017.Hide Footnote

With elections only nine months away at the time of the “Sasna Tsrer” incident, the government sought to pacify the situation by appointing younger, more credible figures to key government posts, including that of prime minister and defence minister. The reshuffled government promised administrative and anti-corruption reforms, as well as broader civilian involvement in the military and increased financial benefits for conscripts and contracted servicemen.[fn]Karen Karapetyan, “We should cast a more ambitious look towards future”, interview for Mediamax (www.mediamax.am), 21 February 2017. Before becoming prime minister, Karapetyan had been working for Gazprom, the large Russian state-run gas company for about fifteen years, with one year spent as Yerevan’s mayor in 2011. In late December 2016, parliament adopted a law allowing the government to collect 1,000 Armenian dram (about $2) per citizen who held a bank account in the country. In April 2017, defence minister announced a new military system that would increase the number of paid conscripts; more at http://www.mil.am/hy/news/4728.Hide Footnote

Criticism of the military performance only surfaced late in the campaign. Opposition leaders refrained from partisan attacks during and in the immediate aftermath of the escalation amid broad patriotic consensus on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, though internally the criticism was severe. “For the first time in April 2016, the tacit contract was broken between the authorities and the population which had been ready to tolerate high-level corruption as long as security was guaranteed”, said an analyst in Yerevan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst, Yerevan, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Calls for more pragmatic and compromise-oriented approaches to conflict settlement have been marginal, and broadly rejected by most of the population. Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia’s first post-independence president and now an opposition member, was the only politician to criticise the government for past failures in handling the negotiation process. In December 2016, he called for return of territories adjacent to the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) to Baku’s control in order to avoid war.[fn]In December 2016, Ter-Petrosyan described his vision at a meeting of his Armenian National Congress (ANC), see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7OuHuYpNfQ&t=1s.Hide Footnote His party only gained 3 per cent of public support – the lowest ever result for Ter-Petrosyan and his party.

C. Nagorno-Karabakh Society

The April escalation marked a turning point in Nagorno-Karabakh. Although closely linked with Armenian society, Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population remains a relatively isolated and distinct community, whose identity has been shaped by its experience as a society under siege. It spent much of the last decade developing its economy, bolstering its institution, and rebuilding towns and villages with military, financial and political support from Yerevan as well as assistance from the Armenian diaspora. But the April 2016 escalation interrupted these efforts, and caused a shift in financial resources toward military purposes.

1. The impact of war

The escalation brought back memories of the 1990s war. Human casualties, loss of two strategic heights, a new wave of displacement – some forced to move for a second time – and reported atrocities against ethnic Armenian civilians and troops reinforced feelings of an existential threat.[fn]More than 130 Talish residents fled the village during the April escalation. This was their second displacement in the past 25 years; residents of the village and nearby territories were first displaced and became refugees at the outset of the 1990s conflict. The OSCE Minsk Group condemned these atrocities in a December 2016 statement at; http://www.osce.org/mg/287531. That same month, the de facto Ombudsman published a detailed account in which he alleged civilians in the Talish region were tortured and three Armenian soldiers beheaded. See “Artsakh ombudsman’s Second Interim Report on Atrocities Committed by Azerbaijan during the 2016 April War”, at http://www.ombudsnkr.am/en/docs/Report_PUBLIC.pdf. Some of these cases were submitted in the case against Azerbaijan Strasbourg-based ECHR in November 2016. “K.S. and N.A. v. Azerbaijan and 21 other applications”, 25 November 2016, European Court of Human Rights (http://hudoc.echr.coe.int).Hide Footnote The younger generation, having grown up amid relative stability and only witnessing violent incidents at the Line of Contact, awoke to the fear of losing loved ones, homes and lifestyle.[fn]Crisis Groups interviews, Nagorno-Karabakh youth, October 2016, February 2017.Hide Footnote The clashes strengthened solidarity within Nagorno-Karabakh society and reinforced calls to end the conflict by any means necessary, including war and advancing deeper into Azerbaijan’s territory.[fn]Crisis Groups interviews, de facto officials, politicians, residents, Stepanakert, October 2016, February, May 2017.Hide Footnote

But with a renewed sense of vulnerability also came increased discontent. Veterans of the 1990s war, who by the time of escalation had been gradually sidelined from local decision-making, were among the first to criticise the Armenian army’s performance. Vitaliy Balasanyan, a well-known field general, blamed the de facto authorities’ premature institution-building efforts, calling for an exclusive focus on the military.[fn]“General Balasanyan’s interview about Nagorno-Karabakh war”, YouTube video, 22 May 2016, http://bit.ly/2rbr3gA.Hide Footnote Former General Samvel Babayan, previously exiled in Russia, demanded the resignation of the de facto defence minister.[fn]Ami Chichakyan, “Demanding Samvel Babayan to be appointed in the position of NKR defense minister”, Aravot newspaper, 6 June 2016, http://en.aravot.am/2016/06/06/177451/.Hide Footnote Upon his return to Stepanakert, he was greeted by dozens of people – a large show of support for this region – who took to the central square in support of his call for change.[fn]Babayan ceased all opposition activity and left Nagorno-Karabakh after Hayk Khanumyan, his ally and parliamentarian in the de facto National Assembly, was beaten by a group of young people, some wearing military uniform, on 7 June 2016. At least three were arrested for the incident, and months later pardoned by the de facto President. “Айк Ханумян считает, что объявленная амнистия распространится и на его похитителей” [Hayk Khanumyan expects the declared pardon to consider his kidnappers], RFERL Armenian Service, 26 August 2016, https://rus.azatutyun.am/a/27948216.html.Hide Footnote According to a public survey funded by groups affiliated with the Armenian government, more than 60 per cent of Nagorno-Karabakh respondents expressed “disillusionment with the future of the country”, and more than 70 per cent voiced readiness to emigrate.[fn]“Opinion polls in Nagorno-Karabakh: Comparative results from 2015 and 2016”, November 2016, https://goo.gl/sl8GEX, p. 21. The research was commissioned by Brussels-based “European Friends of Armenia (EUFA)”, which has been supporting the current Armenian leadership in promoting its ideas among foreign audiences.Hide Footnote The Nagorno-Karabakh leadership responded by simultaneously appointing critics to administration positions and solidifying its power by amending the constitution to consolidate power in the presidency.[fn]Vitaliy Balasanyan became secretary of the de facto National Security Council in November 2016. A month later, Masis Mailyan, another prominent opposition politician, was named the de facto president’s ambassador at large.Hide Footnote

2. Intensified military preparations

Armenian and de facto Armenian-Karabakh military forces are intertwined, with Armenia providing all logistical and financial support, as well as ammunition and other types of military equipment.[fn]Both Armenia’s and the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh’s leaderships used to strongly deny any close integration between the two structures. This changed after April 2016. In January 2017, a high-level military official from Armenia confirmed to Crisis Group the existence of close cooperation as well as Armenia’s support and control of Nagorno-Karabakh-based military troops; he added that this also was confirmed by the 2015 European Court of Human Rights ruling in “Chigarov and others v Armenia”, which found Armenia responsible for military operations inside Nagorno-Karabakh. See http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-155353.Hide Footnote After the April escalation, and for the first time in two decades, the local Nagorno-Karabakh leadership acted on its own initiative to refurbish military positions located along the Line of Contact.[fn]In interviews with Crisis Group, military officials based in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh said this process still was backed and closely monitored by Armenia’s Joint Staff, although they were led and managed by the de facto authorities.Hide Footnote Foreign donations, collected by ethnic Armenian diaspora representatives and channelled directly to the de facto leadership, were diverted exclusively to the local defence agency.[fn]The de facto government announced that $11 billion had been raised via foreign donations and exclusively spent on the local army. See “The special account of receipts and expenditures report, 2017”, Government of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Information Centre, 2 January 2017 at http://gov.nkr.am/en/official-news/item/2017/02/02/infograph/.Hide Footnote Some additional funds came from the local budget.[fn]The budget of the de facto government is financed in part by transfers from Armenia; it also enjoys its own revenues, which make up around 40 per cent of local budgets since 2005. Crisis Group interviews, de facto officials, Stepanakert, February 2017.Hide Footnote Authorities constructed alternative roads and tunnels near military positions and installed thermal imagers and night-vision equipment along the Line of Contact to improve front-line surveillance. They also modernised the military’s internal communications system, deepened and reinforced trenches in some locations with additional protective covers, and generally tried to improve infrastructure.

During the escalation, the de facto authorities called up the vast majority of Nagorno-Karabakh’s male population, most of whom remained in the trenches for at least the next two months.[fn]The local budget helped compensate all recruits for lost salary or average income during the military recruitment period. According to legislation from the de facto parliament, all males over the age of eighteen must undertake two-year compulsory military service and can be called to duty at any time.Hide Footnote In an effort to increase the army’s preparedness and boost the credibility of their response to the lessons of April 2016, they also replaced command leadership in some front-line positions and increased the number of contracted officers, although full information about such rearrangements was not made public.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civilians and military officials, Nagorno-Karabakh, October 2016, February 2017; Yerevan, January 2017.Hide Footnote

3. Postponement of political and economic reforms

In anticipation of resumed military activities, the de facto authorities reoriented their priorities, de-emphasising economic and administrative reforms. With annual transfers from the Armenian state budget playing a significant role in Nagorno-Karabakh’s local economy, and covering a large portion of salaries and other social benefits, the de facto leadership could invest its own resources in development projects.[fn]Since 2008, Armenia has been transferring approximately 3.15 per cent of its budget to Nagorno-Karabakh; de facto authorities regard this as a fair arrangement given there are no customs payments between Armenia and NK. Crisis Group correspondence with de facto Finance Ministry, Stepanakert, February 2017.Hide Footnote Since 2006, the de facto government initiated successful programs in agriculture, energy generation and foreign investment; over a decade, such efforts helped increase local income by a factor of 2.5 and triple the local budget.[fn]Crisis Group interview, de facto finance minister, Stepanakert, February 2017. The numbers were confirmed by the de facto Finance Ministry in follow-up correspondence.Hide Footnote After April 2016, however, the de facto authorities shifted course, postponing a number of economic initiatives. This came on top of other economic consequences of increased tension: the number of tourists – predominantly but not exclusively members of the Armenian diaspora – decreased by 16 per cent and many potential investors abandoned plans to come to Nagorno-Karabakh.[fn]Crisis Group interview, de facto official, Stepanakert, February 2017. The downturn also arguably resulted from increased pressure on foreign investors by Azerbaijan, which regards all types of economic activities within the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone as illegal. See http://www.mfa.gov.az/files/file/MFA_Report_on_the_occupied_territories_March_2016_1.pdf.Hide Footnote The de facto official responsible for economic reform said: “War and economic [development] move in two opposite directions”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, de facto official, Stepanakert, February 2017.Hide Footnote After the April events, projected economy growth for 2017 fell from 13 to 9 per cent.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The de facto leadership likewise shifted course on the political front, shelving its previous call to increase the parliament’s powers – a move that would have brought Nagorno-Karabakh’s constitution more in line with Armenia’s. Nagorno-Karabakh’s leaders justified the decision, arguing a parliamentary model no longer was appropriate given increased threat of war. Instead, the government presented an amended draft constitution that effectively solidifies the president’s authority. It also allows the current de facto president, Bako Sahakyan, to remain in power for a three-year “transitional period” after his second term ends in July 2017 and to run again in 2020. More than 90 per cent of the electorate approved the amendment in a February 2017 referendum.[fn]The text of the de facto constitution is at http://www.nankr.am/en/1837, according to the de facto Central Election Commission, over 90 per cent of the electorate supported it while approximately 9 per cent opposed it. See “Concerning state referendum conducted by the Artsakh government in February 2017: results of 20 February voting by precinct areas and regions”, February 2017, https://goo.gl/XPwSkU. No state recognised the referendum results; Azerbaijan and its close foreign allies, including Turkey, condemned the referendum. For Azerbaijan’s official statement, see: “No: 34/17, Statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on illegal ‘referendum’ in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan”, 14 February 2017, at http://www.mfa.gov.az/news/879/4696. For some of the statements of foreign states, see: “Turkey rejects planned Karabakh referendum”, 18 February 2017, Anadolu Agency; “Iran: ‘Referendum’ in Nagorno-Karabakh unacceptable”, Azeri news Agency-Apa, 20 February 2017; “Georgia doesn’t recognize ‘referendum’ in Nagorno-Karabakh”, Trend News Agency, 20 February 2017; “Pakistan’s position on Nagorno-Karabakh unchanged”, Diplomatic News Agency, 21 February 2017.Hide Footnote Only a single opposition politician campaigned against the constitutional change, but many others – including some within the de facto government – opposed it privately, choosing not to voice their concerns amid fears of a new attack from Azerbaijan.[fn]Hayk Khanumyan, an independent opposition member of parliament, was alone in campaigning against the new constitution. The local branch of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun voted against it in the de facto parliament but refrained from an active public campaign. Crisis Group interviews, de facto politicians, February 2017. Crisis Group interviews, members of de facto parliament, officials, journalists, Stepanakert, February 2017.Hide Footnote Provoking internal turbulence is wrong, one local analyst said, when “war is only 30km away”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst, Stepanakert, February 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Why Have the Post-April Talks Been Failing?

By clarifying the risks and costs of renewed conflict, the clashes should have spurred the parties to cooperate; indeed, Azerbaijan arguably hoped the limited escalation would galvanise the international community and pressure Armenia to engage.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and foreign analysts, Yerevan, January 2017, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote But events unfolded differently. Despite two meetings in the months following the escalation, the presidents – burdened by mutual mistrust – were unable to reach any agreement; negotiations deadlocked after a public spat in September. On both sides, public opinion appears increasingly entrenched and uncompromising, providing leaders with scant leeway to negotiate. Mutual concessions that might benefit the two countries in the longer term could in the shorter run threaten internal stability and thus ruling elites. For now, the only scenarios seemingly under discussion are military solutions or the tactical use of force to gain advantage at the negotiating table.

Both sides also mistrust international mediators, perceived as guided by the interests of major powers and unable to ensure the region’s long-term security and stable development. The two presidents have demanded that all OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs assume a more proactive mediation role, including by issuing public statements that do not equate the two parties, but rather criticise the other side’s shortcomings and assign responsibility, be it for security incidents (in the case of Azerbaijan) or lack of progress in the talks (in the case of Armenia).

As Western interest has waned over the past decade, Russia has emerged as the lone country consistently demonstrating high level political will to engage, helping to produce a ceasefire during the April 2016 crisis. Neither side is in a position to reject Russian participation, given the breadth of its cooperation with both countries, yet politicians and analysts on each side remain sceptical of Russian motives, suspecting Russia’s primary aim is to buttress its presence in the South Caucasus.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yerevan, Baku, February-March 2017.Hide Footnote

A. Main Sticking Points in Negotiations

Three main issues have been on the negotiating table since the end of the war in the 1990s: the fate of the seven districts around the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO); the status of the remaining territory in the conflict zone, now populated predominantly by ethnic Armenians; and the international security measures necessary to support the return to stability and security within the conflict zone.[fn]See Philip Remler, “Chained to the Caucasus: Peacemaking in Karabakh 1987-2012”, International Peace Institute, 6 January 2016.Hide Footnote Settlement of these questions would provide a foundation for further advances in the negotiating process, including return of IDPs, but presumes compromise and mutual concessions.

1. Occupied” territories

In addition to the former NKAO, seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts are held by ethnic Armenian forces, five in full and two in part.[fn]The districts fully held by ethnic Armenian forces include Jabrail and Zangilan (south of the former NKAO), as well as Gubadli, Lachin and Kelbajar (between the former NKAO and Armenia). Those held in part by ethnic Armenian forces include Agdam and Fizuli (east of the former NKAO). Azerbaijan lost control of these districts during the 1990s war.Hide Footnote Baku insists these territories are its own, recalling UN Security Council resolutions that describe the territories as occupied.[fn]UN Security Council Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884, all adopted during the 1992-1994 war, refer to these territories as occupied, a characterisation Yerevan rejects. Conversely, Armenia considers parts of the former NKAO and Shaumyan district (north of NK), as being occupied by Azerbaijan.Hide Footnote Since 2014, Baku has gone further, describing them as having been “annexed” by Armenia and recently also demanding that members of the international community impose sanctions analogous to those imposed on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Azerbaijani officials, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote Baku also has consistently invoked the right of all ethnic Azerbaijanis forcibly evicted from Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent territories to return to these areas, a feeling echoed by Azerbaijanis who were forced to flee and who express anger both at their inability to return and the fact that others have been settled in their former homes.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Azerbaijan, mid-2017. For further background, see Crisis Group Briefing, Tackling Azerbaijan’s IDP Burden, op. cit. About 80 per cent of all Azerbaijani IDPs hail from these districts. See http://www.stat.gov.az/source/others/aggression.jpg.Hide Footnote

The current position of Armenia – the representative of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians in negotiations – concerning the status of these disputed territories is unclear. Although in 2012 President Sargsyan acknowledged that at least some of them should be returned to Azerbaijan, today the Armenian side in effect makes no distinction between the former NKAO and adjacent territories. Officially, Yerevan says the status of these districts will be settled within a larger package, even as it maintains military control over them in coordination with the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh forces. For the broader public, any prior boundary separating the former NKAO from adjacent territories appears to have been erased, and most Armenian analysts agree there is no appetite for such distinctions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Armenian official, Yerevan, January 2017. Crisis Group interviews, Yerevan, January 2017.Hide Footnote

Practically, the return of even parts of the five districts would entail fundamental changes in the system of defensive structures and military facilities on the Armenian side of the Line of Contact. Loss of strategic heights also would heighten Armenia’s defence obligations, with considerable financial and personnel resource implications.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former senior official in Armenia’s defence ministry, Yerevan, October 2016.Hide Footnote Ultimately, Yerevan sees little if any benefit in agreeing to concessions that would prove politically unpopular and militarily risky without, in return, receiving strong international security guarantees as well as settlement of the contentious matter of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status in its favour.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officials, Yerevan, January 2017.Hide Footnote

When Nagorno-Karabakh adopted its constitution in 2006, entrenching its claims to statehood, it also redrew internal administrative boundaries to incorporate adjacent territories and create new districts; as a result, it expanded its total territory by a factor of 2.5 relative to the former NKAO.[fn]The final article of Nagorno-Karabakh’s first constitution incorporates these territories into the de facto Republic. See “Constitution of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”, Official website of the President of the Artsakh Republic, (non-official translation), http://www.president.nkr.am/en/constitution/fullText/. This article has remained in the new constitution adopted in February 2017.Hide Footnote De facto authorities categorically exclude the possibility of transferring control of even parts of these territories, which include strategically important roads that link up Armenian settlements in the territories, as well as infrastructure constructed after the 1992-1994 war.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, de facto officials and residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, October 2016, February and May 2017.Hide Footnote

Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, too, express a clear view: these lands, which they fought for and won, should remain under their control.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nagorno-Karabakh region, October 2016, February 2017.Hide Footnote In particular, the eleven thousand people who (according to local sources) inhabit what arguably are the two most strategic districts – Kelbajar and Lachin – consider them home.[fn]The Armenian name for Kelbajar is Karvachar. Crisis Group interviews, district residents, Yerevan, October 2016; Kelbajar, May 2017. These unverified numbers were provided by local residents.Hide Footnote They chiefly are post-war settlers from Armenia as well as ethnic-Armenian IDPs from neighbouring regions that remained under Azerbaijan’s control after the war. The de facto authorities signed long-term land rent contracts with the local population, who have turned lands in most adjacent areas into farms and will pay annual taxes for the next two decades.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents, Nagorno-Karabakh, October 2016, February and May 2017.Hide Footnote These long-term arrangements suggest neither the authorities nor the settlers view this as a temporary status or are contemplating return of the districts to Baku’s control.

2. Status issue

The past decade has seen developments regarding interpretations and application of principles of self-determination and territorial integrity. The West’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence was followed by Russia’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and in 2014, its annexation of Crimea. These events sharply divided major world powers. They have particular resonance in post-Soviet conflicts.

This context exacerbated Armenia and Azerbaijan’s concern that discussions of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status might make them pawns in a larger geopolitical game, leaving them little manoeuvring room and even less influence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yerevan, January 2017, Baku, March 2017, and Stepanakert, October 2016 and February 2017.Hide Footnote In the absence of clear, accepted international norms, the two conflicting parties have tended to adopt more extreme positions. Where space once existed for discussion of notions such as interim status, positions presently are firmly entrenched: Baku insists on granting Nagorno-Karabakh broad autonomy within Azerbaijan; Yerevan insists on independence for Nagorno-Karabakh – likely a prelude for its annexation by Armenia.[fn]“Ilham Aliyev responded to questions from Sputnik International News Agency”, Official website of the President of Azerbaijan, 17 October 2016, at http://en.president.az/articles/21409. “President handed high state awards to the services who excelled in the course of combat duties”, Official website of the President of Armenia, 25 March 2017, http://www.president.am/en/press-release/item/2017/03/25/President-Serzh-Sargsyan-awarded-Soldiers-in-Artsakh/. Crisis Group interviews, Armenian official, Yerevan, January 2017; de facto officials, Stepanakert, February 2017.Hide Footnote

3. Peacekeeping forces

International security arrangements are a precondition for any movement with regard to returning displaced ethnic Azerbaijanis to their homes and transferring control over all or parts of the districts surrounding the former NKAO back to Azerbaijan. During 23 years of negotiations, several variants have been mooted and deliberated, from peacekeepers armed with light weaponry to an unarmed observer mission.[fn]Philip Remler, “Chained to the Caucasus” op. cit.Hide Footnote

Yet these options raise various concerns for the two parties. Armenia evinces little trust that whatever arrangement is put in place can be sufficiently robust or long-term.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts and diplomats, Yerevan, spring 2017.Hide Footnote In the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Armenian analysts and officials are even more dubious of international guarantees.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officials and analysts, Yerevan, October 2016 and January 2017.Hide Footnote On the Azerbaijani side, the biggest fear is that the situation will not progress to the point where the question of a peacekeeping force becomes relevant. Secondly, there is strong concern about the composition of such a force.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Debate likewise has surrounded the potential composition and mandate of a security force dispatched to implement such arrangements. The OSCE High Level Planning Group authorized to discuss options has done little to advance deliberations. To date, only Russia has expressed willingness to send its military personnel to the conflict zone – though this runs against a “gentlemen’s agreement” forged in the Minsk Group context some fifteen years ago that troops from neither regional powers nor Minsk co-chair countries would participate in a potential peacekeeping mission.[fn]See “Securing an Armenian-Azerbaijani agreement: the roles of international and local security providers”, Conciliation Resources, June 2015, p. 7.Hide Footnote In a rare instance of mutual agreement, neither Armenians nor Azerbaijanis wish to see Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts, Baku and Yerevan, spring 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Lack of Trust between Negotiating Sides

In the 1990s, Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s leaders would travel to their shared international border for meetings without waiting for an invitation from mediators. They would smile, shake hands and pat their counterparts on the back, all before television cameras.[fn]The former leaders, Heydar Aliyev from Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharyan from Armenia, would meet frequently. See, eg, “Meeting with Robert Kocharyan and Heydar Aliyev”, YouTube, 17 August 2011, http://bit.ly/2rEQKHQ.Hide Footnote Such encounters have become a thing of the past. Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan meet rarely and only under pressure from mediators. When they do, their exchanges typically consist of harsh statements verging on insults.[fn]This occurred in August 2014 when Russian President Vladimir Putin mediated talks. Azerbaijan’s leader spoke about relevant UNSC resolutions and Armenia’s continuing “occupation” of areas in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone; Armenia’s president argued that Azerbaijan was ignoring UNSC resolutions. For a transcript, see “Meeting with Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan”, Official website of the President of Russia, 10 August 2014, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/46427.Hide Footnote

This profound lack of trust between the leaders is especially damaging because since the 1990s war, negotiations have become the prerogative of the two sides’ presidents and foreign ministers.[fn]In the official negotiation process, de facto NK is represented by Armenia’s officials. The president of de facto NK has often voiced full support for his Armenian counterpart in talks.Hide Footnote Alternative channels, such as direct communication between the militaries, have closed.[fn]One of the last meetings of militaries from both sides took place in the beginning of the 2000s, according to Serzh Sargsyan, then Armenia’s defence minister, “Transcript of interview by Thomas de Waal with Serzh Sarkisian”, Carnegie Endowment, 15 December 2000, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/DeVaalinterview_r.pdf.Hide Footnote Other than foreign ministers – who play a part during the preparatory phase or when talks stall – no other governmental representatives are at the negotiating table. This hyper-personalisation of the process means that substantive positions, as well as success or failure of any particular negotiation, become the sole responsibility of two specific individuals rather than of broader institutions.[fn]

Moreover, both sides view negotiations as a zero-sum game in which risk-taking can spell defeat, further stymying even incremental progress. This was illustrated during post-April efforts to strengthen peace-monitoring and introduce Confidence and Security Building Mechanisms (CSBM) which, had they been accepted by both sides alongside substantive talks, could have reduced the likelihood of renewed escalation. Crisis Group interview, foreign diplomat, Yerevan, January 2017.Hide Footnote

[B]oth sides view negotiations as a zero-sum game in which risk-taking can spell defeat, further stymying even incremental progress.

CSBM measures, as discussed in the May and June meetings of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in the OSCE Minsk Group framework, had two components: to enhance monitoring by the special representative of the OSCE chairman-in-office; and to introduce a mechanism for investigating incidents in the conflict zone (a suggestion under review since the 1990s).[fn]“President Serzh Sargsyan received the RF Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov”, Official website of the President of Armenia, 22 April 2016, http://www.president.am/en/press-release/item/2016/04/22/President-Serzh-Sargsyan-meeting-with-RF-foreign-minister-Sergey-Lavrov/. They are seen as two separate initiatives. The proposals were divided in two intentionally to allow the conflict parties to agree on at least one of them, according to a foreign diplomat; Crisis Group interview, Yerevan, January 2017.Hide Footnote

Yet Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s interpretations and views on implementation differ. For Armenia, enhancing security was a precondition for any substantive talks; for Azerbaijan, substantive talks needed to take place simultaneously lest the proposed security measures cement the status quo. Returning from the May talks in Vienna, President Sargsyan said his main task was to minimise the danger of a new escalation, and only then move toward a step-by-step resolution of the conflict.[fn]See Sargsyan’s airplane interview on his return from Vienna talks in May 2016. “President. The Armenian side proposed to hold the next meeting after the establishment of monitoring”, YouTube, 17 May 2016, https://youtu.be/lXlgNPANWps.Hide Footnote On his return, Aliyev made clear his views were entirely different: time was of the essence and incremental conflict resolution, unacceptable.[fn]“Speech by Ilham Aliyev at the official reception on the occasion of the Republic Day”, op. cit.Hide Footnote For Aliyev, any post-April deal needed to reflect Azerbaijan’s interest in tangible changes to the status quo, including at least the partial return of districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and creation of opportunities for IDP returns. Discussions of these proposals continued to no avail in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin.[fn]President Putin held a joint meeting with both presidents in St. Petersburg, followed by separate meetings with Aliyev and Sargsyan. “Meeting with Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev”, Official website of the President of Russia, 20 June 2016, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/52189; “Meeting with President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan”, Official website of the President of Russia, 10 August 2016, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/52683.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, rhetoric has grown increasingly provocative since April 2016. In public speeches, the two leaders began to emphasise the importance of determining Nagorno-Karabakh’s final political status, a topic on which their fundamental disagreement is well known. Sargsyan stated he never would allow Nagorno-Karabakh to revert to Baku’s control.[fn]“The President held a meeting with the representatives of the society, authorities and clergy”, Official website of the President of Armenia, 1 August 2016, http://bit.ly/2sn9o3r.Hide Footnote Aliyev responded in kind: Azerbaijan never would allow an Armenian state on Azerbaijani territory.[fn]“Речь Ильхама Алиева на открытии нового жилого здания построенного для военнослужащих”, Official website of the President of Azerbaijan, 25 June 2016, http://ru.president.az/articles/20495.Hide Footnote In September 2016, relations between the two men reached a new low at the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit, where Sargsyan and Aliyev called each other liars.[fn]“Ilham Aliyev gave compelling and tough response to Armenian President’s provocative remarks”, Official website of the President of Azerbaijan, 16 September 2016, http://en.president.az/articles/21097. “Sharp exchanges between Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents at CIS Bishkek summit”, Commonspace.eu, 18 September 2016, http://commonspace.eu/index.php?m=23&news_id=3899&lng=eng.Hide Footnote Since then, they have refused to meet and their pronouncements have become even more militant. Since November 2016, Aliyev regularly talks about the might of his country’s army; he has cited historians who assert that not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also modern Armenia is situated on territory that historically belonged to Azerbaijan.[fn]“Speech by Ilham Aliyev at the meeting with representatives of the general public in Tartar”, Official website of the President of Azerbaijan, 3 December 2016, http://en.president.az/articles/21942.Hide Footnote Both presidents have travelled to the front line to examine enemy positions through binoculars.[fn]Aliyev visited the Line of Contact twice in November 2016; Sargsyan had a two-day trip to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone in December 2016.Hide Footnote Attending a meeting of veterans at the end of February 2017, President Sargsyan made a call to “keep the gunpowder dry”, and mocked Azerbaijani leaders who, he said, continue to hope for a tea-drinking ceremony in Stepanakert.[fn]“President Serzh Sargsyan participated at the 11th convention of the homeland defenders voluntary union”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

C. Eroding Trust in the International System

Polarisation between the two sides does not merely complicate international mediation, it also reflects declining trust in that mediation. The fates of Kosovo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as Crimea weigh heavily, impacting on perceptions of possible security arrangements, but also shaking broader confidence that the parties can count on an international system with sound legal underpinnings. Indeed, both believe the international community has been inconsistent vis-à-vis self-determination and territorial integrity claims, reinforcing Yerevan’s and Baku’s desire to maintain stability by relying on their own means.

Both sides are convinced that international mediators cannot provide firm guarantees to safeguard the agreements they want Armenia and Azerbaijan to conclude. Aliyev repeatedly has spoken about the shortcomings of international law, which failed to compel Armenia to return the seven regions the UN Security Council itself deemed occupied.[fn]See UNSC Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884. See also statements by President Ilham Aliyev in Tartar in December 2016, “Speech by Ilham Aliyev at the meeting with representatives of the general public in Tartar”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Armenia, similarly, blames the international community for failing to respond to Azerbaijan’s policy of isolation toward de facto Nagorno-Karabakh.

D. Calls for New Roles for Foreign Mediators

1. The Minsk Group co-chairs under fire

The OSCE Minsk Group, established in 1994, consists of eleven countries including Armenia and Azerbaijan.[fn]For more detailed information about its mandate, see “Mandate for the Co-Chairmen of the Minsk Process”, Minsk Group, OSCE.Hide Footnote Russia, the U.S. and France have served as permanent co-chairs of the group since 1997, nominating their own representatives to take charge of day-to-day mediation on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.[fn]Philip Remler, “Chained to the Caucasus”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The special representative (SR) of the OSCE Chair-in-Office works in tandem with the co-chairs.[fn]Despite frequent chairmanship turnover, SR Andrzej Kasprzyk – who appears to enjoy the confidence of all parties as well as the privilege of regular meetings and contact with de facto NK leadership officials – has remained in his post for the past twenty years. Crisis Group interviews, Baku, Yerevan and NK.Hide Footnote

The Minsk Group has changed its approach over time. Co-chairs in the 1990s put forward proposals, trying to convince the parties to reach substantive agreement on core issues. Since the beginning of the 2000s, however, the Minsk Group has become more of a technical tool, serving essentially to maintain communication between the parties.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?, op. cit., p. 7.Hide Footnote This likely reflects above all declining international interest and involvement. The U.S.-led Key West peace process in 2001 was the last time negotiations received such high-level attention from the West.[fn]Philip Remler, “Chained to the Caucasus”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Since 2008, Russia has assumed a leading role, negotiating directly with the parties and inviting other co-chairs to support its ideas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomats, Yerevan, January 2017.Hide Footnote

During serious crises, the Minsk Group became the target of criticism by both parties, each demanding more direct high-level foreign engagement. The developments in April increased their frustration, which was chiefly and quickly directed at Minsk Group co-chairs.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yerevan, Baku, January, March 2017.Hide Footnote Within hours of the escalation, the co-chairs became caught in a crossfire of reproaches and complaints. Yerevan demanded an open declaration that Azerbaijan’s army had provoked the clash, endangering Armenian civilians and members of its military.[fn]The OSCE Minsk Group issued a statement condemning atrocities but not before December 2016. See “Joint Statement by the Heads of Delegation of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair Countries”, Minsk Group, OSCE, 8 December 2016.Hide Footnote Baku for its part insisted on an international assessment of civilian casualties and damage inflicted by the Armenian side.[fn]See co-chairs press-conference, Yerevan, April 2016, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wV39yAHO30U.Hide Footnote Discontent reached the boiling point when Azerbaijan’s National Assembly speaker, Ogtay Asadov, declared that his country was starting to lose trust in the Minsk Group, a sentiment quickly echoed by other politicians and public activists. In Yerevan, public outrage spilled out onto the streets. On 9 April, upon leaving an official meeting, the co-chairs were met by youth holding posters and flags which read “Shame on you!”.[fn]“National Assembly speaker: Azerbaijan loses trust to OSCE Minsk Group on Karabakh conflict”, abc.az, 4 April 2016. See video footage of the protest at https://ru.armeniasputnik.am/video/20160409/2889494.html; “The day on the frontline”, YouTube, 9 April 2016, http://bit.ly/2rURc4J.Hide Footnote

It was the first time the co-chairs had faced such expressions of public anger on both sides. In the coming months, they came under increasing pressure to take a more active role.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officials and analysts, Yerevan, Baku, January, March 2017.Hide Footnote Both capitals demanded the co-chairs assess developments and take concrete positions on substantive matters.[fn]Crisis Group interviews with Armenian and Azerbaijani officials, Yerevan and Baku, spring 2017.Hide Footnote Such an approach would require unified and strong backing from French, U.S. and Russian leaders. The alternative – a more assertive posture but a divided set of mediators within the Minsk Group, would imperil the sole remaining channel of communication between the two parties, especially given the need for consensus in the OSCE context.[fn]The Minsk Group includes Turkey, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Belarus, France, Russia, U.S., Armenia and Azerbaijan.Hide Footnote

That said, the parties are aware of the co-chairs’ constraints. The Minsk Group and Special Representative lack the instruments to conduct investigations into ceasefire violations, much less establish responsibility. The SR theoretically has the mandate to deploy “an OSCE peacekeeping operation … to facilitate a lasting comprehensive political settlement”, but in practice it has only a small group of monitors. This group, led by SR Andrzej Kasprzyk, visits a pre-agreed area for a few hours twice a month. Their field trips essentially are symbolic and do not meet modern peace-monitoring requirements.[fn]For more details, see “Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk”, OSCE Chairmanship, OSCE. Laurence Broers, “The Nagorny Karabakh Conflict: Defaulting to War”, Chatham House, 11 July 2016.Hide Footnote

During the April confrontation, President Sargsyan proposed strengthening the mediators’ role and introducing an OSCE investigation mechanism.[fn]“The President met with the Ambassadors of the OSCE participating states”, Official website of the President of Armenia, 4 April 2016, http://bit.ly/1RA44CG.Hide Footnote The goal was to reduce risk of further violence and fulfil both parties’ demands for a mechanism to investigate any future incidents.[fn]Crisis Group interview, foreign diplomat, Yerevan, January 2017.Hide Footnote But this requires consensus among all OSCE member states, including conflict parties. Azerbaijan has conditioned its consent on “substantive progress” in the peace process, specifically discussion of the concrete terms of a future settlement, including the withdrawal of the Armenian military forces from Nagorno-Karabakh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Azerbaijani officials, Baku, March 2017. “Statement by Elmar Mammadyarov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan, at the 23rd Ministerial Council of the OSCE”, Official website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic of Azerbaijan (www.mfa.gov.az), 8 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Lack of compromise has re-frozen the process, reinforcing the parties’ claims that the Minsk Group is a “useless structure” whose co-chairs “do nothing”, and that “it does not matter what format or group they are part of”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Azerbaijani and Armenian officials, Baku and Yerevan, March and January 2017.Hide Footnote The decision by France and the U.S. to appoint energetic diplomats commanding respect and support in their home capitals did not correct the problems nor did a joint public statement by the co-chairs’ foreign ministers on the situation in the conflict zone. The parties still lack confidence in their intention to genuinely engage.[fn]Stéphane Visconti, France’s former ambassador to Latvia, replaced Pierre Andrieu in November 2016. Richard E. Hoagland, a U.S. diplomat with over 30 years of experience, replaced James Warlick on an interim basis in January 2017.Hide Footnote

The Minsk Group’s lowest common denominator, “passive mediator” approach places the co-chairs in a weak position, particularly vis-à-vis parties entrenched in maximalist positions. Changing the current dynamic requires high-level backing from Moscow, Washington and Paris coupled with close coordination. That combination appears unlikely at least in the near future, given uncertain political transitions in France and the U.S. President Macron, with time, might well intensify France’s involvement on this issue. President Trump, for now, remains a genuine question mark.

2. Understanding Russia’s role

Russia has been the dominant international player in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for the last ten years. It has been the only global power publicly presenting proposals to the Armenian and Azerbaijan leaderships and reacting instantly to changes in the conflict zone.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?, op. cit.Hide Footnote More recently, Moscow has used its privileged position to promote its own initiatives, though often acting on behalf of the OSCE Minsk Group, thereby boosting their legitimacy and political weight.

A central actor, Russia also is one whose motivations raise questions both in Yerevan and Baku. Neither side views Moscow as disinterested; both view it as using the conflict to advance its position and military presence in the South Caucasus, an area it considers to be within what Russian officials typically describe as the country’s “sphere of privileged interests”. Moscow is seen as courting Armenia or Azerbaijan alternately, depending on which is more willing or able to bolster its regional goals. These include safeguarding its borders, including the problematic North Caucasus, and preventing an uptick in military activity close to Syria, where it is deeply engaged. As a result, Armenia and Azerbaijan question Russia’s interest in resolving the conflict and criticise its overly transactional approach.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Baku, Yerevan, Brussels, Vienna, 2016 and 2017.Hide Footnote Notwithstanding their concern, the absence of proactive Western participation has left the two parties with no real alternative to Russian mediation.

[T]the absence of proactive Western participation has left the two parties with no real alternative to Russian mediation.

If Russia is the predominant outside player, its influence nonetheless has limits. It established contact between the Armenian and Azerbaijani chiefs of staff and brokered the April 2016 ceasefire but the Minsk Group format – not Moscow’s invitation alone – was needed to convene the May and June summits.[fn]Crisis Group interview, European diplomat Brussels, June 2016.Hide Footnote Russia also has been the target of mutual recrimination by Yerevan and Baku. Immediately after the April events, street protests erupted in Yerevan protesting Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan; Armenian police had to block the entrance to the Russian embassy from youth groups carrying posters and flags, and pelting the building with eggs. President Sargsyan, expressing discontent to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Yerevan, took the unprecedented step of publicly reprimanding Russia for selling Azerbaijan weapons used to shoot Armenian soldiers.[fn]“Armenians protest against Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan”, RFE/RL Armenian Service, 13 April 2016, http://bit.ly/2rkZfFc. “President Serzh Sargsyan met with the Chairman of the Government of RF Dmitri Medvedev”, Official website of the President of Armenia, 8 April 2016, http://bit.ly/1SjWtUS.Hide Footnote Armenia and Russia have a close military alliance founded on a bilateral treaty and on Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), as well as close economic ties, and external observers noted how Yerevan’s outspoken criticism went well beyond past practice.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yerevan and Vienna, spring 2017.Hide Footnote For many Armenians, a principal lesson of the April escalation was that Yerevan “cannot count on the Russians anymore”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, foreign diplomat, Yerevan, January 2017.Hide Footnote

In fact, Armenia’s disappointment predates April 2016. Already in the second half of 2015, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov presented Yerevan and Baku with a non-paper on a possible deal; it was so poorly received in Armenia that an Armenian official suggested it “must have been drafted in Baku”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, January 2017.Hide Footnote The Lavrov Plan presumed the return of five of seven districts around the former NKAO to Baku’s direct control.[fn]“Lavrov’s Plan” is a confidential document that was seen by, and discussed with officials in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Western capitals. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Vienna, October 2016; Brussels, January 2017; Yerevan, January 2017. Russia refuses to call it “Lavrov’s Plan”, emphasising that the non-paper is based on past discussions within the OSCE Minsk Group. Media and officials in Armenia and Azerbaijan also have referred to them as “Putin’s plan” and “a revised Kazan document”, in reference to an earlier Russian-proposed peace plan that failed. Russia’s proposal apparently contemplates return of five districts located east and south of the NKAO, but not of the two larger districts of Kelbajar and Lachin that are strategically important to the Armenian side because of the placement of two main roads connecting Armenia with de facto Nagorno-Karabakh.Hide Footnote Contrary to Yerevan’s expectations, Nagorno-Karabakh would not receive any clear guarantees regarding its future political status outside Azerbaijan. Instead, the document apparently referred to an “interim status”, sparking Armenian fears that Russia’s position was shifting in Azerbaijan’s direction and would support a self-rule arrangement under its control. In return, Azerbaijan, as well as Turkey, reportedly would open their borders with Armenia. Some diplomats say Baku and Ankara privately suggested willingness to open borders in exchange for the return of fewer than five districts.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Brussels and Ankara, 2016 and 2017.Hide Footnote As one observer put it: “For the first time in 25 years, Russians were pressuring Armenians”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, foreign diplomat, Yerevan, January 2017.Hide Footnote

As Yerevan and Baku see it and informally admit, Russia is chiefly interested in expanding its military presence in the region by deploying troops in the conflict zone.

Azerbaijan expressed satisfaction with Russia’s apparent new position, but it was short-lived. President Aliyev welcomed Russia’s readiness to “put pressure” on Armenia and between the April confrontation and mid-summer 2016 repeatedly said he anticipated immediate changes in the stalled process. These hopes dissipated as Azerbaijan concluded that Russia was again willing “to play the two sides so as to keep pressure on both”.[fn]“Speech by Ilham Aliyev at the military unit in Tartar district”, op. cit. Crisis Group interviews, analysts, Baku, March 2017.Hide Footnote After meeting with his Armenian counterpart in August 2016, Vladimir Putin said: “We need to find such approaches and mechanisms, whereby … no one would feel that they are the victorious or the defeated party”.[fn]“High-level Armenian-Russian negotiations took place in Moscow”, Official website of the President of Armenia, 10 August 2016, http://bit.ly/2qASl1s.Hide Footnote Azerbaijan had had higher hopes.

As Yerevan and Baku see it and informally admit, Russia is chiefly interested in expanding its military presence in the region by deploying troops in the conflict zone, an ambition even some Russians privately acknowledged in interviews.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yerevan, January 2017. A Russian official did not dispute this interpretation. Crisis Group interview, Russian official, Moscow, October 2016.Hide Footnote They point in particular to a suggestion in the so-called Lavrov Plan that Russia might deploy a peacekeeping contingent to Nagorno-Karabakh with the consent of the parties. Both parties rejected the proposal, fearing such a military presence would make them even more dependent on Moscow’s shifting interests.[fn]As previously noted, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs reached a so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” not to include any of the regional states in a putative peacekeeping force, thereby ruling out Russia and Turkey in particular.Hide Footnote Further fuelling Armenian and Azerbaijani mistrust, a Russian official has argued that in the event of a large-scale military confrontation, Moscow may have to intervene to prevent ethnic cleansing or serious violations of humanitarian law.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Russian diplomat in the region, January 2017.Hide Footnote This, Armenian and Azerbaijani analysts fear, could be the prelude to a permanent Russian military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts, Yerevan, Baku, mid-2017.Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

While violence remains at a relatively low boil, any escalation quickly could spin out of control, and the danger of more deadly fighting involving highly destructive weaponry is real. Failure to contain a future escalation likely would result in heavy casualties coupled with foreign intervention. Troop deployment from any of the regional powers would deeply impact Armenia and Azerbaijan, and their sovereignty, at a time when both have just celebrated 25 years of independence.

Negotiations are the only way out of the impasse, and the best way to avert another war. Sound principles for a realistic, fair settlement of the conflict exist, but distrust, a gap between the mediators’ and the two sides’ perceptions, and the protagonists’ heightened appetite for maximum gains likely render any immediate compromise formula remote. For both sides, either stalemate or war currently appears a better outcome than compromise. Worse, Baku’s frustration with the status quo on the ground, and Armenia’s efforts to cement it, could prompt a vicious cycle of further and more violent confrontation.

Baku’s frustration with the status quo on the ground, and Armenia’s efforts to cement it, could prompt a vicious cycle of further and more violent confrontation.

Implementation of the CSBMs discussed in Vienna and St. Petersburg – enhancing monitoring of the zone of conflict and setting up an investigative mechanism – is urgently needed and should be accompanied by establishment of a channel of communication between field-based militaries on both sides. But this needs to happen in parallel to substantive discussions of issues central to the settlement. The problem is that both sides see no reason to proceed with the element of the twin approach they disfavour: Yerevan will not agree to substantive discussions until CSBMs are addressed; Baku will balk at implementation of confidence-building measures without at least some dialogue on substantive issues.

This is where high-level coordination and pressure by Moscow, Washington and Paris is both needed and possible – if they put their differences on other issues aside. The best prospect for averting renewed war is for Russia, the U.S. and France to work in unison, with strong buy-ins from their respective leaderships. As they do so, they also should press Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to tone down hostile rhetoric, soften their negotiating positions and acknowledge – privately, but also publicly – that this conflict ultimately will only be resolved through negotiations, not by force.

Yerevan/Baku/Stepanakert/Brussels/Vienna, 1 June 2017

Appendix A: Map of the Conflict Zone in a Regional Context

Stepanakert is the capital of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and the non-recognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. The Azerbaijanis have officially renamed the city Khankendi and refer to it by this name. This report uses the pre-1988 names for all geographical features in the area of conflict.

Map of the Conflict Zone in a Regional Context Mike Sand/International Crisis Group, 2016
Smoke rises above rebel-held areas of the city of Daraa during reported airstrikes by Syrian regime forces on July 5, 2018. AFP

Watch List 2018 – Second Update

Crisis Group’s second update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on seizing a chance for peace in Mali, avoiding escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, mitigating conflict in Syria’s peripheral regions, and helping Somalia overcome obstacles to reform. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.

Mali’s Elections Are an Opportunity to Reboot the Peace Process

Only days before Mali’s presidential election, large parts of the country remain wracked by violence. Jihadist insurgencies plague rural areas in the centre and north east. Predation by ethnic militias, often mobilised by local politicians and community leaders to fight jihadists and in some cases tacitly backed by the Malian authorities and the French military mission, Operation Barkhane, fuel animosity among communities. Clashes along the Niger-Mali border have claimed dozens of lives over the past few months.

Amid such volatility, the 29 July vote could reinvigorate efforts to quell violence in central and northern Mali, including by breathing new life in the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement that aimed to stabilise northern Mali after a 2012-2013 crisis that saw jihadists hold northern towns for almost a year. But if it provokes political turmoil in Bamako or aggravates insurgencies in rural areas in Mali’s centre or north, the election could not only provoke intensified violence but also spell the end of that accord.   

The European Union (EU) and its member states can take several steps to improve prospects for peace. Ahead of the elections, they should encourage the main contenders to pledge to pursue disputes peacefully and through the courts. To reinvigorate implementation of the peace deal, notably its provisions related to decentralisation in the north, they will have to press the next Malian president and the armed groups that signed the deal to set clear timelines for elections to regional assemblies. In central Mali, they should press Malian authorities to halt security forces’ abuses of the local population and hold accountable those responsible. They also should promote a shift from the Malian state’s overwhelmingly military-focused approach in the centre to one that includes efforts to address the political disputes underpinning unrest and reinforces policing and the provision of other basic services.

Improving Prospects for a Peaceful Election

For the most part, the government and main opposition parties have maintained a peaceful dialogue about preparations for the forthcoming presidential vote. But clashes between police and opposition protesters on 2 June in the capital Bamako show that tensions persist and could degenerate into violence.

Twenty-four candidates – including only one woman – will contest the presidency. In reality, however, the vote will pit President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta against opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, in a repeat of the 2013 presidential election. Other candidates, including former prime ministers and ministers, have little chance of winning. But in the event of a run-off, their support to either of the two main contenders could prove decisive.

The immediate problem is the security of the vote itself. Several districts in Mali’s north and centre, where state authorities are unable to deploy, might be too unsafe for balloting. In the north, armed groups that signed the 2015 peace deal are still negotiating the conditions under which they will facilitate the vote in areas under their control. This is especially true of the Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) coalition, which controls the northernmost town of Kidal and surrounding areas. Central Mali suffers general insecurity, with control over terrain murkier. The authorities have announced that voting would proceed regardless. But the inability of people to vote due to insecurity could throw into question the election’s legitimacy and credibility, especially given that one of Cissé’s supposed strongholds is in central Mali.

In this light, the EU and its members should:

  • Urge the main candidates to sign a pact committing to accept the outcome of a fair election or, if they wish to challenge results, to do so peacefully and through the court system; and
     
  • Encourage whoever wins the presidency to focus on addressing grievances common to much of Malian society, especially the lack of job opportunities, the poor functioning of the state services and rising concerns about intercommunal violence in the countryside; without this, it is likely that an increasing number of Malians will start to believe that violent protests rather than elections can deliver change.

Reviving the Peace Process

The Bamako peace agreement, and notably its main provisions on the devolution of power and economic development in the north, as well as the demobilisation of the armed groups that signed the deal, needs a reboot. Algeria, which negotiated the deal, appears to have lost appetite in pushing forward its implementation. None of the other guarantors, whether the African Union, UN or EU, has stepped up. The Malian signatory parties all dislike the deal and blame each other for its slow implementation.

The [Bamako] agreement’s impact on the ground remains limited.

As a result, the agreement’s impact on the ground remains limited. Joint patrols, comprising the different armed groups that signed the Bamako deal, have started in Kidal and other northern towns, Timbuktu and Gao, which were foreshadowed in the deal. Threats of UN Security Council sanctions appear to have helped push signatory parties to be more conciliatory, including accepting the deployment of joint patrols in Kidal. But the armed groups’ participation remains tenuous; the patrols have yielded little improvement in security; and in Gao tensions among the different groups’ contingents in those patrols resulted in skirmishes.

Overall, international mediators and the signatories have spent too much energy on temporary security arrangements, such as the joint patrols, rather than on structural reform such as devolving power to regional assemblies and the north’s economic development. The Sahel Alliance, a platform to coordinate donor support for the Sahel region launched by France, Germany, the EU and other partners in 2017, could address part of the problem, by advancing the development provided for in the peace agreement. But to do so, the projects envisaged in the Sahel Alliance should be kept separate from Malian or international military operations, to avoid stirring up resistance to them among the north’s inhabitants, exposing aid workers or communities to retribution by jihadists and thus rendering projects less effective.

To help revive the peace process, the EU and its member states should:

  • Encourage the next Malian government, together with other signatories to the Bamako deal, to establish a precise calendar for implementation of its key steps, notably for elections to regional assemblies in the north and elsewhere; and
     
  • Reassess, as part of the Sahel Alliance, the linking of development projects too closely to military operations. In particular, military forces should not be involved in development work.  

Stabilising Central Mali

Perhaps most troubling are insurgencies in central Mali’s Mopti and Segou regions, which are more heavily populated and more integral to the country’s economy than the north. Thus far the government’s response – which it dubs a “special plan” – has been mostly military, attempting to rebuild barracks, redeploy troops and appoint military officials as local administrators. On his 11 February visit to Mopti, Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga stressed the need for political solutions and seemed to open the door to dialogue with all armed groups. But his speech has been followed by few concrete results. Repeated reports suggest extrajudicial killings by Malian security forces, fuelling anger at Bamako and the military.

Animosity among communities in central Mali is on the rise. Armed groups of the Dogon and Fulani (two ethnic groups in central Mali) have clashed repeatedly. Many Fulani suspect that Malian officials are backing the Dogon militias to counter jihadists, though such allegations are unproven. Similar dynamics are at play in Menaka region, where Tuaregs and Dossaaks (two of the nomadic tribes living in the region) cooperate with Malian and French counter-terrorism operations, again fuelling both ethnic rivalries and Fulani alienation from the state, as Fulanis tend to bear the brunt of those operations (see Crisis Group’s 12 July 2018 report, The Niger-Mali Border: Subordinating Military Action to a Political Strategy).

Priorities for the EU and its member states are to:

  • Step up immediate diplomatic pressure to stop the abuses of civilians, including killings, by Malian security forces. The EU’s capacity-building mission in Mali (EUCAP), which trains and advises the Malian police and gendarmerie, and the EU military training mission, which trains the Malian military, also should redouble efforts to ensure their counterparts in the Malian security forces end such abuses. Those missions also should support additional civilian oversight of, and accountability for, the security forces, including the establishment of a chain for reporting abuses; and
     
  • Encourage Bamako to strengthen regional authorities in Mopti and Segou by sending trained specialists rather than political advisers; the Malian police and gendarmerie should focus on their traditional functions rather than be diverted to fighting jihadists. The EU also could consider expanding EUCAP’s presence to central Mali to enhance the impact of the mission’s advice and mentoring and help ensure that Malian national security policies and strategies developed in Bamako are implemented beyond the main urban centres in the south.

Armenia’s Change of Leadership Adds Uncertainty over Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenia has experienced political turbulence since mass demonstrations in April spurred its prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, to stand down after a decade in power, and the Armenian parliament selected Nikol Pashinyan, the protest leader, to replace him. Pressure on Pashinyan to enact reforms he pledged on coming to power is likely to sharpen after snap parliamentary elections, which are expected in the coming months and which his party appears set to win. With a busy domestic agenda, the new government is unlikely to make any major step toward resolving the country’s 30-year conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave Nagorno-Karabakh or revisit Armenia’s long-held positions on that conflict. The lack of any progress toward resolving the conflict risks leading to a renewed escalation; it could further frustrate Azerbaijan and potentially boost its desire for territorial gains through the use of force.

The priority for both Armenia, Azerbaijan and their respective allies ought to be to mitigate risks of such an escalation. Incidents in the conflict zone, which have intensified since 2012, would fast destroy any hope for a reset in stalled peace talks. In the medium term, the two sides need channels for more direct communication. Their leaders should resume regular meetings, which have not taken place since October 2017 (though the two foreign ministers met in July for the first time since the Armenian leadership change). Meetings between the leaderships could help develop a shared vision for renewed negotiations.

The European Union (EU) has long sought entry points for enlarging its role in Nagorno-Karabakh talks. The uncertainty created by Armenia’s change of leadership might open up some opportunities.      

  • In addition to supporting the conflict’s only mediating body – the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group – the EU could use its bilateral ties and the engagement of its special representative for the South Caucasus to help both countries establish channels of communication, even if informal, among stakeholders including their militaries, political advisers to the two governments and Armenian and Azerbaijani civil societies.
  • In 2017, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed in principle to increase the number of OSCE observers working in the conflict zone, but the sides remain at odds over aspects of the new observers’ deployment. To help resolve the impasse, the EU could offer resources and share its experiences from other conflicts, while vocally backing the increase.
  • The EU should reorient its peacebuilding activities toward stimulating greater public support for a future peace deal, particularly among youth groups and people living along the front lines and the Azerbaijani-Armenian international borders.
  • The EU and other international actors also might consider additional financial support, including for UN and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) efforts to mitigate the humanitarian consequences of a potential escalation.   

Reducing Risks of Escalation through Communication

The new Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has a limited policy record on Nagorno-Karabakh. He is the first Armenian leader in two decades who played no personal role in the war, though he was born in Armenia’s Tavush area, near the eastern border with Azerbaijan, which has suffered a serious economic downturn due to the conflict.

Yet while Pashinyan lacks his predecessors’ links to Karabakh, he already has glimpsed in his short time in office the difficulty of policymaking toward the disputed enclave. He spent his first weeks as prime minister building trust with Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto leadership, which had been loyal to Sargsyan, including calling for its greater engagement in the peace process. Those statements were poorly received in Baku, which is wary of what it perceives as attempts to “legitimise” those authorities, and in turn insists on the participation of representatives of displaced Azerbaijanis from Karabakh.

Pashinyan and his team thus far have mainly aligned with the traditional policy lines of their predecessors. That is unlikely to change while they remain focused on domestic reforms and keeping the transition on track. But, in an environment of deep distrust between the parties, the lack of clarity regarding Yerevan’s intentions toward the enclave risks increasing tensions. Some Azerbaijani officials already express frustration over the prolonged uncertainty, which, they believe, entrenches a status quo Baku desires to change.

Thus far, the two sides have prevented major incidents. But the risk remains of tactical moves by either side or inadvertent incidents spiralling out of control. Nagorno-Karabakh is among the most heavily militarised places in the world. Any escalation could create a humanitarian crisis. Around 300,000 people live in the 15km-wide zone along the Azerbaijani side of the line of contact. All of the 150,000 Armenians residing in Nagorno-Karabakh are within reach of Azerbaijani missiles and artillery shells. Renewed fighting could cause more destruction than the escalation over four days in April 2016, which led to more than 200 deaths.

Multilevel communication, including between militaries, could help minimise risks of inadvertent escalation.

A main worry is that communication between field commanders in and around Nagorno-Karabakh is non-existent. For years contacts largely have been limited to the highest levels – the two countries’ presidents and foreign ministers. Multilevel communication, including between the sides’ militaries, could help minimise risks of inadvertent escalation. Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s leadership should show more readiness to open channels between lower-level counterparts. For its part, the EU should explore opportunities to help build new lines of communication and deliver messages between the two sides. It also could consider facilitating targeted mediation on humanitarian issues that, among other things, might stimulate progress of official talks in the OSCE Minsk Group format.

In 2017, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed, in principle, to increase the number of conflict observers of the personal representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office from the current six to thirteen. As yet, the sides have not carried out this important albeit limited step toward improving transparency along the line of contact. Baku fears the increase might further solidify the status quo in the conflict zone. It is reluctant to permit the deployment of the extra observers without concessions from Yerevan; Armenia’s new leadership rejects making any such concessions. The EU should commit to support the extra observers with funds and by sharing its ceasefire monitoring expertise.

Since the April 2016 escalation, the UN and ICRC have worked to reduce the potential human cost of a future escalation, including by supporting civilian protection initiatives and constructing bomb shelters in the conflict zone. The EU and other international actors should provide financial backing to this effort, as needed.    

A Reset of the Peace Process

Talks between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have been deadlocked since the April 2016 escalation. Armenia demands the determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status as a precondition for accommodating Azerbaijan’s key demand – the return of the territories adjacent to the Armenian-populated enclave and controlled by Armenia since 1993. The two capitals disagree on Karabakh’s status, however. Yerevan advocates for its independence. Baku’s starting point is that the enclave needs to reintegrate into Azerbaijan.

These positions are very close to the two sides’ stances of almost a quarter century ago, when the bloody 1992-1994 war in Nagorno-Karabakh had just ended. Their intransigence today in effect sweeps aside the Madrid Principles, a formula to which the two sides agreed in 2007 for resolving issues at the core of the conflict (related to the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the return of the adjacent territories to Baku’s control and security arrangements). Since then, both sides have been backsliding, as both have built up their armies and purchased long-range missiles and other modern weaponry.

Escaping this stalemate will not be easy. It will require commitment from Azerbaijan and Armenia’s new leadership to enter talks and find a compromise solution, likely along the lines of the Madrid Principles. This also will require consistent efforts by mediators. But greater engagement between the two societies could help as well and here the EU can play an important role. The year 2019 will mark the end of its investment in two programs aimed at stimulating such dialogue: the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and the Peacebuilding through Capacity Enhancement and Civic Engagement program. The EU should consider renewing these programs after a careful review of their impact. Such programs should primarily focus on youth groups – to help develop a vision of future peace between societies that have been divided for three decades – as well as people living in the frontline regions and along the Azerbaijan-Armenia international borders. A new long-term commitment to fostering exchanges between the two countries’ civil societies could start to bridge the existing gulf between the two sides and set a foundation for broader participation in discussions of peace.

Encouraging Reform and Reconciliation in Somalia

The 16-17 July high-level Somalia Partnership Forum in Brussels, which brought together senior Somali officials, major donors and international organisations to discuss support to Somalia, came at a critical time for the country. Preparations for its first direct elections in decades, scheduled for 2020 (the parliamentary vote) and 2021 (the presidential), are underway. The African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) is drawing down its forces and progressively transferring responsibilities to the federal government and security forces. The European Union (EU)’s decision to begin granting Somalia 100 million euros in direct budgetary support, benchmarked to revenue collection and anti-corruption measures, provides the Somali government incentives for reform.

The government’s main challenge is to carry out its National Transition Plan for Security, which lays out how its forces will take over from AMISOM, and its Political Roadmap on Inclusive Politics, which calls for a constitutional review process, direct elections by 2020, and clan reconciliation. There are obstacles ahead. Mogadishu and the governments of Somalia’s six federal states (or regions) have been unable to overcome their disagreements and implement reforms; the Islamist Al-Shabaab insurgency has proved resilient; a standoff between semi-autonomous federal state of Puntland and the self-declared republic of Somaliland threatens to escalate into open war; and spillover effects of the Gulf crisis have provoked a sharp deterioration of the Somali government’s relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), roiled Somalia’s already factious politics and aggravated tensions between Mogadishu and Somali regions.

In this context, there are several steps the EU and its member states could take:

  • Work in coordination with other international partners to press the federal government and Somali regions to implement the Plan for Security and the Political Roadmap, particularly the constitutional review process, and monitor progress;
     
  • Encourage AMISOM in this transitional period to focus more on mentoring, joint operations and greater interaction with Somali forces rather than merely training;
     
  • Support local and foreign mediation – notably by actors with leverage on one or more of the parties, such as the UAE and Ethiopia – to de-escalate tensions between Puntland and Somaliland; and
     
  • Explore, together with Gulf and Horn of Africa leaders, the option of holding a conference on Red Sea security comprising outside powers whose competition for influence is fuelling instability in Somalia and elsewhere in the Horn.  

Stuttering Progress toward Security Sector Reform and Elections

At a March meeting of the Somali National Security Council, the government and leaders of its six federal states (or regions), agreed on a timeline to integrate local security forces into an army of 18,000 soldiers and a 32,000-strong police force. Integration along these lines would be an important step: it would help establish more representative and effective security forces while addressing concerns that they are dominated by certain clans. Since that meeting, however, there has been little progress. Both Mogadishu and federal states appear to have failed to improve their cooperation on security matters despite repeated pledges to do so. A row between the government of the federal state of Jubaland and Mogadishu in mid-July over the replacement of the Somali National Army commander in Jubaland is symptomatic of the chronic mistrust hampering progress (a general appointed by Mogadishu to command the 43rd Division, General Ali Mohammed Bogmadow, in the city of Kismayo was refused entry after landing at the airport on 13 July and ordered back, allegedly because Jubaland authorities were not consulted).

Increased European support should be tied to concrete steps on key priorities.

Federal government and regional leaders discussed ways to break such logjams at a May meeting in Baidoa, the capital of South West State, one of Somalia’s federal states. Although the tone of the gathering was positive, it – like its predecessors – in essence papered over key issues obstructing cooperation between Mogadishu and regions, notably how to apportion power and resources among them. While those disagreements remain unresolved, centre-periphery tensions will persist.

The EU could create incentives for the government and federal state leaders to break the deadlock. Increased European support should be tied to concrete steps on key priorities. These might include, for example, the completion of a constitutional review; agreement on legislation to apportion power and resources; and the creation of a functional and independent authority to address, arbitrate and resolve centre-periphery disputes. The constitutional review process, which started in May and envisages a final document by 2019, is particularly critical. Without a permanent constitution, efforts to build national institutions, including an army, and reforms aimed at enabling competitive elections are unlikely to endure.

There appears to be broad consensus among African troop contributors and Western donors that AMISOM will draw down, but only gradually, as the Somali government assumes responsibility for providing security. In preparation, AMISOM should move away from only training Somali forces and include those forces in joint operations, allowing for more hands on mentoring and interaction with other African armies.  

Al-Shabaab’s Resilience

Despite intensified U.S. airstrikes, Al-Shabaab remains strong. It owes its resilience in large part to political infighting both within the government and between the government and member states, as well as to those entities’ failure to govern notionally liberated areas. The lack of federal and member states’ administrative control means insurgents can continue to tax and intimidate local populations. Moreover, AMISOM and Somali forces have not sustained their military pressure on the insurgency, which has allowed Al-Shabaab to regroup and rebuild in the country’s vast rural hinterland.

Even in those parts of the country where security has improved somewhat, Al-Shabaab is adapting. For the first time in several years, the group did not carry out a large-scale, vehicle-borne bombing in the capital Mogadishu during Ramadan – arguably a result of the government’s draconian road closures. But, instead of resorting to bombings, militants conducted a campaign of assassinations in Mogadishu and the neighbouring Shabelle valley, killing over 100 people, most of them junior officials. Even the government’s tightened security measures showed their limitations: on 7 July, twin car bomb attacks in Mogadishu targeted the interior ministry and killed at least fifteen soldiers, demonstrating Al-Shabaab’s continued lethal reach.

While neither the national transitional security plan nor the political roadmap are panaceas, effective implementation of the former, notably its security sector reforms, should help address some of the gaps the insurgents exploit, while the latter could help gain the support of communities whose wariness about Mogadishu can lead them to tacitly support Al-Shabaab.

War Drums in the North

Another worry is the military standoff between the semi-autonomous federal state of Puntland and the self-declared republic of Somaliland over control of two regions they have long contested, Sool and Sanaag. The two sides have clashed repeatedly since the start of 2018, often with large numbers of casualties, and are massing forces in the contested areas.

A war in the north would undercut the improvements in governance Somaliland and Puntland have made in the last ten years, as well as the international good-will they – particularly Somaliland – enjoy. It could have enormous human costs, triggering a large-scale humanitarian crisis, and potentially contribute to instability further south. It also could exacerbate other threats in the north, with Al-Shabaab still present, a small branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) operating in pockets of Puntland and human trafficking and piracy continuing.

The EU should consider supporting efforts by the UN and Ethiopia, among others, to mediate between the two sides. The role of clan elders is especially crucial and ought to be encouraged. While the two sides seem to have calmed their hostile rhetoric, the threat of war and imperative for mediation remain.

Alongside efforts to mediate between Puntland and Somaliland, detoxifying relations between Mogadishu and Hargeisa would help reduce the threat of armed conflict in the north – given that Mogadishu risks getting pulled into the conflict behind Puntland – and improve prospects for stability in the country as a whole. The EU could use its close ties to Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” and Somaliland President Muse Bihi for the resumption of talks between the Somali government and Somaliland, which broke down after the latter unilaterally signed a deal in March with the Emirati conglomerate DP World to develop and operate Berbera port, infuriating Mogadishu officials. The government’s June decision to cancel Somaliland’s Special Arrangement – a framework that has enabled donor engagement in Somaliland since 2013 – further worsened relations between the two. They are unlikely to improve unless it is renewed.

The Gulf’s Impact

The spat between Gulf powers, which in June 2017 saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE and allies break diplomatic relations with and impose an embargo on Qatar, has aggravated Somalia’s instability. President Farmajo asserts that he remains neutral, but the UAE perceives his government as too close to Qatar. In response, Abu Dhabi appears to have upped support to Somalia’s federal states. Farmajo, in turn, has deepened ties with Doha and Ankara and repressed rivals, using their alleged ties to the Emiratis as a pretext.

June 2018 brought signs the Somali and Emirati governments recognise the need to re-engage. There was a marked decrease in antagonistic rhetoric and unconfirmed reports suggested backchannel diplomacy was underway. That same month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited Mogadishu, reportedly in part to sound out Mogadishu’s willingness to accept his mediation.

The EU could be a potential broker of talks among the outside powers currently vying for influence around the Red Sea. Its strong role in maritime security, specifically via Operation Atalanta, the counter-piracy military initiative it launched in 2008 off the Horn of Africa coastal line and whose mandate has been extended to December 2018, gives it influence. So too do its relatively good relations with all countries involved.

EU foreign ministers and the EU special representative for the Horn of Africa have called for a forum that would bring together Horn and Gulf states to discuss ways to decrease tensions among Gulf powers, Turkey and other states. The African Union’s High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan also has mooted the idea of some form of dialogue among Horn and Gulf states. It is an idea worth pursuing as a means of managing competition and promoting regional stability. Bringing together such an array of rival countries and facilitating constructive debate would be no small challenge. Ambitions should be modest. But all sides should have an interest in avoiding inadvertent escalation that would harm regional peace and security as well as shipping and other commercial activity.

Syria: From One War to More

Bashar al-Assad’s regime has gained a firm upper hand in the Syrian war. With sustained support from Russia and Iran, it has restored its control in the heart of the country’s heavily populated western corridor. Now the Syrian leadership is turning its sights toward remaining areas outside its control. In the south west, a regime offensive now underway risks causing considerable loss of life, displacement and human suffering. It also could provoke tensions between Israel and Iran. The north west (held by an array of rebel factions, ringed by Turkish military observation points) and north east (controlled by the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces) appear better protected from attack for the moment. Yet, there as well, the war may re-escalate.

In all three areas of Syria that the regime is seeking to recapture, the European Union (EU) and its member states have an important role to play in averting the worst-case scenario, in the medium term, and aiding physical and political reconstruction, in the long term. In the meantime, the EU and its member states should continue to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians in need everywhere and, by virtue of their diplomatic ties with all sides, facilitate communication and diplomatic understandings among warring parties.

The South West

In late June, Syrian forces backed by Russian air power launched an offensive to retake opposition-held areas in the south west. The attack marked the effective end of the “de-escalation” agreement negotiated among the U.S., Russia and Jordan, which had significantly reduced violence in this part of the country since July 2017, although Russia denied it had withdrawn from the deal. (It made the dubious claim that it was fulfilling the agreement’s counter-terrorism provisions by eliminating southern jihadists, which the U.S. and Jordan had failed to do.)

After a swift advance down the south west’s rebel-held eastern countryside, the Syrian regime and Russia forced the negotiated surrender of most local rebels. Only the western countryside remains unresolved, including a basin occupied by a local Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate and rebel-held sections adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. As many as 234,500 people had been displaced as of 11 July. Many who had sheltered along the Jordanian border have returned home since the reimposition of regime control, but according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 160,000 are currently camped out along the Israeli-occupied Golan.

Once the Syrian military and aligned paramilitaries advance on these last areas next to the Golan, the human cost will rise substantially. So will the risk of a regional escalation.

Israel has provided various forms of support (including small arms) to opposition factions and local communities along the 1974 armistice line, seeking to maintain a friendly buffer between itself and a Syrian regime which has enlisted the help of Iranian forces and various Iran-linked militias. Israel rejects the presence of such groups anywhere in Syria, and views areas alongside the occupied Golan as especially sensitive. In 2018, it has steadily escalated strikes on alleged Iranian assets as far away as the Syria-Iraq border. A dangerous series of tit-for-tat cross-border rocket attacks and airstrikes took place in May. How Israel will react to regime advances toward the Golan remains unclear, but the response almost certainly will be a function of the degree of perceived Iranian involvement. Israel may step up arms supplies to local rebels, or hit pro-regime forces directly, risking an escalatory spiral if Iran and/or Hizbollah decide to retaliate.

A conditional, non-violent return of the Syrian state would [...] mitigate the risk of escalation that any chaotic, bloody offensive would entail.

There are indications that Israel may have reached an understanding with Russia whereby the latter has committed to block the participation of Iran-backed foreign fighters in the offensive. Still, even an offensive that excludes Iran-linked militias will be complicated and risky. The regime’s military will face serious obstacles clearing a demilitarised zone holding not only tens of thousands of displaced people, but also militants fighting with the Israeli military at their back. And even if the offensive proceeds without a major regional escalation, it is not clear how long Iran-linked elements will keep their distance from the Golan.

Israel should appeal to Russia for preferential terms for the last rebel pockets near the Golan, and it should encourage rebels with whom it has collaborated to negotiate constructively. A conditional, non-violent return of the Syrian state would be better for these areas’ civilians and mitigate the risk of escalation that any chaotic, bloody offensive would entail. Meanwhile, the EU and its member states should continue to support humanitarian relief to the south west, including pushing the regime for open humanitarian access via Damascus. They should also support Jordan, which will need continuing assistance to house hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees already there. Many of those refugees will not be able to return safely to regime-held Syria. As their stay in Jordan extends, the country’s economy and institutions will need European help.

The North West

Idlib and adjacent districts of the rebel-held north west hold nearly three million Syrians, roughly half of whom are internally displaced persons. The area is controlled by a range of competing rebel factions, the strongest of which is the jihadist Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate. Conditions in the north west are chaotic, and would become truly hellish in the event of a major pro-regime offensive.

The Syrian leadership has repeatedly signalled such intent. A de-escalation deal negotiated in late 2017 and early 2018 between Russia, Turkey and Iran has averted a showdown for now and enabled the establishment of twelve Turkish observation points surrounding rebel-held areas. But the durability of this arrangement is questionable; it could shatter if and when gains in southern Syria encourage the regime and its backers to shift their focus toward regaining control of the north west. A humanitarian disaster is all but certain in the event they attack. The resulting surge of hundreds of thousands of displaced toward the Turkish border would create a new humanitarian crisis, as well as a political one, as Turkey has indicated it cannot absorb more refugees and may try to prevent them from crossing the border, or let them in only to push them to exit again on a dangerous and uncertain journey toward Europe.

Whether an offensive will take place rests largely with Russia, whose active support (especially air power) would be essential for the regime to gain and hold ground in this rebel stronghold. Though it has upheld the de-escalation deal with Ankara thus far, Moscow has indicated that it will not tolerate continued HTS control in the north west; if the jihadist faction remains ascendant and/or attacks on regime forces resume from rebel territory, an eventual Russian-backed offensive cannot be excluded.

To avoid such an outcome, Turkey should accelerate its efforts to isolate and weaken hardline jihadists, while bolstering non-jihadist alternatives within the northern armed opposition that could absorb any pragmatic, potentially reconcilable HTS elements and eventually confront the remaining jihadist hard core. The EU and its member states, alongside the United States, should appeal to Turkey to accept their help, so they can ensure that a Turkish-led counter-terrorism effort in Idlib is intelligence-driven and properly targeted, coordinated and resourced. They should also continue to support humanitarian assistance to Idlib’s millions of civilians, to avoid both a humanitarian crisis and an additional burden on Turkish relief bodies.

The North East

Compared to the south west and Idlib, north-eastern Syria today enjoys relative stability, under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its dominant faction, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Yet the durability of the present situation appears largely dependent on decisions to be made within the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. In this context, President Donald Trump’s stated desire for a quick U.S. withdrawal from Syria, if carried out, could expose the north east to a dangerous free-for-all.

The U.S. military presence on the ground appears to have played a key role in deterring external attack on the north east from Turkey, which views the YPG as an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – an organisation it (as well as the U.S. and European states) considers a terrorist group, one that it has battled on its own territory for decades. Once the YPG-dominated areas are no longer protected by a U.S. security umbrella, Turkey could decide to launch an attack to dislodge the organisation just as it did in the Afrin enclave in north-west Syria. The Syrian regime, too, has telegraphed its intention to restore its authority throughout the north east. If the U.S. withdraws without a negotiated arrangement mutually tolerable to the YPG, Damascus and Ankara, a fight for control of territory and resources could well ensue, and jihadists would seek to exploit any resulting opportunities.

The EU and its member states should immediately and substantially increase their own support for restoring services in the north east.

In the meantime, the U.S. decision to freeze $200 million of stabilisation support – including essential programming to restore basic services in Raqqa and other areas liberated from ISIS – could cause a serious decline in living conditions and heighten simmering local tensions.

The EU and its member states, along with fellow members of the anti-ISIS coalition, should immediately and substantially increase their own support for restoring services in the north east. Priorities include demining, providing health services and restoring water and electricity supplies, with particular emphasis on sectors and areas directly affected by the U.S. funding freeze. The EU and its member states should do so in order to compensate for potential U.S. cuts, and to demonstrate that Washington’s allies will share the costs of stabilisation as long as the U.S. military continues to supply the protection necessary for them to do so.

Conclusion

The regime’s attempts to restore its authority over the entirety of the country are liable to cause further humanitarian suffering and attendant waves of displacement, while potentially heightening tensions between Israel and Iran. The EU and its member states should continue their humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, and expand stabilisation assistance in areas beyond Damascus’s control where possible. They should use member states’ collective access to all sides of the conflict to continue to play a mediating and diplomatic role, from support for Syria’s ongoing peace process in Geneva down to negotiations with Damascus over humanitarian access to hard-to-reach or newly accessible areas.