Global Post
Oct 23 2012

Armenia and Azerbaijan could soon be at war if drone proliferation
on both sides of the border continues.

Nicholas ClaytonOctober 23, 2012 06:15

YEREVAN, Armenia - In a region where a fragile peace holds over three
frozen conflicts, the nations of the South Caucasus are buzzing with
drones they use to probe one another's defenses and spy on disputed

The region is also host to strategic oil and gas pipelines and a
tangled web of alliances and precious resources that observers say
threaten to quickly escalate the border skirmishes and airspace
violations to a wider regional conflict triggered by Armenia and
Azerbaijan that could potentially pull in Israel, Russia and Iran.

To some extent, these countries are already being pulled towards
conflict. Last September, Armenia shot down an Israeli-made Azerbaijani
drone over Nagorno-Karabakh and the government claims that drones
have been spotted ahead of recent incursions by Azerbaijani troops
into Armenian-held territory.

Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan,
said in a briefing that attacks this summer showed that Azerbaijan is
eager to "play with its new toys" and its forces showed "impressive
tactical and operational improvement."

The International Crisis Group warned that as the tit-for-tat incidents
become more deadly, "there is a growing risk that the increasing
frontline tensions could lead to an accidental war."

With this in mind, the UN and the Organization for Security and
Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have long imposed a non-binding arms
embargo on both countries, and both are under a de facto arms ban
from the United States. But, according to the Stockholm International
Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), this has not stopped Israel and
Russia from selling to them.

After fighting a bloody war in the early 1990s over the disputed
territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked
in a stalemate with an oft-violated ceasefire holding a tenuous peace
between them.

And drones are the latest addition to the battlefield. In March,
Azerbaijan signed a $1.6 billion arms deal with Israel, which consisted
largely of advanced drones and an air defense system.

Through this and other deals, Azerbaijan is currently amassing a
squadron of over 100 drones from all three of Israel's top defense

Armenia, meanwhile, employs only a small number of domestically
produced models.

Intelligence gathering is just one use for drones, which are also
used to spot targets for artillery, and, if armed, strike targets

Armenian and Azerbaijani forces routinely snipe and engage one another
along the front, each typically blaming the other for violating the
ceasefire. At least 60 people have been killed in ceasefire violations
in the last two years, and the Brussels-based International Crisis
Group claimed in a report published in February 2011 that the sporadic
violence has claimed hundreds of lives.

"Each (Armenia and Azerbaijan) is apparently using the clashes and the
threat of a new war to pressure its opponent at the negotiations table,
while also preparing for the possibility of a full-scale conflict in
the event of a complete breakdown in the peace talks," the report said.

Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Caucasus Institute in the
Armenian capital, Yerevan, said that the arms buildup on both sides
makes the situation more dangerous but also said that the clashes are
calculated actions, with higher death tolls becoming a negotiating

"This isn't Somalia or Afghanistan. These aren't independent units.

The Armenian, Azerbaijani and Karabakh armed forces have a rigid chain
of command so it's not a question of a sergeant or a lieutenant
randomly giving the order to open fire. These are absolutely
synchronized political attacks," Iskandaryan said.

More from GlobalPost: Israel grapples with blowback from booming
drone industry

The deadliest recent uptick in violence along the Armenian-Azerbaijani
border and the line of contact around Karabakh came in early June as
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on a visit to the region.

While death tolls varied, at least two dozen soldiers were killed or
wounded in a series of shootouts along the front.

The year before, at least four Armenian soldiers were killed in an
alleged border incursion by Azerbaijani troops one day after a peace
summit between the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian presidents in St.

Petersburg, Russia.

"No one slept for two or three days [during the June skirmishes],"
said Grush Agbaryan, the mayor of the border village of Voskepar for
a total of 7 years off and on over the past three decades. "Everyone
is now saying that the war is coming. We know that it could start at
any moment."

Azerbaijan refused to issue accreditation to GlobalPost's correspondent
to enter the country to report on the shootings and Azerbaijan's
military modernization.

Flush with cash from energy exports, Azerbaijan has increased its
annual defense budget from an estimated $160 million in 2003 to $3.6
billion in 2012. SIPRI said in a report that largely as a result of
its blockbuster drone deal with Israel, Azerbaijan's defense budget
jumped 88 percent this year - the biggest military spending increase
in the world.

Israel has long used arms deals to gain strategic leverage over its
rivals in the region. Although difficult to confirm, many security
analysts believe Israel's deals with Russia have played heavily into
Moscow's suspension of a series of contracts with Iran and Syria that
would have provided them with more advanced air defense systems and
fighter jets.

Stephen Blank, a research professor at the United States Army War
College, said that preventing arms supplies to Syria and Iran -
particularly Russian S-300 air defense systems - has been among
Israel's top goals with the deals.

"There's always a quid pro quo," Blank said. "Nobody sells arms just
for cash."

In Azerbaijan in particular, Israel has traded its highly demanded
drone technology for intelligence arrangements and covert footholds
against Iran. In a January 2009 US diplomatic cable released by
WikiLeaks, a US diplomat reported that in a closed-door conversation,
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev compared his country's relationship
with Israel to an iceberg - nine-tenths of it is below the surface.

More from GlobalPost: Are Iran's drones coordinating attacks in Syria?

Although the Jewish state and Azerbaijan, a conservative Muslim
country, may seem like an odd couple, the cable asserts, "Each country
finds it easy to identify with the other's geopolitical difficulties,
and both rank Iran as an existential security threat." Quarrels
between Azerbaijan and Iran run the gamut of territorial, religious
and geo-political disputes and Tehran has repeatedly threatened to
"destroy" the country over its support for secular governance and
NATO integration.

In the end, "Israel's main goal is to preserve Azerbaijan as an ally
against Iran, a platform for reconnaissance of that country and as
a market for military hardware," the diplomatic cable reads.

But, while these ties had indeed remained below the surface for most
of the past decade, a series of leaks this year exposed the extent
of their cooperation as Israel ramped up its covert war with the
Islamic Republic.

In February, the Times of London quoted a source the publication said
was an active Mossad agent in Azerbaijan as saying the country was
"ground zero for intelligence work." This came amid accusations from
Tehran that Azerbaijan had aided Israeli agents in assassinating an
Iranian nuclear scientist in January. Then, just as Baku had begun
to cool tensions with the Islamic Republic, Foreign Policy magazine
published an article citing Washington intelligence officials who
claimed that Israel had signed agreements to use Azerbaijani airfields
as a part of a potential bombing campaign against Iran's nuclear sites.

Baku strongly denied the claims, but in September, Azerbaijani
officials and military sources told Reuters that the country would
figure in Israel's contingencies for a potential attack against Iran.

"Israel has a problem in that if it is going to bomb Iran, its
nuclear sites, it lacks refueling," Rasim Musabayov, a member of the
Azerbiajani parliamentary foreign relations committee told Reuters. "I
think their plan includes some use of Azerbaijan access. We have
(bases) fully equipped with modern navigation, anti-aircraft defenses
and personnel trained by Americans and if necessary they can be used
without any preparations."

He went on to say that the drones Israel sold to Azerbaijan allow it to
"indirectly watch what's happening in Iran."

More from GlobalPost: Despite modern facade, Azerbaijan guilty of
rights abuses

According to SIPRI, Azerbaijan had acquired about 30 drones from
Israeli firms Aeronautics Ltd. and Elbit Systems by the end of 2011,
including at least 25 medium-sized Hermes-450 and Aerostar drones.

In October 2011, Azerbaijan signed a deal to license and domestically
produce an additional 60 Aerostar and Orbiter 2M drones. Its most
recent purchase from Israel Aeronautics Industries (IAI) in March
reportedly included 10 high altitude Heron-TP drones - the most
advanced Israeli drone in service - according to Oxford Analytica.

Collectively, these purchases have netted Azerbaijan 50 or more drones
that are similar in class, size and capabilities to American Predator
and Reaper-type drones, which are the workhorses of the United States'
campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.

Although Israel may have sold the drones to Azerbaijan with Iran in
mind, Baku has said publicly that it intends to use its new hardware
to retake territory it lost to Armenia. So far, Azerbaijan's drone
fleet is not armed, but industry experts say the models it employs
could carry munitions and be programmed to strike targets.

Drones are a tempting tool to use in frozen conflicts, because, while
their presence raises tensions, international law remains vague at
best on the legality of using them. In 2008, several Georgian drones
were shot down over its rebel region of Abkhazia. A UN investigation
found that at least one of the drones was downed by a fighter jet
from Russia, which maintained a peacekeeping presence in the territory.

While it was ruled that Russia violated the terms of the ceasefire
by entering aircraft into the conflict zone, Georgia also violated
the ceasefire for sending the drone on a "military operation" into
the conflict zone.

The incident spiked tensions between Russia and Georgia, both of which
saw it as evidence the other was preparing to attack. Three months
later, they fought a brief, but destructive war that killed hundreds.

The legality of drones in Nagorno-Karabakh is even less clear because
the conflict was stopped in 1994 by a simple ceasefire that halted
hostilities but did not stipulate a withdrawal of military forces
from the area. Furthermore, analysts believe that all-out war between
Armenia and Azerbaijan would be longer and more difficult to contain
than the five-day Russian-Georgian conflict.

While Russia was able to quickly rout the Georgian army with a much
superior force, analysts say that Armenia and Azerbaijan are much
more evenly matched and therefore the conflict would be prolonged
and costly in lives and resources.

Blank said that renewed war would be "a very catastrophic event" with
"a recipe for a very quick escalation to the international level."

Armenia is militarily allied with Russia and hosts a base of 5,000
Russian troops on its territory. After the summer's border clashes,
Russia announced it was stepping up its patrols of Armenian airspace
by 20 percent.

Iran also supports Armenia and has important business ties in the
country, which analysts say Tehran uses as a "proxy" to circumvent
international sanctions.

Blank said Israel has made a risky move by supplying Azerbaijan with
drones and other high tech equipment, given the tenuous balance of
power between the heavily fortified Armenian positions and the more
numerous and technologically superior Azerbaijani forces. If ignited,
he said, "[an Armenian-Azerbaijani war] will not be small. That's
the one thing I'm sure of."


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