Illustration
View of Erablur cemetery in Yerevan on the day of the commemoration of the beginning of the war September 27 2021.

Just over a year ago, a singularly under-reported war in the Southern Caucasus was ending. After forty-four days of fierce combats (from September 27 to November 9th), Azerbaijan defeated Armenian forces on a tiny territory known as self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, called Artsakh by the Armenians

Yet there have been no international commissions or public debates on the consequences of this war in the remote Caucasus. Nevertheless, those six momentous weeks will someday be remembered as having have marked the beginning of a new military era.

Background

The enclave in question, 95% Armenian, had been ‘given’ by Stalin in 1923 to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in one of those perversely magnanimous gestures of which Soviet leaders are specialists. Viz. Khrushchev’s ‘gift’ of Crimea to his Ukrainian compatriots in 1954. In 1988, the autonomous ‘oblast’ voted to secede from Soviet Azerbaijan and unite with Soviet Armenia, a long-brewing decision which led to immediate conflict. The break-up of the USSR produced, as elsewhere in the former Soviet ream, simultaneous declarations of independence by the autonomous republics. This was the case in the autumn of 1991 for Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as for Artsakh in the form of a self-proclaimed republic, which inevitably led to a bloody war.

Despite modern ethno-nationalist competition and the seldom provable “we-were-here-before-you” kind of argument, the conflicts between the two populations , one Shiite Muslim and the other Christian since the 4th century, are initially the product of typical mid 19th century nationalism which rose in the Russian Empire as well as elsewhere, along with the emergence of highly politicized ethnography, philology and archeology. This particular conflict owes even more to Stalin’s policy of deliberately carving up territories and populations in an unbalanced, arbitrary fashion to generate permanent low-level confrontation in the ‘divide and rule’ logic. This nationalist tendency was to flare up violently after the collapse of the USSR but this time gave rise to a number of wars across the Caucasus

Azerbaijan at the centre of Erdogan’s Pan-Turkic crusade

An additional but capital feature here are Turkish leader Erdogan’s indeed megalomanic Pan-Turkic (or Pan-Turianist) aspirations. This movement to unite all Turkic populations, defined by shared cultural and linguistic links and in most cases Islam (save the Yakuts and the Chuvash), was elaborated in the late 19th century as a political ideology to bolster the collapsing Ottoman Empire.

It is important to take into account to what extent Erdogan himself identifies with such aspirations- which Kemal Ataturk becoming the first president of the Turkish republic put to rest, focusing solely on Anatolian-based nationalism. This particular aspect of Kemalist policy Erdogan did retain, developing it into what could be termed a racist credo, hence the popularity of first names such ¨Öztük (pure Turk) or Özkan (pure blood). In these post-colonial times, one could have imagine that imperial, quasi-colonial endeavours were no longer ‘au gout du jour’, unless one places ISIS as a Caliphate in this category. Not totally unrelated is Erdogan’s messianic vision of Pan-Turkism which he has turned into his very own spiritual and political mission. Turkey’s consistent refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide, so central to Armenian history, has indeed intensified under Erdogan, so intent on unifying all Turkic peoples under one banner (namely his), its purported quasi racial purity untainted by any traitorous foreign blood or, for that matter, any messy track-record of genocidal atrocities. Cultural ‘authenticity’ means aversion to any kind of mixing.The consistent persecution of Kurds and systematic destruction of Kurdish sites, complete with name-changes, just as previously Armenian villages partakes from the same racist ethic. This rejection of everyone and everything non-Turkish as the threatening ‘other’ in the name of some imagined nation is worst than simply revisionist, falsified history in view of the cosmopolitan nature of such bodies as the Janissaries or the massive population displacements, especially with wars against Russia and the Balkans.

Despite being Shiite (like Iran), Turkey allied itself politically and economically with Azerbaijan in 1991: cultural links apart, access to petrol and a key position on the Caspian Sea was justification enough. Not to mention a shared enemy that Turkey could continue fighting through its ever-grateful proxy.

Azerbaijani “experts” went even further when they resuscitated and developed the 1950s negationist theories of a somehow dubious historian Ziya Bunyatov that went as far as denying the very reality of the Armenian people. Under Haydar Alyev ‘s guidance, Armenians were accused of having hijacked the culture identity of a now extinct group called the Caucasian Albanians, equally Christian, henceforth rebranded as the true ancestors of the Azerbaijani population. After all, Islam came late into history and an ancestor had to be found, preferably Christian to checkmate the existence any competing Christian population- and also today create political alliances with other Orthodox nations in the region. Indeed a text-book example of what eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm termed (an) invention of tradition, that essential component of nation-building.

This theory has legitimated the taking over of several Armenian heritage sites with possible, indeed probable, destruction which is alarming the art conservation specialists, across the world as Azerbaijan has consistently refused to admit UNESCO inspectors to these monuments. The precedent set by the mass destruction, between 1997 and 2006, of some 5 840 antique Khatchkars, carved stone crosses at the necropolis of Djulfa, 89 medieval churches, and cross-stones, and 22,000 tombstones in the Azerbaijani enclave Nakhichevan, surpassing for experts what had been committed by the Taliban in Afghanistan or even the Islamic State in Syria justify the fears of the population of the region. Needless to add, what has been called by the Guardian “the worst cultural genocide of the 21st century” has been totally denied by President Ilham Aliyev himself. .

A frozen war turns into open conflict

From 1994 onward, when the Armenian victory over Azerbaijan allowed the Armenians not only to keep the disputed territory but also to expand and develop it, a novel self- confidence arose which led to a multitude of projects, including tourism. The annexation of adjoining land allowed the partial relocation of persecuted Armenian refugee (c. 500 000) from Azerbaijan, which in turn was obliged to take in the large Azerbaijani population (some 750 000) expelled from the newly Armenian territories. While the Armenians opted for immediate integration by granting the immigrants a home and a plot of land, in Azerbaijan, which is almost three times the size of Armenia, the refugees were crammed into camps, thus feeding the spirit of revenge.

For three decades, the armies of Turkey and Azerbaijan organised joint drills, Azerbaijani servicemen receiving military training at Turkish Armed Forces’ institutions. And a front-row view of the UAVs being tested and tried in the Baykar factories in Istanbul. In fact, they got a chance to test them during the carefully planned 4-day confrontation (2-5 April 2016) in Artsakh which, many told me in Armenia, should have alerted Yerevan’s Ministry of Defence. Instead, Armenian strategy and war continued to be conceptualized according tried and tested (and by now totally out of date) Soviet methods and corresponding weaponry which had worked so well in the 1990s. Their entire military equipment was wiped out by Israeli and Turkish UAVs within days.

The war of 2020 is considered in Baku a brilliant revenge against the Armenian victory of 1991 and the humiliation of thirty years of what is considered as alien occupation. Experts have agreed that this victory was due to the military superiority of the Azerbaijani side, not to the limited talents of their army but to their superior weaponry, the use of UAVs, the Israeli-made Orbiter 1K and Harop 2 kamikaze drones and especially the latest model Bayraktar TB2, manufactured in Turkey. And day and night these drones targeted soldiers, but also civilians, generally at night, when the population was sleeping. The One-Nation-Two States adage coined by Heydar Aliyev never rang truer after the 2020 war.

The view from Artsakh

« It started on a Sunday morning, » remembers Syranush Sargsian, an expert at the Parliament in Stepanakert interviewed in Yerevan. « I was sleeping in and then I heard an unusual noise. I rushed to the window. Across the street there are barracks, the Armenian flag that was flying there had been blown up. I thought, who did that? In Azerbaijan, they are not capable of that – they obviously had help from elsewhere. I realised that this was the beginning of a war that would be like no other. And that we had nothing comparable in our arsenal. I told myself that this was a bad omen. »

Of course, armed drones are not new. Until now, they have been used mainly for targeted assassinations by the American policy of anti-terrorism, which is itself assimilated to war, and therefore partakes in the logic of war which technically exonerates killers from any personal responsibility, even though feelings of guilt are not unheard of.In Afghanistan, as was observed countless times, each failure due to an error in human remote evaluation was whisked away, considered minor, nearly irrelevant collateral damage. However, in the current case, this excuse is not valid, since military and civilian structures (including village schools and a maternity hospital in the capital, Stepanakert) are in separate locations and were deliberately bombed. Even Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev indirectly admitted in an interview with Fox News that civilian targets had been targeted. This is not « collateral damage », but attacks that in other contexts would be unilaterally classified as acts of mass terrorism. Unless we decide that ‘Collateral Damage’ should be the new name for drone warfare, thereby even further dehumanizing the whole operation. In a war scenario, such acts are in any case prohibited by the Geneva Convention.

However, drones are only the centrepiece of a Turkish strategy that includes the use of systematic terror through the use of Syrian mercenaries and social media. As Sergey Ghazarian, in charge of Artsakh’s representation in Yerevan, said, « This is actually a new kind of war, but nobody seems to have noticed it. The world will understand one day that this 44-day war is the model for those to come » 

As Gregory Chamaillou noted in his admirable essay, Théorie du Drone, published in 2013, this type of war is the opposite of Clausewitz’s definition, which equated all war with a duel, a confrontation between armed actors. Here the hunting scenario dominates: the hunter must surprise and aim, the hunted, i.e. the victim must flee in order to win – if they are able to. The novelty here is that drones in this particular war have not been used for attacks on individuals but on whole groups, in the same way as shells and weapons aimed at human targets. According to Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute, a British defence think-tank: « Drones may not make a huge difference in small tactical engagements, but used at scale, they can radically transform the battlefield.

Especially when the opposing party, in this case Armenia, has no form of electronic defence, or ‘dome’, as in Israel, against the drones to neutralise these attacks. A different kind of logic is deployed here, that of total destruction. Atomic weapons kill indiscriminately, but a squadron of drones can annihilate targeted entire populations, building by building.

Of course, from a legal point of view, any real or potential military target or one that can be assumed to be such is deemed legitimate. This includes, as was the case, trucks arriving from Yerevan filled with conscripts as young as 18 wearing their first set of fatigues. Crammed under a tarpaulin, unarmed, asleep in the dark, would their annihilation by an invisible, almost inaudible weapon, remotely controlled from afar, really be legitimate in a logic of self-defence? It’s a grey area, » says Sheila Paylan, a lawyer and human rights expert.

In Armenia, as in Azerbaijan, the main training for the youngest soldiers probably comes from video games such as ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘Halo’, with the difference that here, the real-time battle takes place in a violently asymmetric way. The attackers (Azerbaijani, possibly Turkish, comfortably seated in their Baku office ‘play’ on their keyboards (as the victims had no doubt been on the eve of their departure for the front line), against live targets dying in front of them. This is what Hagop, an Armenian military living in Karabagh, tells us: « This war was like a video game; only we, on our side, here we were unable to play, we were not equipped at all, even if in a normal war we would have won. Numerous studies point to the dangers of abusing war video games – which are used for training in the US army.

Has society as a whole (politicians, arms manufacturers, investors, journalists) been anaesthetised against any form of empathy and personal responsibility by the constant playing of these games since childhood. So much so that no-one notices the transition from a game to murderous reality, the priority having been given to shareholders of Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony et al.

The victims also experience this type of killing in a derealized state. The bodies are charred by the extreme heat given off by the projectiles. « At most, a fragment remains, » says Arman, a psychotherapist in charge of treating traumatised people. One patient was told, ‘Here is your son’s finger, you can go and bury it’. She refused to believe it and continues to wait for him, day after day. » The Yerevan morgue is filled with corpses so mutilated that no one wants to acknowledge them. The drones have made mourning impossible, especially for young children who cannot conceptualize or integrate their relative’s death.

Armine and her two sons were evacuated with almost all the women and children from Artsakh to Yerevan at the beginning of the war. Her husband was killed by a Turkish drone at the very end of the war. « They took his body to Yerevan. I was told not to look at what was inside. My youngest son, Artiom, 9, kept saying that his father was going to get out of that box: that’s what he called the coffin ». The young widow and the two boys visit the Erablur cemetery in the hills above Yerevan every week. She shows me a photo on her phone of the little boys placing flowers and a large cake with candles on the grave. « It was my husband’s birthday, so we wanted to celebrate as a family. »

Every night of the war, Azerbaijani television broadcast videos of the day’s drone bombings on Artsakh, accompanied by dramatic music. These films were watched over and over again by the relatives of the victims who recognized the places which had been targeted. They are still visible on You-Tube, some even contain views of blood-drenched corpses One Artsakh resident actually watched the killing of two of his sons in the bombing of a truck parked between buildings near his home. These videos became a additional instrument of torture for the civilian population glued to their screens, but also for the huge number of refugees in Yerevan and elsewhere. A « humorous » video, complete with cheery music entitled « Happy Moments » is a variation that shows soldiers fleeing Turkish missiles, supposedly out of cowardice. And these images are actively circulating on social networks spreading terror, doubt and also « fake news » (as for this supposed Armenian stampede).

The third element of this strategy, insufficiently taken into account by the world media, is the documented presence of Syrian mercenaries of the Syrian National Army (SNA) directed and channeled by Turkey. Many were sent to the front-line, but others were hired to commit acts of terror against civilians, including beheadings that were circulated on social media. Following the procedure set up by the Islamic State, the executions were filmed on the victims’ mobile phones (including two elderly people) and immediately sent to their relatives before being posted online.

« The result, » explains Arman the psychotherapist, « is that we received wounded people who were terrorized beyond anything we had known before, even for seasoned military who had fought in the 1990s. On the one hand, they were totally disoriented, this war in which they had not been able to fight, in which all reference points had disappeared, had thrown them into a state of total regression. One day at the hospital, there was building work going on upstairs; I saw a seriously wounded patient, both legs in plaster, a catheter, throw himself under his bed, screaming, even though theoretically he should have been unable to move at all. He took the sound of the drill for the whistling of a drone. And there were many of them in this state; then the nurses had to remove their caps, the patients thought they were mercenaries with turbans on. We are totally helpless in this situation and frankly I don’t know if these men will ever recover.

A thousand civilian urban infrastructures and nearly 7,000 homes and businesses were destroyed, something which goes against the Geneva Convention where the distinction between civilian and military is paramount. Two thirds of the territory of Artsakh was taken by Azerbaijan, some 5,000 Armenians killed, 110,000 displaced, 10,000 military wounded. After a ceasefire negotiated between the two warring countries and Russia, 2,000 Russian soldiers are stationed on the border, theoretically to help Armenia but in reality applying Baku’s orders. 200 prisoners of war are languishing in Azerbaijani jails accused of espionage and various crimes. In a dictatorship where human rights are regularly flouted, one can imagine what this means. Since the end of the confrontation negotiated by the Russians, world experts, including the directors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, have openly expressed their fears that the destruction of Armenian monuments will continue. The consistency of this policy, supported by thundering Azerbaijani and Turkish propaganda, of course maintains the Armenians’ fear of a new attempt at genocide, as much as the term « Turks » covers the inhabitants of Istanbul and Baku. And the creation of the Military Trophies Park in Baku . last April, with its farcical wax figures of Armenians chained like dogs and mountains of helmets piled up like skulls, does nothing to promote peace and reconciliation.

War in a kit

The 44-day war is used to promote the ‘merits’ of the Turkish military industry for an ever-growing clientele. Indeed orders have been pouring in since the victory against Armenia. Azerbaijani propaganda videos showing the precision of the attacks on Armenian soil are now used as a sales catalogue for the Bayraktar TB2, the flagship product of the Turkish arms industry. In truth, this war will have served as a full-scale advertising campaign for the wars of the future, much more so than in Syria or Libya where these drones were also used. Admittedly, the resilience of the persecuted Kurds inside Turkey as in Rojava shows that more is needed than simply technology. But as Can Kasapoglu the director of the Defence and security program at the Istanbul-based think-tank EDAM pointed out, drones are not the silver bullet needed to win any war.This victory was the result of decades of cooperation and especially the elaboration of new strategic concepts which included surveillance, connection with land-fire and electronic control of the sky, so to speak, to target Armenian air defence. As Hagop told me, this is the part of war we could not control at all: we could not close the sky and could not compete with that level of armament

Much more than Israel’s already alarming participation,the war against Artaskh is a catalogue for Turkey’s all-in-one war package, complete with the furnishing of cheap cannon fodder and, wrst of all, a truly grim foreboding of wars to come. No attention paid to war crimes committed on the way. The press just marvels at the number of orders received by the Baykar factory whose current director is none other than Selçuk Bayraktar, Erdogan’s son-in-law, the husband of his youngest daughter, Sümeyye. It seems that their engineers are busy developing a new model of stealth combat drone that will surpass their flagship product.

We have gone a long way from the time the US used drones solely for targeted killings. This kind of equipment, especially in Turkish hands has introduced a new level to vertical warfare, complete with a set of instructions and services. Ankara’s direct interference has once again been proven during its purported peace negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia by insisting on the opening of an extraterritorial corridor through Armenian land to link Azerbaijan (i.e.Turkey) to its Nakhichevan enclave.This can only be seen as further encroachment on Armenian territory. The prospects of invasion are indeed alarming.

It has to be noted that Erdogan is not just an arms trader, but a strategist promoting Turkish interference at a political level in each of the countries who shop at Baykar. And curiously enough- or perhaps not so curiously, the countries the customers hail from, at one time or another were part of the grand Pan-Turkic scheme and belonged or at least were connected at one point to the Ottoman empire. Historical ignorance or amnesia seem to have ignored the fact that this enormous empire stretched all over the Middle East and even up to Podolia once at the heart of modern-day Ukraine and Poland. Turkey’s hybrid foreign policy may not bring all Turkic or previous Ottoman regions into a confederation but massive exports of goods, expertise and arms constitute a new form of imperialism devoid of the expense of armies and manpower. Furthermore this begs the following question: by providing such lethal weaponry and training is a country such as Turkey undertaking undeclared war against countries it has political interest in?

Poland, Qatar, Albania, Morocco are snapping up Bayraktars as well as, more prominently in the press, Ukraine and now Sudan. Each country seems to have a specific agenda concerning their use for the solving of problems in their vicinity, like Morocco for the Polisario or Turkey against the Kurds in north-east Syria. But drones are neither vacuum-cleaners nor guns, they inevitably lead to larger wars with multiple global consequences. Turkey’s latest drone strikes on civilians in Kobane , heralds an imminent invasion of Rojava in their bid to exterminate the PKK. What then is the future of impoverished Armenia? The world shudders but does not react. Note also that Serbia has placed an order with Baykar. Knowing that their allies in the Serbian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina are planning to go to war, can we expect drones on Sarajevo? One can imagine that should this happen, Turkey will appear as Peace-Maker Supreme between the two, thereby pretending not to let down its supposed Bosnian ally. At the same time, one may ask oneself if Turkey, by providing this cheap equipment for carefully selected conflicts is not in fact replacing the boots-on-the-ground that once typified armed combat. What is the difference between the presence of a standing army- like the US in Afghanistan upholding the national Afghan army- and fleets of drones which might be even cheaper than the upkeep of thousands of military? The question needs to be asked from practical and ethical viewpoints

New wars demand a rethinking of war ethics right down to violent video war games that have normalized IT as a method of killing real or imagined enemies. The Red Cross has suggested that these games incorporate the punishment that would be meted out to criminals had these not been games legal. The ICRC ‘s the fear is that eventually such illegal acts will be perceived as acceptable behavior. The trouble is that such trivialization of murder is routinely practiced in the arms industry, something which has blatantly been demonstrated in Azerbaijani propaganda, from the You-Tube videos of drone attacks to the trophies exhibited in Military Trophies Park in Baku. The bottom line is that the planet cannot survive if armed drones proliferate in an uncontrolled manner, according to market demands and personal imperialist fantasies. And the countries which have provided components for Baykar (including the US, France, Germany, Austria, Netherlands, all members of NATO) should rethink the consequences of such business deals, rather the equivalent of the blood minerals trade with different parts of Africa. Canada in fact, after this war has suspended its sales of engine components to Turkey which shows that such an attitude is possible. It is up to each nation to individually take responsibility for the wars it takes part in or contributes to in order to preserve the already battered prospects of world peace.