Third war over Karabakh crystallizes a new balance of power in the South Caucasus

Iulia-Sabina Joja
Director, Black Sea Program

Iulia-Sabina Joja
  • The final military episode of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over Karabakh seems to have ended, and the massive exodus of Karabakh Armenians will have profound and lasting social, political, demographic, and economic implications for the wider region.

  • With Moscow and Tehran apparently no longer able or willing to actively support Yerevan in any future armed standoffs against Baku, only the West would have the clout to prevent another war in the region, should the threat of violence reemerge.

The final military episode of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over Karabakh seems to have ended. The third Karabakh war lasted only 24 hours, concluding on Sept. 20, with the separatist Armenian Karabakh military forces capitulating. Unlike in the previous two wars — of 1988-1994 and September-November 2020, respectively — this time the Republic of Armenia stayed out of the fighting. As Baku claimed victory, a large exodus quickly ensued. Over the next week, 100,000 ethnic Armenians from Karabakh, roughly 80% of the heretofore disputed territory’s total population, fled to Armenia. The social, political, demographic, and economic implications of this refugee wave will be felt across the region in the years to come.

So what next for the South Caucasus? Two of the neighboring powers that have dominated the region for centuries — Iran and Russia — notably avoided getting involved in the latest deadly exchanges in Karabakh. On paper, both back Armenia, with Moscow being a treaty ally; and Russia once more negotiated the ceasefire. But Yerevan is apparently keen to rid itself of its long-term patron: Illustratively, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declared his country’s security guarantees “ineffective.” On the other hand, Turkey, as Azerbaijan’s most important ally, seems to have stepped up as the region’s most influential power. The West — both the United States and the European Union — have played a limited role.

Even with hostilities over for now, the most contentious issue remains the 27-mile border between Iran and Armenia. Azerbaijan wants to develop a parallel east-west land bridge (which Baku calls the “Zangezur Corridor”) across this Armenian territory to connect to its Nakhchivan exclave. But such a land bridge — if Azerbaijan manages to secure extraterritorial rights for itself there — would effectively cut Iran off from Armenia. According to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Iranian government has dropped its vehement opposition to the Zangezur Corridor. With Moscow and Tehran apparently no longer able or willing to actively support Yerevan in any future armed standoffs against Baku, only the West would have the clout and relatively impartiality to prevent another war in the region, should the threat of violence reemerge. In the aftermath of the Third Karabakh War, the coming months will be crucial to stabilize the South Caucasus for the long term.

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Menendez case unlikely to be a game changer for US-Turkey ties

Gönül Tol
Director of Turkey Program and Senior Fellow, Black Sea Program

Gönül Tol
  • With Sen. Bob Menendez stepping down temporarily from the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is hopeful that Turkey’s stalled bid to purchase F-16 fighter jets from the U.S. might soon be resolved.

  • But the goodwill generated by Turkey’s early moves on Ukraine has been dampened by Erdoğan’s decision to hold up NATO expansion, and Washington’s frustration with Erdoğan’s U-turns means that Sen. Menendez is not Ankara’s only problem.

On Sept. 22, federal prosecutors accused a top Democrat and long-time critic of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, gold bars, and other gifts in exchange for using his position as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to benefit the government of Egypt and three New Jersey businessmen. After the indictment, Menendez stepped down temporarily from his committee chairmanship, in line with Senate Democratic rules. President Erdoğan is hopeful that this will pave the way for the resolution of Turkey’s stalled bid to purchase F-16 fighter jets from the United States to modernize its Air Force.

In 2021, following Ankara’s removal from the F-35 program in 2019 due to its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile-defense system, Turkey made a request to its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally to buy 40 Lockheed Martin-made F-16 fighter jets and nearly 80 modernization kits for its existing warplanes. The Biden administration backs Turkey’s bid, but many in the U.S. Congress have opposed the sale, citing Erdoğan’s problematic foreign policy behavior and record on human rights. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine helped to ease some of the anti-Erdoğan sentiment in Congress. While they remained critical of many of Erdoğan’s policies, some members appreciated Turkey’s early stance in the conflict. Shortly after Moscow’s February 2022 invasion, Turkey officially labeled Russia’s move as a war, which enabled Ankara to invoke the Montreux Convention and restrict some warships from passing through key waterways to the Black Sea. It also sold drones to Ukraine. These moves helped Erdoğan accumulate goodwill among some formerly critical members of Congress.

That goodwill, however, is now mostly gone thanks to Erdoğan’s decision to hold up enlargement of NATO to extract concessions from the West. Erdoğan dragged his feet on Finland’s and Sweden’s accession for months before finally agreeing to let Finland into the Alliance in March. Sweden’s accession is still waiting. The Biden administration had hoped to welcome Sweden as a NATO ally at the Alliance’s summit in Lithuania in July. The Turkish side had assured the administration it was going to happen, but at the last minute, President Erdoğan told reporters that Sweden’s NATO accession should be linked to Turkey’s membership in the European Union. Erdoğan’s U-turn angered the U.S. administration and Congress. Everyone in Washington is now skeptical about Turkey’s assurances that its parliament will approve Sweden’s bid in October. “I will believe it when I see it,” a Department of Defense official who has been involved in the discussions told this author recently.

Erdoğan wants Washington to approve the sale of the F-16s first, before he lifts his opposition to Sweden’s accession. Washington, for its part, wants to see Sweden in NATO first, before moving ahead with the sale.

Washington’s frustration with Erdoğan’s U-turns means that Sen. Menendez is not Ankara’s only problem. Menendez’s legal troubles might make things less complicated for Erdoğan, but there is still plenty of resentment in Washington at his efforts to hold NATO enlargement hostage to his ever-growing list of demands.

Follow on Twitter: @gonultol

America’s policy on Iran remains a weak link in its Middle East strategy

Brian Katulis
Vice President of Policy

Brian Katulis
  • As the Biden administration steps up its diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, Iran continues to pose a challenge to regional stability and order via its nuclear program, destabilizing regional actions, support for terrorism, repression of its own people, and stepped-up efforts to build cheap military drones that it provides to other malign actors.

  • Iran’s drone program undercuts Middle Eastern stability, puts American soldiers in harm’s way, and prolongs the war in Ukraine by providing military support to Russia.

The Biden administration has increased its diplomatic engagement in the Middle East in an effort to set the conditions for a possible normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Yet achieving diplomatic progress in a volatile part of the world that faces many security challenges is difficult, and one of the biggest threats to regional stability comes from Iran.

Iran’s nuclear program continues to exceed the limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal, and Tehran’s lack of full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raises concerns about a possible nuclear arms race in the near future. The country continues to maintain a network of non-state groups that conduct attacks and pose threats around the region, prompting the United States to step up its military operations and drills with Middle Eastern partners. Moreover, the Iranian regime’s ongoing repression of its own people and extensive human rights abuses, accelerated last year in response to the massive popular protests against the death of Mahsa Amini, show the measures the leadership will take to maintain its grip on power.

One other dimension of the challenges posed by Iran is its burgeoning drone warfare effort, a program that not only undercuts Middle Eastern stability but also offers support to Russia’s war against Ukraine. In a briefing at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) headquarters this past week, this author saw firsthand the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) produced by Iran and employed in places like Iraq and Ukraine. The U.S. government briefer hewed closely to this unclassified report on the subject produced by the DIA last summer and discussed how Iran remains an “acute and persistent threat” across the Middle East, despite recent trends toward diplomatic de-escalation between Iran and some of its neighbors.

The reassembled debris on display from drones recovered in Iraq and Ukraine included components traced directly back to Iran. The briefer explained how attack UAVs of this type, ranging in cost from $10,000-$20,000, have become an important tool in the Iranian regime’s efforts to shape the security landscape across the Middle East. These drones have been used against U.S. troops in the region. At the same time, several news organizations have documented how Iran has aided Russia in producing thousands of these unmanned systems for use against Ukraine. The drones are reportedly constructed with certain components built by corporations in Europe and the United States, demonstrating the critical limitations in the West’s efforts to disrupt Iranian (and Russian) military-industrial supply chains. Iran’s drone program, with its close links to Russia, has added another dimension to the already complicated effort to advance a new U.S. policy on Iran.

Last week, much of the U.S. policy discussion on Iran was consumed by a report contending an Iranian influence operation from nearly a decade ago targeting American and European policy circles. What that mostly self-absorbed debate over those allegations ignored, however, was the grim reality of repeat failures by successive U.S. administrations to live up to the Iran policy goals they had set for themselves.

America’s policy on Iran remains one of the weakest links in its overall approach to the Middle East.

Follow on Twitter: @Katulis

As Libyan strongman explores deepened relationship with Russia, US has multiple sanctions options

Jonathan M. Winer
Non-Resident Scholar

Jonathan M. Winer
  • Libyan warlord Khalifa Hifter met with U.S. military and diplomatic officials less than a week before visiting Moscow, and there is talk of him trying to push Libya’s House of Representatives to endorse a joint Libyan-Russian defense agreement, which would represent a direct challenge to fundamental American national, regional, and global security interests.

  • In response, Washington could impose sanctions on Hifter under any of three of major U.S. sanctions programs — Russia/Ukraine, Magnitsky Act, and Libya — all of which might readily be applied to his actions.

In the three weeks since Mediterranean Storm Daniel caused the city of Derna’s dams to collapse, resulting in an estimated 4,000 dead and 8,500 missing and presumed lost, the humanitarian catastrophe continues to unfold not only for the families of the dead but for some 43,000 displaced people, including thousands of Libyan children.

While international organizations and aid groups have pledged to help with the rescue, the Benghazi-based de facto military overseer of Derna, Khalifa Hifter, who conquered and took control of the city in June 2018, spent his time seeking to turn the catastrophe to his own advantage. On Sept. 21, he posed for photographs with United States General Michael Langley and Special Envoy Richard Norland while discussing military reunification, countering terrorism, and getting foreign forces out of Libya. Five days later, Hifter popped up in Moscow, where he was given the full red-carpet treatment, before meeting with Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov and President Vladmir Putin.

He’d previously met with Yevkurov in eastern Libya on Aug. 22, 2023, one day before the plane crash just north of Moscow that killed Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin. The parties involved claimed the timing was just a coincidence. With Prigozhin dead, the obvious question for the two sides was whether there was a deal to be had, whereby Hifter could secure still more military, economic, and political support from Russia, while Russia obtained further guarantees that it could maintain its base(s) in Libya indefinitely.

Over the decades, Hifter has worked for many powers, including Russia and the U.S. He was educated and trained as a military officer (and spy) in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s. On being abandoned by Moammar Gadhafi after losing a war with Chad, Hifter moved to Langley, Virginia, where he reportedly worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Reagan years. Since returning to Libya amid the 2011 uprising after 30 years of exile, Hifter has taken advantage of relationships with Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Russia, among others, to secure his position as the country’s most significant warlord.

The U.S. wants the Wagner Group and its state-sponsored “mercenaries” out of Libya, one of the most important regional “keys” to Africa. Russia, with Hifter’s help, intends to keep them there. There is current talk of Hifter asking Libya’s House of Representatives, still controlled by his sometime ally in the east, Aguila Saleh Issa, to swiftly endorse a joint Libyan-Russian defense agreement. Any such accord would represent a direct challenge to fundamental U.S. national, regional, and global security interests.

In response, Washington could impose sanctions on Hifter under any of three of major U.S. sanctions programs: Russia/Ukraine; Magnitsky Act, applied to those who carry out serious human rights violations while lining their pockets; and Libya, recently updated by President Joe Biden, which authorize sanctions for such negative acts as arms violations, actions to delay the political transition, misappropriation of state assets, attacks against Libyan ports, coercion of Libyan state institutions, and the targeting of civilians with acts of violence — all of which could readily be applied to Hifter’s actions.

The U.S. faced significant criticism for the Langley/Norland meetings, which were compared to discussing fire safety with an arsonist. But Hifter would be mistaken to assume that the Biden administration’s commitment to Libya is too weak for it to respond forcefully when faced with further evidence of his allying himself with Russia, the Wagner Group, and Putin.

Follow on Twitter: @JonathanMaWiner

­The continued souring of Afghan-Pakistan relations

Marvin G. Weinbaum
Director, Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies

Marvin G. Weinbaum
  • Troubled by the surge in domestic terrorism that has come with Taliban rule, Pakistan has increasingly adopted a tough stance toward Afghanistan, with both the acting prime minister and the army chief recently threatening that Pakistan is prepared to take more vigorous military action to root out the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.

  • Feeling the heat, Afghan authorities seem now to be showing some greater receptiveness to Pakistan’s security concerns, pledging to relocate the TTP away from the border areas and announcing the arrest of 200 suspected militants accused of involvement in attacks on Pakistani security forces.

Pakistan’s having “buyer’s remorse” is a refrain often used to describe how its leaders must be feeling since the Afghan Taliban seized power in Kabul more than two years ago. Their disappointment is with a movement Pakistan had backed since the mid-1990s in the hope that once in power the Taliban would help block India’s influence in Afghanistan and agree to dismantle the sanctuaries that Pakistan’s adversary, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has established there over the last decade.

Troubled by the surge in domestic terrorism that has come with Taliban rule, Pakistan has increasingly adopted a tough stance toward its western neighbor. In seeking to destroy TTP encampments inside Afghanistan, Pakistan’s military regularly clashes with Taliban forces. In its most aggressive move, in April 2022, Pakistan carried out well-publicized air strikes against TTP training camps across eastern Afghanistan that resulted in the killing of many militants but also dozens of civilians. Pakistan has as well inflicted significant losses on Afghan trade by periodically closing its border with Afghanistan, the last time this past September for nine days at the busy Torkham crossing. Recently, the Islamabad government has announced plans for the deportation of 1.1 million undocumented refugees, using as a pretext their involvement in anti-state activities and crimes.

Pakistan has also raised the sharpness of its rhetoric. During his speech at the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on Sept. 22, Pakistan’s interim prime minister, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, asserted that currently, his country’s foremost priority is to prevent and counter all terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. On the sidelines of UNGA, the acting prime minister charged that multiple players in the Taliban regime have vested interests in backing the terrorists. Both he and Army Chief Asim Munir have also recently threatened that Pakistan is prepared to take more vigorous military action to root out the TTP in Afghanistan. Ironically, each has as well questioned the very legitimacy of the Taliban regime to which Pakistan contributed so much over the years to place in power.

Feeling the heat, Afghan authorities seem now to be showing some greater receptiveness to Pakistan’s security concerns. The Kabul government has repeated a pledge to relocate the TTP, which it refers to as “Waziristan refugees,” away from the border areas, and last week the Kabul government also announced the arrest of 200 suspected militants accused of being involved in multiple attacks on Pakistani security forces. An understanding to increase cooperation was supposedly achieved during a recent meeting in Kabul between the Pakistani envoy, Asif Ali Durrani, and Afghanistan’s acting Taliban foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi. But while the Kabul government has apparently given up denying the presence in their country of any anti-Pakistan militants, it has significantly not denounced or severed its long-established ties to the TTP.

Taliban officials have consistently insisted that for Pakistan to meet the challenges posed by its domestic terrorism, it should be doing more on its side of the border. But rather than undertaking systematic military efforts to root out reinfiltrated TTP fighters in Pakistan’s border areas, Pakistani authorities have found it easier to broadly target Afghan refugees illegally residing in Pakistan, accusing them of playing a significant role in deeply entrenched terrorist networks said to be operating across the country. Recently, Counter-Terrorism Departments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces claim to have carried out numerous intelligence-based operations and succeeded in dismantling a large extortion racket benefiting the TTP. They also announced having thwarted a major terrorist attack by apprehending illegal Afghan nationals associated with either the TTP or Islamic State-Khorasan Province.

It remains to be seen how far the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan are willing to go to curtail TTP activities. The Afghan regime’s long, close working ties and ideological affinities to the militant group leave much room for doubt. Both countries are also burdened by a history of deep mutual suspicions that long predate the Afghan Taliban and the still unresolved ethnic issue of creating a Pashtunistan.

Research assistant Naad-e-Ali Sulehria contributed to this piece.

Follow on Twitter: @mgweinbaum

Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

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