Canada needs to pick a side as Nagorno-Karabakh tensions rise, Armenian PM says

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Armenia and Azerbaijan are on the brink of all-out war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. But it’s Turkey that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan sees as his country’s real enemy in the conflict.

In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Pashinyan said his country is on a “civilizational front line” – and that countries such as Canada that are allied to Turkey, via NATO, need to decide which side they are on.

Mr. Pashinyan said Turkey had encouraged what looks to be a full-scale attempt by Azerbaijan to recapture mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian region of Azerbaijan that has been under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces since a bloody war in the early 1990s. He said Turkey had sent Syrian mercenaries to aid the Azerbaijani side – an allegation supported by Russia and France – and that the Turkish air force had also attacked Armenian positions.

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“Turkey’s military personnel and the Turkish armed forces are directly engaged in the hostilities,” Mr. Pashinyan said by telephone from the Armenian capital of Yerevan. “Turkey’s NATO allies must explain why these F-16 jets are shelling towns and villages in Nagorno-Karabakh and killing civilian populations.”

Turkey has denied an Armenian claim that a Turkish F-16 shot down an Armenian fighter jet on Wednesday, killing the pilot. On Thursday, the office of French President Emmanuel Macron said he had spoken by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin and that both men “share concern about the sending of Syrian mercenaries by Turkey to Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Mr. Pashinyan also called for Western countries to reconsider weapons sales to Turkey, after The Globe reported on allegations that imaging and targeting systems manufactured by Burlington, Ont.-based L3Harris Wescam – and sold to Turkey – were being used by the Azerbaijani side in the conflict.

During the interview, Mr. Pashinyan sounded like what he effectively is: the worried leader of a country at war, desperately trying to drum up international support for his cause. The talk of civilizational conflict is an implicit reference to Armenia being a Christian state at war with a Muslim country, Azerbaijan, which has a staunch ally in Turkey, a bigger Muslim state.

He said Turkey’s role in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan should be viewed in the context of Turkey’s involvement in conflicts in Syria and Libya – where Ankara has backed factions in those countries’ lengthy civil wars – as well as Turkey’s “aggressive” stand toward Greece and Cyprus over maritime borders in the Mediterranean Sea.

Mr. Pashinyan said his government was in “permanent” conversations with Russia, which is treaty-bound to defend Armenia but which has thus far sought to play a mediating role. But Mr. Pashinyan said Turkey’s behaviour was an issue for the entire international community.

Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied to Mr. Pashinyan’s remarks via its Twitter account. “Armenia’s depiction of its illegal occupation of Azerbaijani land as part of its contribution to the so-called global clash of civilizations is not only self-defeating but also self-revealing,” read a tweet posted shortly after The Globe asked Turkish officials for a reply to Mr. Pashinyan’s statements.

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Mr. Pashinyan’s remarks.

On Thursday, France, Russia and the United States issued a joint call for an immediate ceasefire and for the warring parties “to commit without delay to resuming substantive negotiations, in good faith and without preconditions.” France, Russia and the U.S. are the co-chairs of what’s known as the Minsk Group, a body created by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has overseen fruitless negotiations over the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh since 1992.

However, the ceasefire push was rejected by Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan. “The Minsk trio consisting of the U.S., Russia and France making ceasefire calls after years of ignorance does not make sense. Occupiers need to leave the land they’re occupying first,” Mr. Erdogan said Thursday in a speech to the opening of parliament in Ankara. “Permanent peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh region will only be possible if Armenia leaves the Azerbaijani lands it has been occupying.”

Mr. Pashinyan said he welcomed the ceasefire call, and condemned Turkey’s rejection of it. He said the introduction of the Syrian mercenaries made it impossible to consider withdrawing Armenian troops from Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Terrorists imported from the Middle East are fighting on the side of Azerbaijan, under Turkey’s sponsorship. How could anyone propose now to leave the population of Nagorno-Karabakh unprotected, facing terrorists and extremists?” he said. “A ceasefire can be established only if Turkey is removed from the South Caucasus.”

Mr. Pashinyan cast Mr. Erdogan as a leader with dreams of restoring the Ottoman Empire, which decimated its ethnic Armenian population with a series of massacres and deportations carried out during the First World War. “A hundred years have passed and Turkey has returned to the South Caucasus, in order to continue the Armenian genocide here.”

Nagorno-Karabakh – a 4,400-square-kilometre enclave in the Caucasus Mountains – is an ethnically Armenian region that was given to Azerbaijan while both countries were part of the Soviet Union. More than 30,000 people died in three years of fighting that ended in 1994 with a Russian-brokered ceasefire.

Oil revenues have since made Azerbaijan much richer than Armenia, giving the government of President Ilham Aliyev the ability to build up a military advantage over its neighbour. Azerbaijan has spent more than US$20-billion on its military over the past decade, roughly quadruple Armenia’s military expenditures in the same period.

Armenia has reported the deaths of 103 soldiers and seven civilians over the first four days of fighting. Azerbaijan, which has not been reporting military losses, says 19 of its civilians have died.

Late Thursday, Armenia said it had shot down four drones that had appeared in airspace near Yerevan. If accurate, the use of drones near the Armenian capital would mark yet another escalation in the conflict, which has thus far largely been contained to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Two French journalists and two Armenian journalists were injured while covering Thursday’s fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. One of the injured French journalists was Rafael Yaghobzadeh, a freelance photographer who had recently been on assignment for The Globe in Lebanon, photographing the aftermath of the Aug. 4 explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut.

Anush Ghavalyan, a member of the security council of the Armenian-backed administration of Nagorno-Karabakh, said the French journalists had been near the front-line town of Martuni when they were hit by Azerbaijani shelling. Mr. Macron said on Thursday that the injured journalists would be repatriated “as quickly as possible.”

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