Pan-Turkism and Islamism Drive Azerbaijani and Turkish Aggression against Armenians

by Uzay Bulut*
Middle East Forum Observer

On February 13, 2024, less than a month after both Turkey and Azerbaijan threatened Armenia with renewed war, Azerbaijan killed four Armenian soldiers in Armenia’s Syunik province. It was not an isolated incident. With Turkish backing, Azerbaijan attacked southern Armenia in September 2022 and has since occupied several dozen square miles of Armenian territory. Between 2020 and 2023, Azerbaijan also conducted an ethnic cleansing campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh to drive out the indigenous Armenian Christian population. While both Turkey and Azerbaijan have long cited the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute to explain their hostility to and rejection of Armenia, Azerbaijan’s capture of the entire territory has not brought peace. Rather, in the months since, Azerbaijan’s probing attacks on Armenia’s frontier have continued.

What then motivates Azerbaijan and Turkey’s hostility toward and rejection of Armenia?

While National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken negotiate with their Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts to win peace between the two former Soviet republics, they focus on supposed grievances: Resolving Armenia’s requests for the return of prisoners of war, addressing increasingly fanciful Azerbaijani territorial claims, or encouraging economic and trade integration. Their efforts are doomed to fail, however, because they ignore the two ideologies driving the conflict: Pan-Turkism and Islamism.

Pan-Turkism (or pan-Turanism) promotes the superiority of a supposed Turkish race and seeks to unite Turks from the Balkans across Turkey and Central Asia to portions of China and Siberia. In 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan enthusiastically received a map of “Grand Turan” from coalition partner Devlet Bahçeli, leader of Turkey’s National Movement Party (MHP). The Azerbaijani leadership, meanwhile, embraces the same ideology. Heydar Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan from 1993 to 2003, often described the relationship between Turkey and Azerbaijan “as one nation, two states,” a mantra his son and successor Ilham also embraces.

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For both Erdoğan and Aliyev, Armenia’s independence is the main impediment to realization of Greater Turan for a simple reason: Armenia blocks Turkic territorial continuity. This is the main reason why Azerbaijan rejects any recognition of Armenia despite the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute in Azerbaijan’s favor. Increasingly, both Aliyev and Azerbaijan’s media refer to Armenia as “western Azerbaijan,” indicating a rejection of its very legitimacy.

Erdoğan’s Islamism imbues pan-Turanism as religious mandate. During Azerbaijan’s 2020 war on Armenians, Erdoğan declared, “We support Azerbaijan until victory … I tell my Azerbaijani brothers: May your ghazwa be blessed.” His reference to ghazwa refers to battles in which Muslims engaged non-Muslims to expand Muslim territory. Azerbaijan’s systematic destruction of Armenia’s religious heritage further demonstrates this aspect, as do Islamic State-like beheadings and mutilations of Armenian prisoners by Azerbaijani soldiers. Often, Aliyev rewards such atrocities, as when he personally awarded the Azerbaijani officer who beheaded a captured Yezidi in 2016. Turkey also transported Syrian and Libyan Islamic State veterans from the Islamic State to supplement Azerbaijani forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. What the United States sees as a land and legal dispute, Ankara and Baku see as jihad.

For too long, wishful thinking hampered U.S. policy toward Turkey. Successive administrations and a generation of diplomats saw in Erdoğan what they wished he would be rather than what he was: a populist and Islamist who prioritized his Muslim Brotherhood exegesis and personal wealth above the constitution and the welfare of the Turkish people. Today, the same pattern repeats with Aliyev, who presents himself as a secularist but, behind-the-scenes, pursues an irredentist and Islamist agenda in concert with Erdoğan.

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The two countries today act in concert against Armenia. Both blockade Armenia. Neither has diplomatic relations, and both deny its legitimacy and historical legacy as the first Christian country. The Turkish Army continues to train and often command its Azerbaijani counterpart.

Against this backdrop, it is imperative that neither the United States nor Europe view the death of four Armenian soldiers yesterday on Armenian soil as an accident to overlook as Washington seeks a broader peace deal. Rather, they are a sign Erdoğan and Aliyev will never sacrifice their core ideology nor honor any piece of paper in which naïve Western officials demand they affix their signatures.

* Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist formerly based in Ankara.

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