An ‘Invasion’ or a False Flag Media Smokescreen? What’s Happening in Syunik?
Unlike this well guarded stretch of border, much of Armenia's southeastern frontier with Azerbaijan has yet to be definitively delineated. Photo: Kirill Skorobogatko/Shutterstock
It’s roughly six months after the end of the Second Karabakh War, and tensions between the former belligerents – Azerbaijan and Armenia – appear to be growing dangerously tense. Or so it might seem if you follow many news outlets or social media outlets. In a Tweet sent a little before midnight on May 13th, French President Macron repeated earlier claims that “Azerbaijani armed forces have crossed into Armenian territory” while stating that France stands with the Armenian people “in solidarity and will continue to do so.” The statement appeared to corroborate the kind of reports being issued by Armenian news agencies. For example, Asbarez, the California-based Armenian bilingual newspaper/website, claimed in very strident language that Azerbaijani forces had “pushed their positions” towards Vardenis following a “breach” of the border on Wednesday (May 12th), leading to a dangerous “standoff.” Anca, the Armenian National Committee of America, used even stronger terms in calling the alleged border incursion an “Azerbaijani invasion,” appealing for the international community to take notice. Acting Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan reportedly stated that Armenia was to request Russian military assistance in line with CSTO mutual defence agreements. US State Department spokesperson Edward “Ned” Price tweeted a message urging restraint.
It’s easy to imagine that things sound alarming if taken at face value. However, seen from an Azerbaijani perspective, things seem altogether less dramatic. While these supposed incursions were taking place, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was spending the end-of-Ramadan holiday enjoying a relaxed open-air concert event barely 100km away in the historic city of Shusha. He also appeared, leaving Shusa mosque, with his wife and two daughters in family photos tweeted by the first lady. According to the Azerbaijani narrative, troops are on the ground as part of the painstaking ongoing border delimitation process. That task, as we have reported in much more detail, is fraught with difficulties and potential misunderstandings, but is nothing even closely resembling an ‘invasion.’ In a call with the US acting Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Philip Reeker, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister, Jeyhun Bayramov, stressed his government’s commitment to negotiations. And even the most serious advances that Azerbaijan has been accused of making are less than 4km towards a small, isolated lake.
So what’s going on? The facts, for now, remain hard to confirm conclusively but what seems apparent is that this is either a misunderstanding based on different map versions used in attempts to demarcate the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Or that the whole incursion is entirely a false flag claim. After all, it is hard to imagine any reason for Azerbaijan to deliberately ‘invade’ Armenia when – throughout the 44-day war of 2020, its forces were scrupulously careful to avoid any kind of attack spilling across the Armenian border. Making unilateral territorial grabs at this stage would seem entirely counter-productive. However, looking at the context in Armenia, it’s clear that a perceived renewal of hostilities could be very useful to certain political players in Yerevan. This comes in the run-up to a snap election in which security and the ‘loss’ of Nagorno-Karabakh are bound to weigh heavily on voters' minds. And the raised tensions are further ammunition for the Armenian diaspora in the US to drum up support in that community for pressure on Congress to seek sanctions against Azerbaijan through one-sided mechanisms such as Section 907, whose waiver by President Biden has been seen as a setback by the Armenian lobby.
In coming days it should become more apparent which side of the story holds the balance of truth. In the meantime, however, Azerbaijan’s State Border Service insists that local negotiations have been ironing out the misunderstandings on the ground. And on all sides, it’s important for observers to keep cool heads and accept that the path to peace is sometimes going to have some awkward moments.