Azerbaijan, a South Carolina-sized nation in the Caucasus, rarely makes news. But exactly a year ago, this former Soviet republic generated more than its share of headlines when it captured the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region from neighboring Armenia in a brutal month-and-a-half war between the two longtime enemies.
Azerbaijan’s success—which depended in large part on drones, sensors, long-range heavy artillery and missile strikes, along with substantial military assistance from Turkey and Israel—has dramatically changed the geopolitical calculus in a part of the world where ethnic hatreds die hard.
Khazar Ibrahim is Baku’s new ambassador in Washington. He replaced Elin Suleymanov, who held that post for 10 years before being reassigned to London earlier this year.
In an Oct. 5 webinar hosted by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI), Ibrahim discussed his energy-rich country’s regional priorities with S. Frederick Starr, the organization’s chairman, and Svante Cornell, its director. And the first order of business, he said, is to “define these priorities.”
“We never had a period of time within the last 30 years when one country was not illegally occupying the land of another. That’s what this war has changed,” Ibrahim said. “For the first time, the totality of Azerbaijan is restored—and that creates lots of opportunities. This gives us confidence and a belief that now we have a real chance to move things forward. We do not need any more instability in the region. What we need is economic development, well-being and prosperity.”
Over the course of the war, which lasted from Sept. 27 to Nov. 10, 2020, and left 6,600 people dead, Azerbaijan regained control of five cities, four towns, 286 villages and the Azerbaijan-Iran corridor, as well as all Armenian-occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh.
Under the terms of a truce negotiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are now deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh and the so-called Lachin Corridor connecting the territory to Armenia.
Given this new reality, Ibrahim said, the United States and Azerbaijan need a new set of priorities.
“We have long had great cooperation on counterterrorism, Afghanistan, energy and reforms,” the ambassador explained. “Now we have to fine-tune and see where we should go, what we should re-invent. So our top priority is to sit down and identify those priorities.”
Ibrahim previously served at the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington from 2002 to 2005, then came back from 2009 to 2011 as deputy chief of mission. He was also a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as his country’s ambassador to NATO and then Turkey for the four years preceding his appointment to Washington.
Ibrahim said that since 1995, Turkey and Azerbaijan—both Muslim countries— have shared a “special relationship” that transcends politics and foreign policy.
“This warmth and natural feeling is in the nature of both the Turkish and Azerbaijani people. You can see it in every village,” he said. “And Turkey’s position has not fundamentally changed. Turkey has always been straightforward, that the territorial sovereignty of Azerbaijan is a must.”
How that translates into future relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia—and the reintegration of ethnic Armenians living in areas of Nagorno-Karabakh now once again under Azerbaijani sovereignty—remains to be seen.
“Even during the war, there was not a single incident of anyone targeting Armenians living in Azerbaijan,” said the ambassador, denying Armenian claims to the contrary. “Our official position is that Armenians have all the rights of all other citizens, and the same as Azerbaijani citizens.”
He added. “What we need right now are confidence-building measures in order to allow people to move to different cities. All Armenians residing in Azerbaijani territory, regardless of geography, have 100% of their rights. There should be no doubt for anybody that it will continue this way.”
By the way, Azerbaijan wasn’t the only country to benefit from its victory against Armenia. Israel—which supplied its ally with drones was also a winner. In fact, Israel is said to supply more than 60% of Azerbaijan’s weapons stockpile. Likewise, Azerbaijan accounts for about 40% of Israel’s total oil consumption; it also provides a convenient vantage point for Israeli surveillance of Iran.
That’s why it pains Ibrahim that relations between two of his country’s best friends—Turkey and Israel—have deteriorated badly in recent years under the rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“We really want Turkey and Israel to go back to the relationship they used to have—and we’ll spare no efforts them return to normalization,” he said. “I think it’ll happen soon and fast. It’s just some misunderstandings, and probably some efforts by outside powers which are really not interested in having good relations between Turkey and Israel.”
Ibrahim added: “Nobody can ignore the fact that Turkey is already an established regional power. Israel is the same—and their cooperation can only benefit the region.”