Syunik: The Last Stand Against Pan-Turkism

There is a growing fear among the Armenian public that Azerbaijan and Turkey are preparing for a military operation in the southern province of Syunik. While an imminent invasion is highly unlikely, further inexplicable land giveaways are not. Thankfully, a new Russian base in Sisian has bolstered Armenia’s defence. But to have Russian peacekeepers acting as the chief defence force in Syunik is extremely precarious, as land which is seen as sacred to Armenia could be expendable to Russia. Having just returned from Syunik, I can confirm that Armenia’s military presence is extremely thin, and the Goris-Kapan highway is crawling with Azeris. While the Russian presence on this highway provides some reassurance, the relative absence of the Armenian military is understandably alarming Armenian observers. If Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were engaged in stable cooperation on the demarcation of borders and establishment of trade routes, this panic would largely subside. But the parties to the November trilateral agreement are at odds about what it contains, and the full text remains a mystery to the public. The uncertainty in Syunik is ominous, and a close examination of the geopolitical balance in the region reveals Armenia is sitting on the sidelines.

The ruins of Shurnukh, an agricultural village in Syunik province.

On December 28th, the infamous “Welcome to Azerbaijan” sign was erected at the start of the Goris-Kapan highway, on a patch of land that was given away to Azerbaijan in the November peace deal. In early March, the Armenian government announced they were banning the photography of enemy military infrastructure in Syunik, a clear reference to this sign. Upon reviewing photographs i took in Syunik, the Ministry of Foreign affairs has demanded that Zartonk refrain from publishing several which show military infrastructure, both Azeri and Armenian. Similar to journalists being suddenly banned from entering Artsakh, the Armenian government hasn’t provided a clear explanation why this censorship in Syunik is occurring. After being menacingly welcomed into Azerbaijan and driving through enemy territory for dozens of kilometres, the Goris-Kapan highway finally swerves back into Armenia. However, the exact location where border crossings take place can’t be confirmed, as no government: Azeri, Russian or Armenian has provided a complete map of the new demarcations. Between Goris and Kapan, I passed approximately a dozen Azeri outposts to the left of the highway. 

Armenians should demand to know two things. The first is to see exactly what was in the trilateral agreement Nikol Pashinyan signed onto in November. While the Armenian government ostensibly agreed to a corridor through Syunik as per the 9th item available on the Kremlin website, the Armenian the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently denied the provision was included. Aliyev in turn has said that “Armenia wants to obstruct the implementation of the ‘Zangezur corridor,’ but they will not succeed, we will force them.”  What could be happening behind closed doors is a debate over who gets to control the Nakhchivan corridor, and in accordance with the Kremlin website’s item 9 it should be Russia. But without the full text of the document disclosed, speculation is allowed to run rampant. One popular rumour on the Azeri side is that Armenia agreed to pay $39B in restitution over the next 10 years for occupying Artsakh. It is by no means clear the border is secure, and the Armenian government’s failure to provide clear information, combined with massive Azeri military buildups in Nakchevan and Artsakh that has Armenians justifiably terrified. 

CaucusesWatch/ Turkey and Azerbaijan performing Military excercises in Nakhichevan

The second question which could be revealed through an answer to the first is what international law or agreement justifies giving large sections of the Goris-Kapan highway to the Azeris, which for all intents and purposes is the sole access point to the Syunik region. According to analyst Karen Bekaryan, Pashinyan is “quietly” fulfilling hidden promises he made to the Azeri side, “The only logic is that he [Pashinyan] has assumed additional obligations to Aliyev, which are now being silently fulfilled without presenting any document to the people. He would go on to say that while a “shameful document,” the November agreement does not contain “grounds for what is happening now in Syunik.” An Azeri presence south of Kapan, where this unacknowledged corridor is set to be constructed would be far less alarming. But there is no good reason for the Azeris to be given any land north of Kapan unless they were intent on capturing the whole region, and no reason for Armenia to relinquish this territory unless they were forced to make additional obligations to Azerbaijan. What these obligations consist of is unknown to the public, as is why Armenia assumed them and whether or who put them under duress to do so. Pashinyan shows no signs of stepping down, and the military coalition opposed to his rule shows no sign of being willing to remove him by force. If a change in government isn’t possible until the June election, Armenians furious with Pashinyan should focus their attention on demanding the government explain what underpins their decision-making process. 

A link from London to Beijing, and New Delhi to Moscow

The imperial heavyweights with stakes in Syunik have far more influence over its outcome than the Armenian government. It doesn’t matter to Moscow or Ankara that encroachment on Syunik is a blatant violation of Armenian sovereignty. Turkey and Russia continue to accumulate stakes on the opposite side of proxy wars all across the Middle East and Eurasian subcontinent, and they are willing to bargain for victories on some fronts in exchange for defeats in others. While the Russian peacekeeping mission is the only thing standing in-between Armenia and Turkish obliteration, Russia has not proved to be an unconditional ally to Armenia. On the contrary, Russia appears to be using Armenian land as a bargaining chip in its ever-expanding proxy conflicts with Turkey, and the Armenian government through its mysterious silence has allowed this to happen. It doesn’t matter that Syunik has been Armenian land since before the Soviet Union, and was one of the 15 provinces of the Kingdom of Armenia dating back to the Sihunia Dynasty in 330 B.C. Syunik is part of a sprawling imperial battleground between Turkey and Russia where all that truly matters is who can best exert military and diplomatic power. 

The current geopolitical importance of Syunik is greatly underappreciated. This small province in Armenia is a linchpin for the development of several new global trade routes. For Russia, Syunik has newfound geopolitical importance given its victory in Syria. Syunik has always been Russia’s direct gateway to Iran, but now also connects it through Iraq and into Syria, where Russia has a port on the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, Syunik is a also planned link for India’s North-South corridor (INSTC), a trading route that will circumvent the Suez Canal to increase the efficiency of Indian trade into Russia and Eurasia. While Azerbaijan is also a partner in this project and has a significantly more comprehensive and reliable infrastructure to complete the link, their recent bilateral cooperation with Pakistan has jeopardized the Indian-Azeri relationship. Armenia’s participation will be contingent on their ability to complete a long-delayed railway facilitating trade from Iran and into Georgia. Syunik may well be a critical link in INSTC though, as India recently confirmed their intent to run the corridor through Armenia.

Readers are encouraged to read this great article by Yeghia Tashjian in Armenian Weekly to get a better understand of the Armenian connection to India’s North-South corridor.

Pashinyan meets with Modi at UN general Assembly in 2019 (source: Telangana Today)

India intends for INSTC to be a bulwark against China’s belt and road initiative, but for Turkey, Syunik is their link to China’s Belt and Road. While Azerbaijan’s primary justification for waging this war was a set of specious claims that Artsakh is their ancestral land, the obvious geopolitical impetus was forming a seamless connection between Azerbaijan and Turkey, past the Caspian Sea, into Central Asia, and ultimately China. This connection of Turkey with its ethnic cousins in Central Asia is a centuries-old lofty aspiration known as Pan-Turkism, and Syunik is the last domino preventing the Turks from realizing this dream. in 2018, Turkish minister of Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communications Ahmet Arslan confirmed Turkey’s ambitions in an interview with Eurasianet: “We are planning [for Kars] to become a bridge connecting London and Beijing… For us, the shortest route to realizing this vision is through the caucuses.” He went on, “We are aware of the problem posed by Armenia…We want relations with Armenia too, but we have one important policy to meet this end and that’s to get Armenians out of Karabakh… Ultimately, the Armenians have far more to gain from an open border than we do.” It’s interesting to note that Back in 2001, Nikol Pashinyan expressed his support for allowing Turkey to trade through Syunik so that Armenia could reap the economic benefits:

“If Turkey or Azerbaijan want to communicate through Meghri, let them communicate. let them use our territory, let them use our railway and pay for it, as it is accepted in the world…

Another thing is that this idea with the participation of people like Kocharyan has become a bobo on the head of this nation. Because they confuse opening the communication with handing over the land. Has anyone thought about what will happen after handing over Meghri? The construction of the Turkey-Nakhichevan railway will immediately follow, after which Armenia will turn into a deadlock. And until this happens, we are given a historic chance to become the heart of this region, the crossroads of west and east, with all its consequences.“- Nikol Pashinyanin in an op-ed for Armtimes May 23rd, 2001

Pashinyan seemed to think the Turks would never give up on creating this transport link, and thus it was best to make a deal with them before they took Syunik by force. But now that Artsakh has been taken by force and a corridor through Syunik is part of the known provisions of the trilateral agreement, Armenia doesn’t have nearly as much leverage to negotiate for the supervision of this corridor and remuneration from Turkey for its use.

Kommersant/map of planned regional trade routes agreed on in a meeting between Aliyev, Pashinyan and Putin in Sochi, January 11th 2021

Shurnukh: Syunik’s Twilight zone

Nothing better illustrates the desperation and insecurity of Armenians in Syunik than the village of Shurnukh. On December 24th, Shurnukh village head Hakob Arshakyan told that Azeris were in his village negotiating with a member of the national security service and Russian peacekeepers. Arshakyan had no say in the matter and said he believed the negotiations were happening at the level of diplomacy. 12 houses on the eastern side of the Goris-Kapan highway would be ceded to Azerbaijan on January 4th. The Azeris justified this acquisition by referencing old maps from the Soviet Union. On January 9th, the Armenian government announced they would build 12 new houses in Shurnukh to compensate the villagers who lost their homes to Azerbaijan, but I saw no such construction taking place when I visited in early March. 

On March 9th, the municipal government of Goris organized a celebration and gathering for the hoisting of a massive 30-metre Armenian flag in Shurnukh. The celebrations that day are best described as dystopian, it was like the county fair set up in a warzone. A stage was erected for performances of traditional Armenian dance, and perhaps a dozen stands were set up for commerce. Long before the celebrations were underway and attendance still low, heavy Armenian electronic dance music was blaring from the speakers. It was obviously far too loud, perhaps to send a message to the Azeris across the street.

The night before the celebration, I drove through Shurnukh to survey its condition and found nothing more than a desolate and abandoned village turned military outpost. Despite being within the boundaries of Armenia proper, Shurnukh was heavily shelled by the Azeris last fall. Aris Messinis, a Greek reporter for AFP photo also recently visited Shurnukh and claims only 28 families now live there. Passing through what was presumably the village-centre on the Goris-Kapan highway, there is no Armenian military presence. We passed a Russian position on our right with a BTR-80 and a few peacekeepers wearing reflective vests, and immediately to our left were Azeri border guards. As opposed to the Azeri’s regular military, their border guards are identifiable by teal camouflage uniforms. The Armenian soldiers were far up the hill to the right, adjacent to a barely-standing bunker that looked like the ruins of an ancient settlement. Just like when driving through Artsakh, dilapidation is often indistinguishable from battle damage. 

The village is completely devoid of vitality. But the next day, hundreds of Armenians, mostly from the city of Goris descended upon Shurnukh to witness the hoisting of this massive Armenian flag. If its epic proportions hadn’t made Armenia’s claim to Shurnukh sufficiently clear, it was also fitted with a glowing Armenian cross as a centrepiece. But nothing about this ornament should reassure Armenians that Shurnukh is their indisputable territory, especially having seen the village in its natural state. Though magnificent, the flag is an indication of Armenia’s insecurity. While the Azeri flag across the street is much smaller, their military presence is much larger, and their outposts along the Goris-Kapan highway more frequent.

Goris Municipality/The Armenian flag in Shurnukh

The flag in Shurnukh is a way to counter the psychological warfare of Az, and just this week the Armenian Hero Project, a diaspora non-profit delivered 66 Armenian flags to military positions in Syunik. Soon they will embark on a similar project in Artsakh, where the Armenian flag is also consistently and conspicuously absent. The Armenian government’s announcement that residents of Syunik would be given expanded gun ownership rights is a clear sign they aren’t willing or able to allocate sufficient military resources. Without this support, Organizations like Goris municipality and the Armenian Hero project are filling the government’s large shoes. The soldiers in Syunik would much rather be receiving mobile housing and artillery, but any help is welcome. Hayk, a representative from the Armenian hero project explained to me the desperation, “The soldiers need backing on all fronts. They need artillery, they need confidence, they need all of it.”

The Armenian Hero Project delivering flags to soldiers in Syunik

“Monte Melkonian said that if we lose Artsakh, it will be the last chapter in Armenian history. I think that if we lose Syunik, that’s the final nail in the coffin,” my friend Aram Hartounian told me.

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