Every state makes decisions and enacts policies based on its interests and security perceptions. Some state decisions are more insidious than others in that the secondary effects can be devastating, especially by those states that can project sovereignty outside their own borders.
Undoubtedly, Israel’s decision to create a relationship with Azerbaijan was a well-thought-out process. Not that Israel has any long-term stratagem with Azerbaijan, but Azerbaijan having a border with Iran speaks for itself. Azerbaijan’s horrid human rights record, its oligarchic ruling structure, and money-laundering propensity culminated with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev being awarded the moniker “Corrupt Person of the Year.”
Regardless, Azerbaijan is the only state bordering Iran that Israel found compliant enough with whom to create an alliance of convenience. Azerbaijan doesn’t even have an embassy in Israel, yet both engage in trade in the billions of dollars. An embassy in Israel would not be welcomed by either Iran or a wide swath of Azerbaijani society. While no public documents exist detailing what synergistic relations exist between Azerbaijan and Israel, Aliyev described the relationship, “like an iceberg, nine-tenths … below the surface”. Over the past decade, Azerbaijan received well over an estimated six billion dollars (five billion as of the end of 2017) of Israeli high-technology weaponry. Israel receives about half of its crude oil supply from Azerbaijan. The same reference notes many military air flights occurring between Israel and Azerbaijan since the start of the war Azerbaijan inflicted on the Armenians.
So, suppose Israel wants a facility on Iran’s border to gather intelligence on Iran, or further, airbases with the ability to launch a strike on Iran without having to refuel its fighter jets. In that case, it has to give something to Azerbaijan in return. When asked about Israel’s activity in Azerbaijan during an interview on Russian TV, Yaakov Kedmi, the former Head of the Israel Defense Forces Program “Nativ” and, now a military and political expert, said, “I will answer carefully. There were reports in the Western media that very often drones flying from Azerbaijan fly over Iran. These are not Turkish drones. And for a reason, not out of love for aeronautics, Azerbaijan allows drones from Luxembourg to use Azerbaijan to fly over Iran,” Kedmi smiled as Luxembourg is the metaphor for Israel. Azerbaijan allows “Luxembourg’s” UAVs to fly over Iran, and in return, Azerbaijan is sold military hardware that it has clearly stated would be used to kill Armenians. In the current Azerbaijani offensive to capture Nagorno-Karabakh, Israeli-manufactured cluster bombs were used by Azerbaijan. It is still unclear where Azerbaijan purchased outlawed white phosphorus bombs that it has begun raining over Armenian Karabakh. Yet we know who manufactures them.
As reported in the Israeli media, Israel has access to at least one former Soviet airbase in Azerbaijan. The English-language version of this Israeli-media report is slightly different from the original Hebrew and refers to several Azerbaijani bases made available to Israel. In Figure 1, the pink balloon “A” is a former Soviet airbase in Sitalchay, Azerbaijan. Figure 2 is a satellite image with a caption claiming Sitalchay could be an Israeli base. Of course, publicly available documents that confirm any of this don’t exist.
Quoting Haaretz, in 2012, “U.S. officials told Foreign Policy that they believe Israel has been granted access to these air bases through a “series of quiet political and military understandings. I doubt that there’s actually anything in writing,” said a former U.S. diplomat who spent his career in the region. “But I don’t think there’s any doubt – if Israeli jets want to land in Azerbaijan after an attack, they’d probably be allowed to do so. Israel is deeply embedded in Azerbaijan, and has been for the last two decades.”
As expected, Azerbaijan denies any of this.
Just as it was in Israel’s interest to covertly (Iran-Contra) sell arms to Iran during Iran’s battle with Saddam Husayn’s Iraq, Azerbaijan and Israel cooperate as their varied interests complement each other. Israel requires surveillance of and staging grounds for any potential offensive against Iran. Azerbaijan needs state-of-the-art offensive military weaponry from Israel. During September 2015, in one of many visits to Baku, Azerbaijan by Israeli Knesset members, the chairman of the parliamentary security commission Oren Khazan and the head of the Safadi International Diplomatic Center, Israeli politician Mendi Safadi brought a package of proposals to fight the Armenian lobby. Safadi stated, “I have always been on the side of Azerbaijan, and we are ready to provide protection and assistance to the Azerbaijani side in neutralizing the influence of the Armenian lobby in the U.S. Congress, EU structures and international organizations.” From this point on, an organized anti-Armenian media and political campaign strengthened.
Israeli policymakers had to weigh the potential benefits of a covert agreement with Azerbaijan that factored in billions of dollars-worth of arms sales, a crude oil supplier, and a base of operations against Iran versus any potential off-setting benefits that would take into account Armenia’s current status. Armenia lost. Could Israel have stipulated that its weapons sold to Azerbaijan could not be used against Armenia? It could have, but Azerbaijan would reject such conditions. Israeli calculations put Armenians and ethical matters at the bottom of the priority pile.
Israel has seen the usefulness of Turkey’s expansionist neo-Ottoman policy. Turkey itself and its use of Islamic jihadists against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad serves an Israeli goal of sending Syria decades back in development. Turkey’s Erdogan makes many anti-Israeli claims, including that Jerusalem is Turkey’s, but Israeli-Turkish trade has not suffered; instead, it has expanded.
Israel’s policymakers could see the writing on the wall after Azerbaijan demonstrated its military incompetence during last July’s border flare-up with Armenia. Immediately, Turkey took the initiative and engaged in substantial war games with Azerbaijan, keeping an unknown amount of material and advisors on the ground. On September 27, Azerbaijan began its most massive offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh and its indigenous Armenian population. Some Israelis pronounced support for Armenia; most others did not.
Some Israelis and agents of Israel still claim that Armenia supports Iran or visa-versa. Yet trade between Iran and Azerbaijan has expanded to well over twice that of Armenia’s and Iran’s. In any event, just as Erdogan claims Jerusalem, talk is cheap. Israeli arms and Turkish-Azerbaijani-Israeli-sponsored PR are destroying Nagorno-Karabakh and its people. The silly arguments that “guns don’t kill people, people do,” also breaks down as quickly as guns intercepted in tunnels under Gaza.
Erdogan’s lip service to the Palestinian Cause while discriminating against them is one thing, while his claim made on July 14, 2020, that “we will continue to fulfill this mission, which our grandfathers have carried out for centuries, in the Caucasus again,” is something else. Erdogan’s outburst is a reference to the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. Turkish arms and soldiers are killing Armenian civilians and not just military personnel. Turkey’s import of Islamic Jihadists from Syria and Libya into Azerbaijan are decimating Armenians with Israeli weapons and communications gear.
Without Turkey and its imported Jihadist thugs, Azerbaijan would never have attacked Nagorno-Karabakh, thus defining the limits of its sovereignty. Does Israel hope Turkey militarily penetrates the Caucasus, both cutting off Russia and perhaps fomenting an Azerbaijani-speaking Iran insurrection in Iran’s northwest? Perhaps.
Aliyev thought his blitzkrieg on the Armenians would be over in less than a week, yet the attempted Azeribaijani incursion has dragged into its fifth week. The Turks planned for at most two months of attacks. Perhaps with the Armenians fighting for their very existence, the result will be a government collapse in Azerbaijan. Sun Tzu, the renowned author of The Art of War, wrote, “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”
We might never know if Israel is directly providing intelligence to Azerbaijan in its war against the Armenians. The truth will eventually be revealed, as such secrets are the most fleeting.
In 1992, when I was an avid user of an early version of social media (the term hadn’t been invented yet) called UseNet, I was approached by an ex-coworker who was the chairperson of a local Zionist Council, just west of Boston, MA. I was asked why I still posted eyewitness accounts of Azerbaijani pogroms against Armenians in Soviet Azerbaijan that occurred two years earlier. I found this question odd and the tone arrogant, considering that we both spent much of our free time at work discussing common aspects of the Holocaust and the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. I told this person I was informing the world about what was happening to my people, just the way I thought she wished the world knew about what was happening to her people in Poland during WWII. In response, I was told that my postings had a harmful impact on Azerbaijan, which was developing a relationship with Israel. What was a friendship between us, in one phone call, degenerated into “we both will go our separate ways.” A rather foreshadowing incident.
Originally published in World Geostrategic Insights.
David Davidian is a lecturer at the American University of Armenia. He has spent over a decade in technical intelligence analysis at major high technology firms. He resides in Yerevan, Armenia.