YEREVAN—The Armenian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on Tuesday that a Turkish F-16 Fighting Falcon shot down an Armenian SU-25 Frogfoot ground-attack jet over Armenian airspace earlier in the day. “Unfortunately, the pilot died a hero’s death,” announced MoD press secretary Shushan Stepanyan. Armenian officials say the Turkish fighter took off from an airbase in the Azeri city of Ganja (Ganzhak), having been based there since Turkey participated in joint military exercises earlier this summer.
Turkey has since denied the claim, insisting that its armed forces have not been directly engaged in the conflict. While the incident has yet to be independently verified, if true it would mark the first time since 1920 that Armenian and Turkish militaries exchange fire. It would also represent an unprecedented and dangerous escalation of the current crisis, potentially pulling in neighboring Russia. In a visit to the Azerbaijani embassy in Ankara today, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu declared that his country stands together with Azerbaijan to “solve the Armenian issue completely.”
Evidence of direct Turkish involvement in the conflict also points to the presence of Syrian militants in Azerbaijan, which has all but been confirmed by Hussein Akoush, a Syrian researcher based in Turkey who positively identified two dead Syrian militants in Azerbaijan as being from his hometown.
Muhammad Shaalan, from my town Al Atarib was killed in Azarbaijan. He was with thwar Al sham, left the group months ago. He headed to Azarbaijan a week ago. Death date and place are still unknown. Another guy called Talha from Kafar Halab village, west of Aleppo was also killed pic.twitter.com/FOxyb4QtUV
— Hussein Akoush (@HousseinAk) September 29, 2020
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the US think tank Center for Global Policy who focuses on the Middle East, suggested that the Syrian fighters airlifted to Azerbaijan by Turkey are not necessarily committed Islamists, but rather mercenaries recruited in the areas around Idlib—the last remaining province of Syria outside of Government or Kurdish control—trained and equipped by Turkey to fight the YPG in Syria and other militias in Libya. “These men engage in systematic looting, protection rackets, extortion, kidnappings for ransom, smuggling of humans, drugs, cigarettes and weapons. Torture is commonplace in their prisons.” she wrote on Twitter.
These men engage is systematic looting, protection rackets, extortion, kidnappings for ransom, smuggling of humans, drugs, cigarettes and weapons. Torture is commonplace in their prisons. More on their abuses of civilians in a recent UN report https://t.co/ijvKbEeKdf
— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) September 29, 2020
The town of Vardenis in Armenia’s Gegharkunik Province also came under Azerbaijani fire on Tuesday morning. Armenia’s Foreign Ministry says at least one Armenian has died. One bus—a Chinese-manufactured luxury coach operated by EliteBus—was hit by a drone at around 10:30 AM local time. The empty vehicle went up in flames; no casualties were reported at the time. The driver had escaped safely. The coach company later posted on its Facebook page: “Thank God that there were no victims.”
Today’s attack marks the first time that Azerbaijani forces have deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure on Armenian territory. The consequences of this action may risk escalating the already-bloody conflict even further, as Armenia mulls invoking its mutual defense agreement with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Press Secretary Stepanyan also announced that Azerbaijani forces were employing larger caliber howitzers and rocket artillery systems such as the TOS-1A heavy flamethrowers and BM-30 Smerch launchers in fire missions across the Line of Contact (LoC). She warned that the continued use of such weaponry would compel Armenia to deploy its own equipment “designed to engage wide area targets and indiscriminate destruction of manpower.” That last statement has been interpreted by analysts as a threat to engage Armenia’s arsenal of Iskander M short-range ballistic missile batteries. The Iskander M systems, purchased from Russia in 2016 following the April War, have a reported range of up to 500KM (310 miles)—potentially covering the entire territory of Azerbaijan, including critical oil production and logistics infrastructure.
The threat of deploying Iskander Ms has long been understood by analysts as being the ace up Armenia’s sleeve. The potential damage to global oil markets that could be caused by placing Azeri oil production at risk has been calculated to be enough to bring global attention to the conflict and encourage the international community to rein in the Azerbaijani dictatorship. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, currently in Greece, called for a swift end to the conflict after a meeting with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias. “Both sides need to stop the violence and work with the Minsk Group co-chairs and return to substantive negotiations as quickly as possible,” urged Pompeo.
Deputy Commander of the Artsakh Defense Army Artur Sargsyan stated during a Tuesday evening press conference that fighting continues along the Line of Contact. The Azerbaijani military is said to have been pushed back to its original positions, losing 17 tanks, four armored vehicles, three military engineering vehicles and 13 UAVs. Armenian officials say that since the start of the incursion on Sunday morning, Azerbaijan has lost 790 members of its military. Armenia’s Ministry of Defense, for its part, says it is summarizing its losses and will present updated figures on Wednesday morning; at last count, 84 Armenian servicemen have died.
In an exclusive interview with the British weekly newspaper The Spectator, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan blamed Turkey for coordinating the latest hostilities. He also expressed his belief that only democratically-elected governments are able to find compromise and accept peace formulae. “The international community, unfortunately, has a deep misperception of the essence of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” Pashinyan said. “It is not about territory. It is about people, about humans, about security,” he continued.
In Yerevan, the Ministry of Health announced that its blood banks were now full and thanked those who had volunteered for yesterday’s blood drive. Collection of foodstuffs, clothing and other supplies for civilians in Artsakh continue throughout the city.
The latest developments in Artsakh are beginning to gain the attention of the international community as the United Nations Security Council was expected to hold emergency talks on Tuesday behind closed doors.