Peter Brookes: Nations watching this ‘tempest in a teapot’

When people think of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, they probably think of … well … actually … nothing, because few Americans probably think much about it at all – if ever.

If you don’t, now might be a good time to start.

To get you up to speed, there’s been some fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh territory, which, as of this writing, is in a fragile truce brokered by Russia.

The halt to hostilities, of course, may not hold.

Worse, the long-simmering dispute over the area has the potential to turn into a bigger fight potentially involving not only land but religion, ethnicity, energy – and some major powers.

It’s not as if that part of the world isn’t already plagued with problems.

First, some background. As a result of ethnic-based, separatist fighting that began in 1988 and ended in 1994 with a cease-fire, (Christian) Armenia took control of Nagorno-Karabakh which is inside (Muslim) Azerbaijan.

It’s a big chunk of property – perhaps as much as 20 percent of the land within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders. Nagorno-Karabakh considers itself independent, but is a client of Armenia.

Not surprisingly, some regional powers are interested.

For Russia, these countries were once Soviet Republics, and its interests in the Caucasus are long and strong. Russia has troops stationed in Armenia and Moscow would likely back Yerevan if there were to be another war with Baku.

For those who haven’t already pulled up Google Maps to eyeball all of this, Armenia borders Turkey – whose relations with Yerevan are poor for historical reasons and tense with Moscow after Ankara downed a Syria-based Russian fighter plane last fall.

Turkey has an affinity for Azerbaijan, whose people are Muslim and language is Turkic. Ankara sided with Baku during recent hostilities with Yerevan, according to Reuters, sending a strong message to Moscow – and Tehran.

Speaking of Iran, it has interests, too. Azerbaijan was once part of Persia until it was lost to Russia in the early-19th century. Though Azeris are Iran’s largest minority and largely Shia, Tehran is tight with Armenia.

Azerbaijan’s secular form of Shia Islam and its close security ties with Israel (due to their mutual concern over Iran) are certainly some of the things that elevate Tehran’s foreign policy blood pressure when Baku comes up.

Then there’s energy: Major energy pipelines (e.g., the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and the South Caucasus) run near Nagorno-Karabakh. If the conflict reignites and spreads, interrupted energy flows will affect Europe and others, including Israel.

But why should the United States care?

Well, we don’t need Russia and NATO member Turkey at each other’s throats any more than they already are, over Syria. We also don’t want more instability in a part of the world already rife with instability from civil war and terrorism.

Beyond that, we don’t desire shaken energy markets (Azerbaijan is a major player) nor do we want Iran to take advantage of any evolving situation to advance its anti-U.S. regional interests further.

This may seem to some to be a “tempest in a teapot” involving not-often-considered countries far away. But with plenty of tinder about, even the smallest ember can turn into a blazing wildfire, creating any number of fateful consequences for the U.S.

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald.  Dr. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email:BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.