U.S. and NATO Western military alliance officials have traveled to Turkey to discuss deconfliction as the member state has unilaterally expanded its role in three separate conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met Monday with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to discuss a range of issues including ongoing violence in Syria and Libya, as well as the struggle between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the self-declared separatist state of Nagorno-Karabakh.
During their talk, the NATO chief also took the opportunity to cover a fourth dispute, a worsening in the long-running dispute between fellow alliance members Turkey and Greece, both of whom have a stake in the contested waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, where lucrative energy reserves lie.
in a move announced days ago by NATO, historical rivals Ankara and Athens have set up a hotline that welcomed the effort to avoid yet another conflict from breaking out in the region.
“The mechanism was achieved through the constructive engagement of Turkey and Greece at NATO Headquarters,” Stoltenberg said, according to a readout of his visit. “I welcome this and pay tribute to both Allies for their efforts, and we stand ready to develop it further.”
He championed the move as an example of how the defense pact could be used to resolve issues diplomatically.
“The deconfliction mechanism can help to create the space for diplomatic efforts,” Stoltenberg said. “It is my firm hope that the underlying disputes can now be addressed purely through negotiations, in the spirit of Allied solidarity and international law.”
Also in Turkey is Philip T. Reeker, the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. He hailed the development as “some positive momentum on the Eastern Med” in an interview with Turkey’s official Anadolu Agency on Saturday. He also touched upon Syria and Libya and said these policy issues would continue to be discussed during his trip.
But talks have failed to avoid violence elsewhere in countries where Turkey was actively supporting military campaigns outside the scope of NATO.
In Syria, a number of NATO countries have signed onto a multinational mission led by the United States, a top defense contributor, against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Turkey has also targeted ISIS, but the country’s own cross-border efforts in Syria have been largely geared toward battling the U.S.-led coalition’s top local partner, Kurdish militias battling ISIS under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which administer the northeast.
The conflicting goals of Turkey and the U.S. in Syria have led to friction between the two, but both are opposed to the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and Iran and controls most of the country. Ankara has joined Moscow and Tehran in attempting to settle the near-decade-long war, but ongoing battles between the Russia-supported Syrian military and Turkey-sponsored insurgents in the northwest have hampered these efforts.
And Syria is not the only place where Turkey-backed Syrian fighters have been spotted on the battlefield. They have emerged as a major player in Libya, another nation torn by war since a 2011 uprising.
Unlike in Syria, however, in Libya NATO’s direct military intervention led to the overthrow of longtime leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, leading to a power struggle among competing factions vying for control and international legitimacy.
The capital Tripoli remains under the control of the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord, but its rival, the Tobruk-based House of National Representatives, and its Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar, control much of the rest of the country.
When Haftar began a campaign to take the capital he received varying degrees of support from Egypt, France, the United Arab Emirates and private military companies from Russia. In response, Turkey stepped up its support to the Government of National Accord, including the supply of military equipment and the transfer of Syrian fighters to bolster the frontlines.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed his support for the Government of National Accord during a meeting Sunday with Libyan Prime Minister Fayyez al-Sarraj in Istanbul. The following day, international powers discussed the conflict at a virtual meeting at the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
After the meeting, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale “underscored the United States’ support for the UN-facilitated political process and called on all Berlin Process members to uphold their commitments by respecting the U.N. arms embargo, supporting a Libyan-led ceasefire and political agreement, and taking every measure to de-escalate the tensions in Libya.”
He said the U.S. “will continue to engage stakeholders on all sides of the conflict – both internal and external – to stop the fighting and reach a peace agreement.”
And yet another country has accused Turkey of intervening in a military conflict through the use of arms transfers and the deployment of Syrian fighters.
Officials from Armenia and the self-proclaimed Arstakh Republic have charged Turkey with providing Syrian fighters to support Azerbaijan in the latest flare-up of a century-old territorial and ethnic dispute. Ankara and Baku strongly deny these accusations as they reject allegations of ethnic cleansing carried out against Armenians.
During and after World War I, Ottoman forces carried out what a number of nations today consider to be a genocide against ethnic Armenians. Around this time, Armenia and Azerbaijan entered into their first conflict, one which was defused by a takeover of both countries by the Soviet Union, whose collapse led to the deadliest-yet war between the two countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Now, the two are again battling with high intensity. At the center is the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
This 1,700-square-mile region of around 150,000 people is led by ethnic Armenians but recognized internationally as being part of Azerbaijan. Ankara has pledged its support to Baku in regaining control over the area.
“Turkey stands shoulder to shoulder with Azerbaijan in the face of the latest aggression of Armenia,” the Turkish embassy in Washington told Newsweek in a statement. “This is not only due to the close cultural and historical relations between our countries, but also a necessity to emphasize the principle of respecting the basic international principle of territorial integrity.”
Ankara’s embassy denied sending troops directly to fight in the conflict and accused Yerevan of breaking international law in the latest round of escalations.
“In this conflict, Azerbaijan is the party whose righteousness has been officially confirmed in the framework of international law and relevant UN Resolutions,” the statement said.
“We would like to remind once again that Armenia is an occupying state and that all international organizations recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and UN through a number of its resolutions asked Armenia to unconditionally withdraw all of its forces from the occupied Azerbaijani territories,” the statement read.
Turkey has joined several other European countries as a member of the Organization Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, which is tasked with resolving the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute. The group’s co-chairs are France, Russia and the U.S., which spoke with both sides of the fight on Monday.
The three countries released a joint statement on Monday in which they said they “condemn in the strongest terms the unprecedented and dangerous escalation of violence in and outside of the Nagorno-Karabakh zone.”
In separate calls with his counterparts from Baku and Yerevan that same day, Deputy State Secretary Stephen Biegun expressed his “deep concern over reports of the escalation of military action and expanding theater of operations in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
He joined the Minsk Group representatives in calling for an immediate ceasefire and resumption of negotiations, affirming that “there is no military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”