Global Post has published an important overview of Israel’s role as major arms exporter fueling the Armenian-Azeri conflict. Recently Azerbaijan announced a $1.6-billion arms deal with Israel that would bring its drone fleet to 100 including Israel’s most advanced Heron model. Here’s an inventory of arms sales to one of the region’s wealthiest, most corrupt and autocratic leaders:
Azerbaijan had acquired about 30 drones from Israeli firms Aeronautics Ltd. and Elbit Systems by the end of 2011, including at least 25 medium-sized Hermes-450 and Aerostar drones.
In October 2011, Azerbaijan signed a deal to license and domestically produce an additional 60 Aerostar and Orbiter 2M drones. Its most recent purchase from Israel Aeronautics Industries (IAI) in March reportedly included 10 high altitude Heron-TP drones — the most advanced Israeli drone in service — according to Oxford Analytica.
Collectively, these purchases have netted Azerbaijan 50 or more drones that are similar in class, size and capabilities to American Predator and Reaper-type drones, which are the workhorses of the United States’ campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.
There is a cold war going on between the Azeris and Armenians that regularly flares into deadly confrontations in which scores have been killed. Given that there has been no resolution of the conflict and no serious attempt to do so, any match dropped into the oil could be the one that causes an explosion:
The International Crisis Group warned that as the tit-for-tat incidents become more deadly, “there is a growing risk that the increasing frontline tensions could lead to an accidental war.”
With this in mind, the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have long imposed a non-binding arms embargo on both countries, and both are under a de facto arms ban from the United States. But, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), this has not stopped Israel and Russia from selling to them.
Who knows whether Israel’s drones, used by the Azeris to keep an eye on their Armenians and the Iranians, might be the tipping point toward war. Azerbaijan has an extremely tense relationship with Iran as well. So the Azeris and Israelis both have a mutual interest in monitoring and even sabotaging their mutual enemy.
Israel’s role in Azerbaijan reminds me of the drug dealer only too happy to provide the poison to satiate his customer’s craving. In this case, it’s a mad craving for advanced weapons systems:
Flush with cash from energy exports, Azerbaijan has increased its annual defense budget from an estimated $160 million in 2003 to $3.6 billion in 2012. SIPRI said in a report that largely as a result of its blockbuster drone deal with Israel, Azerbaijan’s defense budget jumped 88 percent this year — the biggest military spending increase in the world.
Israel, the drug dealer, has greater strategic ambitions which can be satisfied by drawing Azerbaijan ever closer to its orbit. But it has also used such arms deals with Russia and the latter’s allies to encourage Russia to withhold major weapons systems from Israel’s enemies:
Israel has long used arms deals to gain strategic leverage over its rivals in the region. Although difficult to confirm, many security analysts believe Israel’s deals with Russia have played heavily into Moscow’s suspension of a series of contracts with Iran and Syria that would have provided them with more advanced air defense systems and fighter jets.
Stephen Blank, a research professor at the United States Army War College, said that preventing arms supplies to Syria and Iran — particularly Russian S-300 air defense systems — has been among Israel’s top goals with the deals.
“There’s always a quid pro quo,” Blank said. “Nobody sells arms just for cash.”
This passage outlines Israel’s strategic thinking regarding the role Azerbaijan can play as a bulwark against Iran:
In Azerbaijan in particular, Israel has traded its highly demanded drone technology for intelligence arrangements and covert footholds against Iran. In a January 2009 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, a U.S. diplomat reported that in a closed-door conversation, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev compared his country’s relationship with Israel to an iceberg — nine-tenths of it is below the surface.
…In the end, “Israel’s main goal is to preserve Azerbaijan as an ally against Iran, a platform for reconnaissance of that country and as a market for military hardware,” the diplomatic cable reads.
One thing that previous Middle Eastern conflicts has taught us is that we have no ultimate control over how our allies use the weapons we provide. The drone Israel arms for Azerbaijan today to protect its Iranian flank could just as easily be turned on Armenia and fuel a conflict there. Israel may have no interest in an Azeri-Armenian war. But if either of those parties do, then Israel will be dragged along into the fray, if only as an accomplice.
The more weapons proliferate in the region the easier it will be to start a war. I just read a chilling TV review of a PBS documentary about the Cuban missile crisis, which found that a single Russian security officer is all that stood between a Russian submarine firing a nuclear-tipped torpedo at a U.S. ship during the crisis. Think what this means. If such a confrontation could take us to the brink of nuclear annihilation, do we have so much hubris to believe that some petty Caucasus dictators couldn’t do the same? With all the advanced weaponry both sides are furnished by Israel and Russia, the result would be a war much more damaging than the earlier Nagorno-Karabakh War:
[U.S. Army War College Prof. Stephen] Blank said Israel has made a risky move by supplying Azerbaijan with drones and other high-tech equipment, given the tenuous balance of power between the heavily fortified Armenian positions and the more numerous and technologically superior Azerbaijani forces. If ignited, he said, “[an Armenian-Azerbaijani war] will not be small. That’s the one thing I’m sure of.”
Israel is one of the world’s leading arms proliferators. Not only does it have 200 nuclear weapons of its own, but it exports some of its most advanced weapons systems to regions fraught with conflict. Not content to stir the pot in its own little Middle East backyard, where its wars of choice are commonplace, Israel could do the same for other regions. One result of not reigning in the Israeli-Arab conflict and solving it, is that Israel is left to its own devices to provoke conflict and arms races in other regions outside its own. Once again, we have only ourselves to blame.
This article appeared at Tikun Olam