The recent escalation of fighting in the Gaza Strip has raised concerns about the potential for a larger regional conflict in the Middle East. Pundits and analysts have sounded alarm bells, warning of the possibility of a widespread conflagration. However, a closer examination of the geopolitical realities in the region suggests that these warnings may be overstated.

One notable factor that challenges the narrative of an imminent regional conflict is the conspicuous silence from key regional powers.

Saudi Arabia, the dominant economic force in the Middle East, has refrained from taking any overt actions in response to the Gaza conflict. Similarly, Turkey, a dominant military power in the region, has maintained a measured approach. Egypt, while expressing verbal support for the Palestinians in Gaza, has not opened its borders to refugees fleeing the conflict. These regional powers have carefully avoided any concrete actions that could escalate the situation. While they have issued pro forma expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians, their restraint from significant involvement suggests that they prioritize stability and strategic interests over a regional showdown.

Iran, often seen as a potential source of regional instability, has also been relatively cautious in its response to the Gaza conflict. Despite bluster and veiled threats, Iran has not escalated the situation significantly. Instead, Iran appears to be preoccupied with pressing national security issues along its northern border.

Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, has played a significant role in the region’s dynamics. The ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh has created instability in the South Caucasus.

Azerbaijan’s ambitions in the region have raised concerns in Tehran, particularly regarding the sizable Azerbaijani population living in northern Iran. Between 12 and 23 million Azerbaijanis reside in northern Iran, making them a significant demographic in the region. In the past, the Soviet Union had supported separatist movements in this area, leading to a military expedition by Iran, backed by the United States, to regain control of its northern provinces in 1946.

The tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia have deep historical roots, with Nagorno-Karabakh at the center of the conflict. The region’s population, primarily Armenian, expressed a desire to join Armenia as the Soviet Union dissolved. This led to a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, resulting in significant casualties and displacements. The Bishkek Protocol, negotiated by Russia in 1994, provided a temporary solution by granting Nagorno-Karabakh political autonomy, with ties to Armenia. However, tensions flared again in 2020, leading to the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. The conflict ended in November 2020, with Azerbaijan reclaiming most of the territory it had lost two decades earlier.

In September 2023, Azerbaijan launched an attack on the portion of Nagorno-Karabakh, subsequently occupying it and announcing its incorporation into Azerbaijan. This move prompted over 100,000 Armenians to flee to Armenia. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev expressed a desire to open the Zangezur corridor, a strip of land crossing Armenia to reach another part of Azerbaijan. The strategic ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan have been a cornerstone of regional dynamics, and recent developments have further solidified their partnership. The September 2023 war in Azerbaijan received unwavering support from Turkey, reflecting the deep-rooted historical, cultural, and political connections between the two nations.

Turkey and Azerbaijan’s robust relationship is often characterized by the phrase, “one nation, two states,” attributed to the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev. This sentiment underscores the shared Turkic heritage and common values that bind the two countries together. During the September 2023 war, Turkey provided vocal and tangible support to Azerbaijan. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Azerbaijan shortly after the conflict is a testament to Ankara’s commitment. The meeting between Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in the Nakhchivan autonomous enclave, strategically positioned between Turkey, Armenia, and Iran, highlighted the significance of their alliance.

The joint military exercises held in October 2023 underscored the depth of the defense partnership between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Conducted in various regions, including Nakhchivan and the “liberated territories” of Karabakh, these drills demonstrated their mutual readiness to collaborate on defense and security matters. Azerbaijan’s potential control of the Zangezur corridor would have profound geopolitical implications. Connecting the two parts of Azerbaijan, it would open up opportunities for Turkey to expand its influence along the northern Iranian border. The substantial Azerbaijani population in northern Iran adds another dimension to this scenario. While Iran faced a separatist movement in this region after World War II, it had U.S. support at the time. In today’s geopolitical landscape, with shifting alliances and power dynamics, the situation may evolve differently.

Turkey’s rise as a regional power is undeniable. With a population of over 85 million, a highly educated workforce, and a strategic location at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, Turkey possesses significant potential for regional leadership. Its military strength, with a standing army of more than 890,000 troops, further solidifies its position. Turkey’s one significant limitation is its lack of substantial oil reserves. Azerbaijan’s potential control of the Zangezur corridor, with the prospect of greater access to Iranian Azerbaijan and its oil resources, could address this limitation. Turkey’s enhanced energy security would empower it to assert itself further in West Asia.

Such a scenario would undoubtedly position Turkey as a significant player in the Middle East, potentially matching regional powers like Saudi Arabia. The competition for dominance in the Middle East is a complex geopolitical game, with various actors vying for influence and control. Turkey’s ascendancy could reshape the dynamics in the region.

Finally, Turkey and Azerbaijan’s deep-rooted partnership, underscored by active support during the September 2023 war and joint military exercises, has the potential to reshape regional dynamics. Azerbaijan’s control of the Zangezur corridor and its implications for Turkey’s energy security could elevate Turkey to the status of a regional hegemon, challenging existing power structures in the Middle East. However, the geopolitics of the region are multifaceted, and the outcome remains uncertain, making it a topic of intense interest and analysis for observers of international affairs.

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