Azerbaijan finally did it. In what it called an anti-terrorist operation, but was in effect a 24-hour offensive beginning on Tuesday September 19, it defeated the Christian Armenian separatists in Nagorno Karabagh and took control of the disputed territory. Unlike in past conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabagh this time the Armenian government of prime minister Nikol Pashinyan did not intervene militarily.

Internationally, Nagorno Karabagh had been recognised as part of Azerbaijan but had enjoyed de facto independence since breaking away in the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed. A bloody war between Azerbaijan and Armenia ended in 1994 with Armenia emerging victorious at a time when Azerbaijan’s polity was in chaos.

The war produced hundreds of thousands of refugees as Armenians fled Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis fled Armenia, as well as areas around Nagorno-Karabakh that were captured by the Armenian forces.

Armenians claim a long historical dominance in the area, which they call Artsakh. Azerbaijan also links its historical identity to the territory. Another war over the mountainous region took place in 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan in which Azerbaijan managed to recapture much of its land in the disputed mountainous region.

The Azerbaijani success in 2020 had much to do with the support that was provided by Turkey and its increasing revenues from oil and gas. A ceasefire was arrived at under Russian aegis and 2000 Russian peacekeepers were deployed to ensure that no fresh armed encounters occurred. Despite defeat under his watch Nikol Pashinyan managed to get re-elected Prime Minister a few months later.

Azerbaijan had been insisting that after the ceasefire agreement of 2020, Armenia had continued to station its troops in Nagorno Karabagh, something that Armenia denied. Many Azeris had also wanted to return to the region after fleeing during the 1994 Armenian victory. Azerbaijan’s recent sudden offensive starting September 19 2023 was, nurtured by Azeri sentiment, probably fashioned on the premise that Russia was too involved with Ukraine and the perception that Armenia was opposing Russia in the Ukraine war.

Anna Hakobyan, Pashinyan's wife, had recently visited Ukraine and met President Volodymyr Zelensky. There had been indications that Armenian President Pashinyan had of late been distancing Armenia, a part of a Russia-led security alliance, from Moscow.

The Armenian government had recently decided to start the process of ratification of the Rome Statute — which could eventually require it to arrest President Vladimir V. Putin under a warrant from the International Court of Justice if he stepped on Armenian soil.

Given these circumstances it was not surprising that the Russian peacemakers did not intervene to stop Azerbaijan’s assault, a development that led to the Armenians of Nagorno Karabagh accusing Russia of a betrayal of trust as many Armenians had looked to Russia as an ally and protector. Armenian Prime Minister Pashniyan in a televised address had blamed Russia for not helping prevent the crisis. He had also said Armenia would need to review its security alliances. Moscow had hit back saying the crisis was Pashmiyan's fault since he had decided not to cooperate with Moscow and Baku and instead was trying to align with the west.

The most vocal supporter of the Azeri action was Turkey’s President Erdogan just as in 2020 Turkey had helped Azerbaijan defeat Armenia. He had not only fully endorsed the Azeri action but was the first to arrive in Azerbaijan for discussions with Aliyev. The two leaders were reported to have discussed the opening of a corridor through Armenia between Azerbaijan and Turkey. Aliyev in 2021 had threatened to create such a corridor whether Armenia likes it or not. Armenia had resisted. Erdogan had also called on Armenia to accept peace implicitly suggesting that there was no chance of the situation changing.

The separatists running the self-styled "Republic of Artsakh" said they had been forced to agree to Azerbaijan's terms, relayed by Russian peacekeepers, after Baku's army broke through their lines and seized strategic locations.

Under the terms outlined by Azerbaijan and the Russian Defence Ministry the separatist forces were to disband and disarm, and talks on the future of ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno Karabagh would take place. Armenian separatists were said to have agreed to lay down their arms after over 200 people were killed.

The fall of Nagorno Karabagh to Azerbaijan had led to massive protests with Armenians out on the streets demanding that Pashimiyan step down. Opposition parties accused Pashinyan of making too many concessions to Baku and the Armenian police had detained opposition politician Andranik Tevanyan, one of the main organisers of the protests.

In a televised address after his forces defeated the Armenian separatists, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said that Azerbaijan had regained full sovereignty "with an iron fist" over its territory and now wished to integrate Karabakh's population and turn the region into "paradise". He said that Karabakh's 120,000 Armenians would be able to take part in Azerbaijani elections, receive state education, and freely practise their faith ,Christianity, in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan.

There was scepticism among the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabagh who feared that they might face another genocide under Azeri rule. Armenia's foreign minister had said Baku was likely to use force against civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh again unless prevented by global powers.

Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst for the International Crisis Group had commented that there were thousands of people in Nagorno-Karabakh unable to decide what to do and uncertain about the future. The Azeri victory had also added to the multiple historic grievances that the Armenians of the region nursed against Azerbaijan and remained adamantly opposed to Azeri rule. These grievances were unlikely to die down as there was always the likelihood of another flare up against Azeri rule.

When the latest fighting started U.N. Security Council members including the United States, Turkey, Russia and France had called for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh. After the Azeri victory the international community had emphasised that Azerbaijan had a responsibility to ensure that its forces respected and complied with international law and ensured respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In the meantime talks had started in the town of Yevlakh between representatives of the Armenian separatists and Azeri officials under the eyes of the Russians.

Azerbaijan was suggesting an amnesty for Karabakh Armenian fighters who surrendered their arms but many were refusing to do so in the absence of security guarantees and some had vowed to continue their resistance. The ethnic Armenian leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh had said that no agreement had yet been reached with Azerbaijan on security guarantees.

David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, the president of the self-styled Republic of Artsakh said many issues had to be resolved. The Armenian PM had said Armenia was willing and able to accommodate as many as 40000 people who wished to flee Nagorno Karabagh. But latest reports indicated that nearly 120000 Armenians were leaving Nagorno Karabagh--something which could create a problem for Armenia which had a population of 2.8 million. If the numbers kept increasing there could be an eruption, social and political, in Armenia. David Babayan had said that their people did not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. 99.9% preferred to leave Nagorno Karabagh.

Nagorno-Karabakh, had, over the centuries been ruled by Persians, Turks, Russians, Ottomans and the Soviets. The real question that has no clear answer is, just how well and how humanely would Azerbaijan be able to integrate Nagorno Karabagh.

Would Azeri rule spell more trouble and possibly another uprising? Would the fundamental religious elements on either side stand in the way of any prospect of peaceful coexistence given that increasingly it is religion that seems to be giving the mantle for the exercise of abuse and oppression.