Strategic Sitrep 2/12

Azerbaijani President wins re-election; IDF strikes Rafah in anticipation of ground incursion

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev wins election marred by fraud

Long-serving President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev overwhelmingly won a snap presidential election on February 7, 2024. Azerbaijan’s central electoral body declared that Aliyev received more than 90% of votes cast. According to local observers and international organizations, the election was characterized by widespread fraud. The US Embassy in Baku, for example, issued a statement saying the election “occurred in a restrictive environment with a lack of genuine competition.”

Neither the nature of the election nor the result are surprising, given Aliyev has ruled oil-rich Azerbaijan as dictator since 2003, when he succeeded his father. However, the decision to call snap elections was slightly unusual, as the regularly scheduled presidential election would not have been held until next year. Aliyev, though, was bolstered by the success of Azerbaijan’s rapid September 2023 offensive that overran and re-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh—the disputed region that was formerly populated by mostly ethnic Armenians and politically aligned with Yerevan, but considered internationally (and of course, by Baku) to be part of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory—and decided to move the election up by a year.

Aliyev’s aggression has been aided by Russia’s passivity as mediator. Russia mediated the ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, and took on a peacekeeping role for its implementation. Since that time, however, Russia has been unwilling or unable to attempt to moderate the conflict as it has escalated.

So, what does this mean?

The election could be impetus for renewed offensive action by the Azerbaijani military along its borders with Armenia. Azerbaijan attacked in late 2020 and again in 2023, eventually retaking all of Nagorno-Karabakh. Its military currently occupies an estimated 200-or-so square kilometers of sovereign Armenian territory along the international border that Aliyev has said it has no intention of relinquishing. Aliyev may interpret his latest electoral success and as permission to take more.

Aliyev does not act as if he needs a mandate to pursue an aggressive policy vis-a-vis Azerbaijan’s territorial disputes with Armenia, so it does not necessarily follow that he will use the election to justify further offensive maneuverings on the border. Nevertheless, despite Aliyev’s considerable recent success in re-drawing the regional map, he continues to assert Azerbaijan’s dissatisfaction with the state of the international border. In particular, he has claimed Azerbaijan’s right, “without any preconditions,” to villages currently under Armenian jurisdiction that were controlled by Azerbaijan in the Soviet period, along with discussions about Azerbaijani enclaves encircled by Armenian land.

Azerbaijan also lacks stable access to its autonomous region of Nakhchivan, which is separated from the rest of the country by Armenian territory and relies on the Zangezur corridor over which Azerbaijan lacks any formal control. This zone, which is bordered by Iran to the south, may be vulnerable to conflict if Aliyev’s actions over the past few years are any indication of his future intentions.

Dozens killed in Israeli strikes on Rafah

The Gazan health ministry reported that more than 60 Palestinians died during Israeli military strikes on the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Monday, February 12, 2024. Israeli officials said that the airstrikes were cover for an operation that rescued two hostages taken by Hamas during its October 7, 2023 raid into Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that Rafah is the target of the IDF’s next ground-based incursion as it continues its efforts to destroy Hamas. According to Israeli officials, Rafah is Hamas’ last major Gazan stronghold.

International observers, including US President Joe Biden, have expressed concern about the scale of the Israeli military operation and the cost to Palestinians should the operation into Rafah proceed. At present, the city holds an estimated 1 million displaced Gazans who have fled to Rafah as the IDF has advanced southwest.

So, what does this mean?

An Israeli military operation into Rafah, beyond the airstrikes that have already commenced, will likely lead to large numbers of civilian deaths. The reported totals of civilian casualties during the course of the war have already been high, but Rafah is on Gaza’s southern border, meaning those who wish to evacuate the city will have fewer avenues to escape.

The operation could also expand the geopolitical consequences of the war. Biden has called the Israeli offensive “over the top,” and he appears to be frustrated with his inability to influence Netanyahu. Germany, Saudi Arabia, and the UN, among others, have warned about the extreme costs to civilians that the operation would incur. Egypt, which borders Gaza to the south, has reportedly told Israeli officials that it will suspend the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries—that limits the number of Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula—if the IDF advances into Rafah.