Predicting Conflict in 2012: Karabakh? Tajikistan? Uzbekistan? Iran?
Where is war most likely to break out in 2012? Between Georgia and Russia? Armenia and Azerbaijan? Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (or Tajikistan and itself)? News is thin this week between (non-Orthodox) Christmas and New Year's, so analysts and pundits are coming out with their predictions for 2012, and a lot of them touch on the possibility for conflict in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The International Crisis Group's Louise Arbour, writing in Foreign Policy, lists Central Asia as one of "Next Year's Wars":
Tajikistan, for example, now faces a growing security threat from both local and external insurgencies, something it has almost zero capacity to contain. Adding to the country's woes, relations with neighboring Uzbekistan are at an all-time low, with their long-running water dispute no closer to resolution and occasionally deadly border incidents threatening to spark deeper violence.
She also mentions the U.S.'s tight relationship with Uzbekistan (though it's not clear how that would spark a war next year) and the regional divide in Kyrgyzstan.
The run-up to the vote might also see a recurrence of the mysterious terror plots and bomb blasts which have periodically rattled Georgia since the war. The government insists they are orchestrated by Russia in a bid to destabilise the country (the new National Security Concept emphasises this); the opposition claims that they are false flag operations to spook the populace into voting for the UNM. The truth is probably somewhere in between, and either way we are likely to see more of them in 2012.
In Nagorno Karabakh, Jackson sees a continuation of tension, but no escalation:
Along the Line of Contact in Karabakh, the grim litany of skirmishes and deaths by sniper fire will rumble along. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are now deploying drones along the LoC, so expect the conflict to gain a new, aerial dimension (we’ve seen the first signs already). Sabre-rattling, military exercises and soaring defence budgets will all continue, but - as previously – don’t expect a new shooting war.
And recently, there have been a couple of reports from the region suggesting that preparations for war are actually underway. In Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Sergey Konovalov writes that Russia, bracing for a U.S./Israel war against Iran, will reinforce its position in Armenia -- and that means "breaking" the blockade Georgia has implemented against military transit to Armenia. The report is detailed, and cites sources in Russia's defense ministry, though still seems pretty improbable:
In April of this year, Georgia broke the agreement on the transit of military cargo to Armenia from Russia. Essentially, the Russian-Armenian grouping in the South Caucasus has been isolated. Supplies to the Russian army (POL, food, etc.) are delivered only by air and through direct agreements with Armenia which, in turn, purchases these products (gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene) from Iran. A war in Iran will close this supply channel.
Lt.-Gen. Yury Netkachev, who for a long time served as the deputy commander of the Group of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus and was personally engaged in work on the supply of arms and ammunition to combined armed forces and units (including the 102nd military base), believes that, in the event of a full-fledged war against Iran, Russia will be looking to securely supply the military facility through Georgia. “Perhaps, it will be necessary to break the Georgian transport blockade and supply the transport corridors leading to Armenia by military means,” said the expert.
On the other side of the Caspian, Uzbekistan is reportedly building up its forces on the border with Tajikistan, according to Asia Plus:
Residents of the Tajik northern province of Sughd are seriously concerned over a large accumulation of Uzbek military hardware at the Uzbek-Tajik border.
A person, who wanted to remain unnamed, phoned Asia-Plus Friday evening and said that “Uzbek authorities has drawn up military hardware, mostly tanks, to the Tajik border on the Istaravshan direction.” “Local residents are seriously concerned over the situation, especially against the backcloth of current relations with Uzbekistan,” he said.
A source in one of Tajik power-wielding structures has confirmed the information about the large accumulation of Uzbek military hardware – tanks and artillery – at the border with Tajikistan. “The military hardware was drew up to the border about a month ago after a skirmish between Tajik and Uzbek border guards on the Istaravshan stretch of Tajikistan’s common border with Afghanistan, when an Uzbek border guard was killed in exchange of fire,” the source added.
And in Komsomolskaya Pravda, Mikhail Barabanov of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and Moscow Defense Brief discusses a recent claim by Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov that the chance of Russia getting involved in a war have recently increased. (Translation by Johnson's Russia List):
Major Western countries and first and foremost the United States might intervene in conflicts on the territory of the former Soviet Union. It will serve as casus belli. The countries that comprise the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization belong to the zone of Russia's strategic interests... vital interests. Should the United States or other NATO countries decide to try and get a foothold there, it will create conditions for direct clashes between their armies and the Russian Armed Forces. Things might escalate into a nuclear exchange, you know.
Gulp! Let's hope that's a slim possibility. Taking all this into account, and in a cheap attempt to gain attention/page views, here is The Bug Pit's Official Top Three Likely Wars in 2012, listed in order of probability:
1. Armenia-Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. This is by far the most likely place for war to break out in the next ten years, and while it's unlikely that Azerbaijan is ready to attack just yet, there remains the possibility of a miscalculation or provocation.
2. A Tajikistan civil war. Things seemed to have calmed down after last winter's violence, but the underlying conditions that caused it -- disaffection by local leaders who think the central government isn't living up to the agreement they made to end the civil war in the 1990s -- still obtain. And Tajikistan has little capacity to contain any threats to its authority. While some resumption of violence would not be at all surprising, there's still little reason to think it would escalate into a full-fledged war.
3. Uzbekistan provocation against Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan. There have been various skirmishes and disputes between Uzbekistan and its neighbors to the south and east, and Uzbekistan may try to flex its muscles if those much weaker neighbors do anything to upset Tashkent.
Honorable mention: Georgia/South Ossetia/Abkhazia/Russia, Kyrgyzstan civil war, naval conflict over Caspian Sea oil or natural gas, Iran-Azerbaijan, renewal of Islamist violence in Uzbekistan, attack on Iran having unpredictable spillover effects in the Caucasus.
It's important to note that none of these scenarios are at all likely. Even the most likely conflict, Nagorno Karabakh, would seem to have at most a five percent chance of flaring up this year. The rest are probably well under one percent. But a year ago, who would have guessed all the things that have happened in 2011? But if a conflict does break out in 2012, it will be genuinely surprising if it's NOT on the above list.
UPDATE: As this post was being written, Jackson posted his predictions on Turkmenistan:
Questions have been raised about whether Moscow would go to war to block a TCP being built. This seems unlikely: the threats seem more intended to spook potential investors and dissuade Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Expect more punitive measures by Russia if planning for construction goes ahead – blacklisting participating companies from working on projects in Russia, cutting commercial ties with Baku and Ashgabat, or clamping down on migrant labourers from both countries working in Russia.