One of the signal failures of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process has been an inability to persuade the belligerents to withdraw snipers from the front line.
This relatively small step – which would leave untouched the vast numbers of infantry, heavy machine guns, mortars and artillery along the Line of Contact (LoC) – would cost little and would indicate at least some commitment to the peace process. But neither side has been willing to pull back snipers and, if anything, have boosted the capabilities of their sharpshooters.
Now, amid another spike in casualties along the Line of Contact, local religious leaders have weighed in on tactical matters. Russia’s Patriarch, the head of Armenia’s Apostolic Church, and Azerbaijan’s leading cleric have made a joint statement calling for snipers to be withdrawn, and expressing support for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Their willingness to issue a joint statement suggests interfaith dialogue and religious pacifism are alive and well in the Caucasus, but – as a similar plea in April last year indicates – this has no effect on entrenched military and political positions.
Over 20 soldiers have died this year along the LoC, many through sniper fire. In the recent fighting, at least two Armenian soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani snipers on 19th and 20th November. The Nagorno-Karabakh military has claimed that at least seven Azeri soldiers were killed and wounded in reprisal attacks. Predictably, there is no clarity on the real numbers or responsibility for violating the ceasefire.
Azerbaijan, in particular, has boasted of its increasing sniper capabilities. This spring there was a minor furore when Baku set up free sniper schools for under-18s; an indigenous sniper rifle, the Istiglal, has also been developed as a flagship product of the country’s nascent defence industry.
Baku argues that rather than talking about withdrawing snipers, international mediators should talk about withdrawing Armenian forces from the occupied territories. Regardless of the merits of the underlying case, this allows Azerbaijan a get-out clause for any confidence-building measure. Armenia and the separatist authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh argue that they cannot unilaterally withdraw snipers, as Azerbaijan repeatedly violates the ceasefire and Armenian forces need to be able to respond in kind.
Does this matter? In one sense, no. Plenty of soldiers have died along the LoC from machinegun fire, mortars and artillery; withdrawing snipers would not bring stability.
But in another sense, it matters a great deal. If the trust deficit between the two sides is such that they cannot agree to a minor tactical inconvenience, for fear that the other side will gain an edge, it suggests they will never have the confidence to compromise. An argument about small arms is, in a bleak way, a microcosm of the conflict.