We are reaching the End-Game in Nagorno-Karabakh
UPDATE: Azerbaijan claims it has destroyed the Smersh unit that bombed Barda. It has released a video available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMzHt93uJ-E)
by Stephen Bryen
Smersh rockets have killed 21 civilians and wounded another 70 others in Barda City in Azerbaijan.
Barda city is not in Nagorno-Karabakh. In fact it is some miles inside Azerbaijan’s borders.
Smersh is a Russian multiple rocket system that is mounted on a special military vehicle. The system became operational in 2014, and outside of Russia it has been used in Syria, both by the Assad regime and by Russian forces in Syria.
Smersh means “Whirlwind” in Russian, and the launch of these rockets against targets does resemble the effect of a whirlwind. While the rockets are not accurate enough to kill precise military targets, they are better described as an area terror weapon. Thus, the Smersh is an effective way of doing damage to a city and killing and terrifying civilians.
Each launcher can fire 12 rockets at a time. Each rocket is 300mm in width (almost 12 inches). The US long range 155 mm field gun, by comparison, fires a shell about half the width (around 6 inches). While there are different warheads that can be attached to the missile, the most common one, which possibly is the one being used in the current conflict, is an anti-personnel cluster munition. Looking at the damage done by the missile attack on Barda, it appears that it was this warhead that was used.
Barda was definitely not a military target of any kind and plays no role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Why, then, would Armenia or its proxies in Nagorno-Karabakh use the Smersh against a non-combatant city? (We don’t know where the Smersh was when it fired its rockets. Smersh has a declared range of 300 nautical miles, so the system probably was well behind the battleground area inside Armenia, to keep it away from being targeted by Azerbaijani drones and suicide bombs.)
Numerous observers predicted that Armenia would start to attack Azerbaijani towns and cities as the Armenian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh became critical. The big news on that front is that Azerbaijani forces are moving towards the town of Lachin in Nagorno-Karabakh. A handful of villages on the way to Lachin have already been taken. Lachin is of strategic importance because if it falls to Azerbaijan the road to the “capital” of Nagorno-Karabakh will be cut off and the city will be isolated. Meanwhile Azerbaijani forces are bombing Stepanakert and fighting to grab Lachin. This is why alarm bells have gone off in Armenia, why top military and intelligence officials have been sacked, and why the Armenian government has grown desperate.
What to expect
It isn’t clear yet that Lachin will be taken. The road to it is surrounded by mountains and the Armenian are entrenched on the high ground. One can expect very hard fighting, but if the Azerbaijani forces can push the Armenians off the heights, they will be able to take Lachin and probably force an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
The question is what will follow. So far at least neither side has been willing to negotiate over a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. If Stepanakert is isolated and falls, Azerbaijan may choose to just drive out the local population and take over the territory. But if that happens it will cause serious trouble for Azerbaijan in future in the international community and especially for the Russians who have to be worried about Turkey’s role in Azerbaijan and the possible introduction of radical Islamists into the Azerbaijani state. Such an outcome is also not in Azerbaijan’s interest which, while certainly welcoming support from Turkey certainly has a lot to fear from Turkish “politics” on their territory. Even the introduction of hired mercenaries from Syria and Libya being imported into Azerbaijan represents a long term national security threat to Azerbaijan. Worse yet, in the big picture such a takeover will force Armenia into Iranian hands, something that is bad for Azerbaijan and bad for the United States. There is already a lot of talk in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, about getting help from Iran. Interesting, the outcome of an unnegotiated takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh aligns both the US and Russia on the same page.