Alvaro Peñas interviews Witold Repetowicz, journalist, war reporter, writer, author of 2 books about Kurds and the war against Islamic State in Iraq, as well as a documentary about Turkish invasion in North-Eastern Syria in 2019 made for Polish TV (TVP). Also, author of several TV reports from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Armenia. Contributor to Defence24.pl website, TVP Info website, weekly Do Reczy and monthly Uklad Sil. Expert for Pulaski Foundation.
You have been to Armenia and Mountainous-Karabakh in August. At that time, border incidents and demonstrations in Azerbaijan asking for war were taking place. What situation did you find there?
Yes, I was making a short documentary about living in the frontline in some villages, two in north-east Armenia, in Tavush, and one in Mountainous-Karabakh. The film is about how people live near to the warzone. Actually, the war in Mountainous-Karabakh started in 1991 and there was a ceasefire in 1994. But this did not stop the conflict, it is active and sometimes the activity is low and sometimes it is high. When I talked to the people living there, they told me that they suffer every day, that they cannot move freely in their villages because of the snipers and the shootings. The use of artillery, mortars and drones is daily. In July, there was an escalation and after some days, apparently, the situation calmed down. But it was not as before July. Turkey and Azerbaijan began some military exercises and the Turks placed their F-16s next to the Armenian border. There were many incidents on the demarcation line and many statements issued by Aliyev and Erdogan. It was clear that the escalation was on the rise.
Russia is obliged to defend Armenia under the Collective Security Treaty, but it maintains excellent relationship with Azerbaijan. Do you think Russia will finally support Armenia?
I think the escalation in the Tavush area was not very convenient because this is Armenian territory, so Russia is obliged to support Armenia. And everyone knows, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and, also Armenia, that Russia is not eager to come with military assistance to Armenia. So, I think the attack on Mountainous-Karabakh was a better idea from the Turkish point of view because it does not require the involvement of Russia.
Armenia has been the ally of Russia in southern Caucasus. However, their relationship has been cooled by the use of Russian missiles by the Azerbaijanis in the conflict of 2016 and by the change of government in the so-called Velvet Revolution of 2018. Do the Armenians trust in Russian aid?
Armenian people have no illusion about their help. They know that Russia has very good relations with the enemy, Azerbaijan and Turkey. This is clear to them. So, there is a growing skepticism about the role of Russia, but it is not expressed by the Armenian government or media because they are dependent on Russians. If Armenia starts to grow closer relations with the West, Russia could allow Azerbaijan and Turkey to attack Armenia, and no one from Europe or the USA will come in support of Armenia. Now Russia will wait until Armenia asks for help to stop the aggression from Turkish side and can ask obedience in exchange for its intervention.
In the case if war is declared, do you think that the USA or Europe will make more than statements in favour of peace?
I am afraid that Europe and the USA will do nothing, but I hope to be wrong. I hope that in the present discussions about sanctions against Turkey, Armenia´s situation will be included. I think that Armenia could manage Azerbaijan´s attack but cannot stand against the Turkish military potential. I hope that Europe and the USA will put a big pressure against Turkey, using sanctions, to stop this war. Otherwise, Russia will do what they want with Armenia. If Armenia has to choose between being slaughtered by the Turks or being obedient to Russia, there is no choice. And I think that Europe and the USA have the tools to stop this escalation, but I am not sure if they want to use them.
Some sources indicate that Turkey has sent Syrian jihadists, Sultan Murad brigade, to Azerbaijan. Is this information credible?
Yes, I am sure this is true because too many sources have confirmed it. And there are also photographs and recording from the Armenian aircraft. Turkey has already previously used Syrian jihadist mercenaries, like in Libya, so this is not a surprise. Syrian, Kurdish and Armenian sources confirm it, so I am sure of it.
Is the regular Turkish army involved in the conflict?
No, I do not think so. However, Armenia and Mountainous-Karabakh authorities believe that Turkey is directly involved with their F-16s. I think there are Turkish advisors and mercenaries with the Azerbaijan army but not regular troops.
What is the interest of Turkey to get involved in this conflict?
It is clear that Turkey has never wanted the Armenian state to exist. Turkey treats Azerbaijan as a part of Turkey, a brother country that speaks the same language and that for the pan-Turkish doctrine it is the same nation. So, Armenia is blocking the unification of Azerbaijan and Turkey and that is why they do not accept their existence. If you listen to the statements of Azerbaijani leaders and people, they not only claim that they should take Mountainous-Karabakh, they want to take Armenia, too. So, this is the target.
I have seen that you have held a conference about the “islamisation of Turkey”. What do you mean with that term?
Of course, Turkey is and was an Islamic country, and it also was in the time of Kemal Ataturk. But Islam played a different role at that moment. The islamisation of Turkey actually means two things. One is that Turkey wants to be the leader of the Muslim world again. You have to remember that, since the sixteenth century until the end of the First World War, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire were also caliphs, leaders of the Muslim world. And the second point is that during the time of Ataturk religion was also a tool to unify the nation, but politically controlled religion. Now it is different and politics and religion are somehow unified and are also used to influence the Turkish diaspora. This is a big threat for Europe, especially for Germany that has a lot of Turkish immigration.
The conversion of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque seems a clear sign of that islamisation.
The problem with Hagia Sophia is much deeper because, for Turkish Muslims, it represents the symbol of defeat of the Christians. Not only in terms of religion but in terms of Civilisation. It means that Turkey defeated the West. So, the symbolism is very important, and Turkey is using it with its people. Erdogan spoke about the battle of Manzikert few weeks ago, when the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines and seized half of their territory. This was the beginning of the end of the Eastern Roman Empire. Sadly, Europeans do not understand the significance of these symbols.