Azerbaijan is walking a narrow line on Syria, trying not to offend either of its powerful neighbors, offering apparently contradictory statements this week about where its sympathies lie.
In an interview with an Austrian newspaper, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov expressed qualified support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Currently, President Assad is the only guarantor of the integrity and security of Syria," Azimov said. "His army is a legal institution. We welcome a political process, in which Assad would remain in power until the election of his replacement."
Azimov also criticized Russian airstrikes in support of Assad: "I believe that the Russian airstrikes are inefficient and costly." But Azimov's comments were overall seen as surprisingly favorable to Russia. "This may req some explaining before #Azerbaijan Pres Aliyev comes to Washington," former U.S. ambassador to Baku Richard Kauzlarich wrote on his twitter account.
"Support for Assad means that the country is together with Russia and Iran, defending the dictatorship. It is also important that Azerbaijan and Turkey expressed the opposite position on the Syrian issue. In the whole ... interview Azimov confirms that Azerbaijan is close to the dictatorial regimes, such as Russia and Iran, and it is against the position of the free world," said Azerbaijani oppositionist Isa Gambar.
As it happens, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Baku just two days after Azimov's comments were published. There was no mention of Assad in the public comments by Cavusoglu and his Azerbaijani interlocutors, but Foreign Minister Eldar Mammadyarov reiterated that Azerbaijan is considering joining the Saudi-led Islamic "anti-terror coalition" in Syria."No decision has been made on this issue so far," Mammadyarov said.
Russia has taken a dim view of that Saudi-led coalition, which also includes Turkey and which opposes Assad. Responding to Mammadyarov's comments, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the issue “is the sovereign right of Azerbaijan and depends on Azerbaijani authorities,” but added that “it is not known what the need for a new coalition is. The creation of a new coalition is the process for the sake of process.”
Cavusoglu, in Baku, tried to paper over any differences with Azerbaijan. "We will continue our struggle until the last terrorist. In this issue there is no disagreement with Azerbaijan," he said.
Azerbaijan is in an unenviable position with its two big neighbors holding diametrically opposed views on Syria, not to mention moving closer and closer to actual conflict. It has expressed interesting in mediating that conflict, though that seems beyond Baku's (or anyone else's) diplomatic capabilities at the moment. So far neither Russia nor Turkey seems inclined to push Azerbaijan to pick a side, but Baku's balancing act is getting more and more precarious.