That exercise, dubbed TurAz Qartali-2020, was supposed to wrap up on Aug. 10. However, additional imagery from Planet Labs shows six F-16s, as well as what looks to be a CN-235, still on the ramp at Ganja on Sept. 10. Lower-resolution imagery available in Planet Labs archives dated between August 10th, through Sept. 10th, and on to Oct. 3rd shows the persistent presence of what look to be combat jets in the same portion of the same area of the airport.
The clear indication is that this detachment of F-16s remained in Azerbaijan far after the end of TurAz Qartali-2020. The CN-235, another type of aircraft that Turkey operates and that Azerbaijan does not, is likely acting in a support role for the F-16 force deployed to the country.
There have been suggestions that the aircraft seen in the Oct. 3 imagery are not actually F-16s, but this seems highly unlikely and in the case of the high-resolution image, impossible. In February 2020, Azerbaijan did announce it was buying Leonardo M-346 advanced jet trainers from Italy, which some claim could possibly be mistaken for F-16s in satellite imagery, but there is no indication that any of those aircraft have been delivered. The F-16 also has a distinct size and shape that is hard to confuse with the aircraft in the Azerbaijani Air Force’s combat jets fleets, which include Soviet-era MiG-21 Fishbed and MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters, as well as its own Su-25s.
Despite their presence at Ganja, it remains unclear how the F-16s are or are not participating in the fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been steadily escalating since it began last week. If they are not, the question becomes what possible role could they have and why has the deployment been kept secret? Azerbaijan has already been waging a devastating air war against Armenian and Armenian-backed forces using Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, as well as Israeli-made loitering munitions, especially the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Harop.
A video circulating on social media also suggests that Azerbaijan has fired at least one of its Israeli-made LORA short-range ballistic missiles at a target along the border between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Other clips indicate that Armenian forces had similarly launched at least one Soviet-era Tochka-U short-range ballistic missile at Azerbaijani positions. So far, Armenia has not employed its more advanced Russian-made Iskander-E quasi-ballistic missiles.
It’s also not clear how confirmation of the presence of Turkish F-16s at Ganja, despite that country’s denials, may impact the conflict going forward. If proof emerges that these jets have been taking part in the fighting, it would represent a major escalation, but it may not necessarily trigger further involvement from Armenia’s own regional partners, including Russia or Iran.
Just today, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his country was under no obligation to intervene until there was danger of an Azerbaijani invasion of undisputed Armenian territory. This statement implicitly means that the Kremlin continues to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory. It will be very interesting to see if that proclamation sticks.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said today that his country won’t stand for the presence of foreign fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh, an apparent reference to Turkey’s reported facilitation of the movement of Syrian militants into the region to fight on behalf of Azerbaijan. In the past, he has also called for an end to any foreign involvement in the fighting and called for both sides to bring a halt to the latest conflict and negotiate a resolution “within the framework of international law.”
For its part, Turkey continues to express its unequivocal support for Azerbaijan’s offensive, which appears to be aimed at recapturing all, or at least most of the dispute region.
What we do know now is that, at least as of Oct. 3, Turkey had F-16s deployed to Azerbaijan, where they are well-positioned to take part in the conflict, if they haven’t been doing so already.
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