A Unique Military Operation To Liberate Dashalti & Shusha In November 2020
By Rizvan Huseynov, Director of the Center for the History of the Caucasus, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Law and Human Rights under the Azerbaijani Academy of National Sciences, reserve captain
September 27 marked the first anniversary of the 44-day Karabakh war (September 27 – November 9, 2020), which ended in a disastrous defeat of the Armenian army and a brilliant military-political victory of Azerbaijan.
The military campaign was the result of Azerbaijan’s many years of comprehensive preparations to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. The unity of the people and the state has led to stunning results that even the most optimistic analysts never dreamed of.
There is no doubt that the strategist and politician – Supreme Commander-in-Chief, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, led the whole project. During the 44-day war, the world became aware of a new Ilham Aliyev, who embodied the synthesis of foreign policy experience, comprehensive knowledge, gigantic patience, trust in his people, and the ability to take military and political risks.
Following the 44-day military campaign, Azerbaijan has liberated about 80% of the territories previously occupied by Armenia. Slightly more than 20% of the territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenians live, came under temporary control of the Russian peacekeeping mission, which for five years will ensure security in the region and pave the way for the bloodless transfer of these lands under Azerbaijan’s control.
Azerbaijan has also regained control over the entire border with Iran and Armenia. Following the results of the Trilateral Statement of November 9, 2020, and the Agreement of January 11, in Moscow, the presidents of Russia, Azerbaijan, and the prime minister of Armenia agreed to completely unblock transport routes (the Zangazur Corridor) via Armenia. Through the Zangazur corridor will run railways and highways connecting Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, and a number of other countries of Eurasia from China to Great Britain.
Some experts analyzed the results of the 2020 autumn war, especially the brilliant military operation of the Azerbaijani army to liberate the heart of Karabakh – the glorious fortress city of Shusha – attracted particular attention.
The Azerbaijani Special Forces, armed with small arms and grenade launchers, practically without the support of artillery, aviation, and UAVs, were able to get tens of kilometers through the superior and well-equipped enemy forces for several days and climb the rocks with battles to liberate Shusha.
During the first Karabakh war, the city of Shusha was occupied by the Armenian armed forces in May 1992. The then loss by Azerbaijan of this strategically important city largely predetermined the fate of the further military campaign of the 1990s.
After 28 years, Azerbaijan has regained Shusha – one of the cradles of its culture and history. Unfortunately, there is still no extensive military expert analysis of the military operation to liberate Shusha in November 2020. In this article, an attempt will be made to take a brief look at the Shusha operation, drawing on proofs that are little known or completely unknown to the public. This is the first such analysis for the Russian-speaking public and for a Russian military publication.
An article on the Shusha operation, entitled “The battle of Shusha city and the missed lessons of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war” was published in English in the American military-analytical edition in July 2021. The authors of the article are American military experts from the Modern War Institute, John Spencer and Harshana Ghoorhoo.
As specialists in urban combat, they gave an interesting analysis of the Shusha operation of the Azerbaijani Special Forces. American military experts conclude that the Azerbaijani Special Forces, artillery, engineering troops, communications, and other units have shown a high level of interaction and a well-functioning command and control system. This was especially evident in the urban battles for Shusha, where lightly armed Azerbaijani Special Forces were able not only to take the city street by street but also to ensure the heroic defense of Shusha for several days before the arrival of the main forces of the Azerbaijani army.
Let the palm of victory in the analysis of the Shusha operation belong to an article in the American Institute of Modern Warfare, but it did not touch on some little-known details of the military operation. We will try to fill this gap by giving the chronicle and key moments of the Shusha operation from a perspective convenient for the Russian-speaking audience.
The strategic importance of Shusha as a citadel that rises above the region and gives the opportunity to control key roads connecting Karabakh, including with neighboring states, was known to the Azerbaijani medieval rulers for a long time.
But the military-political, transit, economic and cultural star of Shusha shone especially brightly in the second half of the XVIII century, when the Karabakh ruler Panah Ali Khan, and then his son Ibrahim Khalil Khan, had a chain of fortresses built that controlled the roads between the plain and mountainous Karabakh, as well as the connection between Iran, Zangazur (Armenia) and other regions.
The political capital and the crown of all these citadels became the fortress city of Shusha, erected on a hard-to-access rocky plateau, dominating most of Karabakh. The system of fortresses and fortifications, erected by the Karabakh khans, does not lose its strategic importance today. The military talent of Panah Ali Khan, who participated in the conquest campaigns of the legendary Nadir Shah Afshar up to India, later showed itself in Karabakh.
The erected city of Shusha is still a formidable fortress today. Steep cliffs drop off the edges of the city on three sides, and the only main road runs north-south along the western edge of the city. A few kilometers from Shusha, the Karabakh rulers built their summer residence Khankandi (a khan’s village), which, after the fall of the Karabakh Khanate, and the annexation of its territory to tsarist Russia, became the center of the Armenian population settling there. In Soviet times, Khankandi was renamed Stepanakert and became a regional center. However, Shusha, located nearby on an elevated plateau, has always had a strategic advantage and dominance.
During the collapse of the USSR, when the Armenian nationalists took a course towards the annexation of the Azerbaijani lands, it became clear that control over Shusha plays a crucial role for the Armenian-populated Stepanakert (Khankandi). The location of Shusha then provided an ideal buffer zone for Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist formation called “Nagorno-Karabakh republic”. Considering the indisputable cultural significance and key geographical advantage of Shusha, Armenia and Azerbaijan considered it paramount to have control over the city.
However, before moving on to a description of the military operation to liberate Shusha in November 2020, let us touch on some of the key battles of the entire 44-day war. The first week of the war that began on September 27 turned into fierce battles practically along the entire line of the Armenian-Azerbaijani front in Karabakh. A particularly difficult situation emerged on the southern front in Fuzuli and Jabrayil districts, where the Azerbaijani army in early October smashed a hole in the defenses considered previously impregnable Armenian defense system in depth – the so-called “Ohanyan line”.
It was named so in honor of the ex-Minister of Defense of Armenia, Seyran Ohanyan, who argued that this line was impregnable. The Azerbaijani army broke through the defenses in the south of the “Ohanyan line” and began to rapidly advance to the West parallel to the Araz River on the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. An attempt by the Armenian army to encircle and crush the Azerbaijani grouping turned into a disaster for the Armenian side to “get caught in a pocket”. In this “pocket”, the Armenian army had lost over 800 soldiers only killed. After the failure of the Armenian plan, the Azerbaijani grouping swiftly moved from the southern flank to the northwest, liberating the strategically important city of Hadrut.
The loss of Hadrut predetermined the defeat of the Armenian army in the southern direction. Azerbaijan quickly liberated Jabrayil and Zangilan districts bordering Iran, reaching the state border with Armenia. A significant part of Fuzuli and Khojavand districts was also liberated. In the second half of October, the Azerbaijani Armed Forces moved to the northwest, liberating Gubadli and Lachin districts. The Azerbaijani Armed Forces fought in the direction of the Lachin corridor that connects Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh. By October 22, a critical situation had emerged – the Azerbaijani army was literally 10 kilometers away from the Lachin corridor. The loss of this vital corridor would have deprived Armenia of the ability to support its army in Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, the Azerbaijani army took control of another similar road in the north in Kalbajar at the beginning of the war.
In order to divert the Azerbaijani forces from advancing towards the Lachin corridor, Armenia organized a counterattack and ambushed the rear of the advancing Azerbaijani Armed Forces in the densely wooded mountain areas in the Hadrut direction. In these battles, the Special Forces of the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan distinguished themselves.
On October 28-30, the Azerbaijani Special Forces were deployed to isolate Shusha and undermine the city’s defenses. In total, about four hundred soldiers marched through forests and ravines for five days, avoiding the well-guarded Lachin corridor and the surrounding Armenian villages and positions. They split into four groups to approach the city from different directions and surround from all sides.
That is, the leadership of the Azerbaijani army resorted to military cunning, which largely predetermined the further fate of the hostilities. By the end of October, the Azerbaijani Armed Forces and Special Forces were breaking through to the Lachin corridor. The Armenian military command was confident that this operation was a key for Azerbaijan since the control over the Lachin corridor would actually deprive the land connection between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
However, against the backdrop of an offensive in the Lachin direction, the Azerbaijani Special Forces in the last days of October received a new task and immediately moved back to the Hadrut direction. The Armenian intelligence decided that this was a deceptive maneuver to divert attention from the strategically important battle for the Lachin corridor. Moreover, the rugged mountainous and wooded area from Hadrut to Shusha was teeming with Armenian formations and ambushes. Common sense assumed that the Azerbaijani Special Forces would not delve into a deliberate trap above the Hadrut direction.
Moreover, the Azerbaijani Armed Forces could not provide the special material and technical assistance, and fire support to a handful of Special Forces. Apparently, therefore, the Armenian General Staff considered the movement of a small column of Azerbaijani troops under the cover of Special Forces from Hadrut in the direction of Shusha, which began at the end of October in a wooded mountain strip, as madness. Yerevan strategists decided that this was a false diversionary maneuver, but at the same time, they gave the command to their Karabakh forces to “trap” and destroy the Azerbaijani military convoy and Special Forces.
For several days, literally under the cannonade of battles, a group of Azerbaijani military engineers, Special Forces, and other types of troops fought their way through the mountains, ravines, and dense forests. The road was hastily made with such a width that lorries with difficulty could advance in a row one after the other. This road was supposed to ensure the advancement of additional forces, following the Special Forces units that had already infiltrated Shusha.
On October 30, military clashes were reported just five kilometers east of Shusha. At this stage, the defending Armenian forces still had a tactical advantage as they controlled the mountains surrounding Shusha.
At dawn on November 1, a column of 31 vehicles: trucks and 200 personnel under the command of Special Forces Col Tehran Mansimov moved deep into the enemy. The roar of truck engines in the forest gave the enemy movement. The enemy was on the right and left. As the motorized rifle column advanced, in front of it, reconnaissance and Special Forces were fighting the enemy, trying to divert their attention.
Around the difficult terrain, the enemy fiercely resisted, and therefore, among the intelligence and Special Forces, losses were growing. Whether or not a motorized rifle column broke through depended not only on the life of Azerbaijani special forces fighting deep behind enemy lines but also on the fate of further offensive combat operations in general. The column, moving towards Shusha, more than once fallen into Armenian ambushes in the so-called “hellish gorge” in the forests around the villages of Metstaglar (Boyuk Taglar), Tagaverd, Chanagchi, etc.
Here, in the “hellish gorge” of the Armenian side, on a narrow wooded mountain path, using the method of the Afghan mujahedeen, they managed to knock out the first and last trucks of the Azerbaijani convoy.
A fierce battle ensued, but the Azerbaijani special forces, caught in a trap, were not going to surrender: the main thing was to save and carry out pieces of military equipment. The column fell into a pre-arranged artillery ambush. The entire column came under fire from enemy rocket artillery and mortars. With the support of spotter drones, the Armenian artillery fired from the direction of Lachin, Shushakend, Khankandi, as well as from Girmizi bazaar. Mortars fired from the commanding heights. After 20-30 minutes of such intense fire, the personnel, and the entire column would have been crushed. Losses of personnel grew every minute.
Col Tehran Mansimov ordered the commander of the reconnaissance company of the brigade Number X, Capt. Allahverdiyev Elmar with a group, to get ahead of the column and throw them down into the ravine, knocked out by the burning Ural at the head of the column, by their own forces – it was necessary to open the way for the rest of the column to move.
Under direct enemy fire, sustaining losses, a group of reconnaissance officers coped with the task and cleared the path of the column’s advance. After some time, the convoy was again ambushed and hit the truck in the first line was hit. The reconnaissance officers again, at the cost of their lives, cleared the road from burning equipment, and the column moved forward all the way to the village of Chanagchi.
Here, the column came under targeted heap fire of Armenian artillery. The column managed to get through here with battles. Here Col Tehran Mansimov received a new command from the Supreme Command of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces – to move and take the village of Dashalti, which is the “gateway” of the city of Shusha!
After all, everyone in Azerbaijan remembers the unsuccessful Dashalti military operation of January 1992, when inexperience and the betrayal that took place led to the tragic consequences. Then an Azerbaijani detachment fell into an Armenian ambush, fought heroically, and was almost completely killed.
To carry out the task of capturing Dashalti and Shusha, a joint formation of detachments from different Special Forces brigades was formed, which arrived in Sygnax, then rushed into a battle in order to capture important strategic heights. In order to start the operation to capture Dashalti and then Shusha, it was necessary to knock out the enemy and take control of the strategic heights around these settlements.
Before dawn on November 4, an assault on the heights around Dashalti began, which turned into the bloodiest battles during the entire 44-day war. The enemy fought fiercely, realizing that the loss of Dashalti would then lead to the encirclement of Shusha.
By the evening of November 4, the Azerbaijani Special Forces took almost all the dominant heights over Dashalti on the left and right. On November 5, a reconnaissance company entered Dashalti, but hit mines – it was decided to hide not in the village, but in the surrounding forests.
Let us touch upon these decisive battles near Dashalti in more detail, where the fate of the whole military campaign was decided. The enemy decided that the Azerbaijani Armed Forces would set up a headquarters there after the capture of Dashalti. However, the Azerbaijani side understood the enemy’s plans, so it was in no hurry to settle in the village, but took refuge with the wounded in the surrounding forests. The calculation was made correctly – the Armenian side began a large-scale bombing of Dashalti. Heavy artillery, rocket launchers Smerch, Grad, heavy mortars, cluster bombs were used – the village was razed to the ground. However, the enemy miscalculated thinking that the Azerbaijani Special Forces were stationed in the village.
Then, the so-called forces of the “army of Nagorno-Karabakh” to the tune of nearly 3,000 fighters launched a large-scale counter-offensive in order to knock out the Azerbaijani Special Forces from the vicinity of Dashalti. The Azerbaijani forces were almost ten times smaller than the Armenian ones. A large-scale Armenian offensive against Dashalti was carried out from Shushakand, Shusha, Khankandi, Keybala, and Lachin. In this unequal six-hour-long battle, the forces of the Azerbaijani Special Forces did not concede a single position and, at the cost of heavy losses, were able not only to defend themselves but also to launch a counterattack.
Without waiting for the approach of additional forces, the Special Forces detachments decided to ascend from the side of Dashalti to Shusha. It was very important to gain time and not slow down the pace of the offensive. A small detachment commanded by senior lieutenant Ramazan Udulov broke through the ridge in order to take control of the road to Shusha from the side of the Lachin corridor. Udulov’s detachment of 25 fighters hit Armenian mines. However, despite this, Udulov moved forward with the remaining soldiers and managed to take control of the road to Shusha from the Lachin corridor before the arrival of Armenian reinforcements. This later helped a lot when the Azerbaijani Special Forces fought to the Shusha-Khankandi road junction to destroy the approaching enemy.
That is, late in the evening on November 5, Azerbaijani Special Forces entered the main road and managed to block the delivery of enemy reinforcements for the defense of Shusha. This, combined with the destruction of a key bridge across the Hakari River in the Gubadli direction, meant that almost no assistance would be provided to Shusha, as the city was almost surrounded by at least three main directions.
Despite this, Special Forces detachments, led by Col Tehran Mansimov, assaulted Shusha. A heavy battle ensued, in which the enemy encircled Tehran Mansimov’s detachment, but heroically defending they broke through the blockade and fought up to the outskirts of Shusha and the main road.
Today, some Armenian and foreign experts claim that the Armenian army surrendered Dashalti, and then Shusha, practically without a fight. However, in reality, it was clearly not so. The Armenian Armed Forces were motivated and defended Shusha according to all the rules of military warfare. Armenia fought desperately but lost.
The Azerbaijani Special Forces by an order less the enemy – with teeth, nails and unprecedented motivation, had broken through the hard-to-reach mountains and forests to victory. Until now, Armenia cannot understand how the Azerbaijani Special Forces in the hard-to-reach mountains were able to bypass the enemy’s positions from behind and infiltrate everywhere. For example, Armenians had built a serious defense around Shusha – not only in Dashalti but also from the villages of Shushakand and Mukhtarkand. However, Azerbaijan’s mountain special forces quietly made their way over the rocks and trees from behind and climbed into the enemy’s defensive positions.
The commander of the Special Forces, Lt-Gen Hikmat Mirzayev, even before the start of the movement of the Azerbaijani Special Forces from Sygnax to Dashalti, ordered to bypass the Armenian positions and posts as much as possible, trying to avoid unnecessary battles in order to save manpower for the main task – the liberation of Shusha. Such tactics of movement and maneuvering allowed the Azerbaijani detachments to minimize combat losses and move at lightning speed to the target, preventing the enemy from concentrating.
On the same day after the capture of Dashalti, on November 6, the Special Forces were storming up the rocks to the outskirts of the city of Shusha. Bloody battles took place in the forests near the approaches to Shusha, where the Azerbaijani Special Forces discovered and destroyed enemy detachments seeking to encircle the units of the Azerbaijani Special Forces that entered Shusha. Armenian drones were circling in the sky, artillery and mortars were working.
The Azerbaijani Special Forces managed not only to keep the road from Lachin to Shusha but also to occupy the road from Khankandi to Shusha in order to prevent the enemy with heavy armored vehicles and artillery from moving to Shusha from Khankandi. Many have seen Armenian footage of this battle at the entrance to Shusha, where assaulting Azerbaijani Special Forces knock out two Armenian tanks with lightning speed. A critical situation had arisen; the Special Forces were running out of ammunition, the grenade launchers were no longer there. The battalion of Gunduz Safarli and the battalion of Saleh Hasanov were desperately fighting there. These two battalions of Special Forces were the first to fight in Shusha. There were desperate battles in the city itself for every building and street.
The Azerbaijani Special Forces fortified themselves on the left side of the road that ran from Khankandi, from which it was seen how the enemy re-grouped and was preparing for a counterattack on Shusha.
On November 7, a dense fog fell. This significantly limited the use of air surveillance and strike equipment by the Azerbaijani troops, which gave them an advantage throughout the war. Despite the enemy’s counterattacks, the Azerbaijani forces formed a defensive line in the Shusha forests, at the entrances to the city and after repelling three Armenian counterattacks, they returned to the offensive, seizing the Shusha executive power building and beginning to displace the Armenian forces, methodically clearing buildings and larger areas of the city. The battle for Shusha ultimately came down to hand-to-hand combat on the outskirts and in the city itself. The enemy hastily run towards Khankandi, taking with them a large number of their fighters with knife wounds.
On November 7, at about 1900 hours, when it got dark, the Armenian armed forces launched a counteroffensive. About 1,000 enemy manpower marched in a line and in groups. Then they re-grouped into two echelons and move towards Shusha, while groups of the Azerbaijani Special Forces were waiting for the attackers to come as close as possible. The enemy knew the area well and skillfully used the relief and forest.
Azerbaijani special forces and long-range artillery did almost impossible – they defeated and forced the enemy to flee. Then the Azerbaijani special forces destroyed the remnants of the advancing enemy forces right on the spot. After this counterattack of the enemy was repulsed, the Azerbaijani Special Forces and the personnel of the brigade Number X climbed to Shusha to the fortress, which stretches to the city prison. Taking the ancient citadel of Shusha, the Special Forces organized its defense.
On November 7, the city was completely taken, fighters from the Yashma Special Forces – the personnel of the battalion under the command of Gunduz Safarli removed the enemy flag from the building of the Shusha city administration and raised the Azerbaijani flag, on which names of the martyrs were spelled out. The anthem of Azerbaijan was performed and the fighters read the prayers.
On the afternoon of November 8, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev announced the liberation of the city of Shusha and congratulated the Azerbaijani people on this victory. On the night of November 9-10, the war ended – the Trilateral Statement, signed by Ilham Aliyev, Vladimir Putin, and Nikol Pashinyan, was adopted.
However, for several more days, Armenians made unsuccessful attempts to return to the city of Shusha. The outskirts of the city and Shusha itself were strewn with enemy corpses. In just a few days on the way of the advance of the Azerbaijani Special Forces with the battles around Dashalti, they counted about 300 corpses and about 550 corpses around Shusha. That is, during the assault on Dashalti and Shusha, over 850 enemy corpses remained on the battlefield, not counting those they managed to take with themselves when retreated. The numbers of casualties are still growing since bodies of the enemy servicemen are still being discovered in Shusha and around.
Summing up, we can state that the Azerbaijani Armed Forces have brilliantly coped with the task of liberating Karabakh. It is impossible to belittle or forget anyone’s merits. This common historic victory is one for all! The victory of Azerbaijan and its friends! Undoubtedly, the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev plays a key role in this triumphant victory.
He personally took full responsibility despite the considerable risk, unprecedented international pressure, and the unpredictability of the situation. President Ilham Aliyev demonstrated iron will from the start to the end of the war to bring Operation Iron Fist to its logical end, the military operation that broke the backbone of the enemy, both in the military-political and diplomatic fields.