Ankara has sided with its Baku ally against Yerevan in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region with an Armenian majority, which has been in a state of tension for more than 30 years. On Sunday, fighting broke out between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces, and Turkey on Tues-day vowed to help Azerbaijan "regain its occupied lands." To support its Azeri neighbor, it has at its disposal not only state-of-the-art weaponry but also non-Turkish human resources that can be easily mobilized. As it did in Libya, Ankara may have sent Syrian mercenaries to fight in Na-gorno-Karabakh. "Azerbaijan is the new destination for Syrian mercenaries who see no other prospects for the future," Samer said. It was Armenia, through its ambassador to Russia, which accused Baku and its Turkish ally of employing several thousand veterans of the war in Syria in the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.
"About 4,000 fighters were recently transported by Turkey from Syria to Azerbaijan," Vardan Toghanyan said Monday. These allegations were immediately refuted by Azerbaijan. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), 320 Syrian fighters, mostly of Turkmen origin, were sent to Baku after being recruited by Turkish security firms.
The spokesman of the Syrian National Army (pro-Ankara), Youssef Hammoud, denied for his part that mercenaries were dispatched to Azerbaijan. "It is a propaganda war. We know that there are even members of the Syrian opposition who have an interest in spreading this kind of fake news," he said in a phone interview with OLJ. But in the strongholds of the Syrian opposi-tion, in Idleb as well as in the northwest, sending pro-Turkey mercenaries to Azerbaijan is an open secret and the recruitment offices may already be up and running.
Many people know of a friend or relative who has gone to the Caucasus in recent weeks, or at least may be considering doing so. After the Libyan experience, where thousands of Syrian mercenaries were sent to take part in the raging war, the idea of fighting abroad for Turkey may be seen as more socially acceptable. But, unlike Sunni Libya, Azerbaijan is predominantly Shiite, a fact that may pose a problem of conscience for Sunni Syrian fighters. "There are fami-lies in northern Syria who might be ashamed to send their sons to fight for Shiites," Samer said. "Azerbaijan is getting into a ‘sunnization” under Turkey’s influence," according to an informed diplomatic source.
Mohammad*, a 19-year-old from Idleb, worked in his father's carpentry shop. But because of the economic crisis and the pandemic, the family was left without income. "He told us he had no choice and that he was cornered." He told his parents that he was looking for work towards the Turkish border, when in reality he had registered on a list with the National Army (support-ed by Ankara) to be sent as a fighter to Libya or elsewhere. "Two weeks ago, they called him to tell him to come to Afrin before being sent to Azerbaijan," said Fateh, his friend, via WhatsApp. Mohammad wanted to back off, despite an attractive monthly salary of $1,500 to $2,000, and told his parents who were furious. "He was forced to leave. But ... he has never carried a gun in his life," said Fateh, who did everything he could to dissuade him.
Rampant unemployment due to the crisis and the devaluation of the Syrian pound pushes some to fight across borders. "A Syrian fighter within the different pro-Turkey groups is paid about 50$ per month. It is not difficult to bait young people to go and fight in Libya or Azerbaijan," said Rafek*, a veteran of the Free Syrian Army, contacted via WhatsApp. He explained that each faction under the umbrella of the National Army has offered to send its recruits to Baku via Turkey. The photo of one of them was circulating on Twitter Tuesday. Mohammad Shaalan, a native of Atarib in the Aleppo province who had fought in the Thuwar al-Sham (Rebels of Greater Syria) group before leaving it, is said to have died in battle after he headed Azerbaijan last week. Recruits in the National Army are mostly trained militiamen who did not fight against President Bashar Assad's forces, but were employed to serve Turkish plans, particularly in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and against Kurdish forces. According to a UN report, these men engage in systematic looting, extortion, kidnapping for ransom and human traffick-ing, drugs, cigarettes and weapons.
"No one is fooled. These soldiers know very well that they are not going to work as guards at oil and gas installations. They are told that fighting the Armenians is a bit like fighting Assad, and above all the Russians," Rafek said. For some pro-Turkey rebels as well as Syrian refugees in Turkey, animosity towards Armenia and the Armenian community in Syria is the result of their support of the Assad regime. "We welcomed them to Syria and they chose the tyrant's side. In spite of this, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh is not our war and the Syrians should stop going there," Samer said.
Rumors about sending Syrian-Armenian fighters from Aleppo, through the Armenian diocese and under the aegis of Moscow, to Nagorno-Karabakh, circulated on Tuesday. It is a scenario that reminds of the Libyan conflict where mercenaries were sent to fight with the Russian group Wagner in support of Marshal Khalifa Haftar. "They say those who left are Armenians from Sheikh Maqsoud in Aleppo, but it is a Kurdish neighborhood.. It's absolute rubbish," said Marco*, a Catholic in the city.
* The first names have been modified
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 30th September)