BBC’s Arabic Service published an interview Wednesday with a man who claimed to be trapped in an Azeri military camp, having agreed to a “guard” job in the country with Syrian rebel groups only to find, to his horror, that he would join the war front in Nagorno-Karabakh against Armenia.
Fighting erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region claimed by Azerbaijan but run by Armenian separatists, last weekend between both the Azeris and Armenians, and Azeri military and the Armenian separatists not affiliated with Yerevan. The separatists claim to be running a sovereign state they refer to as the Republic of Artsakh. Armenia does not recognize Artsakh but, in light of military conflict this week, has teased doing so.
As clashes intensified and expanded into formally Azeri and Armenian territories, reports began to surface that the government of Turkey had begun funneling jihadists and other fighters from Syria into the region to aid Azerbaijan. One Armenian official claimed that Turkey had transported as many as 4,000 Syrians to Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey has denied the allegations.
Azeris are an ethnic Turkic people and Ankara considers the country a sister nation. The Turkish government also maintains deep-seated opposition to the Armenian state and is responsible for the first modern genocide in history against the Armenian people, among others.
“Last week, Saif Abu Bakr, commander of the Hamza Division of the opposition Syrian National Army, suggested that we go to Azerbaijan to guard military points on the border for a monthly fee of up to $ 2,000,” “Abdullah explained. “They loaded us into troop carriers, we were wearing Azeri uniform, and each of us was armed with a single weapon (Kalashnikov).”
The “Syrian National Army” (SNA) is a rebranded version of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) largely allied with Turkey. The FSA was a militia formed to remove dictator Bashar al-Assad from power that enjoyed material support from President Barack Obama; many defected to jihadist groups; those who stayed and became the SNA have refocused their energy to fight the U.S.-allied People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), a Syrian Kurdish group. The YPG played a critical role in the defeat of the Islamic State in that country.
The Islamist government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly faced accusations of helping the Islamic State, including a sensational report in 2015 claiming that Erdogan’s daughter was personally running an “ISIS hospital” for wounded jihadis. Erdogan has condemned ISIS on multiple occasions.
“Abdullah” claimed that those who joined in the Azeri mission were “poor civilians,” not battle-hardened SNA fighters, attracted by the thousands of dollars offered, far more than what most jobs in wartime Syria can generate.
“We were surprised that we were in the line of fire — we didn’t even know where the enemy was,” he claimed. “When they started bombing us, the young men started crying in fear and wanted to return to their residence, then a shell fell next to us, killing four Syrians and wounding three others.”
As active hostilities began between Azerbaijan and Armenia so recently, “Abdullah” said the Syrian fighters were not aware of any war in Azerbaijan, so they were taken completely by surprise when taking enemy fire.
“Abdullah” described the Syrians as ranging in age from 17-30 and having no clear ideological ties to Azerbaijan or either side in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
“After the start of the war, we have tried to return to Syria, but they won’t let us,” he lamented.
Abdullah did not mention any contact with Turkish officials or other affiliated with the Turkish government but did not that the Syrians had to fly into Turkey before leaving to Azerbaijan.
The U.K. Guardian and Reuters published similar interviews this week with anonymous alleged Syrian fighters who said they accepted deals to travel to Azerbaijan for guard service out of sheer poverty and never expected to see any active fighting because there was no indication of any occurring in that country when they accepted the deal. The Jerusalem Post claimed on Thursday that it had received “recordings,” whose contents it did not specify, that point to Syrian mercenaries fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an NGO that has documented human rights abuses under the Assad regime for the near-decade that the civil war has continued, published a report on Wednesday announcing the confirmation of the first death of a Syrian fighter in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
“Reliable sources have informed the Syrian Observatory that Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries were sent to join the battles in Azerbaijan, while their sole mission was supposed to be protecting the oil fields,” SOHR reported. “Yesterday, very reliable SOHR sources confirmed that reports circulated on media outlets considering Turkey’s transfer of nearly 4,000 fighters of Turkish-backed Syrian factions to Azerbaijan in order to join the war against Armenia were completely false.”
Armenian Ambassador to Moscow Vardan Toganyan accused Turkey of sending the same number of fighters into the conflict area on Monday.
The Foreign Ministry of Russia, a close ally of Armenia’s, also issued a statement Wednesday condemning, without naming Turkey, the influx of “foreign mercenaries and terrorists” in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“Militants of illegal armed groups, in particular from Syria and Libya,” Russia said, were in the area to “directly participate in the hostilities.”
Armenia has also faced accusations of importing foreigners to fight on its behalf.
“In response to the Russian Foreign Ministry’s commentary regarding the transportation of foreign mercenaries to the [Nagorno-Karabakh] conflict area, we would like to note that we have repeatedly voiced concerns about Armenia’s widespread use of such means,” the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan asserted on Thursday. The Turkish government has also accused Armenia of hosting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist organization mostly active in Turkey and Iraq.
The number of reports of mercenaries or foreign fighters on the Armenian side is much fewer. The Kurdish outlet Rudaw published a report on Tuesday, however, claiming that Iraqi Yazidis had traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh to fight alongside the Armenians. The report cited an Armenian lawmaker.
The Yazidis endured a genocide at the hands of the Islamic State in 2014, one of dozens attempted against them, giving them reason to respond with action to reports of Syrian warfront jihadis moving into a neighboring country. The PKK intervened in the Sinjar, Iraq, Yazidi genocide against the Islamic State and remain in the region, their leaders say, to help the Yazidis establish their own militia in the event of another attempt against them.
Rostam Bakoyan, a Yezidi member of the Armenian parliament, told Rudaw that no Yazidis had died yet in battle, but “many” were wounded.
“According to Bakoyan, 90 Armenian and more than 560 Azeri soldiers have been killed in the clashes since Sunday. Azerbaijan says 10 civilians have been killed, with an additional 30 wounded but has not said how many troops have died,” Rudaw reported.
While Turkey has denied any importing of mercenaries, Erdogan asserted that Turkey would use “all means” to help Azerbaijan fight Armenia on Thursday.
“As Turkey, we will continue to support our Azerbaijani brothers with all means and with all our heart, in line with the principle of ‘two states, one nation,'” Erdogan said, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.