Turkish-backed Syrian fighters join Armenian-Azeri conflict

Hundreds of Syrian militias aligned with Turkey have joined the fight between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed enclave of Azerbaijan-Karambakh, and hundreds more are preparing to leave, according to the two Syrians involved in the effort.

Turkey quickly announced its support for the Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, whose people speak an Ottoman language in a growing conflict between two former Soviet republics near the border with Russia – a region in which Moscow has historically been a major influence .

On Monday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigui raised the issue of Middle East fighters in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Hulsi Akar. And on Tuesday, Russia warned of a possible “transfer of terrorist fighters” from the Middle East to Nagorno-Karbakh.

Turkish officials did not immediately comment on Moscow’s statement. But Turkey’s foreign ministry said earlier this month that it was involved in sending Syrian fighters to the Caucasus.

Azeri officials have also denied using foreign mercenaries.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have been continuously fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh for three decades, a province that is populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians but is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan. A dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, brokered by Russia on Saturday, has failed to stop the fight, with each side accusing the other of violations. Officials on both sides said that dozens of civilians had been killed and scores injured since the clashes last month.

After the skirmishes in Nagorno-Karbakh in July, it spread among Syrian rebel factions that Turkey was preparing a list of fighters to fight in the enclave, according to four people with direct knowledge of the sign-up.

The Azeri government has said that Ganja was targeted for the second time despite the ceasefire on Tuesday.


Ismail Cozkun / IHA / Associated Press

A Syrian rebel involved in the deployment said that the fighters had been traveling since mid-September – ahead of the latest round of conflict in groups of up to 100 at a time. Another Syrian, along with rebel groups, estimated that hundreds had left. Dozens of people also returned, terrified of the fierce battle, the man said.

According to Turkish officials, Turkey conducted a two-week land and air military exercise in Azerbaijan following the skirmishes in July and supplies to the Azeri government. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has said that Turkish aircraft gave his country’s army an edge in the Nagorno-Karabakh battle.

Turkey has enlisted the first Syrian combatants to pursue its foreign policy objectives. Earlier this year, according to a June report released by the US Department of Defense, Ankara dispatched about 5,000 Syrian combatants to support the internationally recognized government in the Libyan civil war.

By sending Syrian people as well as deploying their own troops, Turkey extended its influence in negotiations over the outcome of the conflict in the oil-rich North African country. It also positioned itself with Russia and some Arab states, which support opponents of the UN-backed government in Tripoli.

Moscow and Ankara, which also intervened on opposite sides of the conflict in Syria, aspired to the role of each regional power broker and used mercenaries to pursue their goals. However, Turkish assertiveness over Nagorno-Karabakh has been seen as an intrusion into Moscow in an area it has strongly believed in its sphere of influence.

Syrian rebels, who have been accused of preparing a spreadsheet of men to be recruited to visit Nagorno-Karbakh, said many were lured by monthly salaries of up to $ 2,000 – into Syria’s war-wrecking economy. A significant amount.

“Moving to Libya or Azerbaijan has become a normal thing,” said the fighter, who said he considered signing himself as he struggles to support his family.

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict

Behind the Battle in Nagorno-Karbakh

“People no longer care who they are fighting with or against, now all they ask is money,” he said. “Wherever there is money they will go.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has praised the Syrians fighting in Libya under the supervision of Turkish military advisers. “These brothers who are with us consider this solidarity an honor for themselves,” he said in February. “He has a spiritual dimension to go to [to Libya]. ”

Russia has deployed private military contractors as well as Syrian militias from Russia to return their favorites to the Battle of Libya, the Khalifa Haftar, according to European and Libyan officials.

Turkey has supported Syrian rebels fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad since the early days of the war, with a program underway with the US to jointly train and equip the rebels at one point.

But after the US and other Western and Arab allies gained support from the staggering rebels, Turkey became their last surviving beneficiary. It still provides salaries to fighters in various rebel groups they call the National Army.

“No one, but Turkey is supporting us”, a rebel commander said. “So as Turkey strengthened us and supported us in Syria … why shouldn’t we stand with it and help in some other place?”

Last month, a 38-year-old Syrian rebel signed to fight in Azerbaijan, driven by a monthly salary of $ 1,500.

“We are being sent to our deaths,” the man said. “But in the end we care about providing bread for our families.”

The rebel, who said he was waiting to be deployed to Nagorno-Karbakh, planned to cross from Syria to Turkey, where he said chartered flights carried the fighters to Azerbaijan.

A Syrian who has long worked with rebel groups and who is in direct contact with the two Syrians fighting in Azerbaijan said they have been told that casualties among Syrian fighters are increasing rapidly.

“They say it’s hell,” said the man, who said that more than 200 have already asked to return. “Those who have gone there and have not been killed or injured in any way are the exception. Some fighters want to come back already. ”

Authorities on both sides have described an extremely brutal conflict, in which civilians have been affected by artillery fire and air strikes, while soldiers have to descend into mud mines in memory of World War I.

Armenia has said that 429 of its soldiers were killed in the fighting so far. Azerbaijan has not revealed how many of its soldiers have been killed.

On Tuesday, authorities in Nagorno-Karbakh said Ezeri forces bombed civilian sites. Meanwhile, the Azeri government said that Ganza, the second largest city in Azerbaijan, was targeted for the second time. The Azeri Ministry of Defense stated that its forces are following the truss.

Write Raja Abdullerim at [email protected]

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