Questions remain over whether the men were actually sent and how many were recruited.
https://www.jpost.com-By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
FILE PHOTO: Azeri men living in Turkey wave flags of Turkey and Azerbaijan during a protest following clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 19, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER/FILE PHOTO)
Evidence grew this week that Turkey has plotted to use Syrians, many of them poor refugees who wanted to fight the Syrian regime, to fight against Armenia as part of Ankara’s attempt to hijack the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. Ankara claims to be a close ally of Baku but it wants to dump Syrians in Azerbaijan, as it has in Libya and in illegally occupied Afrin in Syria, using them to gain influence for Ankara and subvert local authorities.
The mounting evidence, including numerous Syrians who spoke to Reuters, The Guardian and others, as well as recording that were sent to us at the ‘Post,’ leaves many questions. The men may have been recruited weeks ago but it was unclear if they were sent. However social media users claim to have identified where some were deployed and others allege several have been killed. It is worth weighing these claims against denials from Baku as well as assertions by Armenia.
How did it all begin? The remarkable attempt by Ankara over the last years has been part of an agenda that sought to redirect Syrian fighters from the Free Syrian Army to become a Turkish-backed force and fight Kurdish people in Syria. Turkey claims to be fighting “terrorists” that it claims are part of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, even though there is no evidence of any terror coming from Syria. Turkey invaded Jarabulus in 2016 to stop the YPG in Manbij, and then invaded Afrin in January 2018 and Tel Abyad in October 2019. In Tel Abyad Turkey faced off against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a partly Kurdish force. It again used a pethora of small Syrian groups it had recruited. Then, in December 2019 it began to arm and train them to fight in Libya. From January to July it sent thousands to Libya, where some died and some complained they were never paid the thousands of dollars promised.
Now Ankara, saddled with these recruits who have no where to go and know they have been betrayed by promises, wants to send them to the Caucuses. Increased evidence, including recordings sent by the men, indicate they are being mobilized. Allegations include geolocations asserting some are on the ground in Azerbaijan fighting to take Nagorna-Karabakh a disputed area that Azerbaijan says is illegally occupied by Armenia. For four days Azerbaijan has been fighting Armenia with limited gains. Armenia claims that Turkey shot down one of its planes and claims it has shot down 40 Azeri drones and destroyed vehicles. Azerbaijan says it has decimated Armenian armored columns. In such a conflict it is difficult to know what is accurate.
Azerbaijan says Armenia has imported “mercenaries.” Turkey has claimed that Armenia is supported by the “Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)” which Turkey asserts is linked to the YPG. Thus Turkey’s far-right media and ruling party claims that it has a right to send Syrians to fight the YPG in Armenia, exporting the Syrian war to another land. No evidence exists of the PKK involvement in Armenia, and only slim evidence exists that Turkey’s Syrian foreign legion has actually flown into Azerbaijan to fight. The evidence that does exist is detailed below.
One account says that two Syrian sources described a group of fighters being recruited. These men were linked to the Hamza unit of the Syrian National army or SNA. They are from some villages near Aleppo. Several may have been killed in battle since September 27, reports indicate. The self-declared Armenian republic of Artsakh in Nagorna-Karabakh told the Daily Beast that “thousands of mercenary soldiers from the Middle East” had been sent by Turkey. The Daily Beast went even further and asserted a fighter linked to ISIS had been sent. This account of an “ISIS warlord” was disputed by others. The Washington Post alleges that Turkey and Russia are both presiding over “mercenary wars.”
Hussein Akoush posted on Twitter on September 29 that “Muhammad Shaalan from my town of Al Atarib was killed in Azerbaijan.” Social media users identified Horadiz in Azerbaijan as the location where a truckload of Syrian mercenaries was allegedly spotted. Some noted that it was sad to see the Syrian opposition being “used this way,” as Nate Schenkkan tweeted.
Reuters spoke to two men who said they were going to be sent to Azerbaijan on September 25. They were going to be paid $1,500 a month. One fighter had been in Afrin where Turkey’s occupation forces have been accused of rape and looting. Another militia member from Jaish al-Nukhba also allegedly would deploy to Azerbaijan with “1,000 Syrians.” Al-Ain in the UAE also reported based on Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other reports that up to 1,400 Syrians would be sent from Libya to Azerbaijan. These would be the first of 3,500 members of Ankara’s foreign legion.
Other units mentioned in dispatches include not only the Hamza unit but also recordings mention men from the Sultan Murad unit and Sultan Suleiman Shah unit, recruited and then transported from Afrin. These include fighters from the Turkmen minority in Syria who are encouraged to see the war through an ethnic lens of Turks against Armenians. Others were concerned that the Sunni fighters from Syria wouldn’t want to work with the Shi’ite Azeris and there was even a religious sermon against them going.
The Guardian said it spoke to three men in Turkish-occupied northern Syria who said that they had registered to fight. “Two brothers living in Azaz…said they were summoned to a military camp in Afrin on 13 September.” That would indicate that Turkey was planning the war in Azerbaijan in advance and prodding Baku to move more quickly. Turkey wanted to move the Syrians to Azerbaijan, perhaps for ulterior motives. Turkey has been working with Iran and Russia on deals in Syria. Some rumors have even suggested, according to sources in Azerbaijan, that Turkey could try to trade parts of Idlib to Russia in exchange for Azeri gains in Nagorna-Karabakh. To do that, Turkey would have to move the Syrians and give them a distraction. Ankara is cynical and already sent the to fight in Libya to die for an energy deal for Ankara, so it is not clear if the ruling party could conceive of something so macabre. These are rumors and conspiracies so it is impossible to verify if this is happening. Some have suggested recent regime moves in Idlib are part of the pattern. Others assert that Turkey is merely fighting the “PKK” or that it is pressuring Russia and Iran.
Azerbaijan has denied claims that any Syrians were sent. “The news of bringing fighters from Syria to Azerbaijan is fake.” The Azerbaijan statement says that Armenia has spread these rumors. However a source from Syria sent me a voice recording of a Syrian saying that other Syrians should not sign up to go to Azerbaijan. “Don’t let them come, never, the situation is not stable.” The man says that dozens have been killed and there are many injured already.” It was impossible to verify if the man was telling the truth.
There is always a fog of war. When there are competing agendas, such as what Turkey wants out of the conflict, compared to what Azerbaijan or Armenia want, or what Iran and Russia are interested in, the role of the Syrians becomes a political football. This is true of accusations that Syrian “YPG” went to Armenia or SNA. The concept of turning this conflict into a proxy war is inviting for Ankara, but no one gains in Baku or Yerevan. In the classic Russian question, “who benefits,” only Turkey seems to benefit because it can get rid of the headache of recruits it promised the world to and did not deliver. Russia may benefit by removing them from Syria so the regime can advance. Nevertheless serious experts have cast doubt on aspects of the stories, asserting, for instance, that salacious headlines often exaggerate.