Turkish-backed Syrian fighters join Armenian-Azeri conflict

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Hundreds of fighters from Turkey’s allied Syrian militias have joined the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, with hundreds more preparing to leave, two Syrians involved say in the effort.

Turkey quickly declared its support for Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, whose people speak a Turkish language, in the escalation of the conflict between two former Soviet republics near the border with Russia – a region in which Moscow has historically been the dominant influence.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu raised the issue of Middle East fighters on Monday in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar. And on Tuesday, Russia warned of a possible “transfer of terrorist fighters” from the Middle East to Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkish officials did not immediately comment on Moscow’s statement. But Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said earlier this month that accusations it was involved in sending Syrian fighters to the Caucasus were “baseless”.

Azeri officials have also denied using foreign mercenaries.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought intermittently for three decades over Nagorno-Karabakh, a province populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. A truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan negotiated by Russia on Saturday failed to stop the fighting, with each side accusing the other of violations. Officials on both sides said dozens of civilians have been killed and dozens injured since the conflict began last month.

After skirmishes first broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh in July, rumors spread among Syrian rebel factions that Turkey was recruiting fighters to fight in the enclave, four people with direct knowledge said. inscriptions.

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

Photo:
Ismail Cozkun / IHA / Associated Press

A Syrian rebel involved in deployments said fighters had been going there since mid-September – before the last round of clashes – in groups of 100 at a time. Another Syrian with links to rebel groups also estimated that hundreds of people were missing. Dozens of people also returned, alarmed by the fierce fighting, the person said.

Turkey organized two weeks of military ground and air exercises in Azerbaijan after the July skirmishes and provided the Azeri government with attack drones, according to Turkish officials. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said the Turkish plane gave his country’s army an advantage in the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey has already enlisted Syrian fighters to advance its foreign policy goals. Earlier this year, Ankara sent around 5,000 Syrian fighters to support the internationally recognized government in the Libyan civil war, according to a report released in June by the US Department of Defense.

By sending in the Syrians and deploying its own troops, Turkey has increased its influence in negotiations over the outcome of the conflict in the oil-rich North African country. He also disagreed with Russia and some Arab states who support opponents of the UN-backed government in Tripoli.

Moscow and Ankara, which have also intervened on both sides of the conflict in Syria, each aspire to the role of regional broker and have used mercenaries to advance their objectives. However, Turkey’s assertion over Nagorno-Karabakh was seen in Moscow as an intrusion into an area it saw as firmly within its sphere of influence.

The Syrian rebel, who has been tasked with preparing spreadsheets of men enlisting to travel to Nagorno-Karabakh, said many were drawn to monthly salaries of up to $ 2,000 – a significant sum in the war-ravaged Syrian economy.

“Going to Libya or Azerbaijan has become a normal thing,” said the fighter, who added that he briefly considered enrolling himself because he was struggling to support his family. .

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict

Behind the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh

“People don’t care who they fight or who they fight against anymore, now all they ask is money,” he said. “Wherever there is money, they will go.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hailed 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. “There is a spiritual dimension for them in going [to Libya]. »

Russia has deployed private military contractors from Russia as well as Syrian militiamen to support its favorite in the Libyan struggle, Khalifa Haftar, according to EU and Libyan officials.

Turkey has supported Syrian rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the early days of the war, including at one point jointly managing a program with the United States to train and equip the rebels.

But after the United States and other Western and Arab allies withdrew support from the hesitant rebels, Turkey became their last benefactor. It still provides salaries to fighters from various allied rebel factions under the umbrella of what they call the National Army.

“No one other than Turkey is supporting us,” said a rebel commander. “So just as Turkey has strengthened us and supported us in Syria… why shouldn’t we be supporting her and helping her elsewhere?”

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

“We are being sent to death,” the man said. “But at the end of the day, we care about providing bread for our families.”

The rebel, who said he was awaiting deployment to Nagorno-Karabakh, plans to move from Syria to Turkey, where he said chartered flights were transporting the fighters to Azerbaijan.

A Syrian who has long worked with rebel groups and who has been in direct contact with two Syrian men fighting in Azerbaijan said he was told that losses among Syrian fighters were increasing rapidly.

“They say it’s hell,” said the man, who added that as many as 200 people have already asked to return. “Those who have been there and have not been killed or injured in one way or another are the exception. Some fighters already want to come back. ”

Officials on both sides have described an extremely brutal conflict, in which civilians were hit by artillery fire and airstrikes, while soldiers had to curl up in muddy trenches reminiscent of World War I.

Armenia said that so far, 429 of its soldiers have been killed in the fighting. Azerbaijan has not disclosed the number of its soldiers killed.

Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said on Tuesday that Azeri forces shelled civilian sites. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani government said Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city, had been targeted a second time. The Azeri Defense Ministry said its forces were respecting the truce.

Write to Raja Abdulrahim in [email protected]

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