Hundreds of fighters from Syrian militias allied with Turkey have joined the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, and hundreds more are preparing to leave, according to two Syrians involved in the effort.
Turkey quickly declared its support for Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, whose people speak a Turkish language, as the conflict between two former Soviet republics escalated near the border with Russia, an area where Moscow has historically been the l dominant influence.
On Monday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu raised the issue of Middle East fighters in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar. And on Tuesday, Russia warned of the possible “transfer of terrorist fighters”
Turkish officials did not immediately comment on the Moscow statement. But the Turkish foreign ministry said earlier this month that the allegations it was involved in sending Syrian fighters to the Caucasus were “baseless”.
Azerbaijani officials also denied using foreign mercenaries.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought intermittently for three decades in Nagorno-Karabakh, a province populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians but recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan. A Russian-mediated truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan 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 broke out last month.
After the skirmishes that first broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh in July, rumors spread among Syrian rebel factions that Turkey was recruiting fighters to go and fight in the enclave, according to four people with direct knowledge of the inscriptions.
A Syrian rebel involved in the deployments said fighters had been there since mid-September, before the final round of fighting, in groups of up to 100 at a time. Another Syrian with ties to rebel groups also estimates that hundreds have left. Dozens also returned, alarmed by the fierce fighting, that person said.
Turkey staged two weeks of ground and air military exercises in Azerbaijan following the July skirmishes and provided the Azerbaijani government with strike drones, according to Turkish officials. Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev said the Turkish plane gave his country’s military an edge in the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting.
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 June report released by the US Department of Defense.
By sending Syrians, in addition to deploying its own troops, Turkey has increased its influence in negotiations on the outcome of the conflict in the oil-rich North African country. It has also come into conflict with Russia and some Arab states supporting opponents of the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
Moscow and Ankara, which have also intervened on opposite sides of the conflict in Syria, each aspire to the role of regional power mediator and have used mercenaries to further their goals. Turkey’s assertiveness about Nagorno-Karabakh, however, was seen in Moscow as an intrusion into an area it considered firmly within its sphere of influence.
The Syrian rebel, who was tasked with preparing spreadsheets of men enlisting to go to Nagorno-Karabakh, said many were lured by monthly salaries of up to $ 2,000, a significant sum in the war-torn economy of the country. Syria.
“Going to Libya or Azerbaijan has become a normal thing,” said the fighter, who added that he briefly considered signing up himself as he fights to support his family.
Behind the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh
“People no longer care about who they are fighting or against, now they just ask for the money,” he said. “Wherever there is money it will go.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised the Syrians fighting in Libya under the supervision of Turkish military advisers. “These brothers who are with us consider this union an honor for themselves,” he said in February. “There is a spiritual dimension for them to go [to Libya]. “
Russia has deployed private military contractors from Russia and Syrian militiamen to support its favorite in the Libyan struggle, Khalifa Haftar, according to European and Libyan officials.
Turkey has supported Syrian rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the early days of the war, including at one point jointly conducting a program with the United States to train and equip the rebels.
But after the United States and other Western and Arab allies received the support of the faltering rebels, Turkey became the last remaining benefactor. It still provides salaries to fighters in various allied rebel factions under the auspices of what they call the National Army.
“Nobody except Turkey supports us,” said a rebel commander. “So just like Turkey has strengthened and supported us in Syria … why shouldn’t we support and help it anywhere else?”
Last month, a 38-year-old Syrian rebel enlisted to fight in Azerbaijan, motivated by the promised monthly salary of $ 1,500.
“We were sent to die,” the man said. “But in the end we are concerned with providing bread for our families.”
The rebel, who said he is waiting to be deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh, plans to move from Syria to Turkey, where he said charter flights carry the fighters to Azerbaijan.
A Syrian who has worked extensively with rebel groups and who has been in direct contact with two Syrian men fighting in Azerbaijan said he was told the casualties among Syrian fighters are increasing rapidly.
“They say it’s hell,” said the man, who added that as many as 200 have already asked to return. “Those who went there and were not killed or injured in any way are the exception. Some of the fighters already want to return. “
Officials on both sides described an extremely brutal conflict, in which civilians were hit by artillery fire and air strikes, while soldiers had to crouch in muddy trenches reminiscent of World War I.
Armenia said 429 of its soldiers have been killed in the fighting so far. Azerbaijan did not disclose how many of its troops were killed.
On Tuesday, Nagorno-Karabakh officials said Azerbaijani forces bombed civilian sites. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani government has said that Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city, has been targeted for the second time. The Azerbaijani defense ministry said its forces are respecting the truce.
—David Gauthier-Villars in Istanbul and Ann Simmons in Moscow contributed to this article.
Write to Raja Abdulrahim at email@example.com
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