“They went to break through the borders,” said Mahmoud Najar’s cousin, a 38-year-old Syrian fighter. The cousin, interviewed by phone, said Nijar’s body in the cold truck was marked with the number 12.
Turkey has denied sending Syrian fighters to help Azerbaijan, its longtime ally. But relatives of two fighters – Najar and his nephew – said in interviews that monthly salaries were promised by Turkish-backed militias and that the fighters had flown to Azerbaijan from southern Turkey.
In recent months, Turkey has been trying to project its military power into much of its neighborhoods with renewed vigor. Turkey̵
Civilian casualties have risen as cities in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave on Azerbaijani territory, are accumulating with an increasing frequency of weapons acquired by various suppliers, including Turkey, Russia and Israel. In a statement Friday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michel Bachelet cited reports that at least 53 civilians had been killed since fighting broke out last month, including children.
Journalists on Azerbaijani territory on the edge of Nagorno-Karabakh report on rocket and artillery attacks on at least three cities. Azerbaijan’s attack on Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, involves the use of Israeli-made cluster munitions, according to a report by Amnesty International researchers last week examining ammunition footage.
The group, responding to allegations at the start of the fighting that Armenia had fired missiles at the Azerbaijani city of Ganja, said it had confirmed Armenia’s use of a Russian missile artillery system, but was unable to determine what was aimed. Azerbaijan said on Sunday that a subsequent attack on Ganja had killed nine civilians. Armenia’s defense ministry called the allegation “absolutely untrue” and accused Azerbaijani forces of shelling Nagorno-Karabakh.
The United States, along with France and Russia, issued a statement on October 5 saying that the “disproportionate nature of such attacks” posed an “unacceptable threat to the region’s stability.”
On Friday, Russia’s foreign ministry hosted ceasefire talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia aimed at gaining at least a short break from fighting and allowing warring parties to exchange prisoners and the bodies of the dead. The truce began on Saturday, but a day later Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of violating new attacks.
Ibrahim Kalin, an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, expressed doubts that a pause in the fighting would be a prelude to a truce. “Yes, for the ceasefire, but the ceasefire must be sustainable,” he said in an interview with Al Jazeera news channel. “The only way to make it sustainable is to talk about the occupation of Armenia [Azerbaijani] lands. “
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been simmering since the late 1980s, when Armenia and Azerbaijan were republics of the Soviet Union. The ethnic Armenian population of the enclave tried to unite with Armenia and declared independence from Azerbaijan. The war broke out after the collapse of the Soviet Union, killing up to 30,000 people before a ceasefire was declared in 1994.
The conflict has erupted several times since then, including in 2016 and in July. The latest fighting, which began on September 27, is the worst outbreak in decades.
The deployment of Syrian mercenaries echoed the pattern of Libya, where Turkey and Russia are fighting on opposite sides of the civil war. Most Syrian fighters in Libya are hired by Turkey, which sponsors militias in Syria opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. A Kremlin-backed security firm operating in Libya, for its part, has brought in Syrian fighters allied with Assad.
Turkish authorities presented their country’s stretched foreign commitments – in northern Iraq, Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan – as part of Turkey’s zealous promotion of its security and energy interests. However, Erdogan’s critics say there is also an attempt to divert attention from his government’s internal vulnerabilities, including a sharp economic downturn, and boost domestic support among his nationalist allies.
Russia has run a fine diplomatic line between Azerbaijan and Armenia, selling weapons to both for years. Armenia, which spends about a quarter of Azerbaijan’s defense, will also benefit from Russia’s protection under the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance between six former Soviet states that does not include Azerbaijan.
The government of President Vladimir Putin has given mixed signals as to whether it will intervene, saying that Russia will fulfill its treaty obligations to protect the right Armenia, but that its obligations do not extend to fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Moscow’s strongest words so far have been to condemn the use of Azerbaijan by Syrian mercenaries. Russia’s foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, warned last week that the region could become a launching pad for Islamist militants to enter Russia.
Speaking to members of his political party on Wednesday, Erdogan again denied that Turkey was sending Syrian fighters to the war. “They have jobs in their own land. They will not go there, “he said, adding that” Turkey is ready to give any support to our Azerbaijani brothers and sisters and we will do it again. “
Syrian mercenaries recruited by various militias, backed by Turkey, spoke in detail from the front lines depicting a deadly battle.
Mahmoud Najjar’s cousin said he and his family had received updates on the fighting from Syrians traveling with Najjar’s company, which had international telephone lines. The cousin spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering mercenary recruiters in Syria.
Nijar, who once worked at a textile factory in Aleppo, was recently hired as a security guard at a local court in Marea, northern Syria. With two children trying to make ends meet, he noticed when other young Syrian men recruited from Turkey to fight in Libya returned with cash. When Nijar’s 18-year-old nephew offered him the opportunity to fight in Azerbaijan for $ 2,000 a month, he took the chance, his cousin said.
“Money is the only reason,” the cousin said. “Who wants to go to Azerbaijan?” Who even knows where Azerbaijan is? “
Nijar, his nephew, and dozens of their comrades seemed unprepared for what lay ahead.
They flew from southern Turkey, the cousin said. On their first day in Azerbaijan, they were given uniforms with light green camouflage shades.
The next day they were sent to the front. “The area was heavily fortified by Armenians,” the cousin said. The Syrian mercenaries were largely alone in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by languages, history and complaints that they did not understand. They were accompanied by three Azerbaijani leaders.
They spent nine hours walking in the mountains, the cousin said. Nijar was sent to clear a building, but was killed by a sniper bullet that ripped off the top of his head, according to a cousin who provided a picture of Nijar’s body to The Washington Post, provided it was not published. Nijar’s nephew was killed the same day.
The bodies sat where they fell at night because it was too dangerous to pull them out.
Hurshudyan reports from Moscow and Zakaria from Doha, Qatar.