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Turkish-backed Syrian fighters join the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict

Hundreds of Syrian militia fighters 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 Azerbaijan with a majority of Turkic-speaking Muslims in the escalating conflict between two former Soviet republics near the border with Russia, an area where Moscow has historically dominated.

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

Turkish authorities did not immediately comment on Moscow̵

7;s statement. But the Turkish Foreign Ministry said earlier this month that allegations of involvement in sending Syrian fighters to the Caucasus were “unfounded”.

Azerbaijani officials have also denied the use of foreign mercenaries.

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

After clashes first broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh in July, word 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 registrations.

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


Ismail Kozkun / IHA / Associated Press

A Syrian rebel involved in the deployment said fighters had been traveling there since mid-September – before the last round of clashes – in groups of up to 100 at a time. Another Syrian linked to the rebel groups also believes hundreds have disappeared. Dozens have also returned, alarmed by the fierce fighting, the person said.

Turkey has organized two weeks of ground and air military exercises in Azerbaijan since the July clashes and supplied the Azerbaijani government with drones to attack, according to Turkish officials. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has said that Turkish aviation has given his country’s military an advantage in the fighting for Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey has previously appointed Syrian fighters to pursue foreign policy goals. Earlier this year, Ankara sent about 5,000 Syrian fighters to support the internationally recognized government in Libya’s civil war, according to a June report released by the US Department of Defense.

By sending Syrians as well as deploying its own troops, Turkey has increased its influence in talks on the outcome of the conflict in the oil-rich North African country. He also opposed Russia and some Arab countries that support opponents of the UN-backed government in Tripoli.

Moscow and Ankara, which have also intervened on opposite sides of the conflict in Syria, are seeking the role of regional mediator and have used mercenaries to achieve their goals. However, Turkey’s insistence on Nagorno-Karabakh is seen in Moscow as an invasion of an area it considers firmly in its sphere of influence.

The Syrian rebel, who has been tasked with preparing spreadsheets with men hired to go to Nagorno-Karabakh, said many were attracted by monthly salaries of up to $ 2,000, a significant amount in Syria’s war-torn economy.

“Going to Libya or Azerbaijan has become normal,” said the fighter, who added that he was briefly considering registering on his own because he was struggling to support his family.

Conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Behind the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh

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

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised 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 to them [to Libya]. “

Russia has deployed private Russian military executives as well as Syrian police to support its favorite in the Libyan battle, Khalifa Haftar, according to European and Libyan officials.

Turkey has backed Syrian rebels who have been fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the early days of the war, including at one point running a program with the United States to train and equip the rebels.

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

“No one but Turkey supports us,” said a rebel commander. “Just as Turkey has strengthened and supported us in Syria … why not stay with it and help it elsewhere?”

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

“They’re sending us to their deaths,” the man said. “But in the end, we make sure to provide bread for our families.”

The rebel, who said he was waiting to be stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh, plans to move from Syria to Turkey, where he says charter flights transport the fighters to Azerbaijan.

A Syrian man who has long worked with rebel groups and who is in direct contact with two Syrians fighting in Azerbaijan said he was told that casualties among Syrian fighters were rising rapidly.

“They say it’s hell,” said the man, who added that about 200 have already asked to return. “Those who went there and were not killed or injured in any way are an 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 bend in muddy trenches reminiscent of World War I.

Armenia says 429 of its soldiers have been killed in fighting so far. Azerbaijan has not disclosed how many of its troops have been killed.

On Tuesday, officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said Azerbaijani forces had bombed civilian targets. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani government said Ganja, the second largest city in Azerbaijan, was the site for the second time. Azerbaijan’s defense ministry says its forces are abiding by the ceasefire.

Write to Raja Abdulrahim at raja.abdulrahim@wsj.com

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