Turkey's use of Islamist fighters in proxy wars, as manifested over the last years in Syria and in Libya, is being repeated on the mountains of the Caucasus region. Fierce clashes broke out Sept. 27 between Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed Armenian-speaking Republic of Artsakh in the still unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Turkey has declared its unequivocal support for Azerbaijan.
"I condemn Armenia once again for attacking Azerbaijani lands," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a Sept. 27 symposium. "Turkey continues to stand with the friendly and brotherly Azerbaijan with all its facilities and heart." Turkey supplies Azerbaijan with military intelligence, weapons and training, while Turkish military personnel and Turkish F-16 jets are present in the territory of Azerbaijan. Now there are multiple reports that Turkey has been also dispatching Islamist fighters from Syria to the Nagorno-Karabakh warzone.
Turkey aims to extend its strategic influence in the Caucasus by aiding its ally Azerbaijan, which it also perceives as a brotherly ethnic state – Turkey uses the slogan "one nation, two states" for Turkey and Azerbaijan. Turkey also wants to eliminate the influence of Armenia, a historical rival of Turkey, and to exert pressure on Russia with the transport of Islamist militants, in the context of the peculiar Russian-Turkish relation that has unfolded after 2016.
Reports and evidence for the transfer of Syrian Islamist fighters have appeared in various media outlets, including well-known newspapers, such as The Times, the Guardian, the French Le Monde and media networks, such as Reuters, CNN, France24, Der Spiegel, Al Ahram Weekly, Sky News Arabia, BBC Arabic, Al Arabiya, Ahval News, the Arab Weekly, JesrPress, the Middle East Monitor, research centers as the Middle East Institute, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based anti-Assad Syrian information network. Even Turkish media, such as the AKP-sympathetic Yeni Akit and Gazete Manifesto, refer to the deployment of Syrian rebel fighters to Azerbaijan.
"Turkey provides economic support to more than 70,000 fighters," said the Free Syrian Army's General Ziyad Haji Ubeyd "... The fighters are going to fight in different places to make a living and advance common interests with Turkey. We need to repay our debt against the support that Turkey provides us."
The deployment of Syrian fighters in Azerbaijan has set off alarm bells with French President Macron, Russia's Foreign Ministry, and U.S. Defense Department officials.
"We now have information which indicates that Syrian fighters from jihadist groups have transited through Gaziantep (south-eastern Turkey) to reach the Nagorno-Karabakh theatre of operations," French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters Oct. 1. "It is a very serious new fact, which changes the situation."
Turkey's dispatching of militants to a conflict zone creates a risk to NATO. "A red line has been crossed, which is unacceptable," Macron added. "I urge all NATO partners to face up to the behavior of a NATO member."
Encouraged by the inactivity of the European Union which did not impose any sanctions on Turkey for its aggression against EU-members Greece and Cyprus, Turkey aims to achieve an easy show of influence. Concerning NATO, Turkey also aspires to maintain the notion that it could potentially function as a frontline state against Russian influence in the Caucasus, a region strategically located on oil and gas pipeline routes.
"Reports about dozens of flights between Turkey and Azerbaijan to transport hundreds of Syrian mercenaries are proven and correct," a U.S. Defense Department official confirmed to Sky News Arabia. He warned against Turkish and Russian military intervention in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh by "sending mercenaries and weapons and providing intelligence support. In an official statement the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that Syrian and Libyan fighters were being sent to the region and called on the countries involved to prevent the use of "foreign terrorists and mercenaries."
Initial claims by the Armenian side for 4,000 fighters sent to Azerbaijan are an exaggeration and cannot be confirmed. Still, Syrian fighters are currently active in Azerbaijan, although they number in the hundreds, not thousands. As early as September 30, three days in the fighting, there were reports for at least three Syrian fighters dead on the warfront. Selected names include Qassem Mustafa Al-Jazmour from Deir ez-Zor, member of Sultan Murad group, Muhammad Shaalan from Al Atarib, Ahmad Farazat and Talha from Kafar Halab village, west of Aleppo. As of Oct. 1, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the deaths of at least 72 Syrian fighters in the previous two days of fighting, most of them of Turkmen ethnic origin. Islamist militants, members of the Sultan Murad Division based on Syrians of Turkmen origin, revealed in an interview to German magazine Der Spiegel that they were fighting on the front against Armenia. An Oct. 3 video showing Arabic-speaking men listening to the chants of the Turkish-backed Syrian Sultan Murad division was taken at the Azerbaijani Horadiz military base. Recordings of Islamist mercenaries from the Middle East fighting on the Azerbaijani side have also surfaced. According to Ahval media network, General Ziyad Haji Ubeyd, commander of the Free Syrian Army, claimed they have sent fighters to Azerbaijan. Kurdish sources from Afrin refer to Syrian Islamists members of the jihadist group Jabhat al-Shamiya (Levant Front).
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 1,000 Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries were sent to Azerbaijan by private Turkish security companies. Most "went to Azerbaijan under the pretext of 'defending the national cause,' while the Turkish-backed Arab factions refused to send their fighters to Azerbaijan," SOHR sources added. Factions in the opposition Syrian National Army with Turkmen roots, such as Sultan Murad and Sulaiman Shah, have sent fighters to Azerbaijan at the behest of Ankara.
The Syrian fighters were recruited initially as security personnel by a private Turkish security company as border guards in Azerbaijan, according to the Guardian. According to a Turkish-based source, the Syrian fighters are acting independently and do not belong to the ranks of the Syrian National Army. Private contractors based in Turkey have been hiring Syrians for work in Azerbaijan since August: "They have gathered individuals, some civilians and former fighters, to train them as security guards with a monthly payment of $600. The first group who completed its training has been already dispatched," according to the Turkish source.
Azerbaijan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the allegations of recruiting Syrian fighters attributing them to a misinformation campaign. The Azeri side still evokes the Islamic solidarity card, accusing the Armenian side of "Islamophobia" and actions that equal an "insult to the Islamic world." Azerbaijan has also accused Armenia of deploying Armenian-origin fighters from Syria and other Middle East countries.
Reports and data from various sources increasingly demonstrate the strategic deployment of Syrian militants, both Islamists and typical mercenaries, on the warzone of the Caucasus. This is another manifestation of Turkey's strategic use of foreign fighters after its interference in Syria, Iraq and Libya, this time at its backyard in the Caucasus.
In essence, Erdogan's tactical deployment of Syrian militants into the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an attempt to regain some of Turkey's lost credibility after the diplomatic and military debacles in the Mediterranean. Turkish interference in multiple fronts is receding in Libya and in Syria, while Turkey faced the diplomatic network of Egypt and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean. By meddling in another conflict, this time in the Caucasus, Turkey wants to project regional power. Turkey's continuous interferences in multiple countries pose a direct challenge to the security interests of NATO – either producing internal tensions, as with Greece, or leading to instability on NATO's strategic periphery, as in Libya and now in Caucasus. NATO needs to find a way to get Turkey, a member state, to adhere to the alliance's principles or consider the utility of Turkey's very membership.
Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in History, Ph.D. in Geopolitics) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics, University of Athens.
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