From Nagorno-Karabakh to Libya: Syrian mercenaries for hire?

Bassel Oudat , Tuesday 3 Nov 2020

Reports of Syrian mercenaries being sent to Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya by Turkey have raised questions about the country becoming a reservoir of fighters-for-hire

Women take refuge in a bomb shelter in Stepanakert, the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Fighting over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh entered sixth week on Sunday, with Armenian and Azerbaijani forces blaming each other for new attacks. AP

Media reports said this week that Turkey has been sending Syrian combatants to support Azerbaijan amid the escalating fighting with Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Thousands of Syrians from the Syrian National Army (SNA), the main umbrella group for Turkey-backed Syrian armed groups, are alleged to have gone to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh in return for financial incentives.

Accusations were also made some months ago against Turkey on the grounds that it had sent in Syrian fighters-for-hire to Libya to support the pro-Turkey government of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj. Such reports raise questions as to whether Syrian combatants have now become mercenaries for hire in many parts of the world.

However, the media apparently exaggerated the reports of the Syrian mercenaries as part of the conflict between regional and international forces in the region. Libya is packed with mercenaries on all sides, as confirmed by former UN special envoy to the country Ghassan Salamé. “There is a large number of non-Libyans fighting on the frontlines,” Salamé said. “There are combatants from more than 10 countries,” among them Syria.

It is unknown how many Syrians are fighting in Libya, even though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has admitted that there are Syrians alongside Turkish troops in Libya supporting Al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

The GNA is fighting against troops led by Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA). Erdogan said the Syrian fighters were training troops and that Ankara had signed an agreement for security and military training at the request of the Libyan GNA.

The Defence Ministry of the interim Syrian government denied sending any troops or military formations to Libya, only saying that auxiliary elements of the SNA had gone to the country accompanied by Turkish military consultants as part of a logistical field mission and not for combat purposes.

They were establishing military bases in Tripoli and surrounding areas, as per the memorandum of understanding signed by Libya and Turkey, and to facilitate communications with Libyan tribal elements, it said, adding that there were only some 200 such auxiliary elements.

In Azerbaijan, accusations of involvement in the conflict against Syrian fighters began to circulate a month before the fighting began in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Euphrates News Agency, based in Amsterdam and close to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which is banned in Turkey, and the Hawar News Agency, which is linked to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, considered the Syrian arm of the PKK, have reported that Turkey has been recruiting “mercenary groups” of Syrians in Idlib in northwest Syria to fight in Azerbaijan.

Armenia’s ambassador to Moscow said Turkey had sent some 4,000 fighters from northern Syria to Azerbaijan, a claim that was denied by Hikmaat Hajiyev, assistant to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

“Rumours claiming Syrian armed fighters have been sent to Azerbaijan is another provocation by the Armenian side and is utter nonsense,” Hajiyev said. His country’s Ministry of Defence also denied the allegations, accusing what it described as “separatists” of recruiting “mercenaries of Armenian ethnicity” from the Middle East to fight in their ranks.

After more than two weeks of Armenian statements and unconfirmed Kurdish reports, the UK Guardian newspaper and Reuters news agency reported that Syrian combatants had been sent to Azerbaijan to guard facilities but not to fight. Some reports later stated that there were 1,000 fighters, while others projected more than 5,000 combatants.

None of the reports mentioned their sources of information, adding that they could not independently confirm the figures. The German television channel DW attempted to connect with Syrian opposition figures and activists in Turkey to confirm the reports, but the sources largely refused to comment.

The parties involved have denied such media reports. Turkey’s Defence Ministry has denied using Syrian fighters even though Turkey supports Azerbaijan. Some factions of the SNA also denied sending fighters to Azerbaijan, saying that the role of Syrian combatants was to fight the Syrian regime only and not to have a role outside Syria.

Mustafa Sijri, a Syrian opposition figure, denied the reports that Syrians had gone to Azerbaijan but said Turkey was now “the only hope” of those opposing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad since he had taken back most of the territory controlled by the Syrian opposition with Russian and Iranian support.

 “The opposition’s alliance with Turkey takes different forms,” Sijri said. “It is truly a shared destiny,” even if was unlikely that “Turkey will become the strategic choice of Syrian youth.”

Kristian Brakel, director of the German Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Istanbul, which is close to Germany’s Green Party, said that “the transformation of the opposition groups and the diminishing of revolutionary ideas is due to the situation in Syria,” apparently confirming ideas spread by Russia and others that the issues were not about political ideals.

Syrian opposition media sources said that some 30 pro-Turkey fighters had been killed in Azerbaijan and that 320 Syrian fighters had been transported to Azerbaijan by Turkish security firms but not on combat missions.

It seems that the players are manipulating the issue of the Syrian combatants to the full in the media and that some regional and international actors are trying to take advantage of rumours that Syrian fighters have become international mercenaries by exaggerating their numbers and missions. These actors are also themselves trying to fight Turkey using Syrian combatants as pawns and the weakest link in the Middle East’s wars.

Some human-rights groups and political parties say that Turkey could benefit from Syrian mercenaries because losing them in battle would mean little to it. Any gains by the mercenaries in overseas battles could also embolden the image of the Turkish regime.

Other parties, however, state that Turkey does not need a few hundred poorly trained Syrian fighters since it is the home of the second-strongest army in NATO after the US and ranks ninth in the world and first in the Middle East with 735,000 soldiers and 1.4 million conscripts a year.

Some analysts say that Syrian young men are willing to join Turkey’s battles overseas for financial reasons since the conflict in Syria has impoverished them over the past decade. SNA officials, however, argue that communities in northwest Syria strongly reject Syrians going overseas to fight and have put substantial pressure on combatants not to leave the country.

It is difficult to confirm the presence of Syrian fighters in Azerbaijan or their possible numbers. It is also difficult to know if they are on combat or logistical missions, and if they are individual cases or parts of an organised drive to create trans-border mercenaries.

It is not difficult, however, to connect this issue with regional and international conflicts since many regional countries are fighting each other either directly or through proxies and each is using middlemen and combatants to further its goals.

All the players are aiming to take advantage of the situation in the region, and hundreds of thousands of fighters, desperate to overthrow the Syrian regime, are an easy target for any regional power that gives them hope for improving their lives.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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