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DECEMBER 2020

Turkish-backed Militants Were Preparing To Fight In Nagorno-Karabakh From At Least July

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Turkish-backed Militants Were Preparing To Fight In Nagorno-Karabakh From At Least July

ILLUSTRATIVE IMAGE

Based on the article released by observers.france24.com

Since the end of September, the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia for control over Nagorno-Karabakh has raged despite the ceasefire agreements established in early and mid October.

Several videos show the presence and involvement of Syrian mercenaries, recruited and deployed by Turkey, to fight alongside the Azerbaijani army.

The Turkish and Azerbaijani authorities categorically deny their involvement in these recruitments, despite the testimonies of several Syrian fighters collected by international media.

At least four videos geotagged by journalists and specialists in geolocation attest to the presence of Syrian fighters dispatched to the front in the Azerbaijani enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

To testify that all of this pre-planned far in advance, a video shared since September 25th by Telegram channels shows a training camp for Syrian fighters preparing to leave for Azerbaijan.

Young mercenaries can be heard discussing the Aleppo or Idlib campaign in Arabic with a northwest Syrian accent, according to local journalists.

Using elements in the excerpt, the surfer “Obretix”, a geolocation specialist, determined the location of the footage. It is a military camp near the village of Hawar Kilis, not far from the Turkish border in northern Syria, which was formed by the Free Syrian Army in 2016.

The factions in place in Hawar Kilis had already participated in the Turkish military operation Euphrates Shield, carried out in north-western Syria in the spring of 2017 against both Bashar al-Assad’s government and ISIS. As such the Syrian Arab Army was fighting against both Turkey and the terrorists.

On September 27, another video emerged on Syrian social media.

It shows a convoy of 4x4s with Syrian fighters standing there, encouraged, in Turkish, by locals and the author of the video.

The fighters brandish their assault rifles and chant:

“[The prophet] Muhammad [will] always be our guide!”, A battle cry characteristic of the battalions of the Syrian National Army (ANS), of which several factions were part of the ‘Free Syrian Army (ASL, a coalition of armed Syrian rebel groups that formed in 2011 to fight the Syrian regime.

Internet users and media specializing in geolocation have managed to find the place where this first video was shot thanks to visual elements: a boulevard in the city of Horadiz in southern Azerbaijan, located 4 km from the Iranian border.

Another video, which was picked up on October 3 by local Aleppo news pages, was filmed by a Syrian mercenary for his colleagues in Syria.

A link was established between the combatants present in this extract with the division of Sultan Murad, a division of the Syrian National Army with Turkmen origins. In the background of the video, one can hear folk music praising this same division.

The author invites his mates to dance and pose for the video. They then encourage the rest of the fighters who remained in Syria to volunteer:

“You are welcome, join us for our fun together against Armenia!”

The latter say, all smiles, to the camera. Some of them wear military uniforms and assault rifles.

The fourth video, shot by a fighter from the Hamza division, affiliated with the al-Farouq brigade (created in 2011), around October 3 and circulating on social networks since October 10, shows the bodies of soldiers Armenians lying on the ground.

“Thank God, here is their booty and their ammunition. God will make us triumph over every pig and every disbeliever,” he announces, advancing among the bodies.

Bellingcat collective journalist Alexander McKeever geolocated the scene: it takes place near Marjan, a village in southern Azerbaijan, near the Iranian border, under Azerbaijani control. Everything that “investigative website” Bellingcat claims should be taken with a massive grain of salt, but this time it appears factual.

Although Syrian fighters widely post videos of their involvement in the conflict on social media, the Azeri and Turkish defense ministries categorically deny their presence in Nagorno-Karabakh.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), at least 134 Syrian mercenaries were killed in Azerbaijan as of October 18, including 92 who were repatriated.

The same source claims that at least 2,050 mercenaries have been transported from Syria since the start of the armed conflict, in groups of 400 fighters at a time.

According to the British daily The Independent, which was able to speak to mercenaries who left for Azerbaijan, the first recruitments were scheduled for July, at the start of tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

As a result, the combatants would have been promised a sum of between 1,200 dollars (approximately 1,000 euros) and 1,500 dollars (approximately 1,250 €).

A substantial salary in a country where 83% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to a 2019 United Nations report.

Fanny Alarcon is an expert on Syrian irregular groups and a journalist for the journal Intelligence Online. She explains:

“It becomes almost natural for Turkey to retrain its fighters in armed conflict. They are not expensive, they are trained: it is easy labor.

These fighters need a salary and know how to fight. Turkey officially intervened in 2017, 2018 and 2019 in Northeastern Syria. During each of these operations, she did not want to directly involve her army and resorted to these Syrian fighters, who in turn recycled themselves into henchmen against the Kurdish autonomous administration.

In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is not as assumed support as in Libya or northern Syria. It is a progressive support and at first glance, the Azeri and Turkish authorities have no interest in using the Syrian mercenaries: it does not give them a good image, especially when they put themselves in scene.”

Of course, these aren’t militants, there’s no “ideology” according to reports. They are “moderate opposition” that behead people just because Turkey pays them, but they’re not jihadists. At least that is the usual rhetoric.

“Each of these groups has a position: they are not jihadists. Turkey does not employ such people. These are factions which were formed at the start of the conflict and which originated from northwestern Syria, especially Aleppo. They claim responsibility for the FSA which was, during the Syrian civil war, a moderate insurgency against the Syrian regime, backed by NATO. When, then, the ANS was structured by Turkey in 2017 to bring together the insurgents, the ideological dimension disappeared.

Ultimately, the motivation of Syrian mercenaries is to get paid, to have a job and a salary. Some of them seem to doubt their commitment on the ground. For others, they are just mercenaries whose job is to fight,” Fanny Alarcon explained.

Other video clips, from Syria, show recruiting speeches led by sheikhs or faction leaders in charge of this mission in the towns of the northwest, particularly affected by war and extreme poverty.

This excerpt, verified by local media Afrin Post, takes place in Shaykh al-Hadid, a town in the Aleppo region, a few kilometers from the Turkish border.

Sheikhs and faction leaders recruit militants, but also the claim that there’s no ideology somehow holds water.

The speech took place in a tent set up near the town of Jindires for the funeral of a mercenary who died in Nagorno-Karabakh. “The umma is in peril today, our fight in Azerbaijan is the same as in the Levant. It is your [religious] duty to go into combat in Libya and Azerbaijan,” the Sheikh sermonized in his speech.

Fanny Alarcon continues:

“Recruitment is done through the Turkish intelligence service, which structures the ANS and designates faction leaders to bring them to Turkey and go to Armenia [as the Arabic-speaking agency Stepnews has shown]. This is played out through this state service, and not through private companies like the Russian group Wagner, which recruited mercenaries to fight in the Central African Republic or in Venezuela [as Mondafrique has shown, editor’s note]. The religious discourse has really been present among the Syrians since 2011. The rise of radicalism is thus at the center of the structuring of the Syrian insurgency.

In 2020, we do not see a faction that does not use religious discourse, this is basic data, it is not really a lever. These groups, from mercenaries over the years, have become the most powerful (such as Ahrar Al-cham and Jabhat al-Nosra). They were very religious and rallied a lot of fighters. So the rest of the factions had to get down to their level and adopt the same rhetoric.”

Many of these individuals who are part of actual terrorist formations are still being absolved from any guilt, because they are “poor”, instead of attempting to rebuild their country, or fight on behalf of the authorities to liberate all areas of Syria have become tools of Turkey in spreading chaos elsewhere.

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