Report

Syrians Make Up Turkey’s Proxy Army in Nagorno-Karabakh

After fighting Turkey’s battles in Libya, the Syrian National Army is caught in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan—and dozens are dying.

A fire burns in a hardware store after a rocket attack in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, on Oct. 3.
A fire burns in a hardware store after a rocket attack in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, on Oct. 3. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Early Sunday morning, the bodies of more than 50 Syrians killed in a conflict raging far from their own borders—in a land many had barely heard of a few months ago—were returned home for funeral preparations.

They were members of militias that had fought previously in northern Syria, then Libya, and now in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh—but always on behalf of Turkey.

“No one wants to make money from wars” after almost a decade of civil war, said the father of one Syrian mercenary. But displacement inside Syria, and the inevitable economic troubles that accompany long-term unrest, has left some young men with little choice. 

According to sources within the Syrian National Army (SNA), the umbrella term for a group of opposition militias backed by Turkey, around 1,500 Syrians have so far been deployed to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the southern Caucasus. It’s the latest proxy standoff between Turkey and Russia, which are already on opposing sides in Syria and Libya. Ankara has declared strong support for Azerbaijan, while Moscow is traditionally closer to Armenia.

The mountainous and landlocked region of Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized internationally as Azerbaijan’s territory but has a mostly Armenian population. The two countries went to war between 1988 and 1994, eventually declaring a cease-fire, but never reached a settlement over the dispute. The border between the two is considered one of the most militarized in the world, and the current fighting, which broke out last month, is the worst seen since the cease-fire, with each of the two former Soviet republics placing the blame on the other.

Heavy clashes continued over the weekend, and Armenian forces fired rockets at Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, killing at least one civilian and injuring four more. More than 220 people have died since violence flared just over a week ago, many of them from artillery shelling. 

Shortly after conflict erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey sought to mobilize the SNA, sometimes called Turkey’s proxy army. Thousands of SNA fighters have been hired by Turkey over the last year to fight in Libya on behalf of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli, which is fighting Russian-backed forces. Some of the SNA fighters have since reportedly returned to Syria for training ahead of dispatch to Nagorno-Karabakh; some were given only five days of training before shipping out, while others had between two weeks and a month of training, according to SNA sources.

The first fighters were transferred in late September to southern Turkey and then flown from Gaziantep to Ankara, before being transferred to Azerbaijan on Sept. 25. According to fighter accounts, SNA commanders arrived earlier to explore the region and coordinate with the Azerbaijani army about the distribution of troops. 

For many young men, displaced by years of civil war at home and bereft of economic opportunities, the lures of a mercenary life are religious propaganda—and money. Fighters are offered four-month contracts for $1,500 a month, paid in Turkish lira.

But many are already regretting it, especially now that a reported 55 Syrian mercenaries have been killed after being confronted with a lot more hands-on fighting than they’d been promised. 

“All fighters are unhappy with the situation here in Azerbaijan,” said one Syrian on the ground in Azerbaijan’s Barda district, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal. “The psychological situation is bad after the martyrdom of a number of our friends.”

Told they would be mostly manning guard posts along border demarcation lines, they have instead been thrust into direct clashes, with little support from Azerbaijan’s regular forces.

“There is no synergy or communication between us and the Azerbaijani fighters,” he said.

Another SNA fighter in Azerbaijan said he sleeps in a tent with 20 to 30 other fighters and pulls two six-hour shifts of guard duty each day. He said a number of fighters “wish to return to Syria after regretting coming here. We are not happy, but at the same time, no one forced us to fight in Azerbaijan. Our hearts are for our friends, who are being killed here, in a country other than theirs, far from their families and their revolution.”

One of those close friends was Muhammad al-Shuhneh, 25, who was displaced from his home city of Maarat al-Numan by a Syrian regime offensive to retake the rebel stronghold of Idlib this year. He arrived in Azerbaijan late last month in the second batch of fighters but was killed Oct. 1 in Nagarno-Karabakh. 

The family believed that Shuhneh—unmarried, the only son among eight sisters—was working in Turkey to help make ends meet. 

The arrival of the bodies of the dead mercenaries in Syria cast a dark cloud over places that have already been shrouded in mourning. One SNA fighter in Afrin, Syria, said the arrival of the dead was a “tragic day like had not been witnessed before” in rural Aleppo. 

“We blame the Turkish government for taking advantage of our poor and the young’s hunger for money,” said one grieving family member of a slain fighter. Families don’t want to reveal their identity, lest they lose the promised 60,000 Turkish lira (about $7,800) in compensation for the fallen fighters.

The SNA fighters are hardly saints. A United Nations report last month detailed crimes including kidnappings, rape, and extortion carried out by the SNA against Kurds, Christians, and other minorities during the fighting in Syria. 

The Turkish Defense Ministry has denied sending mercenaries to Azerbaijan, despite widespread media reports and footage from Syrians on the front line of the conflict. Turkey has also claimed, without providing evidence, that fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—which has fought an insurgency against Turkey for decades—are aiding Armenia.

Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy, including forays into the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya, has sometimes helped turn the tide of battle, especially in Libya, where Turkish support helped the Tripoli government defeat a Russian-backed effort to capture the capital. But those geopolitical wins, such as they are, leave young Syrians in the crossfire.

“The whole world abandoned the Syrian revolution and people, who suffer from the [Bashar al-]Assad regime’s brutality, and our young people have become a tool for the agendas of other countries,” said Riyad Kazmouz, 57, the father of a mercenary who is currently fighting in Libya. 

“We feel sadness and despair for how things turned out and that our children are forced to die for battles that do not concern us.”

Correction, Oct. 12, 2020: Muhammad al-Shuhneh was killed in Nagorno-Karabakh on Oct. 1. A previous version of this story misstated where he was killed.  

Liz Cookman is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul covering Turkey, Syria, and the wider Middle East.

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