By Finian Cunningham
Thousands of Turkish-backed militants from Syria’s Idlib province have been recruited as mercenaries to support Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia.
Several reports indicate that the Syrian fighters were already dispatched to Azerbaijan before the latest flare-up in hostilities with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan and Armenia are each blaming the other for the eruption of violence which unconfirmed reports suggest has caused hundreds of casualties in only a matter of days – marking the worst outbreak of deadly clashes since both countries ended a border war in 1994.
However, the apparent deployment of Turkish-backed mercenaries from Syria to Azerbaijan before the weekend’s clashes indicates a level of planning between Ankara and its Azeri allies to instigate the latest round in violence.
Furthermore, Turkey’s defense ministry has admitted deployment of regular armed forces and carrying out war maneuvers in Azerbaijan over recent months, which followed a minor, but deadly clash with Armenian military in mid-July.
Again, these background events point to a deliberate decision by Azerbaijan and Turkey to escalate the long-running territorial dispute with Armenia. Turkey shares ancient cultural ties with Azerbaijan. The leaderships in Ankara and Baku are united by the rallying slogan,“two states, one nation”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is this week amplifying Azeri grievances over Nagorno-Karabakh and has vowed to militarily support “Azerbaijani brothers” against “cruel invasion” by Armenia. Erdogan’s jingoistic rhetoric is fueling the upsurge in violence which could explode into a wider war.
Russia has traditionally strong ties with Armenia and is bound by a common defense treaty to defend the country. If Turkey, a NATO member, were to become openly involved in a war on the side of Azerbaijan that could drag Russia into the conflict and, in turn, other members of the NATO military alliance.
Moscow, along with the U.S. and other international powers, has been urging restraint from further military actions and a return to dialogue to resolve the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. The enclave is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but it has been controlled by an ethnic Armenian administration supported by Armenia since it took over the territory after the 1988-1994 war.
Grievances and counter-grievances go back to the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman and Tzarist empires. An added layer of complication followed the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the emergence of rival territorial claims in the South Caucasus region. A still more foreboding historical backdrop: Ottoman Turkey carried the Armenian genocide in 1915-16 killing over 1.5 million. Present Turkish moves cast a sinister shadow for Armenia.
It is concerning that Turkey has apparently redeployed large numbers of militants from Syria to Azerbaijan. Given that the Turkish-backed rebels in Syria are predominantly associated with terror networks such as Al Nusra and other Al Qaeda affiliates, the apprehension is that the conflict with Armenia could spiral into a greater scale of bloodletting up to a full-scale international war.
The Azeri authorities in Baku have denied claims of mercenaries being sent from Syria. And Turkey’s defense minister Hulusi Akar has made the converse claim, accusing Armenia of using mercenaries from Syria. The Turkish minister’s claims do not stand up to scrutiny. Armenia is predominantly Christian while Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim. It would therefore be an absurdity for hardcore jihadists from Syria to go fight for Armenia.
Besides there are credible reports of Syrian militants admitting to being recruited by Turkish private security firms. One militant is quoted as saying, “Thousands of us… are willing to go to either Libya or Azerbaijan. There is nothing for us here [in Idlib].”
Turkey’s recent track record is fully consistent here. It was Turkey that flooded Syria with Islamist terror groups in the failed covert war for regime change against Damascus. Since that failure, Ankara has redeployed its proxy militants to Libya where it supports the government in Tripoli against a rival faction. For Turkey, sending fighters to Azerbaijan would be an even easier logistical task given the shared borders.
For President Erdogan, Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan is a proxy for his Neo-Ottoman ambitions of boosting Ankara’s regional influence. Syria, Libya and more recently tensions with Greece and Cyprus over territorial claims in the East Mediterranean all fall into this pattern of Erdogan’s nationalistic aggrandizement.
His abysmal failure in Syria, however, checked by Russia’s intervention there to aid its ally in Damascus, may give Sultan Erdogan an incentive for seeking revenge against Moscow. Inciting a jihadist-style sectarian war in the South Caucasus on Russia’s southern border would be vengeance befitting the Machiavellian Turkish leader. One may speculate too that NATO powers would savor that kind of aggravation for Moscow on its doorstep.