According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), by October 18 at least 134 Syrian mercenaries had been killed in Azerbaijan; 92 bodies have been repatriated. SOHR also asserts that at least 2,050 combatants were transported from Syria since the beginning of the armed conflict, in groups of 400 at a time. The FRANCE 24 Observers team was not able to independently verify these claims, nor speak to a Syrian fighter.
According to the British newspaper The Independent, which spoke to Syrian fighters who went to Azerbaijan, recruitment began in July, at the start of tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The fighters were promised a sum of money between US$1,200 dollars (around €1,000) and US$1,500 dollars (around €1,250): a considerable salary in a country where an estimated 83 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to a 2019 report by the United Nations.
Fanny Alarcon covers the Middle East for the security and intelligence publication Intelligence Online. She explains:
It has almost become normal for Turkey to recycle its fighters in armed conflicts. They don’t cost a lot of money, they’re already trained: it’s easy labour.
These troops need a salary and know how to fight. Turkey officially got involved in the conflict in north-eastern Syria in 2017, 2018 and 2019. In each situation, Turkey didn’t want to bring over its own army, and instead used Syrian fighters, which could then be recycled as henchmen against the autonomous Kurdish authorities.
In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, they’re not openly supporting the conflict, like they did in Libya or in northern Syria. It’s not in the interests of the Azeri and Turkish authorities to use Syrian mercenaries: it doesn’t reflect well on them, particularly when these Syrian soldiers are filming themselves.
This video, published October 12, shows Syrian fighters on the front line in Nagorno-Karabakh. ‘Go in front (…). We need more ammunition! Allah Akbar!’ cries one of the mercenaries to the other soldiers.
Alarcon says that the different factions of the Syrian National Army have diverse ideological allegiances.
Each one of this groups has a position: they’re not jihadists. Turkey doesn’t employ those type of people. They are factions which formed at the beginning of the conflict and which come from north-western Syria, particularly from Aleppo. They consider themselves part of the Free Syrian Army, which was, at the time of the Syrian civil war, a moderate insurrection force against the Syrian regime and supported by countries such as France and the US. When the Syrian National Army was formed by Turkey in 2017 to bring together rebels, there was no ideological dimension anymore.
In the end, the motivating factor for Syrian mercenaries is to be paid, to have work and a salary. Some of them don’t seem sure of what they’re doing on the battlefield. Others are just mercenaries and their job is to fight.
This young mercenary, identified by the researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov as Mustapha Qanti, 23 years old, filmed this video on the front line. He had been recruited by the Hamza division, initially to go and fight in Libya. In the video he says, clearly frightened, ‘God, be merciful! Shards – get down!’
This is another video by Mustapha Qanti which shows him finding ammunition left behind by Armenian soldiers. Internet users identified the location of the video as near the border town of Horadiz.
‘In 2020, there aren’t any factions that don’t use religious language; it’s a given’
Other videos coming out of Syria show sheikhs or leaders of different factions trying to recruit Syrians in towns in north-western Syria, a region that has been particularly affected by extreme poverty and war. This video was verified by local media Afrin Post. It was filmed in Shayk al-Hadid, a town in Aleppo province near the border with Turkey. In it, a man urges the crowd around him to sign up to fight: “Our fight in Azerbaijan is the same fight as in the Levant. It is your duty to go to fight in Libya and Azerbaijan”.
The recruitment of soldiers is done through the Turkish intelligence service, which forms the Syrian National Army and chooses the faction leaders to bring them to Turkey and Armenia [as this article by Step News Agency shows]. It’s all done through the official state-run department, and not through private companies like the Russian company Wagner, which recruited mercenaries for conflicts in the Central African Republic or in Venezuela [Mondafrique recently published an article on this]. Religious language is much more present amongst Syrians since 2011. Radicalism has grown and is a central facet of the Syrian insurrectionist forces.
In 2020, there aren’t any factions that don’t use religious language; it’s a given. The most radical groups in the Syrian rebellion forces, like Ahrar al-Sham or the former Al-Nusra Front, have become very powerful over the course of the civil war and have pushed other factions, such as the mercenaries hired by Turkey, to adopt the same language.
Yerevan said on October 25 that its total military death toll had climbed to 963 deaths. Azerbaijan does not disclose its military casualties, but said that 65 civilians have died so far. It is estimated that half of the population of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region have been displaced by the clashes.