Turkey is using Syrian rebels as pawns in Azerbaijan

Once the backer of the revolution against the Assad regime, Ankara now recruits rebel soldiers to fight faraway wars

Powered by automated translation

Donald Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis and the ongoing drama of the American elections has managed to suck the oxygen out of major news developments around the world – whether it is the accelerating spread of the coronavirus in the Middle East and elsewhere, the toll of wildfires in America itself and around the world, or the eruption of a new war in the south Caucasus.

In late September, fighting erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia, after months of rising tension, over Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous zone that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is a de facto independent state with an Armenian ethnic majority. A major war was fought over the territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union, claiming thousands of lives. The latest conflagration has already led to indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas.

It is also another hotspot in which Turkey and Russia are once again at loggerheads. Moscow is a military ally of Armenia, while Ankara has close ties, both political and cultural, with Azerbaijan. Over the weekend, Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to support Baku.

Members of Turkey's Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) display Turkish and Azerbaijan flags on their vehicle before taking a tour in the city in solidarity with Azerbaijan, in Istanbul on October 5, 2020. Turkey on October 4, 2020 condemned what it said were attacks on civilians by Armenian forces on the Azerbaijani city of Ganja in the conflict over disputed breakaway region Nagorno-Karabakh. The fighting over Karabakh, which broke out into renewed fighting seven days ago, intensified as Armenian and Azerbaijani forces exchanged rocket fire.  / AFP / Yasin AKGUL
Turkey is supporting Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. AFP

This is the third proxy war between Turkey and Russia in the Middle East and the surrounding regions, after Syria and Libya. Both countries appear to see the region as a board in a game of Risk, rather than viewing their strategic geopolitical conflicts as ones that cost actual human lives and the devastation of their homes and dreams.

As the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh escalated, reports emerged of Turkey sending Syrian mercenaries, former rebels who fought against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, to Azerbaijan. Initial coverage seemed to indicate that their role was intended to guard critical facilities, and that the fighters were sent with the promise of high monthly salaries, a lifeline for Syrians struggling to eke out a living in communities that were destroyed time and again in nearly 10 years of war.

Over the past few days, however, videos and testimony have emerged indicating that dozens of these fighters have been killed and their remains are being brought back to their homes. Elizabeth Tsurkov, a researcher with in-depth knowledge of most factions in Syria, published footage on social media showing the repatriation of one such fighter, and the independent media outlet Jesr Press published video purporting to show the hasty mass burials of dozens whose bodies had been brought back. It is not enough for Syrians to die at the hands of all the combatants in their country’s civil war and through myriad different methods, but they must also be brought home from abroad in body bags.

The rebel fighters recruited and sent by Turkey are reportedly part of the ironically named National Army, an umbrella group that encompasses various rebel factions that were united at Ankara’s urging. Turkey quickly put them to task doing its bidding, rather than fighting Mr Al Assad. I interviewed commanders and fighters in the National Army early in its history, and while most understood that Turkey was calling the shots and would deploy them for its own strategic benefit, they hoped that would buy them the goodwill that would allow them to fight their own war, and one day perhaps form the core of a peacekeeping force that would bring an end to the fighting in their country.

Instead, Ankara deployed them as an auxiliary to the Turkish armed forces, the main fighters on the ground that would risk their lives to accomplish Turkey's strategic goals, so that Turkey's soldiers may live. They battled Kurdish militants so that Turkey can secure its own borders in two separate military campaigns. They were sent to Libya to help protect the government in Tripoli, and now they find themselves in Azerbaijan, fighting a faraway foe.

An ethnic Armenian fighter carries Kalashnikov machine guns in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan. AP Photo
An ethnic Armenian fighter carries Kalashnikov machine guns in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan. AP Photo

They are of course not the only mercenaries in the region’s wars. Russian mercenaries fight in both Syria and Libya. Every warlord in a region with many warlords has his own private army.

But the story of the Syrian mercenaries exemplifies the many betrayals Syrians have had to endure from the moment they decided to rise up and demand a life of dignity free of Mr Al Assad’s totalitarian control.

They were abandoned to their own fate, left to fend for themselves against chemical weapons and barrel bombs. And as the war dragged on, even sympathy and helpless outrage was in short supply.

Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces on the outskirts of Tel Abyad in October 2019. Bakr Alkasem for The National
Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces on the outskirts of Tel Abyad in October 2019. Bakr Alkasem for The National

Turkey, which once claimed the mantle of steadfast backer of the revolution, has leveraged that support into an army for hire, an institution that preys on the destitute and needy by recruiting them to fight in faraway wars, because for Turkey and the other geopolitical powers competing for influence around the region, these lives mean nothing and carry no value. That is why they can keep up their proxy wars with no political cost. It is no better than trafficking.

Syria’s rebel mercenaries represent yet another nail in the coffin of a revolution whose adherents dared once to dream of freedom. But it is also a stain on the conscience of an entire global system.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and columnist for The National