Syrian fighters confirm Turkey sending rebels to aid Azerbaijan

Armenia accused Ankara of providing manpower, drones and warplanes – a claim Azerbaijan denied

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Two Syrian rebels said Turkey sent Syrian fighters to support Azerbaijan in its conflict with neighbouring Armenia as Ankara pledged to strengthen its ally.

Fighting has raged around the disputed breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh since Sunday in the heaviest clashes since 2016, with dozens killed and wounded. Armenia’s Foreign Ministry on Monday accused Ankara of sending fighters, drones and warplanes to support Azerbaijan – an accusation that Baku denied.

Armenia’s ambassador to Moscow said that Turkey sent about 4,000 Syrians to the front to aid Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev's effort to take back the breakaway ethnically Armenian region.

While Ankara has not commented on the claims, it has said it will fully support Azerbaijan in its efforts to retake the territory.

Reuters news agency quoted two unnamed fighters from Turkish-backed rebel groups in northern Syria under Ankara’s control as saying they had been sent to Azerbaijan.

"I didn't want to go, but I don't have any money. Life is very hard and poor," said a fighter who had fought in Syria for Ahrar Al Sham, a group that Turkey has supported.

Both said they were told by their Syrian brigade commanders they would earn about $1,500 a month – a large wage for Syria, where the economy and currency have collapsed.

A man holds an ammunition part following what locals say was a recent shelling by Azeri forces, in the town of Martuni in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, September 28, 2020. Foreign Ministry of Armenia/Handout via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT.
A man holds an ammunition part following what locals say was a recent shelling by Azeri forces in the town of Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh. Foreign Ministry of Armenia, HO via REUTERS

The fighter said he had arranged his assignment with an official from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) in Afrin, a region of northwest Syria seized by Turkey and its rebel allies two years ago.

A spokesman for the SNA, an umbrella group of rebel groups, did not respond to a request for comment.

The other fighter, from the SNA-affiliated Jaish Al Nukhba militia, said he was told about 1,000 Syrians were to be sent to Azerbaijan. Other rebels, who also declined to be named, gave figures of between 700 and 1,000.

The two men said they expected to guard facilities but not to fight. Reuters was unable to contact them on Monday to confirm their location.

Hikmat Hajiyev, a foreign policy aide to Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, said it was complete nonsense to say Syrian fighters were going to help his country: "Our armed forces have more than enough personnel and reserve forces."

In recent years, Turkey has projected power abroad with incursions into neighbouring Syria and Iraq, and military support for the Tripoli government in Libya.

Defence Minister Hulusi Akar attended joint military drills in Azerbaijan in August, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week to accuse Armenia of attacking its neighbour.

Concern that Turkey could get more involved in the conflict helped drag its currency to a record low against the dollar on Monday.

Mustafa Sejari, a senior Syrian rebel, did not confirm the deployment of fighters to Azerbaijan but said Turkey was the only hope left for opponents of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, who has retaken most rebel-held land in Syria with Russian and Iranian support.

"Our alliance with Turkey takes different forms and is truly a common fate," he said. "I don't rule out at all Turkey becoming a strategic choice for Syrian youths."

Turkey used Syrian fighters to help block an assault on the Libyan capital Tripoli this year by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar's eastern-based Libyan National Army.

Their presence in Syria would create a third theatre for Turkey's regional rivalry with Moscow, which has a military base in Armenia, considers it a strategic partner in the South Caucasus and supplies it with weapons. It has not commented on the reports of Syrian fighters being sent to Azerbaijan.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was following the situation very closely and that the conflict had to be resolved through diplomacy.