Reports say that hundreds of Syrian Islamic rebel fighters, including a high-ranking Islamic State commander, have been sent to help prop up Muslim-majority Azerbaijan in its recently re-sparked border conflict over a region populated predominantly by Armenian Christians.
High-ranking Syrian rebel sources who spoke with The Daily Beast claimed that as many 1,000 Syrian rebel fighters were sent to Azerbaijan, which lies north of Iran, from Turkey on Sept. 22 and Sept. 24.
A similar claim was also reported by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which cited sources as saying that a batch of fighters was sent to the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region from the Syrian city of Afrin, where Turkey had engaged in a military campaign along with aligned militant groups against Kurdish forces.
The decades-long clash over Nagorno-Karabakh reignited on Sunday. The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has a majority-Armenian population that voted to break away from Azerbaijan and has been controlled by ethnic Armenians, which caused a war between the two former Soviet Union republics and a ceasefire in 1994.
More recently, clashes began again at the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact, which separates ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijan forces. The recent clashes are said to be the most severe since 2016. Casualties have been reported by both sides and the United Nations has called for the de-escalation of tensions.
Despite this, the sources suggest that Turkey, a predominantly Muslim European nation strongly allied with Azerbaijan, has sent mercenaries to the region.
Armenia’s ambassador to Russia, Vardan Toganyan, said that “militia have been deployed by Turkey from Syria to Azerbaijan,” adding that the troops have been trained in camps.
Asia News, an official press agency of the Roman Catholic Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, cited Syrian armed opposition sources to report that “Turkey has sent 4,000 Syrian Isis mercenaries from Afrin to fight against the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh.” One leader was quoted as saying that as many as 1,000 more fighters could be on their way.
Sources told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that Syrian rebels were taken to Azerbaijan to guard the state’s border in return for salaries that range between $1,500 and $2,000.
“500 Hamza Brigade (affiliated with the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army) fighters were flown last Tuesday from southern Turkey to the Azeri airbase at Sumqayit (30 kilometers north of the Azeri capital of Baku),” a source within the rebel group told The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity.
“Two days later, on Thursday, another 500 fighters from the Sultan Murad brigades rebel faction (another Turkish-backed outfit) were similarly flown out to Azerbaijan.”
Hamza commander Sayf Balud, an ethnic Turkmen, previously served as a commander within the Islamic State radical jihadist group that conquered large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and killed and enslaved thousands beginning in 2013.
The Daily Beast reports that Balud was featured in an Islamic State propaganda video shot in the town of Tal Abyad after the group captured the town from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. After the Islamic State’s military defeat, he appeared in propaganda videos in 2018 as the commander of the Hamza brigades when Turkey sent backed rebel groups into Afrin to capture control of the city.
Sources who spoke with The Daily Beast noted that the Syrian rebel units that have been sent to Azerbaijan are almost all being led by ethnic Syrian Turkmen like Balud.
Reports of Syrian rebel involvement was denied by an aide to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, Khikmet Gadzhiev.
“Rumors of militants from Syria allegedly being redeployed to Azerbaijan is another provocation by the Armenian side and complete nonsense,” Gadzhiev said.
However, two fighters from a Turkish-based rebel group in northern Syria told Reuters that they were deployed to Azerbaijan in coordination with Ankara, with one saying that he was told nearly 1,000 Syrians were set to deploy.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Monday that Armenia has also brought in “mercenaries and terrorists” from abroad. Reuters notes that Akar attended joint military drills in Azerbaijan in August.
Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had previously blasted Armenia in a U.N. General Assembly speech for occupying Azerbaijan territory, on Thursday criticized international governments like France, the U.S. and Russia for calling for a ceasefire.
“Occupiers need to leave the land they’re occupying first,” Erdogan said. “Permanent peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh region will only be possible if Armenia leaves the Azerbaijani lands it has been occupying.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of Armenian protesters gathered outside of the Azerbaijan consulate in Los Angeles to protest Azerbaijan’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh. The rally was held by the Armenian Youth Federation.
On Friday, the Armenian National Committee of America is leading a protest in Washington, D.C. Among groups supporting the protest is the international advocacy group In Defense of Christians.
The protest will call on the U.S. government to condemn Azerbaijan, cut off military aid to Azerbaijan and enforce sanctions on Turkey.
“The AYF is leading a protest at the Turkish Embassy against Ankara and Baku's attacks on Armenia and Artsakh, [d]emanding that Turkey stop pouring fuel on this fire,” a Facebook post explains.