Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters celebrate after a military parade marking the graduation of a new batch of cadets and attended by officials from the Turkey-backed opposition at a camp in the Afrin region in the rebel-held northern countryside of Aleppo province on September 20, 2020. Photo: AFP/Bakr Alkasem

A month before an assault on the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, Turkey launched a pipeline for Syrian mercenaries to aid in the Azerbaijani offensive, Asia Times has learned.

Word of a new Turkish-sponsored mercenary opportunity, the second since Libya, began circulating in northern Syria on September 1. By September 6, commanders of Turkish-sponsored militias were registering fighters to ship off to Azerbaijan.

Khaled, a Syrian man already employed by a Turkish-backed Malik Shah brigade, says he left for Azerbaijan two weeks before the Karabakh assault started.

“On September 14, we left Syria to Kilis area (southern Turkey) by bus. We were about 25 young guys,” Khaled told Asia Times, using only his first name to shield his identity.

In southern Turkey, he says the men were screened for illness and injuries, and those under the age of 18 or over the age of 40 were told to return. From there, they were transferred from Kilis to Gaziantep by car, flown to Istanbul in a civilian plane, and then to Azerbaijan with a batch of 35 recruits.

They were some of the nearly 1,200 Syrians who have been sent by Turkey so far to fight on behalf of Azerbaijan, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has monitored rights violations and death tolls throughout the war in Syria.

At least 72 Syrian mercenaries have been killed so far on the front lines, the Observatory said Sunday. Ankara and Baku have vigorously denied the men’s presence.

The deployments, according to information obtained by Asia Times, are ongoing.

Turkey’s “full support” motivated its ally Azerbaijan to reignite fighting in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Tuesday in an interview with AFP.

“While it is true that the leadership of Azerbaijan has been actively promoting bellicose rhetoric for the last 15 years, now the decision to unleash a war was motivated by Turkey’s full support,” the 45-year-old premier said.

Azerbaijani soldiers hoist a flag at the position where Azerbaijani Warrant Officer Mubariz Ibrahimov lost his life during the combat against Armenian soldiers in Terter region, Azerbaijan, on October 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/Azerbaijani Defence Ministry/Anadolu Agency

US$1,500 per month

The armed forces of Armenia and Karabakh have reported 240 fatalities to date. Azerbaijan, which tightly controls media within its borders, has declined to reveal any military death toll.

Many of the mercenaries are drawn from the ranks of ethnic Turkman militias stood up by Ankara over the course of the war and now living in no man’s land between Assad’s Syria and the closed border with Turkey.

“I had no future. I am responsible for the family’s expenses,” said 20-year-old Khaled, originally from Homs province and living displaced with his mother and younger siblings in a camp in the northern countryside of Aleppo.

Khaled was initially preparing to fight in Libya, an Arabic-speaking country where Turkey started sending Syrian mercenaries in January to fight on behalf of the allied government in Tripoli.

“I wanted to go to Libya and I registered my name, but the brigade leadership told me that deployments there have stopped, and that I can go to Azerbaijan,” he told Asia Times.

The salary was US$1,500 per month – $500 less than was paid to mercenaries fighting in Libya, but still a massive sum in Syria, where the value of the local currency has plummeted due to the war and crippling US sanctions.

“Qatar is not interested in the war in Azerbaijan,” Khaled said his leadership informed him to explain the disparity in pay.

Syrians deployed to Libya in January told Asia Times they were promised Turkish citizenship, but Khaled said his request was rejected. Instead, he was promised his family would receive $100,000 as compensation in case of his death, and he would receive up to $7,000 in case of injury.

Armenian military ammunition seized by the Azerbaijan army in Azerbaijan on October 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Resul Rehimov/Anadolu Agency

Ahmad, a 42-year-old fighter with the Turkish-backed Sultan Murad faction and a father of five children, says he was also motivated to fight in Azerbaijan by the salary. Like Khaled, he is from an area that rebelled against the regime in Damascus and is now living displaced with his wife and five children in Afrin, a Turkish-dominated area of northern Syria.

“I was drawn by the salary of $1,500, which is the same amount I would make with the [Sultan Murad] division in a year,” he told Asia Times. “I am looking for a decent life for my children and me.”

Ahmad says he joined a group of 50 men in northern Aleppo on September 16 and left through the Al-Rai border crossing to a Turkish military base on the outskirts of Kilis.

“They presented us to a military committee. Unfortunately, I was excluded from going there because I am too old,” he told Asia Times. He was promised, he added, that they would call him if he were eventually needed.

Media blackout

The deployment of Syrians to the front lines of Nagorno-Karabakh has been accompanied by a social media blackout in Azerbaijan and a gag on the mercenaries themselves.

Relatives of Mohammad Shaalan, a Syrian killed in the first week of fighting for Azerbaijan, refused to go on record in verifying his death, explaining that they would lose the financial compensation promised by Turkey if they spoke to the media.

Asia Times also confirmed the killing of Mohammad Khaled Shihna from the Syrian town of Maaret al-Numaan on October 2 in Azerbaijan. The Syrian National Army, a Turkish-backed umbrella group, refused to respond to queries on the total number of Syrian fighters killed in Azerbaijan so far. 

An image grab taken from footage released by the armed forces of the Armenia-backed breakaway region of Nagorny Karabakh on September 28, 2020, allegedly shows bodies of killed Azerbaijani soldiers. Photo: AFP/NKR Defence Army

But according to one Syrian fighter on the front lines, the fighting killed well over 50 of his comrades within its first week. “Thank God for your injury and for not being here. Your life is worth much more than $1,500,” the fighter told his friend Louai, who was reached by Asia Times.

Louai attempted to go to fight in Azerbaijan and says he had left on September 18 for Kilis, Turkey, with a group of about 250 Syrian recruits.

“Unfortunately, I was rejected because of my injury, as I cannot run; so the committee sent me back with 60 guys for various reasons on September 19. But my friend Mahmoud was accepted,” he told Asia Times.

He kept in contact with Mahmoud, who traveled from Gaziantep Airport to Istanbul and then to Azerbaijan, on September 25.

“Three days later, he called and told me the situation is very bad,” Louai said. Mahmoud said they were not getting fed enough and were being mistreated by the Azerbaijani officers since their arrival at the front line.

“There was no mobile phone coverage in his area, so he requested to be transferred to another location. He was finally able, after several attempts, to communicate with his family.”

Syrian mother Umm Mohammad says she has lost touch with her 19-year-old son, Mohammad, who ran away to become a mercenary in Azerbaijan.

“Mohammad was working in a takeout restaurant in al-Bab city. But on September 15, he didn’t return home and I tried to contact him but to no avail,” she told Asia Times. She went to her son’s workplace and found out from her son’s boss that he and two other employees failed to show up the day before.

“He said he heard about their deployment to Azerbaijan, but he wasn’t sure. Three days later, my son called me and told me that he was in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, and that he’d go the next day to Istanbul to deploy to Azerbaijan.”

She says he told her he wanted to earn a better salary to improve the family’s financial situation. “Of course I tried to convince him to return, but he refused,” the 47-year-old mother said.

Umm Mohammad says her son arrived in Azerbaijan on September 25 and was then sent to a front line that was consistently being bombed.

“I used to hear the sounds of shelling around him when l was talking to him on the phone, then one call was completely out off with him.”

She said she does not know if he is still alive.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.