Turkish-backed Syrian fighters gather in the village of Qaminas, about 6 kilometers southeast of Idlib city in northwestern Syria, on February 10, 2020. Armenia accused Turkey of meddling in the conflict in the ethnic Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh, sending mercenaries to back Azerbaijan. Photo: AFP / Omar Haj Kadour

Isn’t it surprising how fast the topic of Syrian mercenaries in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war has faded out, despite reports about thousands of foreign fighters sent to support Azerbaijan? Reuters quoted two Syrians saying that they – along with around 1,000 other militants – were deployed to Azerbaijan.

These men were members of Jaish al-Nukhba and Ahrar al-Sham, both designated as terrorist groups by a number of countries. In October, French President Emmanuel Macron said that fighters from “jihadist groups” in Syria had passed through Turkey on their way to Azerbaijan. 

Remarkably, what motivated foreign mercenaries to fight on behalf of Azerbaijan was money rather than jihadist ideology. They were promised up to US$2,000 per month for their service to Azerbaijan – lower than the salaries of fighters recruited for Libya, but still a large sum for those living in Syria.

Radical jihadist ideology, on the other hand, seemed to be out of play. The thing is that 85% of Azerbaijan’s Muslims are Shia while only 15% are Sunni. The two sects are long-standing enemies, and dying for Nagorno-Karabakh would not guarantee martyrdom, according to some jihadist preachers. 

Of course, one shouldn’t discount Azerbaijan’s Sunni minority, and Armenia claimed that the mercenaries had already made attempts to impose sharia law. Also, some Salafist thinkers, such as Abdullah al-Muhaysini of Saudi Arabia, might have encouraged Islamists to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh. Anyway, the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict does not seem to be a classic jihad story.

Career mercenaries

What the participation of Syrian mercenaries did was expand the conflict beyond Nagorno-Karabakh. Of course, it’s not about the spread of hostilities into other regions. The involvement of Syrian fighters in the Nagorno-Karabakh war threatened to give a boost to global jihad.

No matter what their goal was, jihadis received both financing and training. More important, creating a war zone where the skills and experience of jihadist fighters are in demand means supporting a sort of ecosystem that keeps terrorists afloat.

For instance, a team of American and European researchers published a report last year examining individual jihadis who served as foreign fighters, building “careers” in different conflicts. According to the document, many of them enjoyed “career progression from foot soldiers to top leadership.”

The researchers cited the data on more than 50 career foreign fighters who served in multiple conflicts and eventually became influential in the global jihadist movement.

Little is known about what has happened to those foreign fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that more Syrian mercenaries died in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia than in the Libyan conflict, providing a figure of 541 dead. Some have returned to Syria but the whereabouts of others are still unknown. And this is where the concern arises.

War crimes and responsibility

As Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan put it, foreign mercenaries were “a threat not only to the security of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia but also to international security, and this issue should become a subject of an international investigation.” However, despite all the existing evidence, Baku denied the accusations, describing them as “complete nonsense.”

How could Azerbaijan benefit from the involvement of Syrian mercenaries in the conflict? The question is not so much one of their skills, but of their propensity to violence.

For instance, a video posted by The France 24 Observers team shows the Sultan Murad Division deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh. This group is notorious for its war crimes in previous conflicts and torturing Kurdish prisoners in particular. Would they treat Armenian prisoners differently?

In this context, atrocities committed by Azerbaijani forces seem to be in line with the plans to recruit foreign mercenaries. In December, two elderly civilians who refused to leave their villages were beheaded by Azeri forces. If not for videos shared on messaging apps, this story wouldn’t have even surfaced.

Another video appears to feature two Armenian soldiers executed by members of Azerbaijan’s military.

The war crimes allegedly committed by Azeri forces and the recruitment of Syrian mercenaries are just different sides of the same coin. Both serve the purposes of intimidation.

The European Parliament has condemned the fact that Azerbaijan has been torturing Armenian prisoners of war. Joel Boehme, a board member of the pan-European party Volt Europa, shared his thoughts on the matter.

“First and foremost, Volt firmly condemns all violence against civilians and against prisoners of war, as going against the principles of the Geneva Conventions and the basic rights, human dignity and integrity that we, Volt, promote across Europe,” he told this writer.

“As for the reports about abuse perpetrated by Azeri forces,” he continued, “I have seen such news myself from for example Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – which tend to be reliable whistleblowers – and the behavior called out in such reports is deeply troubling and completely unacceptable. I call for the international community at large, and certainly the EU, to raise its voice and investigate the claims independently.  

“In general, we need to return to the process outlined in the Madrid Principles, and try to repair the damage done by the latest war and its aftermath, to the attempts to build peace and solve the Karabakh issue.

“As for the EU, it is good that the European Parliament passed a resolution with a massive majority [including Volt’s MEP], demanding the release of the prisoners of war, and condemning troubling actions undertaken by Azeri forces.

“All sides must respect human rights and international law. We, Volt, have publicly demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the prisoners of war since 24 April this year, and we [will] continue to do so until they are all allowed to come home,” Boehme said.

Cruelty may win a war, but only for a short time. It is the silence of others that makes that victory permanent. That is why it is crucial that the international community ensures that everyone responsible for war crimes is held accountable.

Russian journalist Tatiana Kanunnikova is a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs.