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Guardian and Reuters: Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters sent to Nagorno-Karabakh

28 September 2020

Both Reuters and the Guardian have reported that Turkish-backed militias are being sent to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh on the Azerbaijani side, citing Syrian fighters.

The Reuters report is based on the account of two unnamed fighters who claimed that they were deploying to Azerbaijan to fight in the ongoing clashes with Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. Previously active in Turkish-controlled territory in northern Syria, the fighters said their transport and deployment was coordinated with Turkey. 

Reuters stated that they could ‘not independently verify’ the two fighters’ accounts. 

According to the Guardian, they spoke to three men ‘living in the last rebel-controlled corner of Syria, who said that almost a decade of war and grinding poverty had made them keen to register with militia leaders and brokers who promised work with a private Turkish security company overseas. They expect to travel over the border to Turkey before being flown to Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has denied claims that any Syrian fighters were among their ranks, with  Khikmet Gadzhiev, an aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, calling the claims ‘complete nonsense’ and an Armenian ‘provocation’. 

Armenian Defence officials have claimed that 4,000 Syrian fighters have been active on the Azerbaijani side in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijani human rights activist Anar Mammadli cast doubt on the reports in a tweet on Monday evening.

‘Over the past two days, the Western media has been reporting on the arrival of fighters from Syria in Azerbaijan to join [the] war in Karabakh. But there is no single fact about it. There is no concrete fact about Turkey’s military support except political support to Azerbaijan’, he said.

Prior reports

On 21 September, journalist Lindsey Snell published a recording on Twitter, purportedly of Syrian rebel fighters in which they claim that they will be shipped off to Azerbaijan between the 27–31 September. 

On 27 September, Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli analyst and Syria commentator, claimed that there had been reports among fighters from the SNA, a Turkish-backed militia, of a deployment to Azerbaijan a month prior.

‘Rumours spread on WhatsApp among SNA fighters that they can register to go to Azerbaijan. Many registered over WhatsApp, others apparently thru (sic) offices in the Turkish-controlled areas’, she wrote on Twitter.

She also wrote that she ‘confirmed’ that rebel fighters had left Syria ‘in an unknown direction’. 

The same day, citing ‘very reliable sources’, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based outlet supportive of the Syrian opposition, claimed that ‘a batch of Syrian fighters of Turkish-backed factions has arrived in Azerbaijan from Turkey’ on 24 September. 

They did not name their sources nor provide any other evidence. 

On 27 September, Erkin Oncan, a journalist working for Sputnik Turkey published a video purportedly showing armed men being transported through Azerbaijan in the direction of Nagorno-Karabakh. He stated that ‘Azerbaijani sources’ alleged these men to be Syrian rebel fighters.  

There have also recently been claims that Syrian fighters have been shipped to Armenia. 

On 25 September, the Daily Sabah, a Turkish pro-government daily newspaper, reported that members of the YPG and PKK, two left-wing, primarily Kurdish militias that have been active in Syria/Iraq and Turkey, respectively, had been shipped into Nagorno Karabakh. 

They cited a report by conservative, pro-Government daily Yeni Safak, which itself cited a variety of Azerbaijani sources. No independent verification for the claims was provided. 

 For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

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