Hundreds of Syrian lives and the enforcement of international humanitarian law (IHL) in the spiraling Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict have been put at risk by Turkish security companies and government officials, who are dispatching paid fighters from northwestern Syria to active military fronts in Nagorno-Karabakh. Many of these approximately 1,000 fighters belong to Turkish-backed militias that comprise the Syrian National Army (SNA). Dire humanitarian circumstances and economic hardship in Syria have also driven entirely new recruits to take the relatively high pay that Turkish recruiters offered for what was allegedly a mission only to secure Azerbaijani oil and gas infrastructures. In the last several weeks, several Syrian fighters have been killed in combat in the ethnically Armenian autonomous territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, amid increasing reports of IHL violations by parties to the conflict–which include Azerbaijani forces that Turkey has explicitly sought to bolster.
A pattern of mercenary warfare
The Turkish deployment of Syrian fighters in the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict is the latest instance of regional and international powers displacing the material and political costs of military intervention in the Middle East and North Africa onto mercenary soldiers. Local and western media sources have reported on this practice in a range of conflicts in the region, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US relied on multinational security corporations to execute military operations; in Syria, where Russia dispatched Chechen soldiers against opposition forces; and in Yemen, where the UAE continues to employ Sudanese fighters. This growing pattern has generated extensive discussion and concern about the difficulty of holding mercenary forces–as well as the states that contractually engage them–accountable for violations of IHL and human rights.
As SJAC explained previously, Turkey has been employing Syrian mercenaries in the Libyan conflict since late 2019, when it lured thousands of SNA fighters with lucrative contracts to counter the Russian-backed Libyan general Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on territory that is held by the UN-backed Government of National Accord and of special economic interest to Turkey. It did so at grave risk to the lives and rights of both local civilian populations and Syrian soldiers. For the latter, some of whom were under the age of 18, their involvement in the conflict as mercenaries puts at risk protections including their potential future status as prisoners of war or refugees.
More recently across northwestern Syria, as tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia escalated into outright military conflict in late September, private Turkish security companies launched a recruitment drive among Syrian returnees from Libya as well as entirely new recruits. These security companies have offered recruits between $1000 and $1,500 per month–more than fifteen times what Turkey often pays for mercenary work in Syria itself–to secure Azerbaijani oil and gas facilities and border areas in Nagorno-Karabakh. Al-Monitor reports that the Turkish government itself has dispatched former FSA fighters who now hold Turkish citizenship to Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile private Turkish security companies based in Idlib and Afrin are initiating the movement of SNA fighters to Gaziantep, Istanbul, and eventually Azerbaijan.
Many of the SNA factions now fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, such as the Sultan Murad and al-Hamza divisions, previously engaged in serious violations of IHL and human rights during Turkish-led military campaigns in northern Syria last fall. Their presence is especially troubling given that human rights organizations have already raised the alarm over indiscriminate attacks on civilian life and infrastructure in Nagorno-Karabakh amid Azerbaijani-Armenian hostilities. Yet, rather than provide the requisite transparency about the presence of Syrian fighters and bear legal responsibility for their actions in war, Turkish and Azerbaijani government officials have refuted extensive media reports and instead claimed without evidence that Armenia is deploying militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Such evasive rhetoric is an attempt to undermine any future attempts to hold mercenary groups accountable for potential IHL violations in Nagorno-Karabakh. As the UN has recognized, this is the same strategy employed when Turkey sent Syrian fighters to Libya.
Humanitarian duress and human costs
Although the presence of Syrian fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh has been analyzed by some in ideological terms, it must be understood in reference to the catastrophic social conditions that now prevail across much of Syria: economic collapse, shortages of basic goods, and a growing public health crisis in the spread of COVID-19– which have been produced by the policies of the Assad government and exacerbated by the inability of humanitarian relief organizations to easily access those populations most in need. Indeed, while the political links and ideological affinities between Turkey and SNA leaders are now thoroughly entrenched, the fact that so many new Syrian recruits were apparently misled about the nature of their contracts suggests it is material deprivation and desperation that are compelling many to enlist. One recruit admitted to the Guardian that “I knew there were skirmishes between the two countries, but I didn’t know that I was coming to war. I thought it was just guard work… I came here to make money and have a better life back in Syria where the living conditions are miserable. I consider this a job, nothing else.” A decade of war, displacement, and social breakdown has tragically made military combat one of the few options for gainful employment available to Syrian men. However, according to the Independent, among the approximately 360 people who have died in the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict dozens are Syrian soldiers whose families have apparently not received the compensation that was promised. Hence Syrian mercenaries have left behind households that are now in an even more precarious position than before.
With Turkey quietly subsidizing the human costs of its cascading geopolitical interventions by leveraging humanitarian duress abroad, the international community should both press for greater transparency and address the dire social conditions that help enable the recruitment of mercenaries. Turkey must take responsibility under international law for the conduct of the Syrian armed groups it directs, whether these are in Syria itself or in foreign battlefields like Nagorno-Karabakh.