‘We don’t even know where Azerbaijan is’: The Syrian mercenaries driven by poverty to die in a distant war

Bel Trew
·8-min read
Armenia Azerbaijan (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Armenia Azerbaijan (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Wrapped in plastic and white sheets, the ashen corpse of Mohammed Al-Shuhna, a Syrian mercenary allegedly killed in Azerbaijan, is shuttled back to north Syria just two weeks after he had first left.

In the grainy mobile phone footage sent to The Independent by Mohamed’s friends, a crowd of men pull back the coverings to check the identity of the 22-year-old as he lies on metal gurney.

According to family and colleagues, the ex-rebel fighter, from Maarat al-nouman in Syria’s northwest Idlib province, was among approximately 55 dead Syrians who were brought home via the Huwwar Killis border crossing with Turkey over the weekend.

All had been allegedly hired by a private Turkish security firm to fight with Azerbaijani forces against ethnic Armenians over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Turkish and Azerbaijani authorities vehemently deny this is happening. But people who knew Mohamed, claim he was among hundreds of Syrians from opposition-held northwest Syria that have participated in the southern Caucasus conflict and was killed in heavy shelling as the fighting rapidly intensified last week.

Friends and some fighters in Idlib told The Independent they are so concerned by the heavy Syrian casualty toll in Azerbaijan they have started an awareness campaigns to discourage young men from signing up.

“He agreed to go the week his family literally had no food in their fridge; his father is very old and they had started to borrow money,” says Mohamed’s friend Omar, who is spearheading an anti-recruitment drive to stop other young men following in Mohamed’s footsteps.

“He went through very bad times, he tried to go to Turkey, but was arrested at the border, was sent back to Syria where he failed to find a decent job.

“So, he immediately agreed when he was offered the job in Azerbaijan.”

Omar said Mohammed’s story is typical. He did not know Azerbaijan or the conflict existed before he was reportedly posted there: as the only son in a family-of-ten he had left school at 13 when the Syrian civil war erupted to earn a living.

After failing to make enough money joining the Free Syrian Army and the Turkish-backed Islamist brigade Ahrar al-Shams, he was eager to go to Azerbaijan where he was promised between $1,000 and $1200 a month, a fortune for his impoverished family.

The Independent first learned about initial plans to recruit Syrians to the Caucasus in July, around the time of the first bout of serious warfare between Azerbaijan and Armenia this year. Fighters, friends and relatives of Syrians reportedly deployed to Azerbaijan say they believe as many as a 1000 Syrians from across opposition-held north of the country have joined. The Independent could not independently verify this number.

The Independent was given the names of three middlemen, one of whom helped recruit Syrians to fight in Libya, but could find no further details about them or verify their identity.

Officials from both Azerbaijan and Turkey, closely allied, have strenuously denied the presence of any Syrian mercenaries within Azerbaijani ranks. Azerbaijan is a predominantly Shia country, which could cause friction with the Turkish-backed Syrian fighters who are Sunni.

Hikmet Hajiyev, an adviser to President Ilham Aliyev, told reporters this week that Baku “completely rejects” the allegations.

He said it does not make sense as Azerbaijan has a large army.

“We have enough personnel and enough reserve forces. If you have any facts we are ready to see it,” he told reporters.

Instead Azerbaijani officials have pointed the finger of blame at their enemy, saying that Armenia tapped into the diaspora and is deploying ethnic Armenians from Lebanon and Syria to the battlefield.

Former US ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza, citing former intelligence analysts, also said he was “increasingly convinced it’s not true.”

“For one thing, it’s a huge political liability,” he told The Independent. “They don't need mercenaries. Why Azerbaijan is winning is by using superior drone tactics. It doesn’t need large numbers of personnel.”

Commanders in the Turkish-backed umbrella group the Syrian National Army, which contains many of the factions who allegedly managed the Azerbaijani recruitment, have also denied this is happening in messages to The Independent.

The Independent was able to reach one Syrian fighter who said he was in Azerbaijan. He claimed he was too frightened of his brigade commanders to disclose details of his recruitment and activities but said he was eager to come home.

The Independent was also sent What’s App voice messages by Syrians in Azerbaijan visiting a wounded comrade there, whose family members were interviewed by The Independent.

An unverified video shared on social media showing Syrian fighters talking about being in Armenia, was geo-located by analysts to an Azerbaijani base in Horadiz just a few kilometres from the front line.

Another video showed a young Syrian man on the frontline who was identified by Syria expert Elizabeth Tsurkov as Mustafa Qanti, 23, from the Turkish-backed Hamza Division. The footage was geo-located by a well known open-source expert to an Azeri ammunition depot just south of Horadiz in the combat zone.

The conflict erupted last month over the disputed breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh which is internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan has been historically associated with Armenia and for more than a quarter of a century has been run by its mostly ethnic Armenian inhabitants.

So far at least 360 have been confirmed killed in the hostilities, the worst to grip the region since 1994 when a truce ended a lengthy war. The death toll is thought to be significantly higher. Syrians claim dozens, if not hundreds of Syrian mercenaries have also perished. Fighters in Syria and sources who say their friends and relatives are in Azerbaijan claimed around 60 people, including Mohammed, were killed in one barrage of shelling on 1 and 2 October. The Independent was unable to verify this.

International powers have increasingly voiced alarm over allegations that Syrian fighters are being deployed to the Caucasus conflict. France’s Emmannuel Macron and Russian officials have called attention to the allegations, though they have not provided intelligence substantiating the claims. “It is a very serious new fact, which changes the situation,” Macron said last week.

Hassan Rouhani, president of neighbouring Iran, was also quoted as voicing concern that the same Syrian “terrorist groups” Iran spent years fighting in its efforts to buttress Bashar al-Assad's Damascus dictatorship were now reportedly turning up at its borders.

This year the United Nations panel of experts said Turkey had recruited 5000 Syrian fighters from Turkish-backed brigades to fight alongside the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, while an additional 1200 Syrians who support the Assad regime were recruited by Russian security contractors to fight for the GNA’s rival Khalifa Haftar.

After nearly a decade of ruinous civil war, many Syrian households in opposition areas go hungry if male family members do not join brigades within Syria, and now, increasingly abroad.

Armenia AzerbaijanCopyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
Armenia AzerbaijanCopyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Abu Mohammed, 37, an ex-fighter from Eastern Ghouta, who claims his cousin is currently hospitalised in Azerbaijan after being injured on the frontline, said he desperately tried to be recruited himself but was rejected because of an old injury. He said Syrians frequently beg for food from Turkish bases in northern Syria because they were so hungry.

“The armed factions do not even need to try,” he said. “Extreme poverty here is recruiting on their behalf.”

“I’m desperate to the point of preferring to go to the front in Azerbaijan than stay in Idlib. At least if I am killed my family can receive compensation,” he added bitterly.

But as the body bags have been rolling in, there has been push back among many families, who have tried to deter impoverished men from signing up.

Anger and resentment have only soared as families have not received the salary or compensation when their relatives were killed in Azerbaijan.

In one instance Kinan Firzat, an ex-Syrian army captain turned rebel and then Sultan Murad mercenary apparently lasted just two days in Azerbaijan before he and five members of his team were blown up last week. But his wife and four children have yet to receive any of his pay or compensation, according to people from his hometown in Ar-Rastan.

Another Syrian, Tarek, from Idlib who initially signed up through his brigade told The Independent his team pulled out at the last minute, when they realised they would be fighting alongside Shia.

Neil Hauer, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute who is currently in Armenia, said the Syrians were not well trained and were “getting mowed down”. He said he was sceptical at first because Azerbaijan does not need more manpower but there was too much “hard evidence” showing the Syrians to ignore.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting over the disputed region of Nagorno-KarabakhThe Independent
Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting over the disputed region of Nagorno-KarabakhThe Independent

“Turkish forces are replicating what they did in Libya but the conflict here is completely different as two professional state armies are involved,’ he told The Independent.

“The Syrians are completely expendable when they are there. The battlefield value of these guys is very limited,” he added.

And that is why Omar says he has started an “awareness campaign” and has even taken to posting Armenian propaganda videos of the ferocity and futility of the fighting in Syrian social media groups.

“Why are we fighting there? We do not even know where Azerbaijan is,” he told The Independent, admitting that few can even spell the name of the country.

“Our young people have become a cheap commodity in the business of war.”

“They are losing their lives for the interests of other nations.”

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