The Role of Foreign Fighters in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Following the violent escalation of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the region has witnessed an inflow of foreign fighters and volunteers supporting each faction. On the one hand, members of the Armenian diaspora have traveled to the Caucasus, answering the call of Yerevan to defend the disputed land. On the other, the magazine Foreign Policy mentioned 1,500 Turkish-backed Syrian fighters deployed on the Azerbaijani side. Nationalist narratives played a significant role in the radicalization of both sides, but the foreign contribution of non-state actors is different in the two cases. While those from the Armenian diaspora are volunteers, the Syrian fighters are not. Some of the media called them jihadists but in fact, they are motivated by high salaries and not by ideology. Armenia succeeded in mobilizing international militants; by contrast, Azerbaijan relied on what the press defined as foreign mercenaries, also because the political and cultural conditions of the conflict make it unlikely that Islamist fighters will join the side of the Azerbaijani.

Regional alliances are also different. The main military partner of Azerbaijan is Turkey. The alignment between Baku and Ankara is due to common political interests, such as hostility towards Armenia, but also to a shared culture: both countries speak Turkic languages and feel part of a broader identity. This ethnic bond includes several communities from Central Asia, but also from Syria, where important Turkmen minorities live. Armenia, by contrast, is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance. Moscow considers Armenia a strategic ally in the South Caucasus region, also for military projection towards the Middle East. Armenia hosts two Russian military facilities in Gyumri and at the Erebuni airport, as well as FSB border guard personnel.

In the aftermath of the recent escalation between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, reports emerged about the deployment of foreign fighters from Turkey. As The Times reported, these were Syrian mercenaries recruited by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to assist the Azerbaijani military. Although no official data were provided by Ankara, press sources estimate several hundred, up to 1,200-1,500 fighters. They were offered approximately 1,500 to 2,000 USD monthly, a huge salary compared to what they could earn in Syria. In any case, Baku officially denied the presence of Syrian fighters.

Russia accused Turkey of sending “foreign terrorists and mercenaries” to the warzone and warned that if Nagorno-Karabakh falls, it could become an Islamist stronghold. French President Emmanuel Macron said Syrians from jihadist groups have transited through Gaziantep to reach Azerbaijan. Technically, though, it would be more accurate to talk about mercenaries, rather than jihadists. Some of them might even hold jihadist views, but the reason they accepted enlisting for Azerbaijan is money, not ideology. Most of the fighters are from brigades belonging to the so-called Syrian National Army, a rebel coalition in Turkish-occupied Syria, in particular the Sultan Murad Division, whose members have been geolocated in the Azerbaijani military base of Horadiz, but also from the Hamza Division and the Sultan Suleyman Shah brigade – Al Amshat militia.

The Sultan Murad Division is a Syrian-Turkmen rebel group that fought against the Assad regime and the Kurdish-led SDF. The group is involved in war crimes and receives support from Turkey. Some of its members were previously deployed by Ankara in Libya. The Hamza Division is a Turkish-trained Syrian rebel group that participated in the 2018 Operation Olive Branch to conquer the Afrin canton held by the Kurds. Hamza’s members were sent to Libya too. The Al Amshat faction is a militia operating in the Afrin canton with mafia-like methods; it is led by Muhammad al Jassim, also known as Abu Amsha, commander of the Suleyman Shah Syrian-Turkmen brigade.

The Syrian fighters have suffered heavy casualties in Nagorno-Karabakh. At least 64 died and many others have been wounded following the Armenian bombardments over the frontline of the disputed area. Many of the mercenaries started to become demoralized and feel tricked by the Turkish government, after being told they were being dispatched as border guards or security personnel. This shows an important difference from jihadist volunteers, whose morale is boosted by religious fanaticism and Salafist preachers. However, as the conflict escalates, the role of foreign fighters and foot soldiers might become less relevant, frustrated by the power of ballistic missiles and artillery.

There is little chance for Baku to welcome Islamist fighters and jihadist volunteers. The vast majority of Azerbaijan’s population is Shia but not particularly religious. Turkey is mainly Sunni, but the two countries share a culture of Turkic languages. Also, Turkey was the first country to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991 and is a key player for its oil and gas exports. Nevertheless, the Shia majority in Azerbaijan is a major obstacle to drawing the attention of radical Islamists from abroad. Even Syrian mercenaries knew little about Azerbaijan before being deployed there. A message shared by a rebel in northern Syria suggests hostility: “We can’t fight alongside the Shias. I understand if you want to go to Azerbaijan, and it’s not a problem. I know financially, things are hard. But the Shias are our enemies more than the Christians and Jews”. An organized jihadist movement in support of Baku is therefore unrealistic. Azerbaijan might rather count on a network of ethnic solidarity from the Turkic language-speaking countries and Turkmen minorities.

Regarding Salafist terrorist groups, the Islamic State is a fierce enemy of Shias and considers Ilham Aliyev a secularist and corrupt president. Al Qaeda won’t side with Baku either, despite more “moderate” views on Shias, because the war is seen as an inter-state problem, rather than a religious war. The notorious jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi stated that dying for Nagorno-Karabakh would not guarantee martyrdom. Al Maqdisi condemns Turkey as a secular state and a NATO member and considers Erdogan a taghut, a tyrant, as well as his regional allies, like Aliyev. Other Salafist preachers, though, such as the Saudi Abdullah al Muhaysini, support Ergodan’s strategy in Syria and might influence some Islamists to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, it is unknown whether Baku is willing to accept Islamist volunteers among its ranks.

On the other side, the government of Armenia has fostered nationalist propaganda and victimization, advocating international intervention in defense of Nagorno-Karabakh, the so-called Artsakh Republic. The information war has contributed to radicalizing public opinion, especially among young people (with few – but maybe worth mentioning – exceptions). While prominent members of the Armenian diaspora, such as Kim Kardashian, denounced the Azerbaijani attacks, in central Yerevan big screens showed heroic scenes from the frontline. Armenia’s official Twitter account, run by the foreign ministry, tweeted a picture of an Orthodox priest holding an assault rifle and across, with the caption “Faith & Power!”, in the attempt to mobilize Orthodox Christians in the war. More than one footage emerged of horrific scenes from the battlefield, showing Armenian veterans and reservists celebrating near dozens of Azerbaijani bodies. The rival propaganda from the two governments contributed to the acts of brutality and war crimes shown in several videos circulating on Twitter and other social networks. A number of volunteers from the diaspora answered the call of the authorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert, including Greek-Armenians. According to Radio France International, around 30 foreign fighters arrived from Lebanon, Syria and even Latin America. The Union of Armenians in Russia allegedly compiled a list of 20.000 volunteers willing to join the fighting. The Yazidi community of Armenia, which amounts to a few ten thousand, established a unit of volunteers to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh, many of whom have been wounded in battle. Iran, where millions of ethnic Azerbaijanis live, warned the international community that the conflict could escalate into a regional war.

In conclusion, the role of foreign fighters in the conflict is multifaceted and complex. Armenia attracted many volunteers from the diaspora; the nationalist narrative seems to have radicalized Armenians about a sort of holy war for the homeland. Azerbaijan deployed hundreds of Syrian-Turkmen mercenaries provided by Turkey, but they were not motivated by ideologies and should not be considered jihadists. Given the Shia affiliation of Azerbaijan, Salafi-jihadist groups such as the Islamic State or Al Qaeda will not meddle in the conflict, but pan-Islamist preachers and Erdogan’s clerics might persuade Muslim militants to join the Azerbaijani side against a Christian enemy such as Armenia.

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