BY ARMEN TIGRANAKERT
The latest escalation of the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh that went out of control almost a month ago has turned out to be one of the most brutal showcases of modern warfare. International diplomatic initiatives have so far resulted in nothing more substantial than brief periods of ceasefire inevitably followed by violent clashes, with Azerbaijan insisting on ‘the final solution’ for the contested region.
The longer the conflict protracts, the more details emerge about Turkish support for the Azerbaijani campaign. Actions taken by the Turkish leadership that could be declared legal, like supplying Bayraktar TB2 UAVs to Azerbaijan, represent only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, the bulk of Turkey’s efforts have been in direct and blatant contradiction with the international law. The most telling example of this dangerous and provocative behavior is Turkey’s role in deploying fighters from Syria to Azerbaijan to use them as shock troops where clashes are the heaviest.
The presence of the Syrian fighters in Nagorno Karabakh was initially vehemently denied by both Turkish and Azerbaijani officials and remained unconfirmed until multiple photos and videos taken by the Syrians themselves emerged on social media. After the evidence became widely available, the story of the Syrian mercenaries gained traction in the media. Reports published by the BBC, the Guardian and other media outlets late September confirmed that hundreds of militants traveled to Azerbaijan to fight against the Armenian forces, corroborating the news ran by Syrian media in August. However, members of the Armenian diaspora in Aleppo have recently discovered that the first groups of the Syrian mercenaries arrived in Azerbaijan as early as this February.
The information indicates that dozens of fighters whose general appearance and behavior closely resembled those of the members of Turkey-backed factions of the Syrian National Army (SNA) arrived at Nakhichivan and Sumgait late February and early March on buses belonging to a Turkish transportation company Aras. Another group arrived at Nakhichivan in April.
Since then, Turkey has continued to send small groups of the Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan for at least six months. Certain units made up of Syrians disguised as Azerbaijani soldiers have even participated in Turkey-Azerbaijan joint military drills that took place this August, two months before the escalation in Nagorno Karabakh.
Another interesting detail that has not been disclosed previously is that Azerbaijan hosted not only members of the factions known for their close affiliation with Turkey, like Sultan Murad and Suleiman Shah, who used to fight on Turkey’s behalf in Libya, but also Uighurs from the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). TIP is an internationally designated terrorist organization with the headquarters in the city of Jisr al-Shughur in the Syrian province of Idlib. Before their departure for Azerbaijan the terrorists were taken to Al-Janoudiya village in Idlib where they were given military training. After that, around 30 Uighur fighters accompanied by their families took a Turkish Airlines flight to Baku from Antakya airport. Unlike the members of Sultan Murad and other SNA groups made up of Syrian Turkmen who receive up to $2,000 a month for fighting in Nagorno Karabakh, the Uighurs are paid only $500-700 by the Turkish authorities.
Turkish involvement in the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh has not been discreet from the very beginning. However, new evidence reveals that the scale of planning and preparation for the joint Turkey-Azerbaijan campaign has been much wider than it was initially believed. Moreover, Ankara facilitated movement of a designated terror group’s members, creating preconditions for appearance of another hotbed of international terrorism in the Transcaucasian region. It is in the interests of regional and global stability that Turkey bears responsibility for this delinquent behavior.