ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey is sending Syrian rebels to support Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia, two said after Ankara pledged to strengthen support for its ally.
Clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which began over the weekend, have become the worst since 2016, with dozens of people killed and hundreds injured.
The Armenian Ambassador to Russia said that Turkey had deployed about 4,000 militants from northern Syria to Azerbaijan, which was denied by the aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
Armenia on Monday also accused Turkey of its military specialists fighting “side by side with Azerbaijan” in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, saying that Istanbul provided Baku with military equipment.
In response, Azerbaijan said that this information is not true. Turkey has not yet commented on these reports, although senior officials, including President Tayyip Erdogan, have pledged to support Baku.
Two fighters from Turkish-backed rebel groups in Turkish-controlled areas in northern Syria said they were being transferred to Azerbaijan in coordination with Ankara.
They spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. Reuters was unable to independently verify their words.
“I didn't want to go, but I have no money. Living in poverty is very difficult,” said a fighter who fought in Syria for the Ahrar al-Sham group, which was supported by Turkey.
$ 1.500 PER MONTH
Both men said their commanders told them that they would earn about $ 1,500 a month – a large salary for Syria, whose economy has been devastated by the civil war.
One fighter said he negotiated an appointment with an official from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) in Afrin, a region in northwestern Syria that had been captured by Turkey and Syrian rebels two years ago.
A SNA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Another fighter, from the Jaysh al-Nukhba group, said he was told that almost 1,000 Syrians would be transferred to Azerbaijan. Other rebels, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, talked about the transfer of 700-1000 people.
Two men who spoke to Reuters last week said they expect to be dispatched on September 25 to guard facilities, but not for military action. Reuters was unable to contact them on Monday to confirm their whereabouts.
Hikmat Hajiyev, aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev for foreign policy, called this statement “complete nonsense”: “Our armed forces have more than enough personnel and reserve forces.”
Rivalry with Russia
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar attended joint military exercises in Azerbaijan in August, and in a speech at the UN General Assembly last week, Erdogan accused Armenia of attacking his neighbor.
The Turkish lira fell to a record low on Monday amid growing concerns about Turkey's involvement in the conflict.
Senior Syrian rebel Mustafa Sejari did not confirm reports of the transfer of fighters to Azerbaijan, but said Turkey is “the only hope” left to opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who recaptured most of the country with the support of Russia and Iran.
“Our alliance with Turkey takes various forms and is indeed a common destiny,” he said. “I do not rule out that Turkey will become a strategic choice for Syrian youth.”
Turkey has already used Syrian fighters to help block the advance of the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, supported by Russia, on the Libyan capital Tripoli.
Their use in Azerbaijan will create a third theater for the regional rivalry between Turkey and Moscow, which has a military base in Armenia, considers Yerevan a strategic partner in the South Caucasus and supplies it with weapons. The Russian Federation did not comment on reports about the sending of Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow is following the situation very closely and that the conflict must be resolved through diplomacy.
(Nailya Bagirova and Suleiman al-Khalidi with the participation of Dominic Evans; Translated by Caleb Davis. Editor Dmitry Antonov)