The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan last year over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and its environs resulted in a decisive victory for Azerbaijan, which recaptured substantial parts of the territory and its environs through military advances and then the concessions negotiated in a ceasefire agreement that was brokered by Russia in November 2020. The conflict would likely not have attracted the attention of many observers had it not been for Turkey's support for Azerbaijan and the controversies surrounding Turkey's deployments of Syrian rebel fighters who operate under the framework of the 'Syrian National Army' backed by Turkey.
Despite the denials by Turkey and Azerbaijan, the deployment of the Syrian rebel fighters on the side of Azerbaijan in the conflict is established clearly by open-source evidence through techniques such as geolocation of photos and video footage, even if one wants to disregard testimonials of Syrians who say they went to fight. The earliest credible reports of deployment of Syrian rebel fighters to Azerbaijan go back to late August 2020, to my knowledge. This predates the outbreak of the most intense round of fighting in the conflict by about a month.
In my case, I was able to interview yesterday one such person who says he fought in Azerbaijan, and I think this interview should serve as an interesting companion to the one with the Syrian rebel fighter deployed in Libya.
Some points to consider with regards to the testimony from this interview:
. What are the promises made to the Syrian rebel fighters who have gone to participate in these conflicts? Who makes the promises to try to persuade them to go? Are the promises consistent and relayed in the same way to all the fighters? For example, I note here a clear distinction made with regards to promises of Turkish nationality: namely, that it is something promised (for example) to families of Syrian rebel fighters killed alongside the Turkish military in operations inside Syria, but not to Syrian rebel fighters who have gone to Libya and Azerbaijan. One should compare with reports from 2018 about Turkey's supposed grants of money and nationality to families of fighters who were killed in the 'Olive Branch' operations in the Afrin region against the Syrian Democratic Forces.
. Why do some groups of the Syrian National Army deploy fighters and not others? Some groups consistently turn up in the reports of deployment of Syrian rebel fighters to Libya and Azerbaijan, such as the Sultan Murad (Second Legion of the Syrian National Army) and the Sultan Suleiman Shah (First Legion of the Syrian National Army) groups, while others (such as the Shami Front that constitutes the majority of groups of the Third Legion) are conspicuously absent. Could this tell us something about the relations of the commanders of these groups with Turkey? Is it an ethnic issue (e.g. Syrian Turkmen ties with Turkey)?
Below is the interview I conducted. It is slightly edited and condensed for clarity. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Q: First, when did you go to Azerbaijan? And for what reasons did you go? What were the promises exactly?
A: Brother, I went to Azerbaijan in the eighth month [August 2020]. The reason I went there is to fight the Armenian Army. With regards to the promises, the salary they told us $2500 but as usual they did not give us the thing they promised us. They gave us 12,000 Turkish liras [c. $1600]. I remained there for a month and 25 days and from there I returned because of a wound I received in my hand and my thigh. And until now I am in a stage of treatment for my hand. I returned to Syria and when the battles ended I was compensated with a sum of 15,000 Turkish liras [c. $2000]. I was with the Sultan Murad faction, but in truth it is said that the commander of the division is a good man but we have a problem we all suffer from and it is why they do not give us our entitlements in their entirety with regards to the salary?
Q: With regards to the salary the promise was $2500 each month?
A: Supposedly yes.
Q: What are the formations that went to Azerbaijan? And did they promise you Turkish nationality?
A: The formations are the al-Hamza Division, Suleiman Shah or what is known as the al-Amshat [NB: nickname of the Suleiman Shah formation], Sultan Murad. Brother with regards to Turkish nationality, there is a mechanism of work with the Turkish brothers and it is that the one who fights outside the Syrian lands with the Turkish army only gets financial compensation, and the one who is martyred with them inside the Syrian lands is granted compensation and nationality [i.e. for the deceased's family], and likewise the wounded of the war who have been wounded inside the Syrian lands like the wounded of Olive Branch [Afrin operations in 2018]. Note that they have until now not taken anything.
Q: In what areas did you fight and what was the number of martyrs?
A: Regarding the areas, excuse me, I have not known them exactly, but we reached the Iranian borders such that the Iranians struck us. As for the number of martyrs, it is between 300 and 400 approximately.
Q: How would you describe the role of the Syrian fighters in the battles? Were they tantamount to elite forces?
A: In general, yes.
Q: Can you clarify more?
A: Brother, believe me, regardless of everything today, the Free Syrian Army can be organised and looked after, and the first obstacle in our face is the salaries. Do you know sir that the member of Bashar's army receives a salary more than the Free Army? The members of the Free Army gain experience day after day even as there are some mistakes, but we can overcome them.
Q: I mean is it possible you can clarify the role of the members of the Syrian National Army in the Azerbaijan battles? You said that their role is tantamount to elite forces? And with regards to the fighters who went, most of them were veterans from the past years or new recruits?
A: They had an active role, and perhaps one can place them in this position as tantamount to elite forces. There are veterans and there are new recruits. I will explain to you a story, is it possible you can listen to me?
Q: Yes go ahead.
A: We were in Azerbaijan and we had an assault on a graveyard of the Armenians. The commando forces met with the commanders of the Free Army and they were going to cancel the assault. They put three months as deadline to seize the graveyard. After that we met as leaders of contingents with the leaders of the factions: do you know that we took the graveyard during 30 minutes?
Q: Really? So the advance in general during the campaign was much quicker than was expected.
A: The grace is to God and then to the Bayraktar aircraft [a drone of Turkish origin].
Q: Yes, the drones were very important.
Q: Do you consider the intervention in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia something justified?
A: Yes, more than Libya.
Q: What do you say to those who consider you mercenaries?
A: When you see the mosques filled with pigs, sheep and cows, may evil befall me whatever name they call us.
Q: And what do you say to those who say it is forbidden to fight in support of a Shi'i state (Azerbaijan, that is)?
A: Azerbaijan is a Muslim state whose sect is Sunni but by virtue of the control of the rule of the mullahs and its force and the nearness of the two states to each other, they adopted the Shi'i madhhab and at the same time Azerbaijan is not entirely Shi'a.
Q: What do you think of the Armenians? Were the Syrian fighters who went convinced of the necessity of fighting Armenia? And on what basis?
A: Utterly convinced. Do you know why? Because we are a people on fitra [original state of humans in Islamic teaching]. Believe me brother, you are an Iraqi man and I am a Syrian. The Syrian people are very good and what happened to them is that the oppression of the Assad regime destroyed us. If the displaced people return to their homes, believe me no one will go to any state for the sake of fighting.
Q: Fine, but what I mean is were the fighters convinced about fighting Armenia in terms of creed [/ideology]? Or was the main reason hunger and bad economic circumstances in Syria?
A: In the beginning the reason was the hunger, but when we arrived and we saw what we saw, matters differed. Of course sir, you know the living situation in Syria is very bad.
Q: Yes true, so how did the matter differ after arriving to the land of the battle?
A: The matter differed because there is oppression of the Muslims present there.
Q: Do you have a message for the world that has condemned your participation in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
A: No thanks.
(Update 16 January 2021): Alexander McKeever points out to me that rumours of registration of Syrian fighters to deploy in Azerbaijan were circulated in mid-August 2020.