Videos shared on social media show Syrians sent to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh
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The conflict that has been raging in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh since September shows no sign of abating despite repeated calls for ceasefire. Videos online show Syrian mercenaries recruited in north-east Azerbaijan into the Turkey-supported Azeri army. The Turkish and Azeri authorities have categorically denied recruiting Syrian soldiers, despite accounts of Syrian fighters published in international media outlets.
Warning: Some of the images in this article could be shocking for readers.
Azeri authorities have confirmed that at least 60 civilians have died since the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict reignited on September 27. The ceasefire established on October 18 was swiftly broken by both sides in the space of only a few hours. Turkey is supporting Azerbaijan in the conflict, and Armenia is sending financial and military resources to separatists in the disputed region.
At least four geolocated videos that have been verified by journalists and geolocation specialists show the presence of Syrian fighters sent to the front line of the conflict zone.
First video: A training camp for mercenaries
This video has been shared online on the social media app Telegram since September 25. It shows a training camp for Syrian fighters who are getting ready to leave for Azerbaijan. In the video, the young mercenaries talk to each other in accents from the north-west of Syria, according to local Syrian journalists to whom the FRANCE 24 Observers team showed the video.
Using clues in the video, a geolocation specialist who uses the online handle Obretix managed to identify where the video was filmed. It was filmed in a military training camp near the village of Hawar Kilis in northern Aleppo, not far from the Syrian border with Turkey. The camp was created by the Free Syrian Army in 2016.
geolocation of SNA mercenaries https://t.co/u8xCcmXFBw training at Hawar Kilis military crossing on the border to Turkey https://t.co/xvQ4ZFZr3a allegedly prior to their deployment to Azerbaijan (h/t @AKMcKeever) pic.twitter.com/LRQcv1VOl3Samir (@obretix) October 8, 2020
Turkey-aligned Syrian forces in Hawar Kilis already took part in ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’, a Turkish military operation conducted in north-west Syria in spring 2017 against the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Islamic State group.
Second video: Soldiers arrive in Azerbaijan
On September 27, another video emerged on Syrian social media. In the video, one can see a convoy of 4x4 vehicles with Syrian soldiers packed into the back of them. The person filming and others lining the side of the road and watching the vehicles go past shout encouragement at them in Turkish. The fighters brandish their guns and chant, “[The prophet] Mohammed [will always be] our guide!” This war cry is commonly associated with the Syrian National Army (SNA), a Turkey-backed, armed opposition group that is an offshoot of the Free Syrian Army, which was formed in 2011 to fight against the Syrian regime.
This video now floating around Telegram claims to show Syrian mercenaries in Azerbaijan and it awfully looks like it. pic.twitter.com/M0kR2QI238Woofers (@NotWoofers) September 27, 2020
The video has been circulating since September 27 on Telegram, but the date when it was filmed has not been established.
Social media users and investigative media that specialise in geolocation managed to find where this second video was filmed, using visual elements as clues: it was filmed on a street in the town of Horadiz in southern Azerbaijan, in the Karabakh region.
Red marks the location I assume the video was made from. The landmark through which I found the location was the tower of some sort in the backround. It is marked in blue in the sat. image. Also of note is the white box on the other side of the street. pic.twitter.com/MtrN1waTfULeon L. (@LeonL62342286) September 28, 2020
Third video: Mercenaries issue a call for others to join them in Azerbaijan
A third video was relayed on October 3 on local news sites in Aleppo, Syria. It was filmed by a Syrian fighter for his fellow soldiers who stayed in Syria. The video has a logo on the top right-hand side of the screen for the ‘Syrian National Army in Azerbaijan’.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to link the fighters in this video with the Sultan Murad division, a division of the National Syrian Army with Turkoman origins. The music playing on top of the video is singing praise about this particular division. The person filming tries to get his fellow soldiers to dance and pose for the camera, and they encourage soldiers still in Syria to join up. “You’re welcome here, come and join us so that we can have some fun against Armenia!” one of them says to the camera, grinning. Some of the soldiers are wearing military fatigues and carrying guns.
Fourth video: Violent clashes with Armenian soldiers
This video was filmed by a soldier who says he is part of the Hamza division, affiliated with the Farouq Brigades of the Syrian National Army created in 2011. The video was filmed around October 3 and has been shared on social media since October 10, showing the lifeless bodies of Armenian soldiers. “Praise God, here’s what they’ve looted and their ammunition. God will ensure we triumph over every pig and infidel,” he says, walking among the bodies.
Because of the potentially shocking nature of the video, we have decided to only share a link to this short extract.
#Syria-focused WhatsApp group publishes unverified footage of what looks like a dead #Armenian volunteer in #NagornoKarabakhRiam Dalati (@Dalatrm) October 4, 2020
'The swines of the Armenian Army'
The narrator says 1/2 pic.twitter.com/ZVFEtBdgsz
Alexander McKeever, a journalist from the investigative organisation Bellingcat, geolocated the video. It takes place near Marjan, a village in the south of Azerbaijan under Azeri control, close to the border with Iran.
Despite the Syrian soldiers sharing videos online showing their involvement in the conflict, both the Azeri and Turkish defence ministers have categorically denied the presence of Syrian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh.
'The ideological dimension has disappeared: the motivation now is to have a salary'
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), by October 18 at least 134 Syrian mercenaries had been killed in Azerbaijan; 92 bodies have been repatriated. SOHR also asserts that at least 2,050 combatants were transported from Syria since the beginning of the armed conflict, in groups of 400 at a time. The FRANCE 24 Observers team was not able to independently verify these claims, nor speak to a Syrian fighter.
According to the British newspaper The Independent, which spoke to Syrian fighters who went to Azerbaijan, recruitment began in July, at the start of tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The fighters were promised a sum of money between US$1,200 dollars (around €1,000) and US$1,500 dollars (around €1,250): a considerable salary in a country where an estimated 83 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to a 2019 report by the United Nations.
Fanny Alarcon covers the Middle East for the security and intelligence publication Intelligence Online. She explains:
It has almost become normal for Turkey to recycle its fighters in armed conflicts. They don’t cost a lot of money, they’re already trained: it’s easy labour.
These troops need a salary and know how to fight. Turkey officially got involved in the conflict in north-eastern Syria in 2017, 2018 and 2019. In each situation, Turkey didn’t want to bring over its own army, and instead used Syrian fighters, which could then be recycled as henchmen against the autonomous Kurdish authorities.
In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, they’re not openly supporting the conflict, like they did in Libya or in northern Syria. It’s not in the interests of the Azeri and Turkish authorities to use Syrian mercenaries: it doesn’t reflect well on them, particularly when these Syrian soldiers are filming themselves.
This video, published October 12, shows Syrian fighters on the front line in Nagorno-Karabakh. 'Go in front (…). We need more ammunition! Allah Akbar!' cries one of the mercenaries to the other soldiers.
Alarcon says that the different factions of the Syrian National Army have diverse ideological allegiances.
Each one of this groups has a position: they’re not jihadists. Turkey doesn’t employ those type of people. They are factions which formed at the beginning of the conflict and which come from north-western Syria, particularly from Aleppo. They consider themselves part of the Free Syrian Army, which was, at the time of the Syrian civil war, a moderate insurrection force against the Syrian regime and supported by countries such as France and the US. When the Syrian National Army was formed by Turkey in 2017 to bring together rebels, there was no ideological dimension anymore.
In the end, the motivating factor for Syrian mercenaries is to be paid, to have work and a salary. Some of them don’t seem sure of what they’re doing on the battlefield. Others are just mercenaries and their job is to fight.
Video of a Syrian mercenary in Azerbaijan speaking about the heavy shelling carried out by Armenian forces. I reached his cousin. The fighter is Mustafa Qanti, 23-years-old. He was recruited to go to Libya by the Hamza Division, a Turkish-backed faction. pic.twitter.com/tHdzljm02XElizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) October 3, 2020
This young mercenary, identified by the researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov as Mustapha Qanti, 23 years old, filmed this video on the front line. He had been recruited by the Hamza division, initially to go and fight in Libya. In the video he says, clearly frightened, 'God, be merciful! Shards – get down!'
Mustafa, the Syrian Hamza Division fighter, is back with another video. "God is great. The war spoils of Armenia," he declares repeatedly. pic.twitter.com/oLPQZI7hnPElizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) October 3, 2020
This is another video by Mustapha Qanti which shows him finding ammunition left behind by Armenian soldiers. Internet users identified the location of the video as near the border town of Horadiz.
'In 2020, there aren’t any factions that don’t use religious language; it’s a given'
Other videos coming out of Syria show sheikhs or leaders of different factions trying to recruit Syrians in towns in north-western Syria, a region that has been particularly affected by extreme poverty and war. This video was verified by local media Afrin Post. It was filmed in Shayk al-Hadid, a town in Aleppo province near the border with Turkey. In it, a man urges the crowd around him to sign up to fight: “Our fight in Azerbaijan is the same fight as in the Levant. It is your duty to go to fight in Libya and Azerbaijan”.
The recruitment of soldiers is done through the Turkish intelligence service, which forms the Syrian National Army and chooses the faction leaders to bring them to Turkey and Armenia [as this article by Step News Agency shows]. It’s all done through the official state-run department, and not through private companies like the Russian company Wagner, which recruited mercenaries for conflicts in the Central African Republic or in Venezuela [Mondafrique recently published an article on this]. Religious language is much more present amongst Syrians since 2011. Radicalism has grown and is a central facet of the Syrian insurrectionist forces.
In 2020, there aren’t any factions that don’t use religious language; it’s a given. The most radical groups in the Syrian rebellion forces, like Ahrar al-Sham or the former Al-Nusra Front, have become very powerful over the course of the civil war and have pushed other factions, such as the mercenaries hired by Turkey, to adopt the same language.
Yerevan said on October 25 that its total military death toll had climbed to 963 deaths. Azerbaijan does not disclose its military casualties, but said that 65 civilians have died so far. It is estimated that half of the population of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region have been displaced by the clashes.