The head of Russia’s foreign intelligence, Sergei Naryshkin, said: “We have to be concerned about the South Caucasus becoming a new launch pad for international terrorist organisations.”
Russia is not concealing its displeasure with Ankara’s transfer of hundreds of Syrian mercenaries to the Azeri-Armenian battlefield in the dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Relations between the two countries have soured as Ankara’s moves stir up crises in areas of traditional Russian influence and show an intent to compete with Moscow in places like Syria and Libya.
The head of Russia’s foreign intelligence, Sergei Naryshkin, warned on Tuesday that the escalating conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave was attracting thousands of Islamic extremists who pose a threat to Moscow.
Naryshkin said that the conflict that broke out on September 27 is attracting people from the Middle East whom he described as “mercenaries and terrorists.”
He referred to operatives from the Organisation for the Liberation of the Levant, more commonly referred to as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is active in Syria and was previously known as the Al-Nusra Front, as well as from the Hamza Division, the Sultan Murad Division and Kurdish extremist groups he did not name.
“We are talking about hundreds, if not thousands, of militants who are looking to make money in a new war in Karabakh,” Naryshkin said in a statement posted on the Russian foreign intelligence’s website.
“We have to be concerned about the South Caucasus becoming a new launch pad for international terrorist organisations, where the militants could later cross over to neighbouring countries of Azerbaijan and Armenia, including Russia,” he added.
Syrian President Bashar Assad accused his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday of igniting a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and said that Ankara was sending fighters to the region.
In an interview with the Russian Information Agency, Assad said, “Erdogan supports terrorists in Libya, and he was the main instigator of the recent conflict in Nagorny Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia.”
Assad added that fighters from Syria were transferred to the conflict zone, echoing an accusation first made by French President Emmanuel Macron, who blamed Turkey for sending Syrian jihadists to fight there. Ankara and Baku have denied the accusations.
Assad said Damascus could “confirm” the participation of Syrian fighters in the conflict.
Observers believe Assad’s statements provide justification for Russia to show its anger at the Turks’ use of the mercenary card in Russia’s traditional areas of influence.
They also noted that Moscow will seek to use the card of Islamic extremists, mentioned by Assad and before him Macron, to put pressure on Turkey, which has yet to find anyone willing to stand up to its strategy of building influence in different regions in defiance of international laws.
These observers believe that Russian-Turkish coordination in Syria and Libya was governed by different circumstances, most importantly that the arenas were not in their backyards.
This time, however, the competition has moved to a field historically tied to Russia. This has angered Moscow because Turkey’s challenge affects its image as a mediator and guarantor of the implementation of agreements between the republics that were once members of the now-defunct Soviet Union.
It is still unclear why Ankara continues to rely on the services of fighters who have lost wars in their own countries and whose sole motivation now is to make money fighting other peoples’ wars. Could they really win these wars?
News reports about Turkey moving Syrian mercenaries from Libya to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan are no longer mere speculation or interpretations. They have been confirmed by credible international intelligence and media outlets.
Athens newspaper Greek City Times reported that American journalist Lindsey Snell, who was once kidnapped by Turkish-backed Syrian groups in northern Syria, wrote on Twitter that fighters belonging to the Hamza Division had arrived in the Azerbaijani capital Baku coming from Turkey.
Snell revealed that these mercenaries came mostly from Syria, but about 70 of them were also in Libya.
She also released an audio recording of one of the militants saying that up to 1,000 fighters would be transferred to Azerbaijan.
A former rebel who participated in the Syrian civil war told British newspaper The Times that Turkey had recruited about 200 of his comrades to fight with the Azeris.
Mohamed Mahmoud Sourani, a member of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army in Idlib, said he had registered to join them.
Sourani added that the Turkish army had not forced anyone to register to fight, but given the conditions of hunger and poverty in Idlib, signing up for the war was the only way for some young people and parents to earn money.
He explained that these men have been shaped by years of battles against pro-Assad forces, including the Russians.
“Are they mercenaries? Yeah. But I cannot blame the men who went to Azerbaijan because I know that they were forced by the (deteriorating) economic situation,” Sourani said. These mercenaries were told that they would be used as guards, police officers and frontline fighters.
Sourani, however, ended up changing his mind and decided not to go. “One of the reasons that led me to change my mind was that we have fought Shia militias for ten years here in Syria, so why do we go now to fight for the Shia-majority in Azerbaijan?” he explained. “I want Turkey to stop exploiting our poverty. Syrian men are being exploited, while the Syrians seek peace, not war.”
Sourani said that he had lost contact with the fighters who went to Azerbaijan because they were not allowed to keep their phones.