The Syrian mercenaries used as ‘cannon fodder’ in Nagorno-Karabakh
It was back in August of this year that the rumours started to circulate in rebel-held areas of northern Syria: there was well-paid work to be had overseas.
“I had a friend who told me that there is a very good job you can do, just to be at military checkpoints in Azerbaijan,” one man told me.
“They told us our mission would be to serve as sentries on the border – as peacekeepers. They were offering $2,000 a month! It felt like a fortune for us,” said another, whom I will call Qutaiba.
Both applied for the job through Turkish-backed rebel factions that make up what’s known as the Syrian National Army, a force in northern Syria opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
In an area where few earn more than $1 a day, the promised salary seemed like a godsend. It’s estimated that somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 men signed up and travelled to Azerbaijan, via Turkey, on Turkish military transport aircraft.
But the work wasn’t what it seemed. The men, many of them with no military experience, were being recruited for war – as they soon discovered when they were taken to the front line and ordered to fight.
“I didn’t expect to survive,” Qutaiba says. “It seemed like a 1% chance. Death was all around us.”
Nagorno-Karabakh is a disputed enclave that fell under Armenian control during a bloody conflict that ended in a ceasefire in 1994. Tens of thousands died and hundreds of thousands were displaced, both from the enclave itself and from surrounding territory occupied by Armenian forces. The international community has not recognised the self-declared Republic of Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh) and this year, sensing its growing military superiority, Azerbaijan decided to go on the attack.
Although Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey deny the use of mercenaries, researchers have amassed a considerable amount of photographic evidence, drawn from videos and photographs the fighters have posted online, which tells a different story.
The Syrians seem to have been deployed on the southern flank of the Azeri advance, where casualties on both sides were extremely high. The fighters I spoke to came under heavy fire and seemed to have been traumatised by their experiences. They didn’t want to be identified, for fear of reprisal from militia commanders, so I have given them different names.