(PONARS Eurasia Commentary) From the beginning of the escalation of the conflict in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, some accusations were aired in several European and Russian mainstream media about the involvement of Middle Eastern militants and mercenaries in the fighting. Some of the articles accused Azerbaijan and Turkey of involving Syrian militant groups in Karabakh. Other stories claimed that Yerevan had drawn in Lebanese-Armenian militants and even the (Russian) Wagner paramilitary group. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have demonized each over these months to win support and sympathy regionally and globally. A brief analysis is provided here about the (non)possibility of mercenaries and militants from the Middle East in the conflict.
In September, unclear reports from the BBC Arabic news service, Guardian, and Reuters mentioned the possibility of Syrian mercenaries in Karabakh fighting for Azerbaijan. The BBC article said an interviewed Syrian militant claimed that hundreds of residents from Turkish-controlled Syrian territories were recruited into Azerbaijan.
An article in the Independent under the title: “'We don’t even know where Azerbaijan is': The Syrian mercenaries driven by poverty to die in a distant war,” wrote about the death of fighter Mohammed Al-Shuhna in the conflict. The article claimed, without any reliable evidence and based only on records of his friends, that Al-Shuhna was killed in Azerbaijan in battle, and even that fifty similar paid fighters also died. The Asia Times, Wall Street Journal, France 24, and some other outlets (including Armenian and Russian) also ran brief stories. A somewhat common angle was that the fighters were in Karabakh at the behest of Turkey.
Accusations of Syrian mercenaries have haunted Azerbaijanis as they see stories of up to 4,000 militants and mercenaries being involved in their country. The Armenian side has claimed they captured several of them, but no evidence has been presented. The best media evidence has been some interviews with unknown Syrians.
Looking More Closely
Accounts of foreign mercenaries and militants joining the battlements are unreliable. First, thousands of “extra” troops fighting Armenians in Karabakh is nonsensical. Most of the articles claim there were about 1,000 mercenaries and some outlets such as the BBC and the Guardian wrote there were 4,000. It would take sophisticated logistics for Baku to transport and house hundreds or thousands of “hidden” fighters. (The higher the number, the higher the chance of actual photographs or videos circulating on the Internet.)
Second, it is illogical for Azerbaijan to hire mercenaries from Syria because they are not suited to the Azerbaijani terrain in terms of military specialization. Generally, Syrians have experience in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and other desert landscapes, but the conflict terrain here is mountainous and forested.
Three, to be effective in modern warfare, it is necessary to have good lines of communication with fellow soldiers. The Azerbaijani language is not Arabic and it is difficult to incorporate foreigners into the regular army. There are also high risks that a mercenary might turn his weapons on his host.
Four, most Syrian mercenaries are from Sunni-based organizations and it would be abnormal for them to fight for nominally Shi’a Azerbaijan.
Five, governments do not want unruly mercenaries in the shadows. They are difficult to control and can be dangerous to local populations. Azerbaijan has an extremely strict law against mercenary activities with a punishment of 25 years in jail.
Six, it is not the first time that accusations have been thrown at Baku from Yerevan. In 2016, after the so-called “April war” in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian and some major Russian media outlets disseminated propaganda about the involvement of ISIS on the Azerbaijani side. The goal appeared to be trying to legitimize a foreign intervention involving Russia.
Seven, over the last two decades, Azerbaijan has been an active member of anti-terror coalitions. As a U.S. State Department report writes: “In 2019, the Azerbaijani government actively worked to deter, detect, and defeat terrorist efforts to move people, money, and materials across its land.” Its army has participated with British and U.S. forces in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan and has removed jihadists from the Northern Caucasus during the Chechen-Russian war.
Eight, a verified photograph or video from the conflict zone showing Azerbaijan’s use of mercenaries would deeply impair Baku’s reputation as a reliable regional or international coalition partner.
Granted, foreign fighters continue to join forces in conflict zones around the world, however, it is unnecessary and ineffectual for Azerbaijan to use mercenaries and dangerous for the government to have any such connections. Nevertheless, articles about “Syrian recruits” can be found among European, Armenian, and Russian media outlets.