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Turkey hiring Syrian rebels to fight Armenians for Azerbaijan, Guardian claims as Baku calls mercenary reports ‘nonsense’

Idlib is Syria’s northwestern province, and the last bastion of the Turkish-backed militants once hoping to effect regime change in Damascus. It is there the recruitment drive for Azerbaijan began a month ago, three rebels told the Guardian’s Bethan McKernan. Two brothers from Azaz said they had been summoned to a camp in Afrin on September 13 and told by a commander in the Sultan Murad Division that three- or six-month contracts were available “guarding observation posts and oil and gas facilities” in Azerbaijan for 7,000-10,000 Turkish lira a month. 

That works out to roughly $900-1300 a month, and is a princely sum compared to the monthly wage of 450-550 Turkish lira a month ($57-70) that Ankara pays the militants to fight against the government of President Bashar Assad.

“Our leader told us that we won’t be fighting, just assisting in guarding some areas,” said one of the men, whom the outlet named as Muhammad. “Our salaries aren’t enough for living, so we see it a great opportunity to make money.”

“There are no jobs available,” added his brother, Mahmoud. “I used to work as a tailor in Aleppo but since we were displaced to Azaz, I’ve tried many times to practise my craft but my family and I can’t earn enough.” 

It was implied that the militants would be taking the job, though they could not say what exactly it entailed, for how long, when they were expected to leave – or even the name of the Turkish security company officially hiring them.

Another militant, who also asked for his name to be changed, said he and 150 other men were summoned to Afrin on September 22, but then told their departure had been delayed. He had promised $200 from the first paycheck to a local broker to sign him up for the job.

“When we first started being offered work abroad in Libya, people were afraid to go there, but now there are definitely thousands of us who are willing to go to either Libya or Azerbaijan,” he told the Guardian.

Reuters also reported the recruitment of Syrian militants on Monday, citing two of the fighters who had fought for Ahrar al-Sham jihadists, and volunteered for Azerbaijan after being promised $1,500 a month. 

“I didn’t want to go, but I don’t have any money. Life is very hard and poor,” one of the militants told Reuters. The agency said it could not independently verify their accounts.

Turkey has previously been accused of sending Syrian militants to Libya, to fight for the Turkish-backed government against the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar. On Monday, the Armenian ambassador to Russia said that around 4,000 militants from northern Syria were sent by Turkey to Azerbaijan, as fighting broke out over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

An aide to Azeri President Ilham Aliyev dismissed those claims as “complete nonsense” and “another provocation from the Armenian side.” A source in the Turkish defense ministry likewise told the Guardian that Ankara “does not deal with recruiting or transfering militiamen anywhere in the world,” but would not go on the record.

The Guardian cited unnamed sources in the Syrian National Army as saying that a first group of some 500 Syrian militants has already arrived in Azerbaijan, including senior commanders Fahim Eissa of the Sultan Murad Division and Saif Abu Bakir of the Al Hamza. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed as many as 1,000 fighters could be headed for Azerbaijan. The Guardian said it could not verify either of those claims.

Some of the men who went to Libya said they had been told they would be working as security guards, but ended up fighting on the front lines instead. They also said their commanders would take up to 20 percent of their wages.

Nagorno-Karabakh is one of several border disputes left over from the collapse of the Soviet Union. An enclave predominantly populated by Armenians, it seceded from Azerbaijan in 1988 and declared itself the Republic of Artsakh following a bitter war in 1992-94. 

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