Further evidence is emerging of rebels from Syria being recruited to fight as mercenaries in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
CNN spoke to a Syrian national who has been signed up to travel from northern Syria to Azerbaijan. The man, who declined to provide his real name, said he was living in the Afrin area of northern Syria but was originally from Damascus.
He said he belonged to a faction of the rebel Syrian National Army, which is backed by Turkey. Its leader had asked those prepared to go to Azerbaijan to register. “I voluntarily did that and 90% of my unit signed up,” he told CNN via WhatsApp. “They told us that they will give us $1,500 a month.
“Our contracts are for three months, and every month we will be getting paid by the unit commander,” he said, adding that he didn’t know who was funding the operation.
The fighter contacted by CNN said volunteers were gathering in the Hawar Kilis area near the Syria-Turkey border awaiting transportation. The crossing is controlled by a faction of the Syrian National Army.
CNN reached out to the Turkish government for a response on whether it is recruiting Syrian fighters to go to Azerbaijan. The Foreign Ministry said they were “baseless allegations.”
The Foreign Ministry in Azerbaijan also denied Syrian fighters were on Azeri soil, and spoke of “a completely false and slanderous smear campaign in some foreign media, allegedly in connection with the import of fighters from Syria to Azerbaijan.” It said Armenia was behind the allegations.
The fighter contacted by CNN, a father of three, said his family was living below the poverty line. He was prepared to travel to Azerbaijan “because of the money, and all the world knows that the Syrians living here are dying of hunger.”
To begin with, the man thought the volunteers would be involved in guard duty “but after the first batch of fighters went to Azerbaijan, we learned it was about fighting like the fighting in Syria and Libya.”
“We learned it’s war and not work for a security company,” he said.
The man said he had heard that “around 1,000 fighters or more” had been signed up. “None of my relatives have went in the first batch, but I know guys who went in the first batch,” he told CNN. He had also heard that some Syrians had been killed in Azerbaijan.
The man, who used to be a carpenter, said he wanted life to return to normal and was only going to Azerbaijan for the money. “I wish that the war will stop in Azerbaijan and Armenia but the only work is security work and that way I still can provide food and living for my children.”
CNN reported earlier this year that dozens of Syrian rebels had been recruited by Turkish military contractors to fight on behalf of the transitional government in Libya.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in February that members of the Syrian National Army had gone to Libya to support the government.
Kareem Khadder reported from Jerusalem and Gul Tuysuz reported from Istanbul. Tim Lister wrote in Cordoba.