How Syria’s rebels became Turkey’s mercenaries

Fighting in the south Caucasus again broke out on Sept. 28 when Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Each accuses the other of having started the conflict, and international actors have been actively working to bring the violence to a halt.

Tensions in the region are not new. But initial reports on the ground indicated Syrian mercenaries being deployed by Turkey to serve alongside Azeri forces, a far more recent development.

Ankara and Baku deny the claims. But various news outlets, citing Syrian rebel sources, appear to have now confirmed that fighters are being recruited for service in the Caucasus, and have been for some time. An unknown number of Syrians have since been killed in the fighting.

Engin Yüksel, research fellow with the Clingendael Institute for International Relations at the Hague, told Ahval in a podcast that, since the start of Syria’s civil war, Turkey has played a key role in organising Syrian rebel groups, over which its influence has steadily grown.

“The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was the armed opposition group mostly aligned with Turkey throughout the Syrian civil war,” Yüksel said, referring to the original armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. “In this context, the FSA took sanctuary in Turkey, and built strong networks with Western and Gulf Arab countries.”

Initially, Ankara did not hold sway over the FSA to the degree that some of its partners did. But this changed in 2016 as other powers decreased their involvement in the conflict, while Turkey took a more active role as Ankara began to prioritise containing Syria’s Kurds in the north of the country.

Since then, Turkey’s military has worked diligently to develop the combat capacity of its Syrian proxies, deploying them alongside Turkish regular forces in multiple incursions against Kurdish militants in northern Syria.

These units now fall under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army (SNA), a hodgepodge of militias that includes secularists, Syrian Turkmen, and Islamist nationalists, amongst others. Many of Ankara’s opponents, however, also accuse it of supporting jihadist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former branch of al Qaeda in Syria. And these accusations have followed the deployment of Turkey’s Syrian proxies overseas.

Yüksel, who authored a recent study on Turkey’s use of proxy forces inside Syria, insists that this characterization is not entirely accurate. Instead, jihadist elements such as HTS have often resisted full integration into Turkey’s network of Syrian allies.

However, ideological motivations often take a backseat to economic ones. And Yüksel highlighted the often-destitute conditions Syrians fighting for Turkey, who are induced by recruiters promising the possibility of Turkish citizenship or hefty contracts.

The SNA fighters “are disconnected from traditional sources of income and have insufficient support networks to live by and pay rents,” Yüksel said, adding that contracts to fight abroad were much higher than the paltry salaries offered at home.

In Libya, for example, where Turkish proxy groups have also played a role, Syrian fighters were initially ​offered ​up to $2,000 a month. While those sent to Azerbaijan are reported to have received $1,500 a month.

Yüksel added that Turkey offers additional incentives such as healthcare and Turkish nationality to those willing to take up the offer of fighting abroad. And it is this desire for material gain, rather than religious or ideological goals, that has provided the strongest motivation for SNA fighters.

This runs counter to the narrative put forward by Turkey’s opponents. Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar has accused Ankara of adding to the terrorist groups seeking to undermine the administration he heads in the east of the country.   

Armenian officials similarly characterise Syrians fighting for Azerbaijan as religious extremists. In an interview with Russian media, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accused such fighters of trying to impose sharia law in his country, although his claims have since been disputed.

But Yüksel said that it is unlikely that such Syrian fighters are drawn from the jihadist factions who cooperate with Turkey.

“While secular revolutionary and Islamic nationalist groups have been interested in these offers, the Salafi-jihadists have not taken any interest in it,” said Yüksel. Any ideological or religious dimension, he said, would more likely be background factors than a driver in recruitment.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s use of Syrian mercenaries abroad is not without other controversies.

Many of the recruits lack meaningful combat training, and are used to operating in unconventional warzones, not against well-trained conventional forces. Their deployment alongside Azerbaijan, which has invested significantly in building a modern military, has led many observers to question the utility of accepting the fighters.

The dismal human rights record of Turkey’s Syrian proxies is also a cause for concern. A recent United Nations report documented their involvement in looting, killing and otherwise terrorising local populations in northern Syria.

A similar investigation by the United States Department of Defense said ​that abuses by Turkish proxies are “likely to compound an already dangerous security environment in Libya and result in backlash from the Libyan public”.

Turkey’s recruitment of Syrian fighters also potentially violates a 2001 U.N. convention that prohibits the use of mercenaries. Turkey is not a ​signatory, but both Libya and Azerbaijan, which have received Syrian mercenaries on their territory, have ratified it.

Regardless of whether Turkey is bound by the convention, Yüksel said that there is no excuse for human rights abuses.

“Turkey and the majority of the world’s countries are not signatories of this compact. However, this should not give states the full impunity from the misery and death that comes from the use of mercenaries,” Yüksel said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.