By Staff, WSJ
Hundreds of Syrian militants that are allied with Turkey joined the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and hundreds more are preparing to go, according to two Syrians involved in the effort.
Turkey quickly declared its support for Azerbaijan in the escalating conflict between two former Soviet republics near the border with Russia—an area in which Moscow has historically been the dominant influence.
On Monday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu raised the issue of Middle East militants in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar. And on Tuesday, Russia warned of the possible “transfer of armed terrorists” from the Middle East to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkish officials didn’t immediately comment on Moscow’s statement. But the Turkish Foreign Ministry said earlier this month that accusations it was involved in sending Syrian militants to the Caucasus were “baseless.”
Azeri officials have also denied using foreign mercenaries.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have been fighting intermittently for three decades over Nagorno-Karabakh, a province populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians but internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan. A truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan brokered by Russia on Saturday has failed to stop the fighting, with each side accusing the other of violations. Officials from both sides said dozens of civilians had been killed and scores wounded since the conflict erupted last month.
After skirmishes first flared in Nagorno-Karabakh in July, word spread among Syrian armed factions that Turkey was enlisting militants to go fight in the enclave, according to four people with direct knowledge of the sign-ups.
A Syrian militant involved in deployments said militants had been traveling there since mid-September—before the latest round of clashes—in groups of up to 100 at a time. Another Syrian with ties to the militant groups also estimated hundreds had gone. Dozens have also returned, alarmed by the fierce fighting, that person added.
Turkey organized two weeks of land and aerial military drills in Azerbaijan after the July skirmishes and supplied the Azeri government with attack drones, according to Turkish officials. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, has said the Turkish aircraft has given his country’s military an edge in the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting.
Turkey has enlisted Syrian militants to advance its foreign-policy objectives before. Earlier this year, Ankara sent about 5,000 Syrian militants to support the internationally recognized government in Libya’s civil war, according to a June report released by the US War Department.