Armenia captures two Syrian mercenaries, amid Turkish and Azerbaijani denials

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Two Syrian mercenaries captured by ethnic Armenian armed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh are now in custody, the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Al Arabiya English on Nov. 2.

They are the first two mercenaries to have been captured after over a month of fighting. Turkey and Azerbaijan continue to deny their presence.

The two men came from the provinces of Idlib and Hama in Syria where they were recruited and promised a monthly salary of $2,000, they told the Armenian Public Prosecutor’s office. According to their testimonies, they then crossed the border in Turkey and boarded a civilian airplane bearing the Azerbaijani flag to Azerbaijan.

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Yousef Alabed Alhajji, 28, a farmer from Idlib who cannot read or write, told interrogators that he was recruited in Syria alongside 500 others. Muhrab Muhammad Al-Shkheir, 45, who lives in a displacement camp in Syria, said that recruitment began in mid-September, before the conflict.

The pair said they were required to travel without identification documents, and that they did not encounter issues at any border crossing or airport. “The [authorities] knew who we were and they did not ask for our IDs,” said Al Shkheir of the Turkish police and Azerbaijani military officers he encountered on the journey.

The testimonies of both prisoners have yet to be verified by independent bodies. The pair were held and interrogated by the ethnic Armenian armed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh before being transferred to the Armenian authorities.

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Although they were not captured on Armenian soil, they have been charged by the Prosecutor General’s Office of Armenia for international terrorism, committing serious violations of international humanitarian law and for participating in armed conflict as a mercenary.

Yet their capture could serve as further evidence of Turkey’s recruitment of foreign mercenaries in the conflict.

Clash of civilizations

The presence of Syrian mercenaries in Nagorno-Karabakh has been a central part in the conflict’s ongoing information war.

Azerbaijan and Turkey have consistently denied reports that foreign mercenaries are on the ground. Officials point to Azerbaijan’s military and technological capacities as being sufficient enough that there is no need for mercenaries.

“We have a force of 100,000 people, with many of our troops still in reserve. Our use of sophisticated technologies means we do not rely on human resources,” an Azerbaijani diplomat told Al Arabiya English on Monday, dismissing the reports of captured prisoners as “absurd.” He accused the Armenian authorities of “preparing fake videos of prisoners.”

However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring organization, said on Tuesday that over 2,500 Syrians had joined the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh since the fighting began.

Meanwhile, Armenia has sought to portray the conflict over disputed territory as a clash of civilizations. In an interview with Al Arabiya TV, the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan described Turkey’s involvement in the conflict as “at attempt to re-establish the Ottoman Empire.”

A statement from the Prosecutor General’s Office accused Azerbaijan of recruiting “jihadist-mercenaries” with Turkish support.

Are they extremists?

In a video shot by the armed forces that captured the mercenaries, al-Hajji refers to Armenians as “kuffar,” an Islamic term for non-believers, and said he was promised an additional $100 for every Armenian’s head.

Yet the conditions under which al-Hajji was compelled to make such a confession are unclear, and he appeared bruised and unclothed in the video.

Experts have stressed that these mercenaries are motivated by financial, rather than ideological incentives.

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“These fighters, however, are not jihadists, as they are sometimes portrayed. Their willingness to fight for Turkey, a state jihadists consider to be apostate, attests to that,” wrote Syria researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov on Twitter.

In July 2020, a US Pentagon special report on counterterrorism in Africa found no links between
Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries in Libya and Al-Qaeda or ISIS.

Rather, the combatants are driven to war by Syria’s economic crisis and the lack of opportunities in their devastated country.

“They are cheap, and nobody will ask about them if they are killed, captured or injured, thanks to [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad’s war on the Syrian people” said Bassam Barabandi, a non-resident fellow at the Centre for Global Policy.

Al-Shkheir told interrogators that he was displaced by Islamic State in 2016 and lived in a tent with his wife and four children. At times, they had nothing to eat and the family resorted to eating soil. He completed two and half years of military service in Syria, and hadn’t participated in military exercises since.

“Even if a person is forced to eat land, one should not resort to such dirty means if there is a fair way to earn money,” he said in his testimony, “I was trapped."

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