Political analysts weigh in on the complicated relationship between Turkey, Syria, and war in Azerbaijan

(North Press) – In the past few days, long-standing tensions in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, have escalated into a full-blown military conflict, with both sides suffering military losses.

Disputed territory

Artsakh is a mountainous region officially recognized as part of Azerbaijan, though it has a predominately Armenian population and is a de facto independent country which calls itself the Republic of Artsakh. It has been claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan since the establishing days of both countries.

Aram Shabanian, who studies Non-Proliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and closely follows the conflict in Artsakh, explained the historical background to the conflict. Shabanian clarified that the conflict between the largely Russian-backed Armenia and Turkish-backed Azerbaijan in Artsakh is a source of contention between Turkey and Armenia that creates as much or even more animosity between the two than the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey in the early 20th century, a genocide which the latter still refuses to recognize as such.

“When the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia inherited a lot of military equipment and expertise in the form of commanders and officers from the former Red Army units that had been deployed to Karabakh as peacekeepers. Turkey stepped in to stem the losses/defeats Azerbaijan was suffering with supplies and equipment, and after the war in the 1990s ended this became a formal military pact between the two states,” Shabanian explained.

The Syrian connection

Mustafa Gurbuz, a political sociologist focusing on terrorism and ethnic and sectarian conflict in the Middle East, considers the conflict in Azerbaijan as being directly linked to the war in Syria.

The key to understanding the more recent developments in the Artsakh region, according to Gurbuz, is to watch the Turkish and Russian negotiations in Idlib. “Turkey’s military deterrence has broken down in Idlib and there is an imminent threat of final assault by the Syrian regime with Moscow’s support,” Gurbuz explained, adding that a major Russian-backed military operation in Idlib could cause millions more refugees to flood into Turkey, which already hosts millions of Syrian refugees displaced by the nearly decade-long civil war in their home country.

“With opening another front to confront Russia, Turkey may be counting to gain some leverage in Azerbaijan and convince Russia, and hence, buy more time in Idlib.”

Syrian mercenaries in Azerbaijan

To further complicate matters, rumors have swirled around the conflict that Turkey, as they had previously done in Libya, is recruiting mercenaries from the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition army known as the Syrian National Army (SNA) to fight against Armenian and Artsakh forces.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Center for Global Policy and expert on the Syrian crisis, could neither confirm nor deny the rumors, but added that “dozens of fighters from NW Syria (outside of regime control) left Syria via Turkey in an unknown direction about a week ago,” with the rumored destinations being Azerbaijan, Turkey, Qatar, and Libya.

“About a month ago, rumors spread on WhatsApp among SNA fighters that they can register to go to Azerbaijan. Many registered over WhatsApp, others apparently thru offices in the Turkish-controlled areas,” Tsurkov posted on her Twitter account on Sunday. She added that while the sending of Syrian fighters to Libya involved direct meetings with Turkish military officials, there have been no such meetings regarding Azerbaijan, and it is possible that Turkish private security firms may be involved in sending Syrians to Azerbaijan.

Tsurkov concluded that Syrian lives are seen as “expendable,” a sentiment echoed by Shabanian. While Shabanian also could not confirm or deny the reports, he stated that if Syrians were being brought to the conflict, that the responsibility for their involvement lies with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I think he wants to establish his position as regional hegemon and I think he knows that if a lot of Turkish troops die, he loses power. This is a ‘cheap’ way for him to exert influence on a war,” he concluded.

Reporting by Lucas Chapman