ISTANBUL — Families gathered around a refrigerated truck at a Syrian-Turkish border post, waiting earlier this month for the drivers to dispense their awful cargo: the bodies of 52 Syrian men, killed in a war 600 miles away.
The dead were mercenaries, recruited by Turkish-backed militias in Syria to fight on behalf of Azerbaijan against Armenia, relatives said. They were deployed as shock troops, to claw back scraps of territory in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
“They went to break the borders,” said a cousin of Mahmoud Najjar, a 38-year-old Syrian fighter. The cousin, interviewed by telephone, said Najjar’s body in the cold truck was marked with the number 12.
The deaths of Syrian fighters have raised alarms about how this decades-old conflict could now rapidly worsen as it draws in outside powers like Turkey and its rival Russia and potentially destabilizes neighbors like Iran and Georgia.
Turkey has denied sending Syrian fighters to aid Azerbaijan, its longtime ally. But relatives of two fighters — Najjar and his nephew — said in interviews that monthly salaries were promised by the Turkish-supported militias and that the fighters flew to Azerbaijan from southern Turkey.
In recent months, Turkey has sought to project its military might across much of its neighborhood with new vigor. Turkey’s enthusiastic backing of the Azerbaijani war effort — and provision of military assistance, including armed drones — has emboldened Azerbaijan, situating Turkey at the center of the conflict and giving Ankara standing, it hopes, to weigh in on any peace settlement.
The civilian death toll has risen as cities and towns in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijani territory, are pummeled with growing frequency by weapons acquired from a diverse cast of suppliers, including Turkey, Russia and Israel. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, in a statement Friday, cited reports that at least 53 civilians had been killed since fighting erupted last last month, including children.
Journalists in Azerbaijani territory on the edge of Nagorno-Karabakh have reported on rocket and artillery attacks on at least three towns. Azerbaijan’s assault on Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, has included the use of cluster munitions manufactured by Israel, according to a report last week by researchers at Amnesty International, who examined footage of the munitions.
The group, responding to claims early in the fighting that Armenia had directed rocket fire at the Azerbaijani city of Ganja, said it had confirmed Armenia’s use of a Russian rocket artillery system but was unable to determine what had been targeted. Azerbaijan said Sunday that a subsequent attack on Ganja had killed nine civilians. Armenia’s Defense Ministry called the claim “absolutely false” and accused Azerbaijani forces of shelling Nagorno-Karabakh.
The United States, along with France and Russia, released an Oct. 5 statement saying that the “disproportionate nature of such attacks” constitutes an “unacceptable threat to the stability of the region.”
On Friday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry hosted cease-fire talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, aimed at winning at least a brief respite from the fighting and allowing the warring parties to exchange prisoners and the bodies of the dead. A truce began on Saturday, but a day later, Armenia and Azerbaijan were accusing each other of violating it amid reports of fresh attacks.
Ibrahim Kalin, an adviser to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, voiced doubts that a pause in the fighting would be a prelude to an armistice. “Yes to a cease-fire, but a cease-fire must be sustainable,” he said in an interview with the Al Jazeera news channel. “The only way to make it sustainable is to talk about Armenia’s occupation of [Azerbaijani] lands.”
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has smoldered since the late 1980s, when Armenia and Azerbaijan were both republics of the Soviet Union. The enclave’s ethnic Armenian population sought to unite with Armenia and declared independence from Azerbaijan. War broke out after the Soviet Union collapsed, killing up to 30,000 people before a cease-fire was declared in 1994.
The conflict has erupted several times since, including in 2016 and in July. The latest fighting, which began Sept. 27, represents the worst flare-up in decades.
The deployment of Syrian mercenaries has repeated a pattern from Libya, where Turkey and Russia are fighting on opposite sides of the civil war. Most of the Syrian fighters in Libya have been hired by Turkey, which sponsors militias inside Syria opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A Kremlin-backed security firm operating in Libya, for its part, has brought over Syrian fighters allied with Assad.
Turkish officials have portrayed their country’s sprawling foreign engagements — in northern Iraq, Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan — as part of Turkey’s zealous promotion of its security and energy interests. Erdogan’s critics, however, say there is also an attempt to distract from his government’s domestic vulnerabilities, including a plummeting economy, and shore up domestic support among his nationalist allies.
Russia has walked a fine diplomatic line between Azerbaijan and Armenia, selling arms to both for years. Armenia, which spends about a quarter as much as Azerbaijan on defense, also stands to benefit from Russia’s protection under the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance among six former Soviet states that does not include Azerbaijan.
President Vladimir Putin’s government has given mixed signals about whether it will intervene, saying that Russia would fulfill its treaty obligations to defend Armenia proper but that its obligations did not extend to fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
Moscow’s strongest words so far have been to condemn Azerbaijan’s use of Syrian mercenaries. Russia’s foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, warned last week that the region could become a launchpad for Islamist militants to enter Russia.
Erdogan, speaking to members of his political party Wednesday, again denied that Turkey was sending Syrian fighters to the war. “They have work in their own land. They won’t go there,” he said, adding that Turkey was “ready to give all kinds of support to our Azeri brothers and sisters, and we will do so again.”
The Syrian mercenaries, recruited from various Turkish-backed militias, have given detailed accounts from the front lines that portray a grinding battle.
Mahmoud Najjar’s cousin said he and his family received updates on the fighting from Syrians traveling with Najjar’s company who had international phone lines. The cousin spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the mercenaries’ recruiters in Syria.
Najjar, who once worked in a textile factory in Aleppo, had more recently been employed as a security guard for the local court in Marea, in northern Syria. With two children and struggling to make ends meet, he noticed when other young Syrian men, recruited by Turkey to fight in Libya, came home flush with cash. When Najjar’s 18-year-old nephew offered him the opportunity to fight in Azerbaijan for $2,000 a month, he jumped at the chance, his cousin said.
“Money is the only reason,” the cousin said. “Who wants to go to Azerbaijan? Who even knows where Azerbaijan is?”
Najjar, his nephew and dozens of their comrades seemed unprepared for what was to come.
They flew out of southern Turkey, the cousin said. On their first day in Azerbaijan, they were given uniforms with light green shades of camouflage.
The next day, they were sent to the front. “The area was heavily fortified by Armenians,” the cousin said. The Syrian mercenaries were largely on their own in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by languages, history and grievances they did not understand. They were accompanied by three Azerbaijani guides.
They spent nine hours walking up a mountain, the cousin said. Najjar was sent to clear a building but was killed by a sniper’s bullet that tore off the top of his head, according to the cousin, who provided a picture of Najjar’s body to The Washington Post on the condition that it not be published. Najjar’s nephew was killed the same day.
The bodies sat overnight where they fell because it was too dangerous to retrieve them.