By Guest Contributors Anoush Baghdassarian and Sherin Zadah
Tucked away into the southern caucasus is a region struggling for survival, not against COVID-19, but against yet another offensive by Turkey, this time in Azerbaijan, targeting the region’s minority populations.
On Sept. 27, 2020, a war broke out in the Republic of Artsakh, also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). The conflict is mainly between Armenia, the ethnic Armenians of NKR, and Azerbaijan, but Turkey is also a player in the conflict; it has pledged support for Azerbaijan, closing its border with Armenia and reaffirming Azerbaijan’s claims to territorial integrity.
Amid the current crisis, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to “support our Azerbaijani brothers with all our means as always,” including military assistance. This manifested into a coordinated premeditated attack against one of its historic minority communities — the Armenians. This follows shortly after Turkey’s crimes against the Kurds, another one of its repeatedly persecuted ethnic groups. Turkey launched a targeted military campaign in northeastern Syria as confirmed by an August 2020 UN Human Rights Council Report that credibly accused Turkish-backed militias of committing crimes against humanity in Northern Syria against the minority Kurdish population.
Turkey’s historical oppression of its minority populations such as the Kurds and Armenians has continued with impunity. Today, it has escalated to the immoral mobilization of a sophisticated network of proxy fighters that it deploys abroad, including in Libya, Armenia, and other countries, to fight its wars abroad.
The Syrian National Army, or SNA, is one of the proxy groups that consists of vulnerable, war-torn Syrians who arguably would not be able to reject Turkey’s lucrative offer of 1,500-2,000 lira per month to fight abroad in Libya and now most recently, in Azerbaijan.
Turkey has been acting without consequence in Syria, Libya, and now the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, or NKR, located between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but de jure recognized as within Azerbaijan’s borders. For over 25 years the NKR conflict, a stalemated tug-of-war between self-determination and territorial integrity, has been relatively peaceful (with minor skirmishes over the years, the longest lasting four days in 2016). Before the violence erupted, SNA commanders were transferred in late September to southern Turkey, and then transported to Azerbaijan on September 25th. This occurred two days before the violence began in NKR.
Turkey, the second largest military power in NATO, has re-ignited the violence through its unilateral military support of Azerbaijan, and redefined it in alarming ways. This military alliance has been solidified through the Baku-Ankara agreement which prioritizes military cooperation between Turkey and Azerbaijan. To aid Azerbaijan and to further Turkey’s neo-ottomanism ambitions, Turkey has deployed Syrian foreign fighters to Azerbaijan.
While it has already been confirmed that Azerbaijan used internationally condemned, and banned, cluster munitions in Stepanakert and Shushi, Turkey’s use of mercenaries adds another element of illegality to the fighting in NKR, according to Articles 2 and 5 of the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, and Article 2(1)(b) of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism. The mercenaries deployed by Turkey are already credibly accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Northern Syria, and are also affiliated with well-known terrorist organizations. Even the head of Russia’s SVR Foreign Intelligence Service stated that the conflict was attracting “hundreds and […]even thousands of radicals hoping to earn money in a new Karabakh war.”
Turkey is thus in breach of its obligations under the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, to which it is a member. Furthermore, Azerbaijan and Syria have also ratified the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, making the use of mercenaries on their territory illegal. Since NKR is de jure recognized as within the borders of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani use of mercenaries in the conflict is a violation of their obligations under this Convention.
Lastly, there is an argument to be made that Turkey is essentially coercing these impoverished Syrians into fighting, as the lack of available economic opportunity in war-torn Syria leaves them with no other option. For example, a Syrian foreign fighter fighting in Azerbaijan described to BBC how “they loaded us into troop carriers, we were wearing Azeri uniforms, and each of us was armed with a single Kalashnikov weapon. Most of the people here are poor civilians who wanted the money, not soldiers, stopped the car and we were surprised that we were in the line of fire. We did not even know where the enemy was.” While this does not preclude accountability for any illegal acts committed by the mercenaries, it is clear that the Turkish military exploited the economic and social needs of some individuals.
While this war is too new to have thorough assessments of international law violations on the ground, we do have evidence of such violations committed by Turkey in Northern Syria.
Turkey’s crimes against humanity against Kurds in Northeastern Syria have been well documented by the recent UN-HRC-45-31 report released in August 2020. The report documents the property theft, torture, sexual violence, forced displacement, arbitrary detention, and severe deprivation of liberty, of people “primarily of Kurdish origin” living in Afrin by the Syrian National Army. These severe human rights abuses of Kurdish civilians should be immediately condemned and acted upon by the international community, including the United Nations Security Council.
Not only does Turkey’s use of mercenaries amount to international law violations, it also poses a threat to global security. What is especially concerning about Turkey’s use of mercenaries in furthering its foreign policy interests is that its goals are against global interests, such as combating Islamist extremism. As stated by Elizabeth Prodromou, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Turkey’s active and passive support for ISIS and other Islamist extremist groups has been “very well documented.” Similarly, the French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his concern with “Turkey’s “warlike” rhetoric which was encouraging Azerbaijan to reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh and that was unacceptable.”
This has become a pressing global issue given that two world powers, Russia and Turkey, are on opposite sides of several major world conflicts such as in Syria and Libya and now in NKR, where Russia is trying to broker a ceasefire, and Turkey is fueling further fighting. The threat of these rising tensions risks further instability in a rapidly destabilizing region. What we see unfolding now follows an unsettling trend of Turkey’s complete disregard for the rights of minorities and raises a critical question of if Turkey will have a stopping point.
About the Authors
Anoush Baghdassarian is a JD Candidate at Harvard Law School. She has a Master’s in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, and a Bachelor’s in Psychology and Genocide Studies from Claremont McKenna College. She is Co-founder of the Rerooted Archive, documenting over 200 testimonies from Syrian-Armenian refugees who have fled Syria in the last ten years. She has a career focus on transitional justice and international criminal law and some of her work experiences include interning as an advisor to the Armenian Permanent Mission to the UN, and serving as an upcoming visiting professional at the International Criminal Court.
Sherin Zadah is a graduate of Claremont McKenna College and has worked on international development issues in Jordan and Turkey. Sherin is a humanitarian activist and former State Department intern. She has contributed to the WSJ, has been a guest speaker on NBC San Diego’s political talk and featured on national broadcasts, such as NPR where she spoke on the crisis in northeastern Syria. She is the founder of Kurdish Refugee Relief, a 501c3 non-profit organization committed to serving the needs of Kurdish refugees while creating a growing network of support.