Syrian conflict leaves mercenary work as only option for young men - researcher

Syria’s nine-year-old civil war has created a generation of young men “whose only marketable skill is fighting,” and who have become cannon fodder and pawns in a geopolitical chess game of foreign powers, Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Center for Global Policy, wrote in the New York Review on Friday.

Turkey has recruited at least a thousand Syrian fighters to be dispatched in Azerbaijan, with more on the way, the researcher said. Russia, another foreign player intervening in Syria, has also recruited fighters from the Syrian army and militias loyal to President Bashar Assad to fight in Libya, she said.

Turkey’s recruits are aiding Azeri forces in their latest round of fighting against Armenia over the breakaway state of Nagorno-Karabakh. Dozens of Syrian men have died within the span of a few days, fighting on the front lines despite being told beforehand that they would only be guarding oil facilities, Tsurkov said.

Many of the recruits were in school the fighting in Syria started back in 2011, unable to complete their studies due to the war. They now struggle to find work in an economy that has all but completely failed, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic and a separate economic collapse in neighbouring Lebanon, where many Syrian immigrants and refugees have made their livelihoods.

Syria’s own issues are turning into a frozen conflict, and Turkey and Russia “are looking for new arenas where they can project power and gain the upper hand in their competition with each other” as they are unable to tilt the balance of power in the country, Tsurkov said.

Turkey has added Azerbaijan to its list of uses for Syrian rebels, after using them to secure the Turkish-Syrian border, pushing back Kurdish armed groups and changing the demographic makeup of border regions from Kurds to Arabs.

The appeal of leaving Syria to fight on behalf of Turkey comes from the generous wages promised to these men, Tsurkov said. Turkey-backed factions would pay 500 liras ($63) to fighters every two months, a little over $1 per day, while in Libya they are able to earn around $1,000, even after half of the wages go to their commanders who control the payroll, she said.

Many of the Syrian fighters in Azerbaijan have not been paid their monthly salary yet, since they were deployed in the days leading to or after Sept. 27, when clashes between Armenian and Azeri forces broke out, but they expect to receive $600 to $2,500 a month for the next three months, Tsurkov said.

Women left behind in camps have accepted the departure of their sons and husbands because they have no other options. “If they did not go, we would die of hunger or sell our honour (turn to prostitution),” one woman told Tsurkov.

“So, rather than the wives selling their bodies, the men sold theirs,” the researcher said.

The researcher cited the story of a Syrian man who was killed in Azerbaijan, saying he had almost been forced to go, after his residency permit in Turkey was made void and he had no money to provide for his fiancée. He first tried to smuggle himself back into Turkey, and after failing to do so, signed up to fight for Azerbaijan.

After his death, his family received no compensation, Tsurkov said. “Unlike families of Turkish-backed fighters who were killed fighting in Syria and Libya, the mercenaries fighting for Turkey in Azerbaijan were not promised Turkish citizenship.”

She cited the story of another man who went to Azerbaijan after fighting for the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord in Libya, where he became addicted to drugs. After he returned home, he couldn’t take care of his family or keep up with his addiction, so he decided to sign up again.

Initially, Syrian fighters “resisted orders from their Syrian commanders to deploy to Libya and had to be coerced to do so, under threat of expulsion from the ranks,” general attitude eventually changed after recruits were given the money they were promised and were able to support their families better than most under the circumstances, Tsurkov said.

The Syrian mercenary business has become so lucrative that fighters have to get in recruiters’ good graces by offering them a cut, or find a personal connection, she said.

“In addition to the main recruiters - the commanders of three Turkish-backed factions, Fahim Issa (who leads the Sultan Murad Brigade), Sayf Abu Bakr (of the Hamza Division), and Muhammad Jassem, also known as Abu Amsha (of the Sultan Sliman Shah Brigade) - a broad network of profiteers has grown up among the associates of these commanders,” Tsurkov said.