STEPANAKERT, NAGORNO-KARABAKH—For much of Europe and the Middle East, the refugee crisis in Syria was a human tragedy. Syrian children sell chewing gum in the streets of Mosul and pick produce on farms in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Jordanian television highlights the plight of refugee girls who once dreamed of becoming doctors or lawyers taken as second wives in order to escape refugee camps. Syrians board rickety boats and rafts in a desperate attempt to reach Europe. Some do, but many don’t make it.
Turkey hosts the most Syrian refugees of any country and, to Turkey’s credit, the country and its people have dedicated substantial resources to their health and well-being. Where others see tragedy, however, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sees opportunity. Not only has he weaponized the threat of dumps of refugees on European shores in order to blackmail Europe into greater diplomatic concessions, but he has also used the predominantly Sunni refugees to wage demographic warfare against Turkish minorities whose identities Erdoğan resents or seeks to dilute. According to Turkish parliamentarians and provincial officials, Erdoğan’s top authorities offer Sunni Syrian Arabs an opportunity both to avoid refugee camps and to gain the privileges of Turkish citizenship so long as they settle either in predominantly Alevi areas in Hatay or in Kurdish towns and villages in southeastern Turkey. In both cases, Erdoğan’s goals are simple: utilize Sunni Islamists to dilute minority populations or tip the balance in close-held districts to his own party.
In Kurdish-dominated areas in Syria, Erdoğan has utilized a variation of the same strategy. While he couched Turkey’s military incursions first in terms of counter-terrorism and more recently in the rhetoric of creating a safe-haven or buffer zone in order to enable the repatriation of Syrian refugees, the reality of his policy has been to ethnically cleanse Syrian border regions to force out Kurds, Christians, and Yezidis and to replace them with Sunni Arab Islamist communities. In each case, the fact that diplomats looked the other way enabled and affirmed Erdoğan strategy.
It is that success, perhaps, that now leads Erdoğan and his ally Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to replicate the strategy in Nagorno-Karabakh. Documents captured during the recent Armenia-Azerbaijan War as well as prisoner interrogations reveal that Turkey facilitated the transport of more than 7,700 Syrian Islamists to Azerbaijan in the months before the September 27 outbreak of fighting. Several journalists reporting from Azerbaijan independently confirmed the presence of Syrian mercenaries there.
With the ceasefire, many journalists have moved onto the next story but the Syrian mercenaries—at least those who survived the fighting—have remained in Azerbaijan. For all Aliyev’s rhetoric about Karabakh as the heart of Azerbaijan, few Azeris want to live there: Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country and most of the jobs and infrastructure are around Baku, 250 miles away. In Karabakh, those returning from the front suggest that Syrian mercenaries are both sending for their family members to come to Azerbaijan and seeking to then settle in southern areas of Karabakh that have now reverted to Azerbaijan. While Erdoğan and Aliyev might celebrate ridding the region of Christians, replacing them with mercenaries will be a ticking time bomb for the southern Caucasus. They not only will create tension within majority Shi’ite Azerbaijan, but if they try to link up with jihadists in the northern Caucasus, they could both destabilize the region and trigger greater Russian intervention in the region.
Turkey planned the timing of the war perfectly. Erdoğan understood Washington was distracted both by looming elections and by the COVID-19 crisis. There is no longer any reason to be passive, however. Minsk Group co-chairs France, Russia, and the United States should demand that Azerbaijan detain all mercenaries. Just as many Islamic State veterans and their family members remain incarcerated at al-Hol, in northeastern Syria, so too should the Syrian mercenaries of the Nagorno-Karabakh war be detained as illegal combatants. To do nothing would not only pour fuel onto the fire of regional instability, but would also guarantee further religious violence and demographic games as Erdoğan and now Aliyev conclude that they can, quite literally, get away with murder.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). You can follow him on Twitter: @mrubin1971.