Syria Rebels Sign up to Fight for Azeris to Feed Families
Desperate to help his family displaced by Syria's war, pro-Turkey rebel fighter Abu Ahmad is waiting to be deployed to Azerbaijan hoping to earn almost 80 times his current salary.
"I signed up to fight more than a week ago to go to Azerbaijan... for three months in exchange for $2,000 a month," the 26-year-old told AFP via a phone messaging service, using a pseudonym for his safety.
Clashes have raged between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces since Sunday over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian province that broke away from Azerbaijan in a bitterly fought war in the 1990s.
Baku and Yerevan have traded accusations over which side initiated the latest round of fighting. Almost 200 deaths have been reported, making it the deadliest round since the all-out war.
Ankara is backing its longtime ally Baku in the clashes and has been accused by Yerevan of sending its Syrian proxies to bolster Azerbaijani troops, allegations backed by France despite Azeri denials.
But AFP spoke to Syrian opposition fighters from Aleppo and Idlib preparing to set off for the Caucasus, and one already in the conflict zone.
From a camp for the displaced in a part of north Syria controlled by Turkey-backed rebels, Abu Ahmad told AFP he was heading to Karabakh hoping to better provide for his wife and children.
"We lost our villages and our homes, and we have nothing left to eat," said Abu Ahmad, who has been a rebel fighter for five years.
"I'm waiting for my turn to go to Azerbaijan to save up some money, to come back and start up some sort of business," he said from the camp in the north of Aleppo province.
- 'No other option' -
Abu Ahmad and his family fled their home earlier this year during a devastating onslaught by Russia-backed government forces, before a ceasefire in March stemmed the fighting.
He says his income has been reduced to a pittance now the battles have largely stopped, receiving just 200 Turkish lira (around $25) from his rebel group last month.
He says it is not enough to support his family in a country ravaged by nine years of war, where food prices have soared in recent months.
With reports of Syrians killed in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abu Ahmad realises he is taking a risk.
But "we have no other option," he said. "We've reached the point where we're ready to sacrifice ourselves to provide for our children."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 850 Syrian fighters have already headed to Azerbaijan via Turkey, and hundreds more are preparing to follow suit.
The fighters -- from pro-Ankara armed opposition groups -- were being promised a monthly salary of between $1,500 and $2,000, the Britain-based war monitor said.
The first among them arrived in Azerbaijan before the fighting started, thinking they would be guarding oil fields and the frontier, it said.
A fighter from the town of Atareb in Aleppo province told AFP that he was on the frontline.
"Yes, I am in Azerbaijan," he texted, but declined to give any more details.
A source in his hometown said he was in a unit whose commander, Mohammad Shaaban, had died.
Shaaban was among four Syrians whose pictures were shared on social media after they were reported to have been killed.
- 'Not enough to buy bread' -
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said at least 28 Syrian fighters had died in the clashes since Sunday.
The relatives of three of them confirmed to AFP they had been killed.
Turkey has admitted to sending Syrian fighters to conflict-wracked Libya as part of its support since late last year to the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
Ankara has not officially commented on Syrian mercenaries being sent to Azerbaijan, while Baku says Armenians from the diaspora have enlisted on the side of the separatists.
In Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, opposition fighter Abu Adnan, 38, however, said he had been approached about signing up as a combatant in the Caucasus.
"Our turn didn't come to go to Libya, so we were told to prepare to head to Azerbaijan," he said using a fake name for fear of repercussions.
Abu Adnan said he arrived in the country's north in 2017, having fled his hometown.
He joined a rebel group and had moved from one town to the next with his family until ending up in a camp.
"Here we're posted on the front for 200 Turkish lira and it's not enough to buy bread, but over there we do it for $1,500," he told AFP on WhatsApp.
But he said money wasn't the only reason.
"We stand with our ally Turkey because it stood with us against Russia and is fighting for Syria, and we need to stand with it at all times," he said.
"If Turkey loses any battle, it will become under pressure and forced to surrender our areas to the regime. And then we'll never, ever go home."