ISTANBUL, Turkey—On Sunday afternoon, a video depicting a large convoy of Islamist Syrian rebel fighters yelling enthusiastically as they drove off to war circulated widely on Arabic social media. Fighters in the packed trucks, driving quickly past the group of children filming with their phones, could be heard yelling “Allahu Akbar!” and, “Our leader, ’til the end of time, is our master, Muhammad!”
However, what shocked those watching the video weren’t the shouts of the Syrian fighters but rather those of the children filming, who yelled back at the soldiers in a language unfamiliar to most Syrians following their country’s nine-year war. “That’s not Kurdish, right?” said one user in an online group where the video emerged. “If they were Kurds, you think they’d be cheering them on?” responded another with a laugh out loud emoji.
Over the next several hours, rumors swirled that the video was shot in Azerbaijan, a small Turkic-speaking nation lodged between Iran and Russia, and that the Syrian rebel fighters had been sent there to prop up the Azeri government in its war against neighboring Armenia that had begun that day. According to high-ranking Syrian rebel sources that spoke to The Daily Beast, these rumors are true. The fighters that appeared in the circulated video were part of a group of 1,000 Syrian rebel soldiers sent in two batches from Turkey on September 22 and 24.
“500 Hamza Brigade fighters were flown last Tuesday from southern Turkey to the Azeri airbase at Sumqayit [30 kilometers north of the Azeri capital of Baku]”, according to a source within the Syrian National Army (SNA) rebel outfit who requested anonymity. “Two days later, on Thursday, another 500 fighters from the Sultan Murad brigades rebel faction were similarly flown out to Azerbaijan.”
These claims were echoed by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a Syrian opposition body that monitors human rights violations in the country. SOHR sources suggest more batches of Syrian rebel fighters are preparing to be deployed to Azerbaijan.
The Hamza and Sultan Murad brigades are known within Syrian rebel circles as factions that enjoy especially close relations with Turkey, the last remaining patron of the Syrian opposition. Sayf Balud, commander of the Hamza brigades, however, is also known for his checkered past, in particular, as a former commander within the radical jihadist group ISIS.
An ethnic Syrian Turkman from the town of Biza’a in Aleppo city’s northern countryside, Balud originally joined the Abu Bakr Sadiq brigades, a moderate rebel faction near his hometown that received widespread support from Gulf states in the early years of the conflict. However, coming from a small, relatively unknown family, Balud failed to climb the ranks of Syria’s rebel movement as quickly as he would have liked, and as others from more prominent backgrounds regularly did. By early 2013, Balud had joined ISIS, whose ranks were staffed mostly by foreigners who couldn’t have cared less about the social status of their Syrian recruits.
In July 2013, Balud appeared in an ISIS propaganda video shot in the border town of Tal Abyad after the group successfully captured the city from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). In the video, Sayf appears next to an Egyptian foreign fighter addressing a room full of two dozen captured YPG soldiers, who were assembled before an ISIS camera crew to officially repent for having joined an armed faction that ISIS’ leadership described as being “at war with God.”
Over the next several years, Balud’s star continued to rise, as the commander attained a level of status within ISIS that would have been unattainable in other rebel groups. Despite the large-scale defeat of ISIS across northern Syria at the hands of the YPG in 2016 and 2017, the cunning commander was able to leverage his history of fighting against Kurds to re-invent himself as a valuable client for another foreign patron: Turkey.
By January 2018, when Turkish backed rebel forces launched “Operation Olive Branch” to take over the Kurdish canton of Afrin located in Syria’s uppermost northwest corner, Balud regularly appeared in the group’s propaganda videos as the official commander of the newly formed Hamza brigades. His status as an ethnic Turkman, a small minority within Syria whose likeness to their Turkish kinsmen across the border has pushed Ankara to grant many coveted privileges such as Turkish citizenship and sensitive leadership positions, further endeared Balud to his new patrons.
According to SNA sources, Syrian rebel units now being sent to Azerbaijan by Turkey are almost exclusively led by ethnic Syrian Turkmen. “Sayf Balud is a Turkman. The Sultan Murad brigade’s commander, Fahim Aissa, is a Syrian Turkman, like Balud. Turkey only trusts factions led by Syrian Turkman to carry out these missions. These are sensitive for Turkey politically, and they don’t trust Syrian Arabs to lead them.”
Turkey’s intervention in Azerbaijan is indeed sensitive. After a four-year lull in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, fighting between the two countries erupted anew on Sunday in fighting that killed two-dozen fighters.
Historically the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. But in 1991 Armenian factions within the region declared themselves independent. Three years of war over the disputed territory ended in 1994 with a Russian brokered ceasefire. The newly declared Nagorno-Karabakh republic was soon occupied by Armenia, which has since maintained de facto control of the area. With the exception of four days of fighting in April 2016, Sunday’s clashes were the first major instance of renewed combat between both countries over the status of the area. Both sides accuse the other of having initiated the fighting on Sunday.
Clashes continue, with dozens more casualties reported. Fighting alongside the Azeri regular forces were 1,000 Syrian rebel fighters, among them former jihadists led by ex-ISIS commander Sayf Balud.
All About the Oil
Turkey’s move to send Syrian rebels to face-off against Armenia, a longtime rival of Turkey, is just the latest in a long string of neo-Ottoman foreign adventures undertaken by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the last 6 months. Ankara has deployed both its armed forces and Syrian proxies to crack down on Kurdish PKK and YPG forces in northern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan throughout 2020.
Turkey has also intervened in western Libya and waters throughout the eastern Mediterranean where its navy has threatened NATO allies France and Greece in an attempt to strongarm both countries and lay claim to gas reserves located within Greece’s maritime borders.
In Azerbaijan, Turkey is looking to demonstrate loyalty and prop up an oil-rich regime with which it has maintained close military ties since the 1994 ceasefire. Since 2005, they have launched numerous lucrative oil and gas initiatives including a pipeline that exports 1.2 million barrels of Azeri oil per day to the European Union (EU), earning Turkey upwards of $200 million in annual transit fees. In 2006, this cooperation expanded following the launch of the South Caucasus natural gas pipeline that annually exports 8.8 billion cubic meters of much needed Azeri gas to the Turkish market, a net importer of energy.
In 2011, Turkey began work on an expansive natural gas production network called the Trans Anatolian Pipeline, which is projected to export 31 billion cubic meters of Azeri gas to the EU by 2026. Turkish shareholders, who own a 30 percent stake in the project, stand to make huge profits.
Turkey’s push to transform Azerbaijan into a lucrative oil and gas export hub is also motivated by Ankara’s desire to come out from under Russia’s shadow. Turkey depends on Russia for 40 percent of its fossil fuels, a reliance that has forced Ankara to treat Russia as a friendly nation despite the fact that the two countries share almost no common interests.
The “Southern Gas Corridor,” a term referring to the various pipelines emerging out of Azerbaijan, has been heavily cheered on by the EU, which also wants to break its dependence on Russian gas. No surprise then that Russia is on the other side in the ongoing dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh is now the third theater where Russia and Turkey find themselves supporting opposite sides in an active Middle East conflict zone. In Syria, Russian support for dictator Bashar al-Assad and Turkey’s support for the country’s rebels such as Sayf Bulad and others led to direct conflict between both countries’ armies earlier this year, resulting in the death of dozens of Turkish soldiers. In Libya, the situation is reversed, with Turkey supporting Libya’s government and Russia supporting Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general and rebel leader who has sought to seize control of Libya’s lucrative oil sector and capture the capital of Tripoli.
In both conflicts, Sayf Bulad and the Hamza brigades have proven extremely useful to Turkey. Thousands of the group’s fighters, including Sayf Bulad, were deployed to Libya last summer to help repel a major assault launched by Russian-backed Khalifa Haftar and in the bargain reclaim territory previously captured by the general. The Turkish backed authority in Tripoli is now safely guarded against external threats, while Turkish companies are set to gain lucrative contracts in Libya’s oil and gas and reconstruction sectors.
Within this context of great power struggles, Syria’s rebels, once idealistic and seeking to liberate their country from dictator Bashar al-Assad, have found themselves reduced to pawns compelled to serve as mercenaries and shock troops used by Turkey to advance its foreign policy in a world where Ankara finds itself increasingly isolated. In doing so, they find themselves led by and mixed with fighters from the most vicious jihadist group the world has ever seen.