by Alexander McKeever, originally published on https://akmckeever.com on October 26, 2020
In late September 2020, unconfirmed reports began to circulate on social media alleging that members of the Syrian National Army (SNA), Turkey’s proxy forces in northern Syria, had been sent to Azerbaijan. Initially, as there was no definitive evidence and there appeared little reason for Turkey to send mercenaries to Azerbaijan, a country with a sizable and well-equipped military not engaged in any combat at the time, these reports seemed to be nothing more than unsubstantiated rumors. This changed the morning of September 27th, when Azerbaijan launched major military operations against the Armenian-controlled territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. In the follow days and weeks, a number of videos and images, in addition to testimonies given by fighters present, were published by local Syrian and international media outlets. While Azerbaijani and Turkish partisans have continued to vigorously deny the presence of SNA fighters in the conflict, analysis of the visual evidence clearly demonstrates the validity of these reports. Below I have compiled this information, beginning with the strongest examples, with the intentions of publishing it all in one place for others to examine.
Geolocations of Syrian National Army fighters in Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh
The first fully confirmed media showing SNA fighters in Azerbaijan was geolocated to the town of Horadiz, several kilometers from both the Armenian frontlines and the Iranian border. This video shows a group of fighters listening to what was identified as a song about SNA faction Furqat al-Sultan Murad, while speaking to the camera in Arabic. Their uniforms, later seen in all media of SNA in Azerbaijan, have an aqua tint and, previously had never been worn by combatants on any side of the Syrian Civil War.
Another video was published the same day, filmed by a Syrian fighter named Mustafa Qanti showing himself and another on several frontline locations, under fire from Armenian artillery. One of the three scenes contained in this video was shown to be shot at the same location as a video published by the official Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense several days later.
Another scene in the video, showing the interior and exterior of a captured Armenian ammunition bunker, was similarly matched to an Azerbaijani MoD video.
[Twitter thread on the left continues below]
Stills from the interior of both videos show an almost identical configuration of ammunition boxes.
Still from the video filmed by an SNA fighter
Still from the Azerbaijani MOD vidaeo
Sometime within the first week of October other videos were shot and published by SNA fighters, two showing the scenes of an Armenian trench after its capture. This was geolocated to the village of Marjan/Marjanli, several kilometers west of Horadiz. In the video the man filming speaks in Arabic. He identifies himself as part of Furqat al-Hamza subgroup Liwa’ al-Farouq before bragging about the dead Armenian ‘pigs’ visible at the scene.
Location: 39.379370, 47.234291
Other Visual Evidence of SNA fighters in Azerbaijan
While none of these images or stills from video below have been geolocated, they offer further evidence of SNA members in Azerbaijan. The first image was published on September 30th by Jesr Press, a media outlet from eastern Syria, reportedly showing the dying breathes of a man named Abdul Razzaq (‘Abu Hurairah’) from the largely Turkmen-populated village of Tasnin (Homs Governorate). Five others wearing the same aqua-tinted fatigues with mismatched webbing are seen in the photo, as well as another dressed in a digital camouflage pattern used by both the Turkish and Azerbaijani military.
Another set of photos appear to have been published by various outlets the same day, with a timestamp indicating they were taken two days earlier. While the men in them are not identified, they are wearing the same combination of aqua-tinted fatigues and digital camouflage webbing as seen in the photo above. In the background one can see posters featuring the Azerbaijani flag as well as a map of Azerbaijan.
Armenian-based military news website razm.info has pointed out the similarities in the room seen in the images above to that the State Border Guard’s military unit headquarters in Horadiz. While it is safe to say that these photos were taken in a room belonging to the State Border Guard and this Horadiz location appears to be quite likely, there is not enough evidence available to definitively say.
On October 11th, Jarabulus News al-Kabous, a Telegram channel local to northern Aleppo, published yet another video of SNA fighters purportedly in Nagorno-Karabakh. This one shows three men in the same fatigues in front of a border sign written in Armenian, Russian and English. After one says that the area’s been ‘liberated’ and another points out the Iranian border not far away, one of the Syrians makes the ‘Grey Wolves’ salute, a hand gesture used by Turkish ultranationalists. The flat terrain in the video appears to be somewhere in the vicinity of the Horadiz/Fizuli frontlines to the south of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Only one video has been published so far showing SNA mercenaries engaged in combat in Nagorno-Karabakh. This came out around approximately the same time as the video above, showing men firing a variety of weapons at unknown targets at a slightly higher elevation.
While the video was not geolocated, one of the vehicles present represents a substantial clue as to where it was shot. In the still to the bottom right an Israeli-produced AIL Storm armored vehicle is visible. This vehicle isn’t present anywhere in Syria, and is not used by the Turkish military.
Both the AIL Storm, as well as the other armored vehicle – a Turkish-produced Otokar Cobra, are actively used by the Azerbaijani military. Below are images (via Wikipedia) showing both types of vehicles at a military parade in Baku.
An Azerbaijani military AIL Storm at a Baku military parade
An Azerbaijani military Otokar Cobra at a Baku military parade
Visual evidence related to the transportation of SNA fighters to Azerbaijan
On September 24th and 25th, an image and a video of uniformed men at a training camp were published on Telegram channels local to northern Syria. The fatigues they are seen in are the same aqua-tinted uniforms appearing in images geolocated to Azerbaijan.
This was later geolocated to the military border crossing from Syria to Turkey at Hawar Kilis, Aleppo. This facility was previously the point of departure for SNA fighters sent to Libya, in addition to reportedly being a military base and command center for Furqat al-Hamza, an SNA faction involved in Azerbaijan operations. Multiple testimonies given by SNA fighters sent to Azerbaijan mention this border crossing as where they were assembled prior to departure.
On September 22nd, reporter Lindsey Snell shared a photo of men within the cargo hold of a transportation aircraft. She identified them as members of Furqat al-Hamza in the process of being transported from Ankara to Baku that day. However, the only verifiable detail in this image is that the plane is an A-400M, a transportation vehicle operated by the Turkish Air Force.
Men reportedly Furqat al-Hamza fighters, in an A-400M
Still of a video from the Airbus website, showing an empty A-400M cargo hold
While not definitive evidence, two TuAF A-400M flights were recorded on FlightRadar24 that day. The first departed from Kayseri, where TuAF A-400M’s are often stored, before landing in Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border. Several hours later, the same aircraft left Gaziantep, flying northwest. FlightRadar24, which primarily tracks commercial aircraft, lost the plane’s signal meaning we can’t be sure whether the plane landed in Ankara or Istanbul. This pattern, A-400Ms flying from Kayseri to Gaziantep to Istanbul or Ankara, resembles the transportation process carried out by Turkey while deploying SNA mercenaries to Libya.
A source claiming to be on the same flight told Syrians for Truth & Justice that this image was not taken in September of SNA fighters en route to Azerbaijan. Rather, it was taken months earlier, in June, and shows members of the Syrian Interim Government-affiliates police being transported by Turkey to the Libyan city of Misrata.
The source supplied this image from the cargo hold of an A-400, alleging that it was that it was taken on the same June 24th flight.
Analysis of Uniforms worn by SNA fighters in Azerbaijan
Soon after the first images of SNA mercenaries in Nagorno-Karabakh came out, Twitter users identified the unique camouflage pattern they were observed in as that of the Azerbaijani State Border Service (Dövlət Sərhəd Xidməti).
Interestingly, in one of the images geolocated to the Hawar Kilis military crossing, one can observe both these Azerbaijani Border Service fatigues worn by men training in the background, as well as Turkish multicam fatigues worn by several SNA factions reportedly deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh. This implies that the SNA fighters received these new uniforms in Syria, prior to transiting through Turkey to Azerbaijan.
Examples of both Furqat al-Hamza and Furqat al-Sultan Murad fighters in the same multicam pattern can be seen below:
Geolocation of unidentified fighters in Azerbaijan, suspected to be SNA members
The first video purported to be SNA mercenaries in Azerbaijan was filmed by a civilian in the frontline town of Horadiz. In it one can see a convoy of 22 vehicles. 21 of these are pickup tracks; all carrying fighters in the back, and at least some outfitted with machine guns. The other vehicle in the convoy is an AIL Storm, the aforementioned Israeli-produced armored off-road vehicle used by the Azerbaijani military. While it has not been verified that these were in fact SNA fighters, it appears likely as the use of pickup trucks for troop transportation is not typical behavior of the Azerbaijani military. The location is also in close proximity to the October 3rd video of SNA fighters in Horadiz highlighted above.
Another video filmed by an Azerbaijani civilian was published around October 1st, showing pickup trucks similarly being used to transport men in fatigues. This was geolocated to the city of Barda, just east of northern Nagorno-Karabakh. As was the case with the first convoy video above, it has not been verified whether these men where SNA fighters. In addition, the location near the northern fronts of the war makes it an outlier from the actually verified SNA media, all of which that has been geolocated taking place in the far south.
Location: 40.384038, 47.124070
Image posted of the same building in the background of the shot, uploaded by a Google user in Dec 2014
Footage published by the Armenian Ministry of Defense
In mid-October, the Armenian Ministry of Defense Press Secretary shared two videos on Twitter as further evidence of the SNA deployment to Nagorno-Karabakh. In both, groups of men can be seen wearing the aqua Border Service uniforms. Further identification of these fighters is not possible from these videos.
Still from the security camera footage published by the Armenian MOD on October 18th. Note the Border Service uniforms with the mismatched webbing:
In conclusion there is significant visual evidence verifying the presence of SNA mercenaries in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh war. A number of videos filmed by men speaking Syrian Arabic, sometimes identifying the factions they’re affiliated with, have been geolocated to southern front of the conflict. Further video and imagery shows men identified as Syrians all in the same Azerbaijani Border Service fatigues. In addition to this, numerous researchers and media outlets have collected testimony from fighters in Azerbaijan themselves, as well as from their family members, representing further evidence of this deployment directly from those involved.
UPDATE (Further geolocations of suspected SNA fighters in Azerbaijan/Karabakh)
About the author: cKeever is an independent researcher and journalist based in Queens, NY, largely focused on the history of and ongoing developments within northern Syria. He is currently finishing an MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.lexander McKeever is an independent researcher and journalist based in Queens, NY, largely focused on the history of and ongoing developments within northern Syria. He is currently finishing an MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the CUNY Graduate Centerlexander McKeever is an independent researcher and journalist based in Queens, NY, largely focused on the history of and ongoing developments within northern Syria. He is currently finishing an MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center
Alexander McKeever is an independent researcher and journalist based in Queens, NY, largely focused on the history of and ongoing developments within northern Syria. He is currently finishing an MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.Alexander is an independent researcher and an MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.