By Armen V. Sahakyan and Erik Khzmalyan
What has been an open secret for years is no longer a secret at all: Turkey is in bed with terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East. Ankara’s destabilizer-in-chief Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has now extended his menacing military involvement to the South Caucasus, where Turkish army personnel are assisting Ankara’s satellite state Azerbaijan in a massive invasion against Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and Armenia. But what grabbed international headlines are the appalling reports of Turkey’s deliberate misuse of the “religious card” in the Artsakh-Azerbaijan conflict and its transport of 4,000 jihadist terrorists in Syria to fight against Christian Armenians.
Turkey’s continued embrace of terrorist groups, including the Islamic State (ISIS), has caused havoc throughout the region. Ankara enabled the militants’ activities through weapon transfers, financial backup, and medical supplies. While the US and coalition forces conducted airstrikes to take out the ISIS militants following their proclamation of a global caliphate in 2014, the Turks provided a free passage for the Islamists to pour into Syria and Iraq. As one ISIS commander put it, “Most of the fighters who joined us [militants] in the beginning of the war came via Turkey, and so did our equipment and supplies.”
Although the extremist group has lost much of its territory in Iraq and Syria due to targeted airstrikes and strangled oil revenues, it still hopes to regroup for a comeback. Here too Ankara has been lukewarm about restricting the movement of ISIS operatives who run a network of front organizations in Turkey to generate income for the group.
As further evidence of this destructive phenomenon, Turkey has harbored and granted citizenship to a dozen members of the Hamas terrorist group.
Several media outlets report that Turkey’s recruitment of militant mercenaries began weeks before Azerbaijan launched its September 27 attack on Artsakh’s civilian settlements, indicating that the country planned the invasion and coordinated with Ankara beforehand. According to The Guardian, militants claim that they were told to visit Afrin, Syria, to meet with the commander of the Sultan Murad division, a rebel group that Turkey supports and is known for gross war crimes as well as anti-Christian fanaticism. A joint large-scale military drill involving Turkey and Azerbaijan in Nakhijevan just over a month ago was another worrying indicator.
Harboring and hiring terrorists is nothing new for Azerbaijan either, which the Aliyev clan has largely ruled since 1969. During the 1991–94 Artsakh-Azerbaijan war, Baku hired between 1,500 to 2,500 Afghan mujahideen, Chechen terrorists, and other mercenary fighters. Some of these militants gained combat experience and fought against the Russians in the embattled Northern Caucasus, and they fought American and coalition forces several years later, following the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan.
With a zeal to export radical mercenaries to fight the Armenians, Turkey has added another region to its long list for brazen sabotage. Elsewhere, Ankara has turned the Mediterranean into a conflict zone by manufacturing fights with Greece and Cyprus, compelling French and American navies to deploy warships to deescalate the situation.
Erdoğan’s impunity and bluntness even reached the American shores in Washington, DC, where in May 2017 his goons brutally beat up peaceful protesters in Sheridan Circle, hospitalizing some.
Armenians defending their homeland know what the autocrats in Ankara and Baku can do. These regimes aggressively deny the veracity of the Armenian Genocide, continue to reward hatred, and encourage acts of violence against Armenians. Consider the morbid case of Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani lieutenant who axed his sleeping Armenian counterpart to death during NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Upon Safarov’s extradition to Azerbaijan, the government pardoned and promoted him, and the autocratic president welcomed him as a hero. Similarly, recall the assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul, whose biggest “crime” was to advocate reconciliation between Armenians and Turks.
The Azerbaijani and Turkish governments have actively encouraged and cultivated the recent global spate of Armenophobic incidents—including the flashing of neo-fascist “Grey Wolves” salutes at peaceful Armenian protesters in the US and Canada, a string of three hate crime incidents against Armenian community institutions in San Francisco, and many others—for at least three decades.
The long streak of Turkish impunity has shown some signs of waning, though. The West—especially the United States—has grown increasingly impatient with Turkey’s destabilizing regional activities. Many anticipate that Secretary Mike Pompeo’s visit to Greece will explore proposals to relocate key American assets from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to Crete.
Lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced nations to focus inward to reorient often scarce resources for domestic purposes. Unfortunately, it also gave aggressors a window of opportunity to realize their long-desired geopolitical ambitions. Erdoğan’s messy implementation of his neo-Ottomanism, sprinkled with neo-fascist pan-Turkic ideology and coupled with Baku’s willingness to start a regional war, show how far the Turkish-Azerbaijani nexus is ready to go during a global health crisis.
If not condemned in the strongest possible terms, Turkey’s use of jihadist militants for political ends will further normalize this practice. The United States and the world community must respond to Ankara and Baku’s challenge swiftly and decisively.
Armen V. Sahakyan serves as the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America – Western Region.
Erik Khzmalyan is a senior fellow at the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute