Turkish Footprint in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: from Drones to Boots on the Ground

As the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is on the verge of a full-scale confrontation, Turkey is seeking to take advantage of the current developments. The problem bequeathed from the early years of the Soviet era – and utterly engineered by Joseph Stalin –  has now become another opportunity for the Turkish foreign policy to expand its strategic reach abroad.

Azeri-Turkish Ties and Mutual Interests

Ankara and Baku have traditionally been quite close. Directly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey rushed to establish strong ties with Azerbaijan. It is not only the common ethnic origins between the two countries – considering that the vast majority of Azerbaijani population is of Turkic descent – but also a thriving partnership has been built over the years in the fields of foreign policy, military affairs, energy and finance.

Armenia has historically been a common enemy for both Azerbaijan and Turkey; partly for this reason Ankara crucially stepped in to aid in the military build-up of post-Soviet Azerbaijan. Since the mid-1990s, through military consultants sent to Baku and training abroad facilitated by Ankara, Turkish governments have significantly contributed to the current defense status quo of the country. In 2010 the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and his then Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gül signed a strategic defense pact for mutual support in case of an act of aggression from a third country.

In terms of cooperation in the energy field, the landmark projects of the BTC pipeline and TANAP have greatly boosted the economies of both countries. But these grand pipeline ventures also had serious geopolitical consequences, reshaping the energy landscape in the wider region and bringing out Ankara and Baku as two key energy players in an area that had long seemed to be a Russian monopoly. We should highlight that this latest fact has also been one of the many reasons why Moscow is backing Armenia in the long-term bitter conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkish Assistance During the Summer and the Vital Role of Turkish drones

Prior to the most recent escalation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Turkey took various steps to strengthen Baku’s military capabilities and at the same time send the message that Ankara would be ready to actively engage in a potential conflict. Between July and August, Azerbaijan and Turkey conducted the iconic TurAz Eagle exercise, a mutual large-scale live-fire military drill with the participation of air and ground units of the Turkish and Azerbaijani Armed Forces. This exercise took place shortly after a reported Armenian attack in the proximity of Tovuz border region which caused the death of 12 Azerbaijani servicemen.

It should be noted that approximately a year ago, in the aftermath of the same wide-scale exercise, the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency published an analysis where Azerbaijan and Turkey are described as two states, but one smart power. Given the current geopolitical balances the latest TurAz Eagle can be perceived as a rehearsal of the offensive that’s taking place in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Further to this joint exercise, Turkey has taken another crucial step which could possibly have a severe impact in a potential Armenia-Azerbaijan confrontation; the supply (and know-how) of Turkey’s emblematic TB2 drones. In July, the President of the Turkish Defense Industries Ismail Demir stated on Twitter that Ankara would militarily assist Baku with new systems, training and modernization of the existing equipment, emphasizing the “two states-one nation” concept at the end of his message.

Demir’s favorite aspect of the Turkish Defense Industry is its remarkable drone technologies, that have been predominantly developed by Baykar Defense. This is going to be the major moving force in the military aid towards Azerbaijan. In the case of Libya, the massive deployment of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones has been a game changer that literally tipped the balance of the conflict. At the moment we know that Turkish drones — most probably operated by Turkish personnel for now — will spearhead the Turkish assistance to Azerbaijan, and it only remains to be seen to what extent they could affect the developments on the ground this time around.

Reports of Turkish-backed Syrian Mercenaries in Azerbaijan

In addition to the Turkish military assistance in terms of weapons and training – a fact which Ankara has officially confirmed – the alleged deployment of Syrian mercenaries who are willing to fight on behalf of Azerbaijan on the Nagorno-Karabakh front is also attracting a lot of attention. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the investigative journalist Lindsay Snell, approximately 1,000 Syrian mercenaries have been brought to Azerbaijan under Ankara’s coordination.

The Armenian envoy to Russia recently added that this number could be much higher. According to an exclusive statement provided on condition of anonymity by an active in-country intelligence officer, the presence of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries cannot be disputed at the moment and the actual number should be estimated at approximately 3,000 troops with the possibility of further increases; there is also an unconfirmed estimate of approximately 100 casualties among the aforementioned ill-trained mercenaries.

Turkey has rushed to deny all reports around Turkish-backed mercenary presence in Artsakh, the name of the breakaway republic in Nagorno-Karabakh. This is a rational step from Ankara considering the possible international backlash of such a move. However we should always keep in mind that this has been the exact same reaction when Turkey was accused for the deployment of Syrian mercenaries in Libya, until the facts spoke for themselves and disproved any Turkish denials.

Even though Ankara suggests that the mobilization of Syrian mercenaries does not make sense in an area where the Azerbaijani Armed Forces can be much more efficient, there is one important aspect which can justify such a move. As we have clearly seen in recent regional conflicts, advanced technologies cannot be the only means to achieve territorial gains and boots of the ground are always necessary.

In this respect, the potential loss of some low-paid Syrian rebels is minimal from Turkey and Azerbaijan’s perspective compared to the time and resources that have been invested on the experienced Azerbaijani and Turkish soldiers or officers; this is not to mention the political cost for both sides of losing citizens at war. Therefore the presence of mercenaries in this battle is highly likely and it will likely just be a matter of time until this is definitively proven.