Nagorno-Karabakh: Syrians used as ‘cannon fodder’

Nagorno-Karabakh: Syrians used as ‘cannon fodder’
Armenian soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint after a truce agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh. Syrians have detailed how they were duped into fighting in the conflict. (AFP/File
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Updated 11 December 2020

Nagorno-Karabakh: Syrians used as ‘cannon fodder’

Nagorno-Karabakh: Syrians used as ‘cannon fodder’
  • Life-changing $2,000 offer for ‘sentry work’ ended in vicious front-line combat, recruits say
  • Fighter tells BBC: ‘I was paralyzed by fear, death was all around us’

LONDON: Four Syrian nationals have claimed they were sent into battle in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as mercenaries, despite only enlisting for sentry duties in Azerbaijan.

The claims, made directly to the UK’s BBC, come as Turkey and Azerbaijan deny using mercenaries in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

In August, people in rebel-held areas of northern Syria were told that there was paid employment overseas.

One of the Syrians told the BBC: “I had a friend who told me that there is a very good job you can do, just to be at military checkpoints in Azerbaijan.”

Another said: “They told us our mission would be to serve as sentries on the border — as peacekeepers. They were offering $2,000 a month. It felt like a fortune to us.”

Both enlisted for the work through Turkish-backed rebels that make up the Syrian National Army, a group opposed to the regime of President Bashar Assad.

The civil war in Syria caused an economic breakdown and a decline in wages, and few people in the region now earn more than $1 a day. As a result, the promised salary seemed like a “godsend,” one of the Syrians said.

Recent estimates say that between 1,500 and 2,000 men enlisted and traveled to Azerbaijan via Turkey on a military aircraft.

However, the men were deliberately misled. They were being recruited for war, despite many having no military experience. The deadly ruse was discovered when they were taken to the front line and ordered to fight.

One of the Syrians said: “I didn’t expect to survive. It seemed like a 1 percent chance. Death was all around us.”

Azerbaijan and its regional ally Turkey have denied using mercenaries in the conflict. However, researchers have gathered a photographic evidence, drawn from videos and images posted online by fighters, that reveals a different story.

The Syrians were deployed on the southern side of the Azeri line, where both sides suffered heavy casualties. The fighters told the BBC that they “came under heavy fire” and were traumatized by their experiences. They chose to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from military higher-ups.

“My first battle began the day after I arrived,” said one.

“Myself and about 30 guys were sent to the front line. We walked for about 50 m when suddenly a rocket landed near us. I threw myself to the ground. The shelling lasted for 30 minutes. Those minutes felt like years. It was then that I regretted coming to Azerbaijan,” he said.

“We didn’t know what to do or how to react,” said another fighter, who added that he and many of his fellow recruits had almost no experience of war, let alone military training.

“I saw men dying, and others who just went running. They didn’t have any sense of where they were going, because they were basically civilians,” he said.

The four men claim Syrian recruits were provided with almost no protective equipment or medical support. Many fighters bled to death from wounds that medics could have treated, they added.

“The hardest moment was when one of my mates was hit,” said a fighter who was later hospitalized after suffering shrapnel wounds. “He was 20 m away from me when the shell landed. I saw him fall. He was calling to me and screaming. But his spot was exposed to the Armenian machine guns. I couldn’t help him. In the end he just died there.”

Another Syrian fighter said he was “paralyzed by fear” when the shelling began.

“I remember I just sat on the ground and cried, and my injured friends started to cry as well,” he said. “One guy suffered a shrapnel wound on his head. He died right there. Every day I see this. When it comes to me, I sit and cry, even now. I don’t know how I survived this war.”

Estimates of the Syrian death toll in the conflict vary. Official figures report a total of 2,400 casualties on the Armenian side and nearly 3,000 on the Azeri side. But Azerbaijan does not acknowledge that Syrians were among the dead.


Iranians nonchalant as regime opens poll

Iranians nonchalant as regime opens poll
Updated 21 min 14 sec ago

Iranians nonchalant as regime opens poll

Iranians nonchalant as regime opens poll
  • Khamenei’s ally Raisi likely to succeed succeed the pragmatist incumbent Hassan Rouhani

JEDDAH: Iranians vote on Friday in a race that is seen by the regime’s critics as not democratic, fair, or free by any means.

The election, tightly managed by the nation’s top authorities, is likely to hand the presidency to a judge sanctioned by Washington for alleged involvement in executions of political prisoners.

Hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, an ally and protege of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the favorite to succeed the pragmatist incumbent Hassan Rouhani.

“The regime will attempt to project that it enjoys legitimacy during this election. Government employees will be instructed to go to the ballots in order to show the popularity of the regime, while the authorities may manipulate the statistics in order to show a high voter turnout,” Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist, writes in Opinion.

Khamenei on Wednesday urged Iranians to turn out and vote, but a record number of people are expected to boycott the polls due to anger over worsening economic hardship and frustration with hard-line rule.

Another potential deterrent for voters is a hard-line vetting body’s disqualification of hundreds of would-be candidates, including many advocating more freedoms.

For an overwhelmingly young population chafing at political restrictions, the lack of choice at the ballot box means a vote serves little purpose, analysts of Iranian politics say.

Soraya, a student at Tehran University, told Arab News: “The government is telling people to vote. But I see voting as an insult. We are not going to vote in order to show the world that we Iranians are frustrated with this clerical establishment.

“We are not with a government that shoots down a passenger plane (Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was downed by the IRGC in January 2020), lies repeatedly, and kills and tortures its own citizens.

“We are not with a government that steals the nation’s natural resources and spends it on its militias. The old game of moderate or hard-liner is over. They are all the same.”

Within Iran’s mix of clerical rulers and elected officials, Khamenei has the final say on all state matters, including nuclear and foreign policies. But the elected president will be in charge of tackling an economy hammered by US sanctions.

Over 50 percent of Iran’s 85 million population has been pushed under the poverty line since 2018 when then US President Donald Trump ditched a 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed nuclear-related sanctions that have squeezed Tehran’s oil income.

Aware of its vulnerability to anger over the economy, the leadership fears a revival of street protests that have erupted since 2017, in which protesters called for “regime change.”


Lebanese army calls for Arab, foreign aid as cash crisis deepens

Lebanese army calls for Arab, foreign aid as cash crisis deepens
Updated 18 June 2021

Lebanese army calls for Arab, foreign aid as cash crisis deepens

Lebanese army calls for Arab, foreign aid as cash crisis deepens
  • Threat to military ‘leaves entire country at risk,’ defense ministers warn summit

BEIRUT: Lebanese army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun on Thursday expressed confidence that the military will overcome what he described as a “crucial and delicate period” facing Lebanon.

The military chief warned of an increasingly untenable situation, but said that the institution remains strong.

“We believe that we will overcome this crucial and delicate period thanks to the strong will of our soldiers, and to the support of the Lebanese people and the friendly countries,” Gen. Aoun said.

His remarks came as 20 members of the International Support Group for Lebanon (ISG), in addition to European and Arab countries, the UN, EU and other international organizations attended a virtual conference on Thursday to support the army.

Discontent is brewing among Lebanon’s security forces over a currency crash that has wiped out most of the value of their salaries. Lebanon’s pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar since late 2019.

The conference, organized by France in collaboration with Italy and the UN, aimed to mobilize support through in-kind aid for the Lebanese Army such as food, medicine and spare parts for its military equipment, in light of the collapse of the pound and the effect of the country’s struggling economy on the military.

Lebanon is facing a political deadlock and the biggest economic crisis in its history, and there are expectations that the army will step in to protect public safety in the event of a full collapse — much feared by the international community.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly said: “We are concerned that the Lebanese army remains capable of fulfilling its duties in maintaining security and stability.”

Her Italian counterpart, Lorenzo Guerrini, highlighted the importance of “quickly responding to the needs of the army by providing it with basic support requirements.”

Joana Wronecka, UN special coordinator for Lebanon, said that the army must be kept “cohesive and operative.”

Zeina Akar, Lebanon’s caretaker defense minister, said: “Taking into consideration the unstable environment — full of upheaval and uncertainty — that surrounds Lebanon, the army is a guarantee for stability and for the security of the Lebanese people.”

The minister said the army is facing the same problems as the Lebanese people.

“Its purchase power is eroding and it needs strong support to keep performing its duties. The army’s personnel need support in order to provide livelihood for their families.”

Gen. Aoun reviewed the army’s requirements at Thursday’s talks, saying that there is “an incremental need today to support it so that it remains tenacious and capable of doing its duties.”

He said that the depreciation of the Lebanese pound had stripped military salaries of 90 percent of their value.

Gen. Aoun warned that “the continuous retreat of the economic and financial situation in Lebanon will eventually lead to the collapse of institutions, including the military institution, which will render the whole country vulnerable on the security level.”

Soldiers “need support as individuals to overcome this precarious period,” he added.

“The army is the guarantee for security and stability in Lebanon and the region. Jeopardizing its role will lead to the collapse of Lebanon and to the spread of chaos.”

France, which has led international efforts, has sought to ramp up pressure on Lebanon’s squabbling politicians after failed attempts to agree a new government and launch reforms.

“The participants highlighted the dire and steadily degrading economic and social conditions in Lebanon. In this context, they stressed that the Lebanese army, though overstretched, remains a crucial pillar of the Lebanese state,” the French Armed Forces Ministry said in a statement.

“Their cohesiveness and professionalism remain key to preserving the country’s stability.”


How corruption and violence go hand-in-hand in Iraq

How corruption and violence go hand-in-hand in Iraq
Updated 18 June 2021

How corruption and violence go hand-in-hand in Iraq

How corruption and violence go hand-in-hand in Iraq
  • Iran-backed groups willing to kidnap, kill to protect corrupt revenue streams: Experts
  • Iraq ranked 160 out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index

LONDON: Iran-backed militias in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) employ assassinations, kidnappings and other forms of violence in order to protect the income they derive from widespread and deep-rooted corruption in Iraq, a panel of experts said on Thursday.

At an online event hosted by British think tank Chatham House and attended by Arab News, Mohammad Al-Hakim, senior advisor on economic reform to Iraq’s prime minister, said the country’s corruption crisis extends back to the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule, but is now systemic, politically sanctioned and backed by the threat of violence by Iran-backed groups.

“There’s a deep problem with the structure of the Iraqi state. This is very much a legacy that needs to be addressed,” Al-Hakim said. “The Iraqi state system has been deteriorating over 50 years.”

Iraq ranks in the bottom 20 countries in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Government employees from the bottom to the top of Iraqi governance are engaging in systematic corruption, said Al-Hakim.

At the highest levels of the Iraqi state, civil servants have developed relationships with politicians that they use to line their own pockets and make money for their political allies.

Maya Gebeily, Middle East correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said one of the underpinnings of this system is the PMF, which operates as a “cartel,” using violence to suppress any opposition or attempt to upturn the status quo.

“It’s important to think about this corruption as a cartel. There are players in the cartel who agree with each other on how to divvy up the spoils that are coming in either from tariffs, from a specific project, or into the ministry,” she added.

“That’s why there are no ‘turf wars’ … because everyone is benefitting from this system. As soon as the bodies start showing up, that means an economic loss.”

But that has not deterred the militias from violence, Gebeily said. They just do not use it against each other.

“What they’re doing is using violence against anybody who’s trying to root out corruption. Researchers, activists and others who’ve been extremely vocal about corruption have been kidnapped, murdered or otherwise harassed,” she said.

Law-abiding officials have been physically threatened, beaten up or had their families attacked when they refused to be complicit in corruption.

“Armed groups use violence as an enforcement mechanism to make sure their economic interests are secured,” said Gebeily.

“Let’s say you want to import cigarettes. Cigarettes are extremely lucrative to import, so you need an extremely powerful group — and the one I discovered was importing them was Kata’ib Hezbollah — to be involved in that import.”

Iraq’s most powerful armed militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah has directly attacked US forces in the country.

It is also widely believed to be behind a string of assassinations and kidnappings, including that of Hisham Al-Hashimi, a journalist who described the Iran-backed group as “the strongest and most dangerous group in the so-called Islamic resistance.”

Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, said: “If we’re talking about power and where it lies in the Iraqi state, you only need look at the attempt by the prime minister to arrest Qasem Muslih, the leader of a brigade in the PMF, and why the prime minister was unable to keep someone who he accused of having a role in assassinations in jail.”

Mansour added: “Actually, these aren’t just militias. They have more connectivity to Iraq’s Parliament, to Iraq’s judiciary, than the prime minister does. They’re effectively connected to power in a more central way than the traditional and formal heads of state.”

This reveals the true and farcical nature of power in Iraq, Mansour said. “Those sitting on top of the system struggle with access to the state that they’re meant to be head of,” he added.

“Those apparently sitting outside the state actually have more connectivity to the essence, the power, the core of the state.”


Bahrain crown prince discusses Middle East security with UK PM Johnson

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad meets UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street. (BNA)
Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad meets UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street. (BNA)
Updated 18 June 2021

Bahrain crown prince discusses Middle East security with UK PM Johnson

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad meets UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street. (BNA)
  • The two leaders discussed the global effort against COVID-19 and deepening cooperation on green technology
  • Prince Salman also met with Prince Charles, conveying greetings from King Hamad to Queen Elizabeth II

LONDON: Bahrain and the UK vowed to boost economic and security cooperation as Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad held talks with the British prime minister on Thursday.
Prince Salman said relations with the UK continued to evolve toward more advanced and solid partnerships in various fields, based on their close history spanning decades, Bahrain News Agency reported.
“The bilateral partnership between the two countries are based on opening wider horizons for the development of solid relations at all levels, in a manner that reflects the aspirations of the two countries,” Prince Hamad said during his meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street.
He praised Britain’s strategic and vital role in maintaining security and stability in the region, and developing cooperation in areas such as military, economic and trade.
“They reflected on the close and historic partnership between the UK and Bahrain and agreed to further strengthen our economic, security and diplomatic cooperation,” Downing Street said in a statement, adding the two leaders discussed the global effort against COVID-19, support for international initiatives to combat the pandemic, including COVAX, and deepening cooperation on green technology and the transition to renewable energy.
“They also spoke about regional security issues and defense collaboration, and the prime minister commended the Bahraini government’s steps to normalize relations with Israel,” the statement added.
Prince Salman also met with Prince Charles, conveying greetings from King Hamad to Queen Elizabeth II.


Iran says nuclear talks closer to deal, Russia says time-consuming work remains

Iran says nuclear talks closer to deal, Russia says time-consuming work remains
Updated 17 June 2021

Iran says nuclear talks closer to deal, Russia says time-consuming work remains

Iran says nuclear talks closer to deal, Russia says time-consuming work remains

DUBAI: Indirect talks between Tehran and Washington on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have come closer than ever to an agreement, but essential issues remain to be negotiated, the top Iranian negotiator said on Thursday.
The Islamic Republic and six world powers have been negotiating in Vienna since April to work out steps for both sides to take. The United States withdrew in 2018 from the pact, under which Iran accepted curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of many foreign sanctions against it.
“We achieved good, tangible progress on the different issues .... we are closer than ever to an agreement but there are still essential issues under negotiations,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted as telling Al Jazeera television.
Araqchi said Iran’s presidential election on Friday would have no effect on the negotiations and the Iranian negotiating team will continue the talks regardless of domestic policy.
The sixth round of talks resumed on Saturday with the remaining parties to the deal — Iran, Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union — meeting in the basement of a luxury hotel.
The US delegation to the talks is based in a hotel across the street as Iran refuses face-to-face meetings.
Since former US President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran has embarked on counter-measures, including rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, a potential pathway to nuclear bombs.
“We want to make sure that what happened when Trump pulled out of the deal will not be repeated by any other American president in the future,” Araqchi told the pan-Arab satellite TV network.
Russia’s envoy to the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, added a note of caution, saying progress had been made in the last few days but talks were tough.
“Some difficult and time-consuming topics still remain unresolved,” he said.
France’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday there were still significant disagreements.
Iran’s new president is expected to name his Cabinet by mid-August. Current President Hassan Rouhani’s term ends on Aug. 3, a government spokesman said.