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Turkey’s Use of Mercenaries under International Law

By John Vatian

2020 has been a year for the history books; from Kobe Bryant’s death in January to President Trump recently contracting and overcoming the Coronavirus, 2020 has been an endless news cycle. Yet, there is one news story that has not received much attention – the ongoing war in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave region that territorially falls under Azerbaijan’s control, but is ethnically controlled by Armenians. The Caucuses, a historically volatile and bellicose region, is now witnessing another war, this time due to Azerbaijan’s launched air and artillery attack early Sunday, September 27th.

But there is also a unique twist in this conflict that makes it markedly different from previous skirmishes; the Turkish government is actively involved, and they are supporting Azerbaijan. Turkey views Azerbaijan as a “younger brother” nation, based on their similar Turkic linguistic and cultural ties, and has publicly expressed support for them in the ongoing conflict. However, it is not just public support—but covert support as well—through the active use and recruitment of mercenaries. Strikingly, as early as August 29th, nearly one month prior to the attack, there were reports that Turkey began to transfer the first batch of Syrian mercenaries in the north of the country to Azerbaijan.

The use and recruitment of mercenaries are legally forbidden by the 1989 International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. According to the Convention, any individual who is not a member of any armed force that is a party to the conflict is considered a mercenary. It further stipulates that all states should consider mercenary activity an offense for which the individual in question ought to be prosecuted or, at the very least, extradited.

Many of the world’s great powers, however, never signed the treaty, largely due to their active uses today. Neither Turkey nor Armenia were a party to the ratification of the treaty, but ironically, Azerbaijan was, and it ratified the Convention on December 4th, 1997.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has monitored human rights violations and death tolls throughout the war in Syria, some nearly 1,200 Syrians have been sent by Turkey to fight on behalf of Azerbaijan against Armenia. The Observatory stated that at least 72 Syrian mercenaries have been killed so far on the front lines.

Unsurprisingly, Turkey has denied the active use and funding of mercenaries. Yet live reports on the ground, from both military intelligence and the media, have proved the exact opposite. President Macron of France went even further declaring “These fighters are known, tracked and identified.”

This is not the first time Turkey has used mercenaries, however. Earlier this year, reports from U.S. Defense Department’s Inspector General emerged that Turkey deployed Syrian mercenaries in Libya. Some estimates penned the number of mercenaries at more than 3,000—and some as high as 6,000. These recent deployments have largely been in line with Turkey’s attempt to exert more regional dominance. In Turkey’s mind, and at the behest of its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, they are attempting to cement their “rightful place in today’s changing world.” Neighbors, allies, and even rivals, such as Egypt, are growing weary of this belligerent Turkish vision. The active use of mercenaries has only further substantiated that view.

Politically, mercenaries sell plausible deniability and lethality in the shadows. Geopolitically, they serve a strategic purpose, advancing a country’s interest without having to deploy its actual army troops on-site; legally, however, their use is hazy. This legally questionable, but strategically advantageous use of mercenaries is spurred by today’s highly complex international politics. In fact, the industry is worth in excess of $100 billion and has grown exponentially since 9/11.

The international community, for all its faults and diplomatic maneuvering, must call a spade a spade and condemn the use of mercenaries by Turkey. Invoking the Convention to prosecute or extradite these mercenaries is a dire necessity, as the community’s failure to do so is putting thousands of innocent Armenians civilian lives at risk. The world is watching.


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