Non-State Actors

The Ghost of SADAT in Nagorno-Karabakh

November 11, 2020

Michael Ellmer

 

This article was written on the 20th of October 2020. 

 

Key Judgements

 

KJ-1. It is likely that the Turkish SADAT group is supporting Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict using SADAT trained proxy forces recruited in Syria.

 

KJ-2. It is highly likely that Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan is making it nearly impossible to begin finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict and is reanimating historical tensions between Turkey and Armenia.

 

“There are only patterns, patterns on top of patterns, patterns that affect other patterns. Patterns hidden by patterns. Patterns within patterns. If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor

 

Fascination is a suitable reaction when examining how historical geopolitical tensions can be resurrected in the realm of the contemporary. Nations that were once fierce opponents on the battlefield now find themselves as allies attending multi-lateral summits in harmony, such as the United States, Germany, Italy, and Japan, and the other belligerents in the Second World War.  

 

But the human condition remains. Deeply rooted enmity between nations and tribes often find themselves forming into a physical manifestation of conflict and bloodshed. Israel and Palestine, North Korea and South Korea, “Armenia and Turkey”…  

 

 

A neo-Ottoman Potential

 

Hostilities between Armenia and Turkey go back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Historical political and religious differences between the Christian Armenians and Muslim Ottoman’s culminated with the Armenian genocide between 1914 and 1922. This event resulted in the displacement and killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Despite the global acknowledgement of the genocide, Turkey denies ownership to this day.

 

The Ottoman Empire came to an end in 1922 followed by the formation of an independent republic of Turkey. The first president of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, spearheaded national reforms that sent the nation on a trajectory towards secular westernization. The progressive nature of Turkey eventually took a shift in the 21st century, and the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been the subject of great public scrutiny. On the world stage, Erdoğan has taken an interventionist posture towards regional conflicts, such as the Libyan Civil War, and in the Aegean maritime dispute with Greece.

 

Some scholars and commentators have claimed Turkey is practising “neo-Ottomanism” and carrying out their foreign policy with clear parallels to the Ottoman Empire of old. One of the clearest arguments for that claim is the Turkish intervention in the current Nagorno-Karabakh War. Turkey has sided with Azerbaijan, declared Armenia a threat to the peace of the region, and voiced unconditional support for Azerbaijan’s military operation in the region. History repeats itself indeed…

 

 

Two States, One Smart Power

 

According to Dr. Can Kasapogulu at the Istanbul-based think-tank, EDAM,

 

“Turkey and Azerbaijan share a mutual national identity, speak the same language, and enjoy very strong ties not only between their governments, but also, and more significantly so, their societies. Although this sets a good basis for building a partnership, soft power elements alone cannot suffice in maintaining the strategic momentum. Thus, registering joint defense capabilities are essential to foster the ‘iki devlet bir millet’ (two states, but one nation) understanding, enabling soft power potential to be translated into smart power. This is where the military alliance between Baku and Ankara comes into play, as it constitutes the hard power pillar of the bilateral ties.”

 

These bilateral ties have been on full display in Nagorno-Karabakh, with the two countries acting as one singular organism. An organism hell-bent on reclaiming one of the most disputed territories in the modern world.

 

 

Nagorno-Karabakh History

 

The contested nature of the Nagorno-Karabakh has a dense history. The most relevant and pivotal moment in its mythos begins with Joseph Stalin in the early 1920s. Stalin was the acting Commissar of Nationalities for the Soviet Union at the time and declared the Nagorno-Karabakh region to be a territory of Azerbaijan despite Armenia’s claim that the land historically belonged to them. In 1924, the “Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” was formed, and there was relative peace in the area until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Nagorno-Karabakh had a significant Armenian population, and in 1988 made the call to reunify with Armenia. Azerbaijan was not too keen on that idea, and thus we have the current conflict.

 

The region went into a cease-fire in 1994 and has remained relatively peaceful since then, except for short periods of skirmishes between the two nations. That changed on the 27th of September 2020, when the slumbering conflict rapidly awakened into a highly kinetic state. According to the Armenian defence ministry, civilian settlements were targeted by Azerbaijani shelling. The Armenian government declared martial law and mobilized the national military. Azerbaijan denounced the claims, and blamed Armenia for the sudden escalation, and began their own military deployment in response.

 

During a televised message, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev stated, “I am confident that our successful counter-offensive operation will put an end to the occupation, to the injustice, to the 30-year-long occupation” (in reference to Armenia). President Erdogan soon joined Aliyev and pledged full support in helping Azerbaijan push the Armenians out of the region.

 

 

Turkey in the Nagorno-Karabakh: Rumors of Asymmetrical Warfare

 

Turkey has inserted itself into the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, although not in an overtly conventional way. To this point, the reported ways Turkey has assisted Azerbaijan is through logistical and weapons support, and their use of high-tech drones against Armenian forces. But even though they have openly declared partnership, the extent of which is still an enigma. Claims have been circulating on social media and journalistic reporting, about the possibility of Turkish boots on the ground in the form of mercenaries.

 

According to a recent Grey Dynamics piece, SADAT is a Turkish parallel to Russia’s Wagner private contracting group. In the instances of both countries, the utilization of a private paramilitary company overseas allows for a proxy force that can strive to achieve national interests without accountability or blame to the home country. Unlike Wagner, SADAT is open about their existence, albeit not the true nature of their international operations.

 

There are multiple allegations that make the claim SADAT has been involved in the Syrian conflict, Libya, and in support of Salafist groups in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Within Nagorno-Karabakh, the role of SADAT is currently is more legend than corroborated fact.

 

  • The Syrian Observation for Human Rights claimed “very reliable sources” have reported that a group of Syrian fighters who were trained and supported by Turkey were seen in Azerbaijan on the 27th of September 2020, which was coincidentally the day the conflict erupted. The Syrian group was supposedly from the Hamza Division, a Syrian rebel group that was likely trained by SADAT. Although that does not confirm a physical SADAT presence, it is likely that they are in some way connected.

  • According to The Guardian, SADAT (referenced to as a “Turkish security company overseas”) provides financial incentives to Syrians who are in a vulnerable state due to the long periods of conflict and looking for work. In this case, The Guardian directly spoke to three Syrian men in rebel territory who claim that Turkey is currently sending those recruited fighters to Nagorno-Karabakh in support of Azerbaijan.

 

 

Analysis

 

It is likely that SADAT supports Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The true extent to which they are involved is more of a puppet-master approach. The likely scenario is that they recruit desperate and economically challenged Syrians to fight for them and promise higher wages than they would receive domestically. By enlisting these men, Turkey not only is able to have boots on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh but also has expendable and poorly trained forces who can be on the front lines.

 

Allowing for these forces to be a ground element likely allows Turkey and Azerbaijan to divert resources and attention to more advanced elements, such as air support and the usage of drones and modern military hardware. It is highly likely that Turkey’s involvement is significantly reducing the chances of a peaceful solution. Although the international community has called for a cease-fire and peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, President Erdoğan and the Turkish government continues to stoke the fires of war with hostile rhetoric.

 

With no semblance of peace insight and a daily increasing death count and escalation in violence, the Nagorno-Karabakh region is a prime candidate for the complete breakdown of regional stability. If a power vacuum were to occur, the outcomes could affect the area for many years to come. On an even broader scope, there is a realistic probability that Russia could insert themselves in the conflict in support of Armenia. With Turkey being part of NATO, the potential for another complicated layer table, especially if each country supports a different side. Russians Wagner Group is no stranger to proxy intervention in support of international Russian interests and would be a likely way Russia could support Armenia without direct involvement.

 

Wagner Group/Russia vs. SADAT/Turkey vs. Armenia vs. Azerbaijan. Outside the realm of possibility? Not entirely.

 

Image: SADAT (link)

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