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Turkey prevents UN visit to hide its use of mercenaries in armed conflicts

Turkey has refused to permit the visit of the UN watchdog group on the use of mercenaries since November 2015, when the international body initially submitted a request to visit the country on a fact-finding mission.

Behind Turkey’s prolonged lack of response to the UN request lies the concern of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government over revealing Turkey’s involvement in using proxy fighter groups to intervene in conflicts beyond its borders.

According to information available on the website of the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries as a Means of Violating Human Rights and Impeding the Exercise of the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination, Turkey was initially informed of the UN’s request to visit the country on November 12, 2015.

Nevertheless, Turkey disregarded the UN group’s initial letter, leading to a second communication on February 24, 2016 as a reminder to Turkish authorities of the international body’s interest in visiting Turkey for information gathering. Unfortunately, the second letter also received no response from the Turkish side. The UN watchdog group persisted in renewing the request on March 31, 2022, indicating its intention to visit Turkey in 2023. Once again, Turkey ignored the UN communication.

The UN working group, established in July 2015 by the Human Rights Council, comprises independent experts, and its resolutions are routinely adopted by the UN General Assembly. Conducting fact-finding missions necessitates the host country’s permission. Turkey has thus far impeded such visits by failing to respond to UN requests.


UN letter to Turkey addressing the deployment of mercenaries to support Azerbaijan’s offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh: 

Download PDF • 329KB

The working group’s interest in visiting Turkey arose in response to credible reports of the increased use of mercenaries, military contractors and foreign fighters by the Islamist Erdogan government in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan.

In recent years the UN group has sent numerous inquiries to Turkey, seeking additional information about the Erdogan government’s involvement in the recruitment, financing, transportation and deployment of foreign fighters to Libya and Azerbaijan.

The role of Turkish paramilitary contractor SADAT, led by President Erdogan’s former chief military advisor Adnan Tanrıverdi, was also questioned by UN officials in their letters to the Turkish government. SADAT, an abbreviation for Uluslararası Savunma Danışmanlık İnşaat Sanayi ve Ticaret Anonim Şirketi, a for-profit company, was implicated in the training of fighters in Libya and Syria.

An Armenian soldier looks through binoculars at the checkpoint near the line of demarcation outside Askeran on November 21, 2020 (Photo by Andrey BORODULIN / AFP)

In a letter addressed to Turkey on November 6, 2020, the UN group stated that it had acquired information indicating Turkey’s involvement in recruiting individuals through armed groups primarily affiliated with the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA). These people were recruited for deployment to Azerbaijan in support of military operations in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. The fighters were allegedly promised a monthly salary of up to $2,500 along with additional compensation, including Turkish citizenship for their family members in the event of their death.

Their deployment, training and logistics were allegedly facilitated by contractors operating under the guidance of the Turkish security service. According to the letter, during the period between September 20 and 25, 2020, an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 fighters were believed to have been deployed to Azerbaijan, with thousands more in the process of recruitment. The government of Armenia submitted a detailed report, presenting evidence of such deployments to Nagorno-Karabakh supporting the Azerbaijani military offensive.

A special team from the Turkish military was deployed in March 2021 to Nagorno Karabakh to clear land mines planted by Armenian forces.

The UN group emphasized that it was “gravely concerned about the recruitment and transfer of fighters from Syria to Azerbaijan,” noting that such actions contravene international humanitarian law and international human rights law. “We remain concerned that those deployed to Azerbaijan are affiliated with armed groups and individuals that, in some cases, have been accused of war crimes and serious human rights abuses during the conflict in Syria, thus seemingly perpetuating a cycle of impunity and risking further abuses of international law,” the letter stated.

Turkey responded to the UN letter, saying that all the allegations were fake news, fabrications or black propaganda.

Turkish response to allegations on deployment of mercenaries to Azerbaijan: 

Download PDF • 216KB

Similarly, the UN highlighted a comparable practice by Turkey in deploying Syrian fighters to Libya in a letter sent on June 10, 2020. The letter indicated that in December 2019, Turkish authorities organized meetings with armed factions affiliated with the SNA to deploy their fighters to Tripoli in support of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). Fighters were promised up to $200 as monthly compensation, and SADAT was believed to have been involved in the selection of fighters.

Some of these factions that were enlisted for deployment had allegedly committed war crimes and serious human rights abuses, including the recruitment of children, severe restrictions on women’s rights in areas controlled by some of the groups and instances of extrajudicial killings.


UN letter to Turkey addressing deployment of mercenaries to support armed factions in Libya: 

Download PDF • 4.10MB

Turkey responded to the UN’s Libya letter on September 17, 2020, accusing the UN group of bias and labeling the allegations as unfounded. When the UN group sent the letter regarding Azerbaijan, it noted that Turkey “did not substantively address the allegations raised” regarding the deployment of Syrian fighters to Libya.

A report to Congress by the lead inspector general for East Africa and North and West Africa counterterrorism operations at the US Department of Defense said Turkey had dispatched between 3,500 and 3,800 paid Syrian fighters to Libya in the first three months of the year. This deployment occurred two months before a series of Turkish-backed victories by the Tripoli forces. Furthermore, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that the total number of Syrian mercenaries in Libya had reached 16,500 by the end of July 2020.


Turkish response to allegations of deployment of mercenaries to Libya: 

Download PDF • 526KB

Until Erdogan came to power in November 2002, the country had limited military engagements beyond its borders. The arming of proxy groups to promote Turkish interests was observed in northern Iraq, where the Turkish army had been engaged in a decades-long conflict against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since the early 1980s. Similar instances occurred in northern Cyprus, where Turkish Cypriot militias were trained and armed by Turkey against Greek Cypriots in the 1960s and 1970s, and to a limited extent in Bosnia during the Bosnian War in the 1990s.

With the current government’s dominant Islamist ideology serving as a driving force in foreign policy, Turkey has expanded its proxy engagement in Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus. This expansion involves providing arms, logistics, training and intelligence to countries and groups in order to advance the Erdogan government’s regional and global vision. Syria, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Libya have emerged as the most active theaters where Turkey-backed proxy groups have been deployed in recent years.


(c) 2024, Nordic Monitor


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