RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Some rebel fighters in Syria's long civil war are now guns for hire in foreign wars. They say they're being sent by their backers in Turkey. And experts allege that Russia has also sent Syrians to fight abroad but on the other side of those very same wars. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The commander in northwest Syria was used to getting orders from Turkey, which backed his group. But the command that came through late last year shocked him - go and fight in Libya. He asks us not to identify him so as not to upset Turkey and its supporters in Syria.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) The Libya situation was imposed on all the platoons. For myself, a commander, I refused this order.
SHERLOCK: His cousin did go and died in Libya. He was among many Syrians who manned front lines for the Libyan faction backed by Turkey. And there were Syrians on the other side of the war, too, men recruited from regime-held parts of Syria and allegedly sent to Libya by Russia. A report by the U.S. military's Africa command said that by August of this year, there were some 7,000 Syrians on Libyan front lines. Frederic Wehrey, a Libya expert with the Carnegie think tank, met some of Turkey's Syrian recruits in the Libyan capital.
FREDERIC WEHREY: What was interesting is these Syrians, they understood what they were being used for. I asked one of them, you know, what's your future? What's next for you after Libya? And he said, I'm going to go wherever I needed next, right? And that's wherever Turkey's going to send him.
SHERLOCK: Last month, Syrian fighters began appearing in videos posted on the Internet from the front lines of Azerbaijan's war with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh like this one.
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MUSTAFA QANTI: (Non-English language spoken).
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SHERLOCK: God keep me safe, says the young man, later identified by analyst Elizabeth Tsurkov as Syrian Mustafa Qanti (ph). He runs in fear as shells fly overhead.
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QANTI: (Non-English language spoken).
SHERLOCK: The spoils of Armenia, he says. France and Russia both say Turkey is sending Syrian mercenaries to support Azerbaijan in the war. Although Turkey denies this, the denial is wearing increasingly thin. Analysts tracking the dead say as many as 95 fighters have already returned to Syria in coffins. Relatives anxiously wait, like this man in Syria who we reached by phone but agree to mask his voice. He says his cousin is in Azerbaijan.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) He's one of the fighters who are there. He told me the clashes between the two sides are very bad.
SHERLOCK: Like others we speak with in northern Syria, he's afraid to anger the Turks who control much of this part of the country. And he's also worried about the humiliation that his cousin's actions might bring his family. Being seen as a mercenary for a foreign country is considered shameful among much of his community. But he says his cousin was living in a refugee camp and needed the money.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) He is not someone who was ever predisposed to violence or killing, but necessity and poverty drove him to this. Here, people will do anything just in order to get food for their kids.
SHERLOCK: He said, in Libya, his cousin made around $2,000 a month. He came home and when the money ran out, signed up for Azerbaijan. As for the rebel commander we spoke with earlier, who rejected the call for Libya, he says he also refused to go to Azerbaijan.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) We are revolutionaries, not mercenaries.
SHERLOCK: He's now left his Turkish-backed rebel group, but he knows that many of his colleagues will go and fight abroad for money.
Ruth Sherlock, NPR News.
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