As the heaviest fighting in years flares between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a war of words has erupted over reports that Turkey has sent thousands of Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan to support its Muslim-majority ally, Baku.
Azerbaijan has called the reports "fake news," while Russia suggested on September 30 that it had information supporting claims that Syrian fighters had been sent to the area, and Turkey has remained silent on the issue.
Armenia has claimed that the mercenaries are already clashing with local Azeris as the rebels allegedly attempt to impose Shari'a law, and a British-based organization that observes the Syrian civil war has reported the first death of a Syrian militant in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Some analysts have given credence to the idea that Turkey is sending militants it controls to help Azerbaijan, while others have voiced skepticism about Sunni Syrian rebels fighting on behalf of majority Shi'ite Azerbaijan.
Through the murk, the prospect of foreign fighters entering the long-simmering fray over Nagorno-Karabakh -- an Armenian-controlled, separatist enclave of Azerbaijan that has been fought over off and on since the last days of the Soviet Union -- raises concerns of a wider conflict that could draw in regional powers Turkey, Russia, and Iran.
In September 28 report, the Reuters news agency quoted two unidentified members of Turkish-backed rebel groups in northern Syria as saying they were being deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh.
The two told the news agency that they expected to guard facilities, not fight, and that the deployment had been coordinated with Ankara.
Each of the men said they had been told by their commanders in the Syrian National Army -- an umbrella group of Syrian rebels backed by Turkey -- that they would receive about $1,500 a month for their services.
"I didn't want to go, but I don't have any money," one of the fighters, who used to belong to the Turkish-backed rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, told Reuters. "Life is very hard and poor."
The second source, who belonged to the Turkish-backed rebel group Jaish al-Nukhba, said he had been told that 1,000 Syrians were to be deployed to Azerbaijan.
The Guardian published similar claims, reporting on September 28 that three men living in rebel-controlled northern Syria said they had signed up to work as border guards in Azerbaijan for a private Turkish security company.
Two of the men, brothers who spoke on condition they be allowed to use pseudonyms, said they were recruited to work as guards at observation posts or oil and gas facilities in Azerbaijan for $900 to $1,300 a month.
'Thousands Willing To Go'
The alleged recruitment effort, which The Guardian reported began weeks ago, followed a previously reported effort by Turkey to send Syrian militants to Libya.
"When we first started being offered work abroad in Libya, people were afraid to go there, but now there are definitely thousands of us who are willing to go to either Libya or Azerbaijan," said a third source who spoke under a pseudonym. "There is nothing for us here."
Analysts were split on the prospect of Turkey sending mercenaries to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Zaur Gasimov, a senior research fellow at the University of Bonn, told RFE/RL: "I heavily doubt" the involvement of Syrian mercenaries on behalf of the Azerbaijani side, citing the fact that those reported to have been sent were Sunni.
"The deployment of Sunni Syrian fighters in Azerbaijan, a borderland of Russia's predominantly Sunni regions of Dagestan and Chechnya, would never tolerated by Moscow [or] by Iran," Gasimov said.
"Even hypothetically, that would enable their further penetration into Russia's southern regions," he said. "The same goes" for Iran, which "opposes Sultan Murad's and Hamza Brigade's activity in Syria."
Jaish al-Nukhba and Ahrar al-Sham, he added, are considered to be Salafist Sunni terrorist organizations by Russia and Iran, both of which have given crucial military backing to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government in the nearly 10-year war in that country.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Armenian Service on September 30, Turkish studies specialist Ruben Safrastian of Armenia's National Academy of Sciences said that he believes Turkey is responsible for sending up to 1,000 Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan so far.
"It is clear to me that Turkey is trying to create quite large groups of jihadists controlled by it for them to help their ally Azerbaijan," Safrastian said.
RFE/RL, along with Reuters and The Guardian, was unable to confirm reports of Syrian fighters in Azerbaijan.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights, however, reported on September 30 that it had documented the first death of a "Syrian fighter of Turkish-backed factions in Azerbaijan."
Citing "reliable sources," the observatory said that "Turkish-backed mercenaries were sent to join the battles in Azerbaijan, while their sole mission was supposed to be protecting the oil fields."
Speaking after Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Russian state television on September 29, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian mentioned the reports of Syrian fighters being sent to Azerbaijan "to take part in these combat activities."
"By the way, there already is information that clashes have already taken place among these mercenaries and local Azerbaijanis, because these mercenaries are trying to impose Shari'a law in these villages, they go to local shops demanding that they stop selling alcoholic beverages, etc.," Pashinian said.
The comments came a day after Armenia's ambassador to Moscow, Vardan Toganian, said Turkey had sent around 4,000 Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan, and that they were fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.
On September 30, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that according to "information that is coming in, fighters from illegal armed formations are being sent to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, including from Syria and Libya, to participate directly in the military action."
The Foreign Ministry statement did not specify the source of the information or whether Russia had independently confirmed it, but said Moscow was "deeply concerned about these processes," which it warned would "lead to further escalation of tension in the conflict zone" and "create long-term threats to the security of all countries in the region."
Without naming any particular nation, it called on governments to "take effective steps to prevent the use of terrorists and mercenaries in the conflict" and to "withdraw them from the region without delay."
Baku has rejected the allegations, with Aliyev aide Hikmat Hajiyev on September 29 calling the reports of Syrian fighters in Azerbaijan as "absolutely baseless" and dismissing them as "propaganda and fake news from Armenia."
"Why should Azerbaijan bring others to its sovereign soil?" he asked, denying any military support from its close ally Turkey.
In a telephone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on September 30, Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian "strongly condemned the direct military-political and military-technical involvement of Turkey in the fighting initiated by Azerbaijan on the contact line separating the Karabakh and Azerbaijani forces, as well as on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan," according to the Armenian Foreign Ministry.
Turkey, while not addressing the claims that it had sent mercenaries to Azerbaijan, has pledged its support for its South Caucasus ally.
"Whichever help is needed by Azerbaijan, we are ready [to provide it]," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as telling Turkish state media on September 30. "We said that we are together with Azerbaijan both at the negotiation table and on the battlefield. Those are not empty words."
Turkey and Azerbaijan held joint military drills in Azerbaijan in August, and during his recent speech to the UN General Assembly Turkish President Recep Erdogan accused Armenia of attacking Azerbaijan.
The simmering crisis was reignited on September 27 when armed clashes broke out between the two sides in Nagorno-Karabakh, resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries from some of the worst fighting seen there since a 1994 cease-fire.