A new Muslim-alliance is emerging between Turkey and Pakistan with the two countries fostering stronger economic, military and cultural ties, as Pakistan re-aligns itself in the global geopolitical arena especially that of the Muslim world.

This has come in the wake of growing distance between long term allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, mainly due to the Kashmir dispute. Islamabad has been pushing the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), led by Saudi Arabia to recognize the Kashmir dispute as one of its main agendas. However, the OIC has been not responsive to the pressure, irking Islamabad and even prompting the country’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Quershi to openly criticize the Saudi regime recently.

Experts say this growing gap between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is being capitalized on by Turkey, with Ankara providing Islamabad the diplomatic support it needs especially on the Kashmir issue.

But it appears that the Turkish regime may be going a step further than just providing solidarity to Pakistan when it comes to the Kashmir dispute.

A recent news report by investigative journalist Bêrîtan Sarya in the Firat News Agency reveals that Turkish-backed mercenaries in North-East Syria are being asked to head to Kashmir to fight in the conflict there.

“The commander of the Syrian National Army (SNA) militia “Sultan Suleiman Shah Brigades, Muhammed Abu Amsha, announced […] to members of his militia in the occupied city of Şiyê near Afrin that the Turkish state wanted to relocate some units to Kashmir,” the report further alleges that Turkey had asked Muhammad al-Jassim known as Abu Amsha and other SNA commanders to provide a list of the names of such volunteers.

The Syrian National Army (SNA) is also known as the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and it is a coalition of armed Syrian opposition groups with backing from the Turkish state.

“Those who would agree to go would get USD $2,000 initially. Sources report that there was similar recruitment activity for a Kashmiri operation in Azaz, Jarablus, Al Bab and Idlib. The volunteers would then be secretly taken out of the country,” the report adds.

Turkey’s Foreign Policy of using Mercenaries

Although the Firat News agency report is not independently verifiable, analysts point out that there is a strong possibility of it being true, especially given that it will not be the first time Turkey will be using its mercenaries in a dispute beyond its regional conflicts.

“Turkey is a multi-ethnic country. It hosts sizable immigrant populations from Balkans, Caucasia and Eastern Turkistan (the Uighurs). These ethnic groups have been involved in conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya in the past. They were provided Turkish passports, health care and occasionally light weaponry. This was done through so-called humanitarian aid organizations,” says Kerim Balci a well-known Turkish journalist and academic, who lives in exile in the United Kingdom.

But when the conflict in Syria began, “what was till then a semi-official policy of Turkey became state policy,” says Mr. Balci. He explains that after Syria, the same mercenaries were sent to Libya and recently to Nagorno-Karabakh. “It appears now that the Turkish intelligence officers are also accompanying them on the ground sometimes, as we saw documented in the case of Libya,” he adds.

Reportedly, during the recent Armenia vs. Azerbaijan conflict, Armenian authorities also stated that Turkey deployed Syrian mercenaries to bolster Azerbaijani forces—an accusation confirmed by Balci. Turkey has denied these claims.

“Turkish military experts are fighting side by side with Azerbaijan, who are using Turkish weapons, including UAVs and warplanes,” said the Armenian Foreign Ministry. “According to credible sources, Turkey is recruiting and transporting foreign terrorist fighters to Azerbaijan,” the ministry further added.

According to a recent report in Deutsche Welle (DW), a leading German news outlet, these Syrian mercenaries have served Turkey’s interests well as they offer a way to shore up its foreign policy objectives without mobilizing national assets such as the armed forces.

“They are an effective means to an end in providing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a military force that could be discarded once its usefulness has been completed,” said Noah Agily, a Washington-based independent researcher focusing on militia recruitment and formation in Libya. “In the future, these mercenaries will allow Turkey to continue positioning itself geo-strategically without incurring domestic blowback,” she added.

Turkish Militants and the Afghanistan-Pakistan Connection

The origins of these mercenaries can be linked to Islamic State and before that to al-Qaeda, according to the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). SOHR claimed that the Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries were former militants who fought for the likes of “Islamic State” and al-Qaeda affiliated militant groups before. Reportedly, there al-Qaeda affiliation began in the Afghan war, and can be traced back to Pakistan.

“Turkish militants have fought alongside Osama bin Laden and other Afghan, Arab and Pakistani jihadis for a long time in Afghanistan, but they have been in limited numbers. Initially they went as individuals but later the Turkish intelligence agencies got involved in the process too,” says Ahmet S Yayla, a Washington D.C. based Turkish academic who served as a counter-terrorism police chief in Turkey,

Then in 2002, ties between the Turkish origin militants and the Pakistani militants strengthened further with the formation of Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in the tribal belt next to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. IJU was a splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and affiliated with al-Qaeda. Recruits in IJU were mainly Turks both from Turkey and the Turkish communities in Western Europe. The IJU later went on to become Taiftaul Mansura, according to the assessment of the Pakistani intelligence.

In 2010, a Pakistani official told the news agency Reuters that jihadis living in the tribal belt who did not fit easily into South Asian or Arab militant camps gravitated to groups like Taifatul Mansura which was made up of Turkic-language speaking Central Asians, as well as Turks and European Muslims, notably from Germany.

Over the years, such Turk-origin militants have not limited themselves to fighting in Afghanistan alone. A 2019 report by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) revealed that they also made their way to Syria where they fought under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian jihadist group that has close affiliations with SNA (Syrian National Army).

In August, journalist Lindsey Snell quoted an SNA militant who mentioned rumors about deployments to Qatar, Yemen, and Azerbaijan as possibilities. “But after we heard about Azerbaijan,” he said, “We heard about going to Qatar. They said we would get even more money to go to Qatar.” A month later, SNA militants were deployed to Azerbaijan.

Turkey – The New Leader of the Muslim Ummah?

Reacting to the report in the Firat News Agency, the Turkish academic Mr. Yayla feels that there needs to be more investigation into these claims. “Currently there is no such official policy by Turkey that we have heard of but it is possible that Erdogan may want to get involved in this dispute on behalf of Pakistan, given the past trends we have seen of Turkish-backed militants being sent abroad,” Yayla adds.

He further explains that the Turkish President is increasingly portraying himself as the leader of the Muslim world, and Turkish involvement in any conflict Pakistan is involved in could be connected to that positioning.

“Since last many years, Turkey is trying to become the leader of the Sunni Muslim world or the Ummah as it is called in Arabic, with the goal of replacing Saudi Arabia, its chief rival. And to achieve this, the Turkish government is increasingly getting involved in Muslim and Islamist activities around the world, and the strengthening of relationship with Pakistan on different fronts is part of that agenda too,” Yayla added.

Taha Siddiqui
Taha Siddiqui

Taha Siddiqui is an award-winning Pakistani journalist who fled to Paris, France, after narrowly escaping an armed abduction in January 2018. He has reported for The New York Times, The Guardian, France24, Al Jazeera, Christian Science Monitor, The Telegraph, Arte and others and won the Prix Albert Londres in 2014 for his documentary on polio in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He also manages safenewsrooms.org, which was shortlisted for the Prize for Independence by RSF Press Freedom Awards in November 2018, and lectures on social media and journalism at prestigious French university Sciences Po.

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