Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict draws in fighters from Mideast

BEIRUT (AP) -
For the past two weeks, Raffi Ghazarian has been taped to television at home and at work for news of the fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces. If things continue like this, the 50-year-old Lebanese of Armenian descent says he is ready to leave everything and volunteer to defend his ancestral land.
Some members of the large Armenian population in Lebanon have already arrived to join the fight, according to community members, although they say the number is small.
The new outbreak of violence in the Caucasus hits Armenians in Lebanon near their homeland. Red, blue and orange Armenian flags are hoisted on balconies, windows and roofs of buildings in Bourj Hammoud, Beirut's main Armenian district. Anti-Turkish graffiti in English and Armenian mark walls on all streets.
Since September 27, fighting raged in the separatist region Nagorno-Karabakh, in which several hundred people died. Located in Azerbaijan, the enclave has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by neighboring Armenia since 1994 when a ceasefire ended a year-long war that killed an estimated 30,000 people.
On the other side of the recent fighting, Turkey has dispatched hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters to aid their ally Azerbaijan, according to a Syrian war monitor and three Syria-based opposition activists.
Lebanese Armenians have sent money and aid and campaigned in the media for ethnic Armenians in the enclave, whom they refer to as Artsakh. The support they can give is limited - Lebanon is in a dire economic crisis and banks have put tight capital controls in place.
Lebanon is home to one of the largest Armenian communities in the world, most of which are descendants of survivors of the 1915 Ottoman Turkish genocide.
An estimated 1.5 million people died in the massacres, deportations and forced marches that began in 1915 when Ottoman officials feared Christian Armenians would side with Russia, its enemy in World War I.
The event is widely viewed as genocide by historians. Turkey denies that the deaths constitute genocide and states that the number of victims has increased and that those killed are victims of civil war and riots.
“We will not allow what happened in 1915 to happen again. We will fight to the last Armenian soldier, ”said Ghazarian, standing next to a coffee stand that was decorated with Lebanese and Armenian flags.
“This is not a war between Muslims and Christians. This is a war for the existence of Armenian unity and we are ready, ”said Ghazarian, who owns a clothing store.
Lebanese lawmaker Hagop Pakradounian, chairman of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the largest and most powerful Armenian party in Lebanon, said that volunteers going to Armenia from Lebanon act on their own and there is no decision by any organization or the community itself to send them .
“We can't tell them not to go. You are free, ”Pakradounian told The Associated Press in his Bourj Hammoud office. "We see it as a war against the entire Armenian people and as a continuation of the genocide project since the Ottoman Empire."
Turkey has now dispatched more than 1,200 Syrian fighters - most of them members of Turkish-backed opposition groups - to join forces with Azerbaijani forces, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor that tracks Syria's nine-year conflict. The chief of the observatory, Rami Abdurrahman, said 72 Syrian fighters had been killed so far.
Three opposition activists in Syria confirmed the report. They said Turkish security firms are allegedly recruiting the men as guards in oil factories for about $ 1,200 a month, but most end up on the front lines. One of the activists sent AP photos of young men allegedly killed in Azerbaijan.
A citizen journalist based in northern Syria said he knew some of the fighters who had joined the battle, adding that warnings they sent about the intensity of the fighting and the dangers caused others to change their minds.
The operation is similar to that in Libya, where battle-hardened Syrian fighters helped improve the balance of power in favor of the US-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, an ally of Turkey.
Armenia has said repeatedly over the past week that Turkey has dispatched Syrian fighters to support the Azeris, a claim that Ankara and Azerbaijan are denying.
Syrian President Bashar Assad told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that Turkey was bringing "terrorists" from Syria and Libya to the fight in Azerbaijan and that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was "behind the escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh".
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the conflict last week. Macron later told reporters that he had information "we trust" confirming Turkey's use of Syrian mercenaries in the fighting. "It's a very serious new development that is also changing the balance of things," he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concern about reports of "militants belonging to illegal armed groups" from Syria and Libya being sent to the conflict zone.
Hikmet Hajiyev, a foreign affairs adviser to the Azerbaijani president, said this week that "we totally reject the claim" and called on those who make the allegations to testify.
Maj.Youssef al-Hammoud, an official of the so-called Syrian National Army, an umbrella organization for armed opposition groups in Syria backed by Turkey, insisted on a phone call with the AP that fighters were being sent to Azerbaijan from Syria. "This is an Armenian media campaign," said al-Hammoud.
The Armenians in Lebanon are doing what they can to help. Yeghia Tashjian, a freelance researcher, said he was writing articles to raise awareness of what Armenians are facing.
"For us, this is an existential war where it is important not only to win on emotional or nationalist issues, but because it is our home and we should fight for it," said Tashjian.
In Bourj Hammoud, Tro Mandalian, who works in a perfume distribution business, said that the Armenians' opponents had bigger and bigger armies, but the Armenians still survived. "We have strong hearts," he said.
"Let's try it," he said. "We don't surrender and just kneel before God."
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Associate Press Writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.

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