BACKGROUND: The sectarian divide in Syria distantly resembles that of Azerbaijan, though in reversed form. Formally, the majority of Azerbaijanis, estimated at around two thirds, adhere to Shiite Islam. Around a third of Azerbaijan's population, historically concentrated in the country's northern provinces, profess Sunni Islam. Ethnically, Sunni Islam prevails among Azerbaijan's Lezgin, Avar, and a number of demographically weak minorities, scattered across the country's border with Dagestan. Yet importantly, even though the vast majority of Azerbaijanis self-identify as Muslims, they have been heavily secularized following the seven decades of Soviet rule, with Islam constituting a rather part of ethnic identity. In a number of surveys, Azerbaijanis have demonstrated a general lack of interest in religious matters.
Even so, the role of religion has increased in Azerbaijan recently, given a number of factors. First, the massive crackdown on political opposition in the country has led to a considerable weakening of secular parties, many of which have gradually lost support among the population either due to their collaboration with the regime, or due to the incompetence and frailty of their leaders. Second, even though the majority of Azerbaijanis are characterized by a high degree of secularism, Islam as a cultural phenomenon still continues to play a role in the lives of a segment of Azerbaijanis, which holds particularly in the countryside. Third, given the increasing appeal of political Islam worldwide, a certain part of Azerbaijani youth has found itself attracted by the revolutionary ideology of (militant) Salafism with its fighting spirit, as well as its declared quest for establishing a fair Islamic state based on the principle of piety, solidarity, and welfare.
Importantly, while the majority of Azerbaijanis have remained disinterested in religious affairs, parts of the country's radicalized Muslims have recently attracted support – given their confessional allegiances - from either Iran or Dagestani jihadists. Evidence suggests that while the country's Shiite radicals have been recruited into Tehran-backed Hezbollah units (see the 02/08/12 issue of the CACI Analyst), Sunni radicals have been advancing the idea of a Salafi state in Azerbaijan that might be associated with the virtual theocracy in the North Caucasus, the Caucasus Emirate, that is waging a war against the Russian domination of the region (see the 05/02/12 issue of the CACI Analyst).
Even though radicals from among Azerbaijan's Sunni and Shiite communities have been weakened as a consequence of a massive crackdown by Azerbaijani law enforcement, they still represent a security concern in the country that is disproportionate to their share of the population.
IMPLICATIONS: The ongoing participation of Azerbaijani citizens in the Syrian civil war fits well with this recent trend. Azerbaijan's Sunni radicals have been travelling in relatively large numbers via Turkey to Syria in order to become part of international jihadist brigades fighting the regime forces. According to some estimates, up to three hundred Azerbaijani citizens, of whom a large part is composed of ethnic Azerbaijanis, have been participating in jihadist units, concentrated primarily in the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar units.
Operating largely in alliance with the troops of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Azerbaijani jihadists have been located predominantly in Syria's northern provinces on the borders with Turkey, specifically in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. Given their command of Russian, they form separate units with jihadists from the North Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Volga-Ural area. Abu Yahya al-Azeri, a renowned jihadist of Azerbaijani descent who was killed in combat last year, had been a close associate of the Chechen jihadist commanders Abu Umar al-Chechen and Salahuddin al-Chechen and appeared with them on a number of video tapes.
Up to one hundred Azerbaijani Shiites are also reported to have travelled to Syria in recent months, forming the core of some Iranian Azerbaijani-manned combat units that have been fighting the civil war on the side of the al-Assad regime. It appears that a significant part of Azerbaijani Shiite volunteers traveling to Syria is comprised of the students of Islamic theology, concentrated in the Iranian cities of Qom and Mashhad. While the majority of Azerbaijani jihadists seem to be emanating from the country's north, as well as Baku, and some areas to the northwest of the country, Shiite radicals recruit predominantly from the Absheron peninsula and the Lenkoran area, which has traditionally been regarded as the focal point of pro-Iranian Shiite radicalism.
The pattern of recruitment of Azerbaijani volunteers is of particular interest. Azerbaijani jihadists travel to the Syria battlefield individually, largely relying on their own means and join jihadist units upon arrival, based on their personal contacts or support provided by Turkish, North Caucasian, or Syrian jihadists.
By contrast, Shiite radicals from Azerbaijan seem to be benefiting from an established scheme of recruitment and support run by Iranian authorities. They are transported to the war zone and grouped into various fighting units by Iranian authorities, who most likely provide the volunteers with initial military training. This assumption is supported by the fact that bodies of Azerbaijani Shiite fighters from Syria are dispatched to Azerbaijan from Iran, a practice that requires the approval of Iranian authorities.
A number of influential Shiite leaders known for their pro-Iranian sentiments, e.g. Elshan Quliyev, Elshan Mustafaoglu, and Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, have decried the jihadist interference in the war as yet another sign of U.S.-backed efforts to overthrow the pro-Iranian Alawite Assad, a natural ally of all Shiites. Still, the country's pro-regime (Shiite) clergy led by sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade has refrained from taking a stance in the Syria conflict.
CONCLUSIONS: From the very start of the civil war in Syria, Azerbaijani authorities have sought to remain neutral, issuing appeals to the Syrian people to end the violence and find a peaceful solution to the conflict. This can only partially be explained by diplomatic considerations. Attempts to overthrow what they consider legitimate governments, the spread of the color revolutions in the post-Soviet space a decade ago, as well as the Arab spring and its armed repercussions, have raised concerns in Baku over the prospect of revolutionary tendencies in the Azerbaijani public, among which discontent with the regime is on the rise. Preoccupied with the local protest movement, Azerbaijan's government has apparently underestimated the threat of Azerbaijani citizens traveling to Syrian battlefields.
The last time Azerbaijanis voluntarily joined a distant war was in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, when Azerbaijani Sunnis supported the Ottoman fellow believers, while Azerbaijani Shiites joined the Russian Army to combat Sunni "infidels." While Azerbaijan's social landscape has changed considerably, the Syria war illustrates that these faded divides might be revived in certain circumstances. Should hundreds of Azerbaijani volunteers, imbued with war-generated determination, armed with military experience, and worldwide contacts succeed in returning to their homeland once the war is over, they might pose an enormous threat to Azerbaijan's internal security.
Both sides are very likely to increase pressure on the authorities to regain control over Nagorno-Karabakh even by military means. The jihadists would most likely align themselves with Dagestani insurgents and their Azerbaijani allies, causing turmoil in the country's northernmost areas, and thereby amplifying Azerbaijan's vulnerability to pressures from its northern neighbor. On the other hand, Shiite veterans would reify the standing of the country's radical Shiite centers as Iran's fifth column. Even though regime change in the country would be unlikely given the lack of popular support in Azerbaijani society for religious radicals, they might still challenge Baku's authority or engage in clashes among themselves. For a certain segment of Azerbaijani youth, they already represent a viable alternative to the regime.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Emil Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007).