The arrest of 26 Azerbaijanis for allegedly joining armed Islamic groups in Syria and the wider region may help Azerbaijan place its strategic importance to the United States above criticism of its growing autocratic reputation.
The September-23 detentions mark this Caspian-Sea country’s largest operation against alleged Islamic extremist fighters since reports began to circulate over the past year about a steady flow of recruits from Azerbaijan for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security said that the detainees have joined several paramilitary groups in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria. Some were alleged members of Azeri Jamaaty, a jihad group in Syria made up of Azerbaijani nationals.
In short profiles of the suspects, the ministry claimed that one of the detainees, Taleh Soltanov, allegedly led Taifa al-Mansoura, a jihadist group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban movement. En route to Syria, Soltanov was detained in Iran and deported to Azerbaijan. His wife and mother-in-law, though, made it to Syria with the help of local fighters, the ministry reported.
Another arrested individual, Vyugar Dursunaliyev, is accused of sending his juvenile son, Elvin, to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group commonly known as ISIS.
The arrests were reported on the same day that US President Barack Obama mentioned Azerbaijan among the countries notorious for crackdowns on civil society.
Never amenable to dissent, the Azerbaijani authorities this year have made more allegedly politically motivated arrests than ever. Human rights groups, in response, have started pressing Western governments to put pressure on Baku to release the band of activists, lawyers and journalists.
The comment by Obama is, arguably, the most notable step in any such response, but how far that pressure will go is now open to interpretation. The US not only energetically promotes Azerbaijani energy as an alternative to Russian gas — an even more important role given the ongoing uncertainties in Ukraine — but looks to Baku as a partner in its global fight against terrorism.
With the start of US airstrikes in Syria and the launch of an international coalition to root out ISIS, many in Washington may not see now as the best of times for harsher public criticism of Azerbaijan.
Baku, so far, has avoided responding to Obama’s words, however. Instead, some government-loyal media outlets are taking a softer approach — carping about Obama’s stutter when he tried to pronounce the name “Azerbaijan. “