Syrian mercenaries lured to fight for Turkey in Libya
Adnan, a military leader in a Syrian opposition faction, presented himself at the Turkish border at Kilis on Jan. 10, accompanied by 30 of his men. They were transferred overnight to Gaziantep airport, where they boarded a Turkish commercial aircraft. "There were even stewards and meal trays," said Adnan, a commander in the Al-Hamza brigade.
"It was the first time I took a plane, it was terrifying,” he said with a smile. Three hours later, in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, Adnan and his fighters disembarked with luggage and weapons. They are part of a contingent of more than 3,000 militiamen, according to three Syrian fighters from the Syrian National Army (SNA), which is backed by Turkey and has been deployed to Libya in recent weeks.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to send Syrian fighters to Libya, a former Ottoman territory, to prop up the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which has for months been fighting an offensive led by eastern forces commanded by General Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France, and helped by Russian mercenaries.
A November military cooperation agreement between Turkey and the GNA paved the way for the deployment of Syrian mercenaries. Turkey intends to play a stabilising role in the Libyan conflict and has achieved, with its ally Russia, which supports Haftar’s rival forces, a precarious status quo in the war-torn country.
Turkey has already dispatched a few dozen instructors to train GNA forces in the use of anti-aircraft weapons and drones. It also relies on discreet subcontractors. Since 2013, a private security company, Sadat, founded by Adnan Tanrıverdi, a former military adviser to Erdoğan, has been present in the Libyan capital. But Turkey relies mainly on Syrian mercenaries to support the GNA.
In early December, the SNA’s main warlords were summoned by Turkish authorities for a meeting in Gaziantep, according to two fighters who were at the meeting. Adnan and his Al-Hamza brigade, originally from the Homs region, were based in the Syrian city of Ras al-Ayn, captured by Turkey and its auxiliaries in October.
Since 2016, this disparate army of Syrian groups on Turkey’s payroll has been at the forefront of operations carried out against the Kurds in the north of Syria. Turkey’s three cross-border operations into Syria were all carried out with their help.
An officer of Jaish Al-Islam (the Army of Islam), a radical Salafist group supported by Turkey, who calls himself Mohammed explained on the phone that the meeting in Turkey "was not a military council to speak about the situation in Syria".
All the rebel commanders were flabbergasted, he said, when "the Turks did not let us fight against the Syrian regime in the Idlib region, asking us to instead to go and fight in Libya”.
Several such meetings, with tribal or military leaders, have been organised by the Turkish intelligence agency. But the recruitment campaign caused a stir among Turkey’s allies in Syria. In Idlib, the last rebel-held province of Syria, civilian demonstrators denounced what they called a betrayal of the Syrian revolution.
Even so, several Syrian factions responded enthusiastically to Turkey’s call. As well as the Al-Hamza brigade, Al-Mutassim, Suqur Al-Sham or the Sultan Mourad division, mostly made up of Syrian Turkmen, sent troops. Since then, there has been a stream of civilian and freight planes flying between Turkey and Libya.
Mohammed and his men from Jaish Al-Islam also ended up giving in to Turkish demands and arrived in Tripoli in early January.
The recruiters knew how to convince the recruits, starting with promises of pay considered extravagantly high for Syrians. According to the half a dozen fighters and commanders who spoke to Ahval from three different Syrian opposition groups, each fighter receives a monthly wage of around $2,000 for being in Libya .
In comparison, Turkey paid the same troops around $90 a month in Syria. Each volunteer in Libya also receives a month of annual vacation and compensation of $3,300 for being wounded, or $10,000 plus a house for his family if he is killed. The prospect of Turkish nationality has also been offered.
Before boarding the plane, Adnan and his men were not sure where Libya was on a map. In Syria, they had met a few Libyan jihadists who had come to fight, but knew little about the conflict in Libya at the time of their arrival.
Once in Tripoli, the fighters said they were housed in civilian homes and trained in a camp in the north of the capital under the direction of Turkish intelligence agents. They were then sent to the front lines, east and south of Tripoli, alongside Turks, the fighters told Ahval by the telephone.
A ceasefire was agreed under the patronage of Turkey and Russia and confirmed at a conference in Berlin on Jan. 19 and fighting has remained limited.
"They will still bring in people. They asked me to suggest more names to them,” said Mohammed.
"We are treated like Turkish soldiers," said Adnan. "We have the same food, the same uniforms, the same equipment."
But when Syrian fighters are killed in Libya, Turkey is able to avoid the political backlash at home that would be caused by the deaths of Turkish troops in an operation that lacks the popular backing of its offensives in Syria.
Some Syrian mercenaries have already paid the ultimate price - the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said last week that 28 Syrian fighters had been killed in Libya.