The move by Turkey to send Syrian combatants to Libya to fight alongside factions supporting the Government of National Accord has triggered a maelstrom among Syrians and on the Arab and international stage.
The storm began when human-rights sources revealed that Syrian fighters belonging to Turkish-backed factions in Syria had been recruited and trained to go to Libya. Some sources reported that hundreds of Syrian combatants had arrived in Libya, while others put their number in the thousands, and several have already been killed in battle.
Other human-rights monitors say that pro-regime fighters have also left for Libya, this time to fight alongside the rivals of the Government of National Accord. Civilian flights have been observed flying between military airports in Syria and Libya.
Most Syrians reject the idea that their compatriots are being sent to Libya and have changed from being revolutionaries to mercenaries. They describe those who have trained and left Syria as “hirelings” no matter what incentives or pressure were forced upon them.
Syrian public figures have issued a statement denouncing any combatant who agrees to travel to Libya to fight, saying that the Libyan people alone should decide their fate and fight their battles.
The issue has been further amplified due to the conflict between regional and international powers in the Middle East. Syria is a main focus, even though Libya is brimming with foreign mercenaries who are fighting on all sides of the conflict.
Former UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salama has confirmed that “there is a large number of non-Libyans fighting on all the Libyan fronts. There are fighters from more than ten countries, most recently arriving from Syria.”
It is unclear how many Syrian fighters there are in Libya. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has admitted there are Syrians alongside Turkish troops in Libya fighting on the side of Fayez Al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the Government of National Accord, in Tripoli against Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army.
He added that Turkey was training these fighters and that it had signed an agreement on security and military training at the behest of the Libyan Government.
Some Syrian factions have refused to go to Libya because their battle is against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the mercenary militias it has recruited.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the number of Syrian fighters who were sent to Libya is more than 2,600 to the Al-Tikbali military base, which is under the control of pro-Turkey elements.”
A source close to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood said these fighters were “convinced they are protecting legitimacy in Libya.”
According to Abdel-Rahman, “at least seven recruitment centres have been opened in different locations in northern Syria. Contracts to fight in Libya can reach up to $2,000 a month. So far, the number of registered recruits has reached more than 2,000, mostly from the groups of Sultan Murad, Suleiman Shah, the Al-Moatassem Brigade, the Suqur Al-Shamal Brigade, the Al-Hamzat Brigade, the Al-Sham Al-Islami Legion and the Al-Masrqand Brigade.”
“They all claim to be opponents of the Syrian regime and pro-Turkey. A good portion of these fighters are Turkmens,” he said.
The combatants are in Libya as part of Turkish security units, and Syrian media close to the regime claim they have been promised eventual Turkish citizenship though this is likely to be propaganda.
Speaking of fighters who have moved to Europe, Abdel-Rahman said that “there is information that some of these mercenaries quickly signed up not because they wanted to fight in Libya, but to take advantage of the trips organised by Turkey to transport combatants to Libya, with the intention of crossing from there to Europe.”
“Some of the mercenaries who have headed to Libya have already started their onward journey from Libya to Italy. At least 17 of them are already in Italy, and some have left for Algeria to eventually travel to Europe. At least 28 Syrian mercenaries have been killed during battles in Tripoli.”
Some Syrian fighters have gone to Libya not for political, military or ideological purposes, or to defend one Libyan party or another, but as a means to another goal, such as reaching Europe or to earn more income.
A source in the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) told the Weekly that more than 100 fighters who had trained in preparation for combat outside Syria had abandoned their plans due to community pressure.
He said no more than 1,000 were interested in fighting overseas, some of them had withdrawn, and it was unclear if they had left for Libya. “The numbers of those who want to train and fight outside Syria have dropped sharply,” the source said.
Youssef Hammoud, a SNA spokesman, vehemently denied that any SNA fighters were involved in operations in Libya, insisting to the Weekly that “the mission of the SNA is to remain in Syria to fight the regime, Russia and their militias.”
Responding to reports that Syrian opposition fighters had left for Libya with Turkish assistance, Hammoud said that “the Defence Ministry of the [opposition] Interim Syrian Government vehemently denies that any of our forces have been sent to Libya. The priority of the SNA is to protect the Syrian people from the militias of the regime, its Russian and Iranian backers and terrorist separatist groups affiliated with the regime that want to tear the country apart.”
“We are staying in our land, fighting the forces of sectarianism and tyranny until our people find security. We will continue to serve our people and defend them, especially in the face of the barbaric Russian attacks caused by the imbalance of power on the ground,” Hammoud said.
Ahmed Hamadeh, a dissident military official and former spokesman for the Syrian Military Command Council, told the Weekly that “until today, the SNA officially denies this issue. Everything in the media is unsubstantiated. There have been reports about the Sultan Murad group and some individuals assisting and coordinating with the Turkish forces, but not as a fighting force.”
All opposition military leaders agree that there are auxiliary elements of the SNA who have left for Libya with Turkish military consultants as logistical field support and not for combat purposes. They are civilians who left combat some time ago, and their role is to look into establishing military bases in Tripoli and the surrounding areas based on a memorandum of understanding signed by Turkey and Libya last month, they say.
Their numbers are no more than 200, and their work will be consultative, translation, communication, administration and in depots. None of them will carry weapons.
It is difficult to identify the exact number of Syrians in Libya, or to know the reason why they are there. However, it is easy to connect this issue with regional and international conflicts due to direct or indirect inter-regional conflicts, while the major world powers are clashing in the region either directly or through proxies.
This creates a form of chaos that has been spawning crises in other countries in the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly