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Corpses sent home as Syrians fight Turkey’s war in Libya

Turkey has enlisted Syrian opposition fighters in its war against Khalifa Haftar in Libya. What will be the consequences for the Syrians themselves?

AMMAN — The war in Libya was just another news story to the people of Hasakah province until the corpses arrived. 

Ahmad al-Mulla, a man in his early twenties, was killed in Libya in late December. Ahmad Salem, a 17-year-old, was buried in his hometown of Hamid in Hasakah province. They were among the fourteen Syrians killed fighting alongside other Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) militants in Libya’s civil war. 

Al-Mulla’s relatives revealed to Syria Direct that he and some of his peers went to Libya to fight beside the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) against the forces of General Khalifa Haftar who receives support from several different countries.

They are members of the factions that had previously participated in Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” in the Syrian city of Afrin between January and March 2018. 

Al-Mulla was forcibly displaced from his hometown of Zamalka in eastern Ghouta to Afrin in northern Syria in the summer of 2017. However, “both poor living conditions and the temptations offered to [fight in] Libya pushed him towards the adventure,” according to a source who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “Al-Mulla’s friends who went with him now regret it.”

Syrian fighters who went to Libya received a “six-month contract, with a monthly salary of $2,000 per fighter; leaders get many times more,” a source within the SNA based in the northern Aleppo countryside told Syria Direct. According to the source, al-Hamza, Sultan Murad, Sultan Suleiman Shah, and al-Mu’tasim factions are the most active groups in recruiting Syrians to fight in Libya. 

While the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates there to be 2,000 Syrian fighters currently in Libya, the source from the SNA told Syria Direct that “1500 fighters and commanders arrived in Libya through Turkey; among them [is] Muhammad al-Jasem (Abu Amsha), commander of the Suleiman Shah Brigade.”

The source added that “Major Yasser Abdul Rahim, commander of the Glory Corps [who participated in Operation Peace Spring in the eastern Euphrates with Turkish support], is getting ready to move with a new group of recruits to Libya.” 

Several sources confirmed the participation of the al-Mutasim Brigade in the fighting in Libya. Syria Direct asked Mustafa Sejari, the leader of the Brigade, about its participation, but he declined to comment. Instead, he referred to the SNA-issued statement of denial in response. 

Turkish-Libyan Agreement 

Early this year, the Turkish Parliament approved a presidential memo, authorizing the Turkish government to send military forces to Libya, on the condition that the authorization lasts no longer than one year. The period, however, can be extended in accordance with article 92 of the Turkish constitution, which concerns the foreign deployment of troops. 

Soon after, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told CNN Turk that Turkish forces started moving and “after a short period, we will send a larger number.” He pointed out that the Turkish army will be in Libya “for the sake of organization,” whereby there will be “forces fighting, but not from our military,” he said. 

The phrase “guest personnel,” which appears in the Turkish-Libyan security and military cooperation agreement signed on November 27, “reinforced the impression that Turkey used Syrian fighters,” Turkish journalist, Levent Kamal, told Syria Direct. “This [impression] exists despite the lack of evidence, other than expectations and some field testimonies,” he said. 

Hamza Takin, a Turkish journalist close to the Turkish government, denied this. Takin claimed that “the Turkish army is sufficient in [the capital city of] Tripoli. The force that is sent or will be sent is Turkish.” Ultimately, he affirmed that the agreement is between Tripoli and Ankara, and not between Tripoli and the Syrian opposition. 

In his remarks to Syria Direct, Takin added that the “SNA has enough issues to deal with in northern Syria; to protect liberated areas from terrorist groups and to repel Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in Idlib.” He further stressed that the three main stakeholders—Turkey, Libya and the SNA— “deny all allegations of Syrian recruitment.”

Meanwhile, a member of the Libyan Red Crescent in the city of Misrata— under the control of the GNA— confirmed that Turkish fighters arrived in Libya but denied that Syrians arrived “in favor of the government headed by al-Sarraj [GNA].”

Nonetheless, numerous reports about Syrian fighters in Libya cast doubts over Turkey’s repeated denials. 

Quest for Benefits

In Qibar, a village close to the city of Afrin in the northern Aleppo countryside, seven friends of Abdul Rahman al-Homsy joined one of the groups of fighters sent to Libya. 

Al-Homsy (pseudonym), who was displaced from the city of Rastan in the northern Homs countryside, told Syria Direct that his friends “voluntarily registered their names with the al-Mutasim brigade in the village and were promised high salaries reaching $2,000 a month.” Fighters were transported “through the Kells crossing to Turkey, and from there by military aircraft to Turkish bases in Libya,” he added. 

The source in the SNA in the northern countryside of Aleppo confirmed that fighters are being recruited. He denied, however, that there is any Turkish pressure on the factions to participate in the fighting in Libya.

“Turkish officers met in Turkey with the leaders of all the factions they support and asked them to send fighters without any pressure or coercion,” he said, noting that “some factions refused Turkey’s request as a mercenary.” As for those who agreed, their decision was made freely and out of a desire for personal and factional gains.”

For Syrians, benefits from participating in the fight in Libya include “obtaining Turkish citizenship and an allowance. Although commanders and some of the fighters had received citizenship even before the Turkish offer, there are promises for fighters to receive citizenship after completing their contract,” according to the source. 

Turkey compensated the families of those who died in “Operation Olive Branch” with sums of money and other concessions, including Turkish citizenship.

It has been suggested that the Turkish company “SADAT” has been active in recruiting  Syrians to fight in Libya on behalf of the Turkish army.

The company, which specializes in international defense consulting, is said to have trained the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Syria, according to Kamal, but has denied the claim on its official website. SADAT stressed that its programs are dedicated to “meeting the training needs of legitimate armed forces, established by foreign countries, in order to defend the homeland and expel invaders.”


A version of this report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Lauren Remaley, Nada Atieh, Will Christou and Rohan Advani.

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