AMMAN — On the morning of February 22, the corpse of a young Syrian man, Said Obeid, was found alongside two dead Libyan men on the outskirts of the city of Tarhuna, which is under the control of Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar is fighting the internationally-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), which currently controls the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
Before the killing of Obeid, who had been living in the GNA-controlled city of Misrata in northwest Libya, a video was posted by a local media outlet, Tarhuna 24, showing a Syrian and Libyan man being arrested by the LNA-affiliated 9th Infantry Brigade. According to the video, “a Syrian mercenary and two men from a Misrata militia were arrested.”
Obeid was subject to “severe torture before being killed; his face was mutilated,” two sources living in Misrata who were close to Obeid told Syria Direct. “The Haftar group accused him of being a Syrian fighter who came to Libya to fight for [Firaz] al-Sarraj’s forces,” one of the sources said.
“Said is a Syrian refugee who came to Libya in 2012. He was working as an interior designer, going between Tripoli and Misrata. He had nothing to do with any sort of military,” the source added.
Last month, another young Syrian man met a similar fate, found dead in his car in Tripoli. Though the details of his death have yet to be revealed, a Syrian living in Tripoli told Syria Direct that his death was “likely due to his nationality,” since “nothing was stolen from him.”
He suspects this, as “a mixture of people and supporters of both sides of the conflict live in Tripoli,” he added.
The two incidents are just one of the repercussions of sending Syrians to fight in Libya’s conflict, a decision that will continue to affect Syrians in Libya for years to come. “Syrians now are treated differently, and are being subject to hate,” Obada al-Bashir, a 30-year-old Syrian who has lived in a city near Benghazi since 2013, told Syria Direct.
Proxy war: Syrians on both sides of the conflict
Though initially denied by Ankara, the Turkish government has been sending Syrian fighters from the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) to fight alongside the GNA forces in Libya since early January.
At the same time, an opposition-leaning local media outlet, Suwayda 24, revealed in February that a pro-Syrian government political party, supported by a Russian security company, is recruiting mercenaries from Suwayda and other Syrian provinces to fight alongside Haftar’s forces. According to a leaked audio recording by Shibli al-Shaa’er, the secretary-general of the al-Suwayda branch of the al-Shabab al-Soory al-Watani political party, the monthly salary ranges between $1,500 for a fighter and $800 for a guard.
While this was confirmed by Le Monde, the French newspaper also revealed that the drafting of Syrians to fight alongside Haftar dates back to 2018 and was coordinated by Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Syrian Ba’athist National Security Bureau. Around 1,500 fighters are estimated to have been sent to Tripoli to fight since 2018.
On March 3, Damascus announced the resumption of diplomatic relations with Libya, as well as the re-opening of the Libyan embassy in Damascus. In the words of the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal al-Mekdad, Damascus was recognizing the “legitimate government in Benghazi,” indicating its support for General Haftar.
According to a source close to Haftar’s forces and work in a Libyan aviation company in Benghazi, Haftar did not just bring in “Syrian fighters,” but also “Chadians and Palestinians.” The source added that “the Syrian fighters are located in a military base in the Jufra district [Central Libya], and were brought to the Benghazi airport by the [Syrian] airliner, Cham Wings.”
A different source in Benghazi confirmed to Syria Direct that there are “foreign fighters with Haftar’s forces: Sudanese and Wagner Forces,” but denied that any Syrian fighters were present.
Still, both sides of Libya’s conflict refuse to acknowledge the participation of Syrian fighters in the civil war, even as more reports of their involvement trickle in. Further, in late December, the then-UN envoy to Libya, Ghasan Salameh, confirmed that there were Syrians fighting in Libya.
In this context, Sami al-Matrih, a commander in the internal security branch of Haftar-affiliated sources, told Syria Direct that reports about Syrians fighting for Haftar were “incorrect.” Similarly, the spokesperson for the GNA’s National Mobile Force, Salim Qashoot, denied the presence of any Syrian fighters in its forces, while accusing Haftar’s forces of employing Syrians from the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Qasr bin Ghashir, just south of Tripoli. He added that GNA forces only receive logistical support from Turkey.
Hate restricts refugees’ movements
With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution nine years ago, Libya became a safe haven for thousands of Syrians, as the country hosted scores as migrant workers.
Still, the first few months in Libya were “hard,” Aref Abdulhaq told Syria Direct. “We acclimated to the country and the tolerance of its people,” the 35-year old explained. However, after it came to light that Syrians are fighting in Libya’s civil war, “we returned to square one, in addition to the hateful looks of our hosts,” Abdulhaq said.
“The official treatment changed in general,” Salim Muhammad, a 50-year old Syrian living in Tripoli, told Syria Direct. “The worst treatment occurs at military checkpoints.”
The impact of Syrian involvement in Libya’s conflict was doubly hard for Abdulhaq, as his family is spread over two cities, Tripoli and Misrata, both under the GNA control. Visiting his family members in Misrata “used to be easy and would take no more than two hours,” he said. Now, he is held up at checkpoints and the journey takes nearly four hours.
“Cities in Libya are separated by ‘gates’ [checkpoints], some of which are under the control of Haftar’s forces. When you leave the Misrata gate heading towards Tripoli, everything changes. There is more harassment on the road, sometimes you are insulted,” Abdulhaq said. However, he emphasized that Syrians are still treated well by Libyans within the cities, and it was at military checkpoints where they were most subject to harassment.
“Generalizing the term ‘mercenary’ to Syrians, including refugees who have nothing to do with the newly arrived fighters, is sad for us,” Abdulhaq said.
Ahmad Muhareb, a Libyan living in Benghazi, told Syria Direct that the involvement of Syrians in Libya’s civil war “may negatively affect all Syrians residing in the country, making them unwelcome here.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Will Christou