Erdogan’s Libya manoeuvres could affect Syrian conflict

Erdogan is dispatching Syrian fighters, well-trained in guerrilla warfare and deeply indoctrinated in “military jihad.”
Sunday 05/01/2020
Military jihad. Syrian Turkey-backed fighters pose for a picture with the remains of a downed regime  warplane near the town of Khan Sheikhun in southern Idlib, last August.(AFP)
Military jihad. Syrian Turkey-backed fighters pose for a picture with the remains of a downed regime warplane near the town of Khan Sheikhun in southern Idlib, last August.(AFP)

BEIRUT - Internet videos have gone viral purportedly showing Syrian fighters carrying arms on the streets of Tripoli, reportedly sent there by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to support the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj — at Sarraj’s request. Their accents were clearly Syrian and the streets were clearly Libyan, giving credence to the videos.

Sarraj denied the claims, insisting that the footage was shot in the north-western Syrian city of Idlib, not in Libya.

The videos still need verification, said Omer Ozkizilcik, an analyst at Ankara think-tank the SETA Foundation. “A possible deployment could have significant effects, especially against Egypt-supplied armoured vehicles, if the Syrian fighters are supplied with anti-tank guided missiles. The Syrians are one of the best, if not the best, anti-tank operators in the world,” he said.

The Syrian fighters, well-trained in guerrilla warfare, have been on the front lines for almost an entire decade and they are deeply indoctrinated in military jihad. In one video, one of them says he went to Libya to “defend Islam and uphold its banner.”

Jihadists see through artificial borders, after all, and say their battle for Islam bestrides countries and continents.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 1,600 Syrian fighters had been handpicked for “the holy war” in Libya, against Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who announced plans to overrun Tripoli last April, saying that Sarraj was backed by Islamic militants and is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Relations between Haftar and Erdogan have been strained, after the former suspended flights to Turkey and accused Erdogan of sending arms to Sarraj, in violation of a UN arms embargo.

Haftar loyalists also accused Erdogan of sending mercenaries, shipped from Idlib, Afrin and the Aleppo countryside. It is not entirely clear who those Syrians are but many say they are a combination of the Sultan Murad Division, the Sham Legion and the Free Syrian Army, who are all on Turkish payroll.

The Sham Legion’s connections to the outlawed Syrian branch of the Brotherhood is well known, although it tried to distance itself from the Brotherhood in 2014, hoping to get money and arms from Gulf countries.

The groups’ mission would certainly become easier if they are propped up with Turkish soldiers, now that Erdogan has requested a 1-year mandate from the Turkish parliament to send troops to Libya.

Ultimately, he hopes to create a no-fly zone over Tripoli, similar to what he envisioned for Syria five years ago and finally achieved — only on truncated geography — last October.

To make it happen, however, he needs to impose himself on the Libyan peace process, as he did in Syria through the Astana process, after teaming with his Russian and Iranian counterparts.

This may seem difficult since he and Russian President Vladimir Putin are supporting rival forces, with the Russian leader putting his full weight behind Haftar. However, that is an exact replica of Syria, where Erdogan supports the armed opposition and Putin backs Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In a remarkable twist, what’s happening now in Libya is a reversal of what happened in Syria in 2011.

At the time, Abdel Hakim Belhadj, head of the Tripoli Military Council, met with commanders from the Free Syrian Army to send Libyan fighters to Syria to train their Syrian counterparts. That was shortly after they toppled Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

The deployment also raises questions about what will happen in Idlib, where the fighters have been based after being relocated from various parts of Syria. That city is an open war zone, as they are still fighting the Russian and Syrian armies.

Depending on how one looks at it, this might either mean a Turkish abandonment of Idlib or an unspoken agreement with Russia that no final push will be made on the Syrian province.

Additionally, how long will the Syrian fighters stay in Libya? Is it a short mission to train and equip, which is what Sarraj had asked for, or are they there to stay for many years, like the thousands of foreign fighters who started arriving in Syria in mid-2012?

Finally, will this prompt Damascus to provide Haftar with logistical or intelligence support now that they technically are fighting the same enemy, only on a different territory?

Syria has been neutral towards Haftar, neither condemning his march on Tripoli nor supporting it.