French magazine puts spotlight on Turkey’s mercenaries in Libya

Turkey has so far sent some 17,420 Syrian mercenaries to Libya, including 350 minors under the age of 18, according to figures published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Monday 21/09/2020
Fighters loyal to Libya’s Tripoli-based government on the outskirts of Misrata, Libya. (REUTERS)
Fighters loyal to Libya’s Tripoli-based government on the outskirts of Misrata, Libya. (REUTERS)

TUNIS – Eight Syrian mercenaries captured by the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, are currently languishing in a Benghazi jail as they wait for their trial, French weekly news magazine Paris Match recently reported.

“They believed in the promises of [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and travelled and they are now being held in Eastern Libya, without passports or funds,” the magazine reported.

In recent months, the Turkish Army and the private Russian paramilitary group Wagner have dug into the rubble of the Syrian conflict to conduct their proxy war in Libya.

Since July, 30 re-supply flights have arrived at airports in western Libya together with 9 cargo vessels carrying navy hardware for the Turkey-backed forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA), according the acting head of the UN Support Mission to Libya (UNSMIL) Stephanie Williams.

Those shipments were condemned by the United Nations as an “alarming breach” of Libya’s sovereignty, “a blatant violation” of the arms embargo and a violation of commitments by leaders of 12 world powers and different key international players that accepted a 55-point roadmap to peace in Libya at a convention in Berlin on January 19.

More alarming than the shipments themselves, the UN said, is the large-scale presence of overseas mercenaries and operatives, which further complicates the dynamics of the Libyan conflict and jeopardises a future settlement.

Turkey has so far sent some 17,420 Syrian mercenaries to Libya, including 350 minors under the age of 18, according to figures published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Paris Match report, prepared by the magazine’s special correspondent Regis Le Sommier, attempts to trace the stories of some detained Syrian mercenaries in Libya, revealing the incentives and threats that pushed some youth to join a proxy war that has little to do with their beliefs or principles.

According to the magazine, one of the detained Syrian mercenaries, an Idlib-born man in his 20s, was lured by his brother-in-law, a Syrian Turkman, to fight in the Libyan war.

“The Turks offer 2,000 dollars to those who leave for Libya. You sign up. You take the money and once there, you can defect and travel illegally to Italy, from where we will join one of my uncles in Germany,” Syrian mercenary Mohammed Brahim Hassan said his brother-in-law told him.

The idea was tempting at the time, he said, as he had no job in Syria and risked being arrested or killed by jihadists if he returned to Idlib.

Hassan, who fought with the Syrian rebel group Jaish al-Nokhka since 2013, had been put in the crosshairs of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra — the official al-Qaeda-affiliate in Syria.

“The Turks promised us that we will not fight in Libya. They told us that we will just guard buildings,” Hassan told Paris Match.

Before his departure to Libya, Hassan was not allowed to bid farewell to his mother, but he was promised Turkish nationality upon his return from the combat zone.

Page from Paris Match report shows mercenaries in detention.
Page from Paris Match report shows mercenaries in detention.

“They confiscated our passports and then they took us by bus to Gaziantep in south-central Turkey, from where they flew us onboard a military plane to Istanbul. In late April, we left to Misrata on a commercial flight,” he said.

Hassan would not receive the promised $2,000 or Turkish nationality. Worse, he would be expected to do much more than “guard buildings,” as he was told, as the country’s military situation quickly changed in January, when Turkey officially joined the Libyan conflict with its eyes set on the country’s oil crescent region.

A month before joining the conflict, Turkey signed a maritime demarcation agreement in the Mediterranean with the GNA, triggering concerns in Egypt and throughout the Arab world over Turkish expansion and its implications on regional security and stability.

The deal added to the frustration of Turkey’s neighbours, notably Greece and Cyprus, which contested Ankara’s drilling rights in Mediterranean waters.

According to the US Geological Survey, the Eastern Mediterranean contains natural gas worth approximately $700 billion. Of that reserve, Turkey has been drilling for natural gas off the northern coast of the divided island of Cyprus, turning a deaf ear to protests from Europe.

Turkey’s involvement in Libya has also raised concerns in North Africa and drawn strong condemnation from Arab countries.

Turkish military and intelligence support has been critical in the GNA’s efforts to push back Haftar’s LNA, which launched an offensive in April last year to seize the capital Tripoli. On June 4, after a string of military gains, the GNA said it had captured all areas surrounding Tripoli.

The series of GNA advances were seen as a turning point in Libya’s six year-civil war, with Ankara jockeying to emerge as the dominant foreign player in the North African country.

With Turkey’s support to the Tripoli-based government, Erdogan hopes to shape a strong Turkish presence in Libya in a way that guarantees Ankara’s political and economic dominance in the North African country and the wider region.

On June 1, Turkey’s ambitions for control of the military situation were dealt a blow when LNA forces seized the strategic town of al-Asabaa, about 50km south of the capital, prompting an agreement to resume the 5+5 ceasefire talks.

In announcing the agreement, however, the UN warned that weapons and fighters being flown into Libya in defiance of an embargo threatened further escalation.

An increased presence in Libya would give Turkey strategic positioning near Egypt, with which ties are strained, especially for ideological reasons.

Turkey has in the past reportedly supported the Justice and Construction Party, a Libyan Islamist group with close ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to gain a foothold in the GNA.

Erdogan’s ideological ambitions have put Ankara at odds with Arab countries that seek to clip the wings of Islamist groups that they deem radical and threatening to their countries’ social fabric.

Ideological differences between Turkey and Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have for years led to tensions, not only in Libya but in other countries such as Yemen and Tunisia.

In North Africa, neighbouring countries fear violence in Libya could spill over into their countries and facilitate the smuggling of weapons and infiltration by terrorist groups.