How Turkey took Syria’s civil war to Libya

"I want my son back. I don’t want him to be killed and don’t want him to kill Syrians. We have had enough bloodshed," said the mother of one Syrian fighter in Libya.
Sunday 23/02/2020
Turkish-backed fighters from al-Mutasim Brigade take part in a training at a camp near Marea in northern Syria, last September. (AFP)
From one war to another. Turkish-backed fighters from al-Mutasim Brigade take part in a training at a camp near Marea in northern Syria, last September. (AFP)

BEIRUT - When Syrian fighters were recruited to fight Libya in late 2019, many eagerly signed up, thinking this was going to be a quick 3-month adventure that paid good money.

They were recruited by Turkey to fight alongside the forces of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, engaged in an uphill battle against the Libyan National Army of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Syrian Organisation for Human Rights (SOHR) said Turkey was paying recruits up to $2,000 per month to save Tripoli from a Haftar takeover. The number of Syrian fighters crossed the 1,000-man mark in October and at least one Syrian has been killed in the Libyan battlefield, SOHR said.

Five months later, none has returned to Syria and more are being shipped off to Libya, only this time to fight alongside Haftar against their fellow Syrians, creating a mini Syrian civil war on Libyan territory.

Two sides of the Libya war

“We have entered a new stage in the Syrian conflict,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, senior diplomatic editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, “a stage where Syrians are fighting the war of others in faraway places. With no doubt, this will add to existing complications in the Syrian national patchwork.”

A recent report in Asharq Al-Awsat stated that additional Syrian fighters arrived in Libya in February, recruited by Russia from Douma in the Damascus countryside. Fifty of them signed 3-month contracts and are to receive $800 per month.

Those Syrians will be exempted from mandatory military service back home, given that they are mostly former opposition fighters who reconciled with the Russian and Syrian armies two years ago. They, of course, will be fighting fellow Syrians in Libya.

The Douma factor

No breakdown is available as to who the Syrian fighters are nor what cities or towns they originate from. However, Douma is a former hub for the Syrian opposition and its sons are fighting on two sides of the Libyan conflict, shooting at each other outside of Tripoli. This will have ripple effects on Douma, which has not recovered from the trauma of war, nor has it been reconstructed.

“Sending them to Libya -- a battlefield to which they have no connection whatsoever -- will undoubtedly reflect negatively on their home communities” said Amer Elias, a political analyst in Damascus. “It will reduce their popularity because people will accuse them of abandoning both their cause and community.”

Maher, a Syrian barber from East Ghouta, whose cousin is fighting in Libya, told The Arab Weekly: “We are not happy with his decision but we cannot blame him. He is doing it only for the money.”

“He was uprooted from his home, which was demolished, and sent to live in Jarabulus (a Turkish-occupied city in northern Syria). He cannot find a job and needs to feed his four little children,” Maher said. “When you are sinking, you take anything that is offered to you -- even if it’s a straw.”

Maher insisted that his cousin went to Libya “so that he can live and make money. He sought martyrdom in Syria but he doesn’t want to die in Libya.”

Abu Nader, a former member of the armed opposition in Homs, now reconciled with the government, disagreed. Working as a taxi driver in Damascus, he said: “When all of this started, we took up arms to defend our homes and children, not to fight for [Turkish President] Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Halfway through the war, we realised that Erdogan was using us and willing to trade us for any deal that satisfied his ambitions. He doesn’t care about the people of Syria. Anybody who still takes money from him is a traitor to the blood of Syrians.”

The Syrian fighters sent to Libya can be broken down into four main groups. Two are mercenaries from the Al-Mutassim and Sultan Murad Divisions who are in Libya out of obedience to Erdogan. The third group is engaged in Libya because they are ideologically committed to jihad, mainly being fighters from the Sham Legion. The fourth are Russia-paid mercenaries fighting in Libya for purely financial reasons.

No sense at all

“My son went to Libya,” said Um Ubada, a Palestinian-Syrian housewife from the demolished Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus. “He was told he was going to fight someone called Khalifa Haftar. I don’t know who Haftar is and I don’t care. I want my son back.

“I don’t want him to be killed and don’t want him to kill Syrians. We have had enough bloodshed. He didn’t go there to fight Syrians but to fight Libyans.”

“The recruitment of Syrian rebels in the Libyan war makes no sense to Syrians or Libyans,” said Hassan Hassan, director of the Non-State Actors Programme at the Centre for Global Policy in the United States. “Turkey did great damage to both causes by sending mercenaries to Libya, especially at a time when northern Syria was being attacked by the Syrian regime and when Turkey failed to force Russia to abide by its promises of de-escalation.

“It also remains unclear why Libyans need a few hundred fighters from Syria. The whole thing makes no sense and is greatly damaging.”