Late last month, the government in Tripoli raised alarms on a potential source of COVID 19 in the country: hundreds of Syrian fighters arriving to fight for the opposition forces of Khalifa Hafter on Syria’s national airline, Cham Wings. The warnings highlighted the internationalization of the Syrian and Libyan wars, which have also become increasingly intertwined. Syrians, still deprived of peace at home, are now fighting on both sides of the conflict in Libya at the behest of Russia and Turkey. Their involvement in the Libyan conflict is indicative of how foreign powers are exploiting the Syrian conflict in new ways for their strategic interests, and the desperate predicament for many young Syrian men deprived of opportunity.
Tracing the history of Syrian fighters in Libya
A recent report from Le Monde indicates that Syrian fighters were present in the current Libyan conflict as early as 2018. Citing a source close to Wagner Group, the powerful Russian military contractor on the front lines of Syria and Libya, the report states that around 1,500 Syrian fighters have gone to fight for Khalifa Haftar’s forces under the coordination of Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau.
With the support of Russia, France, the UAE, and other regional powers, Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive in April 2019 to capture Tripoli, the capital of the U.N. recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). To thwart the collapse of the GNA, Turkey drastically ramped up its military assistance to the Tripoli-based government—but at a cost. In December 2019, Turkey and the GNA signed an agreement recognizing an exclusive economic zone from Turkey’s southern shore to Libya’s northeast coast, giving Turkey offshore expansive exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. One month later on January 2, the Turkish parliament authorized a one-year deployment of troops to Libya to support the GNA.
However, it quickly became clear that, to minimize political backlash in Turkey, Turkey’s military efforts in Libya would be fronted by Syrians. As a ceasefire collapsed and the humanitarian situation deteriorated in Idlib, around 2,000 Syrian fighters from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army were reportedly moved from Syria to the front lines in Libya between December 2019 and January 2020. SNA sources stated that fighters signed contracts directly with the GNA and are paid $2,000 USD per month—significantly more than the 450-500 liras ($65-$72) they were paid by Turkey while fighting in Syria. Fighters have also been promised Turkish nationality upon the completion of their contracts.
On the other side, Russia has also ramped up recruitment of Syrians to fight in Libya as fighting has intensified around Tripoli in recent weeks. Two hundred Syrians, some of them reconciled rebels, were reportedly recruited by Russia in Quneitra governorate and deployed with Wagner earlier this month. These fighters are paid $1,000 USD per month, half the salary paid to Turkish-backed fighters in Libya, but nevertheless, a huge sum in comparison to the $24 USD per month salary earned by reconciled fighters in the Syrian army. Recruits from reconciled areas have also reportedly been promised clemency from the government for prior anti-government activities, and an exemption from compulsory military service in the Syrian Arab Army.
Syrians pay the ultimate price
Similar to Idlib, fighting in Libya has reached a bloody stalemate, with neither the GNA nor the LNA holding a definitive military advantage and repeated attempts for ceasefires and political negotiations ending in failure. As Turkey and Russia maneuver for their strategic interests in Libya, Syrians again are paying the ultimate price. An increasing number of fighters killed in Libya have been returned to their families in Syria by the Turkish government, but some reports have claimed that the Syrian National Army is preventing families of the deceased from speaking out on their loved ones’ deaths. The body of Muhammad Atta Ikrima, a commander of the Hamza Division, was among 12 bodies returned to Aleppo this week. Meanwhile, at least two Syrian civilians have been killed in Libya as retribution for the presence of Syrian fighters in the country, highlighting the increasingly hostile climate for thousands of Syrian refugees in Libya.
Finally, there are also concerns that many of the same factions responsible for grave violations in Syria are now being empowered inside Libya. Many of those recruited by Turkey are Syrian Turkmens tied to the Sultan Murad Division, one of several Turkish-backed militias accused of committing widespread human rights abuses during Turkey’s 2019 operation in Northeast Syria. Several Syrian fighters killed inside Libya in recent weeks have been tied to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate. Turkey has reportedly sent an accompanying internal police force to ensure discipline and prevent abuses, but its effectiveness is unknown.
Ultimately, with both Russia and Turkey still unwilling to publicly acknowledge their use of Syrian fighters as proxies in Libya, information on the role of Syrian fighters in Libya, their numbers, and their deaths remains uncertain. At a minimum, Turkey and Russia need to provide more transparency in these areas. Syrians fighting as mercenaries in the Libyan conflict are not afforded the protections of prisoners of war. Further, mercenarism is a crime in Libya punishable by life in prison and Libyan authorities may seek to make an example by imposing the harshest of penalties. Finally, Syrians fighting as mercenaries risk their status as refugees (in Turkey and elsewhere) if they commit any violations during the Libyan conflict. Syrians compelled to fight for Russia and Turkey, whether by the lure of money, citizenship or political amnesty, have the right to sufficient information about their engagement and the deadly risks they will face.
After ten years of war and a staggering 80% of the population now living under the poverty line, war is tragically the only opportunity left for some Syrians. The huge number of Syrian men joining the ranks of Turkey and Russia’s mercenary armies should be a strong wakeup call for the international community and a reminder of why support for Syrian refugees and reconciled communities inside Syria must be a priority. Otherwise, young Syrians deprived of basic opportunities in Syria and neighboring countries will continue to act as fuel for further regional instability under the exploitation of regional powers.