The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

Syrian mercenaries in Libya | From compliance with Turkey’s orders to disobedience: Have Syrian fighters exposed the Turkish government’s real intentions which seek only to achieve its own interests in Libya?

Several months have elapsed since the Turkish government started recruiting and sending to Libya large groups of fighters, most of whom belong to several factions and organizations such asthe National Army, ISIS members, Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham, as well as other jihadist fighters. Nonetheless, a state of chaos and disobedience has emerged among Syrian mercenaries in Libya, particularly in light of the difficult conditions they suffer from, and Turkey’s failure to fulfil its promises regarding the attractive incentives which initially claimed to offer, as well as the significant casualties those fighters suffered in the battles with “Libyan National Army” led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

According to Observatory statistics, the fatalities have reached 339 fighters of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, including 20 children under the age of eighteen, as well as some factions’ commanders. The fatalities are from the following  factions: “al-Mu’tasim Division, Sultan Murad, Suqur Al-Shamal Brigade, Al-Hamzat and Suleiman Shah”. According to very reliable SOHR sources, the fighters were killed in clashes on several frontlines in Libyan territory. Foreign jihadists were also among the fatalities, mostly of North African nationalities.

While Turkey continues to recruit and transfer Syrian mercenaries to Libyan territory, SOHR sources have reported that the number of recruits who arrived in Libya has risen to 11,200 Syrian mercenaries, while nearly 2,300 others arrived in Turkey to undergo training courses.

This followed two agreements signed in September 2019 by Ankara with the Government of National Accord led by Faiz al-Sarraj:

The first is a military cooperation which stipulates that Turkey provides military support to the GNA.

The second is about the demarcation of the maritime border between Libya and Turkey.

This has triggered widespread regional and European discontent as the agreement violates the international laws governing maritime rights. In February 2020, Erdogan acknowledged, for the first time, the presence of Ankara-backed Syrian fighters in Libya along with Turkish military trainers. The Turkish armed forces have dispatched 50 military trainers of the Turkish private security company “Sadat” to Tripoli to train  GNA armed groups.


Recruitment steps:

The establishment of volunteer recruitment centres: Since the beginning of the recruitment process, Turkish-backed Syrian factions have established volunteer recruitment centres, recruiting young Syrians and sending them to fight in Libyan territory. A number of recruitment centres were open in Afrin, north of Aleppo, including a centre under the supervision of “Al-Hamzat Division”, another run by “Al-Jabha Al-Shamiyah”, a center in the village of Qaybarieh, in addition to a center under the supervision of “Al-Shamil Brigade” in al-Mahmoudiya neighbourhood.

Financial incentives: by paying good salaries, before leaving  northern Syria, the militants signed contracts providing monthly salaries of $2,000 per month, with compensation of $50,000 for those seriously injured, in addition to $100,000 paid to the family of those killed on the frontlines, as well as additional services provided by the host country, and promises of Turkish citizenship.

Deception and brainwashing: Those recruited as mercenaries are being deceived and told that they will be used in combat operations against Russian soldiers in Libya in retaliation for their killings and other criminal acts in Syria, and will fight alongside the Turkish army, but the Turkish army is actually not involved in the battles, except for some experts and officers who are holed up in operating rooms far from the frontlines.

Coordination with Turkish bases deployed in the areas controlled by the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” factions in rural Aleppo: in order to give the fighters money as an advance payment. The mercenaries are being transported by aircraft via an air bridge from inside Turkish territory to Tripoli, as well as Turkish ships, to fight in Libya alongside the Government of Accord against the Libyan National Army with the aim of inflicting losses on it and weakening it for the benefit of Ankara and its allies.

SOHR sources have revealed that Turkish government is resorting to exploiting the extreme poverty of the exhausted Syrian people affected by the war in the country for more than 9 years, particularly with the slump of the Syrian pound, the high prices of foodstuffs and the deterioration of the economy in general and subsequent rising rates of poverty and unemployment. The Turkish government took advantage of those factors in order to send those desperately poor fighters to Tripoli to fight alongside the Government of Accord, and offered  financial inducements for recruiting them and sending them as mercenaries to fight in Libya, in a conflict they have no stakes in.

With recruitment continuing in full swing and the emergence of child recruitment by Ankara-backed factions, the Syrian Observatory, in turn, is highlighting this aspect through information obtained by reliable sources.

Reliable SOHR sources say that many children under the age of eighteen  from Idlib and north Aleppo countryside go to Afrin, pretending to search for work. Some of these children have left to Afrin even without telling their families. Turkish-backed factions in Afrin recruit these children and send them to fight on the side of the “Government of National Accord” against Hafter’s forces on Libyan territory, by issuing fake IDs for these children with false information about their date and place of birth. SOHR eyewitnesses in the “Euphrates Shield” region have confirmed that opposition commanders are recruiting Syrian children for $3,000, and then they undergo military training on how to carry and use weapons in special training camps for children and adolescents supervised by opposition factions.

SOHR has obtained new details of child recruitment case of a 15-year-old boy. According to SOHR reliable sources, the boy has left for Afrin coming from a refugee camp where he used to live with his family, in order to work as a farmhand. The boy kept in touch with his family for nearly 20 days, then they lost contact with the boy. The boy’s family were shocked when the boy appeared later in a video footage fighting under the banner of Syrian factions in Libya.

After search and inquiries by the family, it turned out that their son was recruited in the ranks of “Sultan Murad” Division, which naturally denied this claim at the beginning. After many visits by the family to “Sultan Murad” headquarters, members of the factions tried to avoid the family’s insistence and questions about their son, telling the family that the boy was killed in battles in Libya. The fate of the boy remained unknown. However, when a family asks about their son’s body, they answer is “he was captured by Hafter forces.”

SOHR sources had reported that Ankara sent a new batch of mercenaries, including fighters from the city of Al-Atareb and other Syrian areas to Tripoli, recruited into the ranks of “Al-Sultan Murad” and “Al-Sultan Mohammed al-Fatih”. Syrian Observatory sources confirmed that the families of mercenaries, and despite their great discontent,  are afraid to speak out in public on this issue for fear of the factions’ practices backed by the Turkish government.

Reasons for Turkey’s  recruitment of Syrian mercenaries:

Ankara’s reasons  to recruiting Syrian mercenaries and sending them to Tripoli can be explained as follows:

  • The fear that Erdogan’s regime may be widely criticized and lose popularity at home by involving the Turkish military in futile military operations abroad, which could result in personnel losses, as happened when scores of Turkish soldiers were killed in Syria.
  • The Turkish regime’s unwillingness to sacrifice more Turkish military cadres in battles whose gains are uncertain due to the complexity of the situation in Libya and with intertwined interests of different parties in Libya.
  • Achieving the greatest goals and gains in Libya, especially by supporting the Government of Accord in fighting Haftar, and exerting pressure on some regional powers and threatening their security, in addition to securing Turkey’s share of Libyan resources such as oil and eastern Mediterranean gas with the lowest possible human and material costs.
  • To eliminate problematic and unwanted fighters who are creating chaos in the Aleppo countryside, as well as to get rid of jihadists and groups designated terrorists in the adjacent areas in accordance with the “Putin-Erdogan” agreement and to ensure the security and stability of the Turkish state, and to ensure their incursion into more areas of northern Syria.
  • Taking advantage of the Syrian Turkmen factions trained and operated by Turkey, which are the most loyal and obedient to the Turkish regime due to the common national ties, which facilitated the recruitment processes of many Syrian mercenaries.
  • Resorting to recruiting mercenaries as an attempt to avoid international accountability and the implications of this issue.
  • Using the Libyan war as a testing ground and to showcase  Turkish weaponry in North Africa.

Mercenaries’ disobedience:

A state of chaos and disobedience has recently emerged among Syrian mercenaries in Libya, as well as growing rejection of recruitment for several reasons. The Syrian Observatory reviews the main reasons as follows:

  • The heavy causalities suffered by mercenaries on frontlines against the “Libyan National Army”. On May 5, 2020, one of the mercenaries revealed that they were grouped in headquarters close to the Libyan army’s positions, confirming that the headquarters had been shelled with mortars, adding that one single strike on one of their headquarters killed six fighters, which in turn results in continuous casualties.

  • Turkey’s failure to fulfil its obligations and promises of paying salaries to mercenaries on a monthly basis in return for fighting in Libya. Turkey paid only one month’s salary to the mercenaries, despite the signed contracts and agreements..

A Syrian mercenary fighter in Tripoli said that the salaries were only $566, and those who have privileged treatment can get $849. He added that security company of “Sadat”, which is responsible for overall supervision over the situation of Syrian fighters in Libya and handing over their salaries, did not receive its dues from the Government of Accord, raising many question marks about the mercenaries’ financial entitlements.

  • Fighters’ deception by Turkey during recruitment in Syria by telling lies to convince them, including the allegations of confrontation of Russian forces in Libya in retaliation for their criminal acts in Syria, as well as fighting alongside Turkish forces.

SOHR sources have obtained an audio recording in which a Syrian fighter in Libya said that he regretted getting involved in the battle in Libya and he called upon everybody wanting to come to Libya not to do so, as the Turks did not pay the fighters’ monthly salary (2,000 USD). He said “Turkey paid our salaries for only one month. Even cigarettes, we hardly get them. We stay indoors and we cannot get out, as cells of Haftar’s forces are deployed throughout the area.”

“All of us want to return to Syria. There are batches have already got prepared to leave Libya through Al-Sham Corps”, he added.

  • Mercenaries were disappointed after illegal migration into northern Mediterranean stopped, as many of them have managed before to cross secretly into Europe across the Libyan coast. Nearly 150 fighters crossed into Italian territory in January 2020. This follows the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the launch of European operation ‘Irini’ supervised by Greece to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya, which led to the arrest of illegal immigrants who were put in shelter camps.

Overall, Turkey’s transfer of Syrian fighters from Syria into Libyan territory has recently seen a shift in strategy from inducing to coercion. Going to Libya has come under huge pressure as Turkey exerts constant pressure on the commanders of the “National Army” factions to send fighters from their ranks to Libya, after the fighters were previously racing to go to Libya for the incentives that Turkey initially offered. Later, Turkish intelligence changed its approach to recruiting mercenaries, exerting major pressure on the factions’ commanders by blackmailing and  threating to open old cases related to scandals in which these commanders got involved, unless they force their fighters to join the battles in Libya.

It is worth noting that the factions which are fighting in Libya are operating under the banner of the Turkish-backed “National Army”, such as “Ahrar Al-Sharqiyyah, Jaysh-Al-Sharqiyyah, Jays Al-Islam, Al-Rahman Corps, Al-Sham Corps, al-Mu’tasim Brigade, Sultan Murad Division, Suqur Al-Shamal Brigade, Al-Hamzat, and Suliman Shah”.

Reliable sources have informed SOHR that the participation of Turkish-backed Syrian fighters in military operations in western Libya helped to  tip the balance  in favour of the “Government of National Accord”, especially after capturing the key airbase of “Al-Watiyyah”.

The Syrian Observatory renews its call upon the international community to intervene to stop recruiting Syrians and turning them into mercenaries by Turkish government through sending them to fight in Libya or interfering in the internal affairs of the Libyan people.