Turkey's Syrian mercenaries in Libya: 'We did it for the money'

Syrian fighters say they signed up to go to Libya because they were living 'like dogs' and Turkey offered generous deals

Ahmad Agi Uglan, a Syrian Turkmen from Talaf near Hama, Syria, fought for the Sultan Murad division and died in Libya. Courtesy: Guillaume Perrier

A voice message arrived in late January on the phone of Mansur, a Syrian refugee living in Gaziantep, southern Turkey, 30 kilometres from the Syrian border. "Gather as many guys as you can!" it read.

Mansur, who has a long beard and wears black trousers and a leather jacket, is a veteran of Al Hamza division, a rebel group that has been fighting alongside the Turkish army in Syria since 2016. He currently works as a recruiter and has three phones that ring constantly.

"'We need strong and trustworthy guys. We need their first, middle and last names; we need to send them to fight in Libya next week,'” his commander told him from the occupied Syrian city of Ras Al Ain.

The Turkish intelligence agency MIT, that the fighters say oversees the recruitment, called for more reinforcements. Mansur spread the word.

"There are not many fights at the moment. You sign up for nine months and get $2,000 [Dh7,350] a month", he told his contacts. In just a few hours he had gathered the names of 10 volunteers, from Istanbul and the Syrian border area.

Yassin Abu Obaida from Idlib was killed fighting in Libya for Jabhat Thuwar Surya. Courtesy: Guillaume Perrier

Turkey decided in January on a resolution to send troops to Libya to support the Government of National Accord, led by Fayez Al Sarraj, in its fight against Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army. Since then,  Ankara has sent between 3,000 and 4,000 Syrian proxies to Tripoli. Every week more flights carrying fighters take off from Gaziantep.

Adnan, 40, an officer from Al Hamza brigade, left Turkey on January 10 with 30 of his men. He says others joined him later. Mansur continues to send reinforcements.

"We were brought to Turkey one evening via the Kilis border crossing," said Adnan, who is from Homs. "Turkish military buses took us to Gaziantep and from there we boarded a commercial flight. There were even flight attendants and meal trays,” he says.

There were international calls for a ceasefire in Libya at the Berlin Conference last month, which was called to salvage the political peace process; negotiations opened in Geneva on February 4. Yet according to the UN's special envoy to the country, Ghassan Salame, a UN arms embargo imposed in 2011 continues to be "violated by both sides".

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I live like a dog here. I have to go and fight; this is the only way I can survive

According to French military officials, Turkey escorted a cargo of armoured vehicles to the port of Tripoli on January 29. Syrian fighters said that weapons have also been delivered to them.

“We are equipped with 14mm and 25mm anti-aircraft guns, M16 automatic rifles and long-range rifles,” Adnan says.

Since arriving in Tripoli, the proxy fighters have been trained and housed in camps near the Libyan capital.

“We received new