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
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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
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".

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 clothes that look like the uniforms of Turkish gendarmes and weapons," he says. But for the moment, he says regretfully, there are "fewer shots fired on the Libyan front line than at weddings in Syria". The clashes are sporadic, but his men are impatient to fight.

The pro-Turkish Syrian factions that took part in last year's Operation Peace Spring, which sought to push Kurds back from the Turkish border, are known collectively as the Syrian National Army. Alongside Al Hamza brigade members in Libya are those from Suqur Al Sham, Liwa Al Mutasim and Jaysh Al Islam.

Ahmad Almala from eastern Ghouta near Damascus fought in the Sultan Murad division and died fighting in Libya. Courtesy: Guillaume Perrier
Ahmad Almala from eastern Ghouta near Damascus fought in the Sultan Murad division and died fighting in Libya. Courtesy: Guillaume Perrier

The first to reach Libya were from the Sultan Murad division, mostly composed of Turkmens and known for their close relationship with MIT. A "recognition committee" made up of three of its officers, Fahim Issa, Muhammad Shaikhli and Ali Yarmouk, made the first trip and assessed human and material needs in early December.

The leaders of the armed groups have been invited to Gaziantep by the Turkish authorities. Mohammed, 38, who did not want to use his real name due to safety concerns, is from the Jaysh Al Islam executive. He was planning to attend a routine meeting to discuss the situation in Syria when Turkey requested they change course to Libya.

MIT allegedly organised several meetings of this type with tribal or military leaders to mobilise an army of mercenaries. The recruitment campaign has met with a mixed reaction among the pro-Turkish coalition, with some groups being reluctant and even denouncing Ankara's “betrayal of the Syrian revolution”.

Mohammed and the men from Jaysh Al Islam gave in to Turkish orders and travelled to Tripoli in late January. "Otherwise the Turks would stop supporting us," he said. They say they were issued with a simple refugee card as an identity document, and then crossed borders without being identified or counted.

They are following the money that Turkey promised them. Those who fought with the pro-Turkish coalition in Syria received 550 Turkish lira per month, about $90. But in Libya, they not only take home $2,000 a month, but they receive $3,300 for an injury and $10,000 and a house for their family if they are killed. Reportedly, between 20 and 30 Syrian fighters have been killed since December.

Tough economic conditions in Turkey, where many Syrians find it difficult to find work, mean many find the deal too tempting to turn down.

Salim, 26, has lived in Gaziantep for two years in a dismal, freezing room with humid air, heavy with cigarette smoke. The water tank leaks and he sleeps on a yellow mattress with a UNHCR blanket. The few paid odd jobs he could find ended badly. Syrians who try to survive in Turkey are often robbed or find themselves the victims of exploitative bosses.

"I live like a dog here. I have to go and fight; this is the only way I can survive. I feel ashamed but I don't care about my pride. I need the money," he says.

When the call came, he threw some clothes in a sports bag along with a jacket, his red-and-white keffiyeh and a photo of his mother. Mansur told him not to take anything else.

"We will give you everything, even underwear," he said.

The next morning at dawn, a car with four other young Syrians already inside, arrived for Salim. On January 26, at around 4.30am, a commercial flight took off from Gaziantep with Salim and more than 200 Syrian mercenaries on board.

His first salary was sent directly to his mother to pay the rent for her house and buy some food.