Will Turkey use Syrians to fight in Libya?

Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accelerated the use of its military to extend influence.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad visits Syrian army troops in war-torn northwestern Idlib province, Syria, October 22, 2019 (photo credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Syrian President Bashar al Assad visits Syrian army troops in war-torn northwestern Idlib province, Syria, October 22, 2019
On Thursday, the Government of the National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, one of two governments fighting a civil war in the country, requested Turkey’s military support. This came in the wake of a deal in late November that demarcated economic rights for Turkey off the coast of Libya in exchange for a promise of military support from Turkey. For Ankara, it meant a chance to expand the military operations it has carried out in Syria and Iraq, and the bases it has in Qatar and Somalia, to establish itself in an area of North Africa for the first time since 1912. But Turkey doesn’t like using its own army to fight in places like Syria, so it has hinted at recruiting Syrians to fight and die for it, leading to controversy.
Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accelerated the use of its military to extend its influence, combining military, economic and diplomatic initiatives from the Horn of Africa to the Gulf and its border regions. It has worked closely with Russia on arms deals and has increasingly positioned itself as a leader of a section of the Islamic world, meeting with Qatar, Malaysia, Iran and Hamas at a recent Malaysia summit where it talked about establishing an Islamic currency based on the gold dinar.
As far-fetched as this seems, Turkey has shown then when it says it will do something, it tends to do it. It said for years it would invade Afrin and it did so in January 2018. It said it would invade eastern Syria, where US-backed, mostly Kurdish forces were present, and it invaded in October as the US withdrew.
After Turkey signed a deal with the embattled Tripoli government, the parliament in Ankara on December 21 ratified the security aspect of the deal. From Turkey’s perspective, it has leaped at the chance to embrace Tripoli because the governments have a similar worldview. Turkey and Qatar have backed Tripoli for years, including sending finances, drones and armored vehicles, even as it lost territory to Egyptian-backed Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar. His Libyan National Army now controls most of Libya, and his war with the GNA was a kind of proxy war for the region. Egypt vs. Turkey; UAE vs. Qatar. Now it could be a new group of proxies filling the trenches in Libya: men from Syria.
Turkey has painted itself into a corner by saying it would send forces if Tripoli asked for them. And Tripoli asked on Thursday, so now Turkey must act. Turkey has sent officials to Russia to discuss Libya. Russia has been rumored to be backing Haftar. Moscow and Ankara already signed deals: over northern Syria in September 2018 in Idlib, and in October over the area of Tel Abyad.
In a sense, Libya is just another deal. In Idlib, Russia backs the Syrian regime’s offensive; the “deal” Turkey signed was shown to be worthless, as 200,000 people have fled in the last few months. In areas near Tel Abyad and in Afrin, Russia allowed Turkey to take over parts of Syria – even though the Syrian regime would prefer that Turkey not gobble up more of the country.
So the quid pro quo could be that Turkey sends forces to Libya to pressure Russia, and Moscow and Ankara make some deal on Idlib when Russian President Vladimir Putin visits in early January. Turkey and Russia have more in common than what drives them apart, including the TurkStream pipeline and the S-400 missile system deal. Some kilometers of Syria or Libya are less important – so long as each side can argue that it supported its other allies.
For Turkey, the main problem is that it helped create the Syrian National Army of former Syrian rebels who signed on to fight in a Turkish-backed military unit. This unit gathered a bunch of groups together on October 9, many of them extremists who have been accused of looting, kidnapping and attacking civilians in Afrin, and now in Tel Abyad. Some people joined just for cash, or a chance to loot. US officials called them undisciplined and said they were involved in the ethnic-cleansing of Kurds. Now what happens if they go to Libya?
Reports on Friday indicated that Syrian rebels and the Turkish Navy could be sent to Libya. This was reported by Bloomberg News and then by other outlets such as The Independent and Middle East Eye. But a lot was not confirmed. The Turkish parliament needs to green-light the deployment, although if only rebel mercenaries are sent instead of the Turkish army, that can be done without too many questions. Naval forces can be sent just to patrol off shore and secure Turkey’s new economic assets. The Independent claimed that groups linked to the “Turkish-backed Syrian Sham Legion, a moderate Islamic group with tied to the Muslims Brotherhood” could be sent.
Middle East Eye claimed that Ankara had reached out to Syrian rebel groups including the Sultan Murad Division, Suqour al-Sham Brigade and Faylaq al-Sham (Sham Legion). While the navy guards Tripoli, according to Bloomberg, these units could be sending advisers and members to go and fight. The forces that go will also be paid for their services as an incentive.
Tripoli may want more than some undisciplined Syrian rebel fighters, who have only been able to move forward in Afrin and Tel Abyad with Turkish air and artillery support. Otherwise they have been pushed out of Idlib by more extreme groups, and spend time fighting among themselves or harassing civilians and posing with weapons or chanting slogans. Turkey will say that it is just supporting the internationally recognized Libyan government’s request. But lip service for the GNA won’t help Tripoli enough; it wants air strikes, naval assets and real soldiers to bolster its weakening defenses.
Are these groups “mercenaries” or “jihadists” as some dub them? Why would Turkey recruit Turkmen from units like Sultan Murad or the Mutasim Division to go to Libya, where there is no Turkmen community? How will those groups even speak with the local Libyans on the front line? Recruiting cannon fodder to fight as proxies is not new to Turkey or the war in Libya. Iran recruited poor Shi’ites from Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight for Assad in Syria.
The problem for Turkey is that the image and narrative it must put forward about this are confusing. Many pro-Turkey commentators first downplayed the potential deployment, claiming it was just propaganda by enemies of Ankara. Then, when sources indicated that high-level Turkish officials had already been involved, they had to change tack. It’s hard to get around the fact that reports indicate some are willing to go just for the money, which could be thousands of dollars a month. But the units mentioned in reports still denied on December 27 that they were being recruited to go. What’s wrong with going for the money – other soldiers join the army for cash incentives, right?
Turkey can likely push a successful narrative that it is just recruiting some people to defend the Tripoli government from a Russian- and Egyptian-backed offensive. It can say that as a NATO country it is helping the US and the West. It will argue that whereas Russia is attacking Idlib, Turkey is now supporting the Libyan people. Qatar will likely be paying the bills for the operation, so using Qatar’s extensive media contacts and lobbying efforts, as well as the GNA’s own support network, will portray this as saving Tripoli.
For the Syrian rebel groups themselves, however, they will seem even more out of touch than they already are. Displaced from Idlib, they will be seen as going to far-away Libya while Syrians flee bombing.
For Turkey, the benefit will be to shift media attention from its promises to resettle millions of Syrians near Tel Abyad – which it won’t be able to do – to a new military nationalist adventure in Libya. A new, great Turkish success will show that it has once again done what Western countries failed to do: Get a deal from Russia in Libya and in Idlib at the same time. Turkey has US President Donald Trump’s support here because Trump tweeted about how Turkey is the only country stopping the “carnage” in Idlib.
The Libya operation – especially if Syrians start being killed fighting there for the GNA and Turkey – is a challenge for Ankara. But it is also a testament to Turkey’s willingness to be daring and forceful – not just talking, but actually putting in place an economic-military policy, as well as finding others to fight for it.