Bands of Syrian mercenaries, paid by Turkey and Qatar, continue to be sent to fight in the Libyan civil war, media outlets and security experts say.
Turkey and Qatar reportedly have economic goals in sponsoring the fighters, in addition to their officially stated security and political concerns.
The United Nations said in January, without specifying which ones, that some countries supporting the warring factions in Libya had violated the international arms embargo.
French President Emmanuel Macron, however, accused his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of breaking promises he had made at an international conference on Libya after Turkish warships and Syrian fighters arrived in the North African country.
Dr. Mansour El-Kikhia, a Libyan-American professor of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told The Media Line that Turkey had been shipping poor Syrians to fight for the Sarraj government. “It’s paying them $2,000 a month in cash and it’s paid to them in Turkey. Indeed, they are mercenaries, and they are being killed in the battle," he said.
More than 275 Syrian mercenaries have died in Libya thus far, after the Turkish government covered the cost of arming and transferring them there, he said. “Libya is divided between east and west. The west is controlled by Islamist militias [along with Fayez al-Sarraj’s ‘Government of National Accord’], while the east is controlled by the Libyan army, which is moving west to dislodge the militias. Now the militias are supported by Turkey and Qatar.”
El-Kikhia added that while Qatar provided the funding, Turkey, which had a huge military base in Qatar, supplied the fighters with arms. “It’s for influence [in Libya], and, believe it or not, access to oil in the Mediterranean Sea,” Mansour continued. “Turkey gains influence and Qatar is paying for the operation.”
Libya has been torn in two since 2014, when Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general who leads the insurgent Libyan National Army (LNA), rejected a power-sharing agreement and withdrew to the east, taking with him entire military units, including warplanes.
The LNA has been on the offensive since April, taking over oil fields and key cities, and laying siege to parts of Tripoli, the stronghold of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the nation’s largest city. Haftar is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and, to a lesser degree, Russia, whereas the UN-backed Sarraj GNA government is backed by most of the West and Turkey, as well as Qatar.
El-Kikhia said that before the coronavirus crisis, some of these now mercenaries had boarded refugee boats and sought asylum in Italy. “Shame on Turkey for exploiting the poverty of these Syrians and on the internationally recognized Libyan government for putting these kids in harm’s way and being subservient to terrorists,” he said.
Ankara was playing a very dangerous game, he said, because its agreement over sea borders with Sarraj’s government, signed with an eye to expanding Turkey’s claims to oil and gas reserves in the Mediterranean, neglected to take into account one important thing, namely the island of Crete, which is only 200 nautical miles (just over 230 international miles) from Libya.
“Libya and Turkey don’t share a border,” El-Kikhia said.
El-Kikhia said that Turkey’s only safe passage into Libya was through the port city of Misrata, where the Turks had a base and advisors to help the Islamists. “It [Turkey] has injected itself in the conflict along with Qatar, the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The last [is involved] because of their dispute with Qatar, which is supporting the Islamists in the region.”
Salah Qerata, a Madrid-based security analyst who until 2013 was a senior intelligence officer in the Syrian army, told The Media Line events in Libya were “unfortunate and terrifying,” as the Turkish and Russian governments were fighting for gains in Libya, “using the blood of Syrians, taking advantage of their situation of destitution, poverty and hunger.
“And the first party responsible, before the Russian and Turks, was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who put his people in a humiliating situation,” Qerata said. “The Syrians were let down by those who should have been taking care of and protecting them, so they live in humiliation.”
He said poverty stood behind the mercenaries’ involvement, as the “usurper family of Syria" (the Assads) had starved the people of Syria, “with the aim of subjugating them and making them kneel.”
On January 8, Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a cease-fire in Libya.
Previous efforts by Italy and France had failed.
Salem Abu Khazan, a political analyst and writer for the Fasana Libyan newspaper, told The Media Line that large numbers of Syrian fighters were transferred to Tripoli to fight for the Sarraj government, as the Turkish government had few options to implement its plans in Libya other than exploiting their poverty and difficult living conditions.
“The LNA is fighting against these Syrian fighters on Libyan soil, which makes it easier for the Libyans, who are familiar with their country’s geography, while the Syrians aren’t,” Abu Khazan elaborated. “As a consequence, they die and get killed in great numbers.”
The war was draining Libya’s resources and destroying its economy, he said. “Economics plays a big role in this proxy war. In the past Syrians used to always come and work normally in Libya; now they are viewed as the enemy because they fight against the Libyans, which creates a very dangerous issue.”
Abu Khazan pointed out that Libya and Syria had good relations until 2011 (when the regime of Muammar Gaddafi fell), and that the Sarraj government was coming under great criticism, “as Libyans aren’t happy about fighting against fellow Arabs in their homeland.”