Pro-Turkish Syrian mercenaries, jihadists may add fuel to fire in Libya’s conflict

The number of Syrian fighters in Libya has crossed the 1,000-men benchmark, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The fighters are from various military divisions in the armed Syrian opposition, all bankrolled and shipped to Libya by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), based in London, said at least one of them has already died in battle in North Africa.

Libya-watchers have been trying to analyse whether the Syrian fighters are jihadists, like the ones who travelled to Syria from all four corners of the globe, or simply mercenaries on the Turkish payroll willing to fight wherever they are stationed. Both answers, it seems, happen to be correct.

“There are clearly strong resemblances to Wagner’s playbook,” said Dmitriy Frolovskiy, a Russian expert on the Middle East, in reference to the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organisation that fought on the side of the government in Syria and is believed to have close ties to the Russian Defence Ministry and President Vladimir Putin.

Like the Syrian fighters now in Libya, the Wagner fighters were shipped to Syria four years ago and engaged in a battlefield to which they had no connection.

Frolovskiy explained: “That could lead all the way to the claims that the Russians are copying the (American) Blackwater and former Soviet experience with military volunteers.”

It’s a long history of proxy militias being used in overseas conflicts to achieve short-to-medium goals. The Saudis did it in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion of 1979, creating the Arab-Afghan warriors, who morphed into al-Qaeda.

Erdoğan did it in 2012, when he nudged foreign fighters to cross the border, hoping they could topple the Syrian government. He is doing it again with Libya, using the same warriors whom he helped train and arm from Syria.

Although there is no official breakdown of fighters yet, most of those landing in Libya belong to the Sultan Murad Division, an armed group created with Turkish funds in 2013.

Stationed originally in the Aleppo govenorate, the group was named after Ottoman Sultan Murad II, who is remembered for trying to regain lost territory during the 1400s. That no doubt is how Erdoğan would like to be remembered, after launching his neo-Ottoman policy nearly two decades back.

Although they have the declaration of faith of Islam (Shahada) printed across their flag, Sultan Murad fighters are not Islamic State (ISIS) or al-Qaeda-type jihadists. They are nonetheless committed to an Islamic government and are best described as hardcore Erdoğan loyalists. That somehow earned them the title of “moderates” and made them eligible for U.S. arms under the Obama administration, when they were supplied armoured personnel carriers, auto cannons, grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles.

In 2016, they took part in military operations overrunning the Syrian cities of Jarabulus, Azaz and al-Bab and have since worked to legitimise their occupation by the Turkish Army.

Pretty much the same applies to al-Mutassim Division, also in Libya. It, too, was marked as “moderate” and armed by the United States, provided with rifles, machine guns and mortars.

In 2016, its fighters worked closely with Sultan Murad at occupying Syrian land and handing it over to the Turkish Army. In short, they are willing to serve, kill and die wherever Erdoğan sends them.

The Sham Legion is the real Islamist component of the Syrian fighters in Libya, well-known for its past ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Formed in 2014, its backbone was made up of Sunni Muslim Salafist warriors, all committed to jihad and the creation of an Islamic government in Syria.

They briefly tried to distance themselves from the Brotherhood, hoping to gain Gulf support but, when that didn’t work, they publicly joined the pro-Turkish Army of Conquest and actively helped occupy Jarabulus and its environs in 2016, followed by Afrin in 2018. SOHR said 250 of them are in Libya, to be soon followed by another 300.

Sham Legion warriors are in Libya for a different set of reasons than the Sultan Murad and al-Mutassim groups. They are doing it essentially as part of a jihadist agenda and because it pays well ($2,000-$2,500 per month, SOHR said).

Sham Legion fighters are also doing it to spread Islam and die -- martyrs for a holy cause. It’s not only because the pay is good or because they take orders from the Turkish president. It is this group that might attract fighters from across the globe to Libya, rather than Sultan Murad or al-Mutassim.

Observers are wondering where to put this category of fighters. Are they like the foreign fighters who flocked to Syria in 2014-16, joining ISIS and other jihadist groups? Or are they Turkish mercenaries, like the Iranian ones sent to the Syrian battlefield, with one objective in mind: keep the government of Fayez al-Sarraj in power in Tripoli? Or are they just a replica of Wagner?

(This article first appeared in the Arab Weekly and is reproduced by permission.)