Turkey is sending ‘mixed signals over Syrian mercenaries in Libya’: Report

While Turkey has withdrawn a small number of the Syrian mercenaries it deployed to Libya in recent weeks, the issue of foreign militias and troops in the North African country remains unresolved a mere two weeks before that country’s elections, Fehim Tastekin wrote in Al-Monitor on Saturday.

In early October, Libya’s foreign minister Najla al-Mangoush said the withdrawal was “a very modest start” before “a larger and comprehensive organisation for the exit of mercenaries.”

However, as Tastekin points out, new reports of Turkish organised deployments of mercenaries “from Syria to Libya appear to be overriding this start.”

Turkey began withdrawing these Syrian mercenaries from Libya as normalisation talks with Egypt began in early September. Ankara pulled out Syrian mercenaries based in Misrata and the Libyan capital Tripoli on three separate flights over two months. Sources told Tastekin that this was linked to Ankara’s normalisation efforts with Cairo.

While Libyan sources estimate that 800 mercenaries out of 5,000 in Libya have left, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) war monitor puts the number at 520. Furthermore, SOHR reported that 200 new Syrian mercenaries were sent to the country at the same time. Also, according to SOHR, Turkish authorities asked Syrian opposition leaders to keep their rank and file “on alert” for the possibility of new transfers.

Russia also has Wagner private military contractors (PMC) in the country that back an opposing faction. A UN-brokered ceasefire to the Libyan conflict in October 2020 stipulated that all foreign forces had to withdraw from Libya within three months. The deadline was never met. During the Second Berlin Conference in June 2021, Turkey and Russia both “tentatively agreed” to begin the process of withdrawing.

Tastekin notes that while Ankara seems to be “flexible” when it comes to pulling out the Syrian mercenaries it deployed to the country, it remains adamant that the presence of regular Turkish troops “is part of a bilateral military cooperation agreement between Ankara and the Tripoli government”. Russia disagrees, arguing “that all foreign forces, including Turkish troops, should withdraw in a gradual and synchronised manner.”

“Partial withdrawal of the Syrian mercenaries appears to be a tactical and misleading move aiming to stave off pressure on Turkey as the Dec. 24 election nears,” Tastekin concluded. “But if the unfolding developments disrupt the election timetable, Ankara will likely be held responsible for the outcome and will be further dragged into the controversy.”

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