On Monday, less than 24 hours after world powers agreed to halt arms shipments to Libya’s warring sides, men in northern Syria were still signing up to fight for the Turkish-backed government in Tripoli.
“The registration of fighters to go to Libya is continuing until this moment,” an Asia Times correspondent in Syria reported Monday afternoon, after visiting one of three recruitment centers in the Turkish-dominated northern countryside of Aleppo.
Approximately 800 Syrian men are currently preparing to go to Libya, an official with Syria’s opposition Ministry of Defense told Asia Times on condition of anonymity.
Those include 500 men from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, namely the Muatasim Division, and the Sultan Murad and Sultan Shah Brigades, which are made up of ethnic Turkmen. The recruits also include 300 former rebels.
The opposition Defense Ministry source said these men would be joining “hundreds” of Syrians already deployed by Turkey to the embattled North African nation on three-month contracts. The ministry has previously denied it is sending units to Libya.
“Every man who wants to go fight in Libya gets a monthly salary of $2,000. His family will receive $50,000 if he is killed in battle there, and he will be awarded $35,000 in case of permanent injury,” the source said.
At least 2,000 fighters are currently undergoing training in Turkey or have already been flown to Libya and deployed to frontline positions, according to a January 15 report in the UK newspaper The Guardian.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while denying the use of Syrian mercenaries, has defended his country’s military involvement in Libya as being carried out at the invitation of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
Ankara on November 27 signed a military pact with the GNA, as well as a controversial maritime boundary agreement that seeks to carve out an exclusive economic zone from the coast of southern Turkey to the northern shores of oil-rich Libya.
For Turkey, the fall of the government in Tripoli to the rival Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar and his Russian and Emirati allies could jeopardize its claim to offshore gas reserves recently discovered in that zone.
On the eve of peace talks in Berlin, Haftar’s forces sealed off key Libyan ports, blocking oil exports and crippling the country’s main income source in protest at Turkey’s decision to send troops.
Rebel to mercenary
For Syrians once set on toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad – and now trapped between a fortified Turkish border and advancing Syrian troops – fighting on behalf of Turkish interests in Libya offers financial security at minimum, and the possibility of a way out.
Mohammed, a 28-year-old father, says he was motivated to fight in Libya by the prospect of earning dollars after his militia salary was converted to the depreciating Turkish lira.
“After my family and I were displaced to northern Syria, I didn’t find any work, so I joined the Sultan Murad brigade, where I was paid about $150 a month. Then they started paying me only 600 lira (about $105), which was not enough to support my family,” he told Asia Times.
At the end of December, Mohammed registered to go to Libya, and he has been informed he will be deployed in late January. “They also promised me Turkish citizenship,” he said.
Yaqoub, a former rebel from Homs countryside, since displaced with his wife and two children to the northern city of Afrin, on January 13 registered to go fight with the Muatasim division in Libya.
The 30-year-old was told that in early February he would be called up for duty.
“I learned through one of my neighbors, who is a fighter in the Syrian National Army, that there is a monthly salary of $2,000 … and that every fighter or his family will be compensated in the event of injury or death,” Yacoub told Asia Times.
“Because of our poor living conditions here and the lack of work opportunities, I decided to sign up,” he said.
The most prominent Syrian opposition fighter to go to Libya thus far is the commander known as Muatasim Abbas, a veteran of the Muatasim Brigade, who is said to have landed in the country in early December.
For those with significant experience in Syria’s civil war, namely with anti-tank weaponry, the standard compensation for fighting in Libya is Turkish citizenship, according to the opposition Defense Ministry source. For those without significant experience, Ankara has promised to grant their relatives nationality in the event of their death.
When it is time to deploy, fighters are bussed from Syria into Turkey, and from there flown via Adana or Istanbul airports to the Libyan capital.
Syrian National Army fighters present in Libya said they were prevented by Turkish authorities from using their phones on the journey. In recent days, however, an undated video emerged online purporting to show a group of Syrian men headed to Libya on board Libya’s national carrier, Afriqiyah Airways.
An unknown fate
While many Syrian fighters have agreed to go to Libya for various reasons, others expressed their refusal to do so, such as Ahmed, 35, a displaced person who once served as a commander for a Damascus-based rebel faction.
About two weeks ago, he says he received an offer from one of his friends in the Muatasim Division to go to Libya for $2,000 a month. But he refused.
“I took up arms for a higher purpose, which was to protect people and fight against the regime. I did not pick up a weapon to be a mercenary and fight outside Syria,” he said. “If the regime falls, I’d put it back down.”
He called the shifting of fighters to Libya, “a betrayal of the revolution,” especially at a time when the northwest province of Idlib and the neighboring western countryside of Aleppo are facing a Russian-backed onslaught.
“I will not leave to fight in any other country, no matter what they are offering,” Ahmed told Asia Times.
Umm Ammar, a 60-year-old woman forced to flee her home outside Damascus to the Turkish-dominated north, says her son left to go fight in Libya against her wishes.
“Frankly I do not want my son to be a mercenary or to die in a foreign land,” she told Asia Times.
“When my son told me of his intention to go to Libya, I begged him not to go, but he insisted in order to achieve his goal of obtaining Turkish citizenship, and so that his father and I can enter Turkish territory to receive treatment in their hospitals,” she said.
One month ago, she says, he left for “an unknown fate.”
Libya has been torn by fighting between rival armed factions since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising killed dictator Muammar Gadhafi. In April, forces loyal to Haftar launched an assault aimed at taking the capital Tripoli, which later stalled.
Those clashes killed more than 280 civilians and 2,000 fighters and displaced tens of thousands, until a fragile ceasefire backed by both Ankara and Moscow was put in place on January 12.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Sunday’s summit failed to launch necessary talks between the government in Tripoli and Haftar.
“It is clear that we have not yet succeeded in launching a serious and stable dialogue between them,” Lavrov told reporters after the conference, where the warring sides did not meet face to face.
This article was translated by Alison Tahmizian Meuse. With reporting by AFP.