Libya’s civil war is defined by foreign intervention. The Libyan National Army, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, representing the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, is supported by Russian and Sudanese mercenaries, French weapons and the goodwill of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Its backers believe Haftar will defeat Islamist forces and pacify Libya by overthrowing the Tripoli government, the UN-recognised Government of National Accord in 2015.
Into this situation, Turkey has interjected – and it has done so with surprising force – Syrian rebels, in the form of detachments of the Syrian National Army (SNA).
Despite denials from Turkey, the Syrians were sent to Libya in January to defend Tripoli against an advance by Haftar’s forces, which looked likely to capture the capital.
Syrians fighting with the Sultan Murad and Mutasim divisions have confirmed their presence in Libya. In videos released online, they discuss their accommodation and conditions. Although Libya’s civil conflict is far from their war, many seem pleased at the chance to fight Haftar.
‘We’re not mercenaries’, a fighter called Ahmed told the New York Review of Books. ‘We were invited by the Libyan Army and Libyan people and we oppose dictatorship’.
‘We don’t want Libya to be destroyed like Syria’, he said, and spoke of the opportunity his presence in Libya afforded to fight the Russians supporting Haftar.
Other fighters, in online videos, chant that they are fighting Iran by their presence in Libya – something that is not borne out by fact.
Syrian rebels have taken several casualties in the month-long campaign they have waged. Many of those died within days of their arrival. The first confirmed casualty was Ahmad al-Malla from Zamalka, in eastern Ghouta, a district first besieged and then captured after chemical weapon attacks by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Escaping the war at home is one reason some have gone to fight abroad. So, too, is the suffering of fighting in the deprived and besieged northern areas as the Syrian war approaches a decade in length.
In these conditions, other incentives begin to feature.
While pay for fighters in Turkish-aligned units in northern Syria is close to $50 per month, those who travel to Libya to fight are paid substantially better. It was rumoured that their remuneration would total $1,500 per month. Research by Syria Direct suggested it could be as much as $2,000 per month.
‘Turkey is carrying out a policy of starving the dog to make him follow you’, a fighter in the Samarkand brigade told Elizabeth Tsurkov, a researcher with the Middle East Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Turkey has other inducements for its willing agents.
One is the prospect of leaving a rebel-held Syria, which is besieged and where a final offensive appears always at hand.
Those who fight with Turkey in Libya are promised they will be offered Turkish citizenship after a tour of duty of six months. Many Syrian rebels lived in southern Turkey for years, though Turkey is trying to deport many of the Syrian refugees (or ‘guests’, as Turkey calls them) from the country, the burden being politically unpopular.
Turkish citizenship would provide a way to leave Syria and remove the threat of deportation. Some Syrian rebel commanders appear to have chosen this option.
Other countries denounced Turkish meddling in Libya and called its Syrian fighters mercenaries and jihadists.
Of the two, the Syrians in Libya are more mercenaries than jihadists. They are in Libya at the behest and with the support of a state that is not theirs, paid for their presence and promised other rewards.
One of Haftar’s most useful contentions is his opposition to Islamist militias. It is partially on this account that so many European and Middle Eastern countries are meddling in Libya.
At a conference last month in Berlin, outside powers – but no Libyans – discussed how to resurrect a political process to end Libya’s fighting. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, described Turkey’s intervention as ‘an explicit and serious infringement of what was agreed in Berlin. It’s a broken promise.’
This is the strange irony of the Libyan war. With outside powers lining up to support either Haftar or the Government of National Accord, Turkey’s intervention is not the most flagrant or destructive, though it is likely the strangest.
As the fighters and civilians of Idlib and Aleppo province face another Assad regime advance and contend with yet more determined attack, the routes Syrians take out of their own country – in this case, to Turkey via Libya – can seem strange. However, many of these contortions are more a product of the depredations of Syria’s war than the willingness of rebel Syrians to fight elsewhere.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.