Turkey has started shipping Syrian mercenaries to the war-torn country, despite calls from the Arab League to refrain from sending foreign troops to Libya, , in support of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government of Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj.
Earlier in the week, reports of Syrian fighters appearing on the streets of Tripoli went viral on social media networks.
Syrian activists identified them by their accent, saying that they were members of the Sultan Murad Division, Al Mutasim, Suleiman Shah Division, and the Sham Legion, which are all on Turkish payroll, shipped to the deserts of Libya from the Syrian cities of Afrin, Idlib, and the Aleppo countryside.
Links to Muslim Brotherhood
Sultan Murad has been active in the Syrian war and its links to the Brotherhood are well known, despite attempts at distancing itself from the outlawed organization, back in 2014.
Both of these Syrian groups embraced Turkey’s invasion of the Syrian northeast last October and both have played a crucial role in the nearly ten-year conflict in Syria.
One reason for the latest move is that these fighters are in abundance and Erdogan doesn’t have much work left for them inside Syria.
“Most military operations have ceased against the Kurdish controlled areas in Syria, due to the Putin-Erdogan agreement,” said Elijah J. Magnier, a journalist and analyst on Middle East affairs.
Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “Erdogan has tens of thousands of these mercenaries and wouldn’t mind investing several hundred of them in oil-rich Libya.”
“I’m still uncertain what to make of the reports,” said Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation.
Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “How many Syrians have actually arrived in Libya, and why? Are they there as fighters, or just a smaller group accompanying Turkish special forces as trainers or translators, or something else? We just don’t know at this stage.”
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) says that at least 1,600 of them have been sent to training camps in Turkey, and another 300 are already in the Libyan battlefield.
Turkey is offering them salaries that range between $,200-2,500 USD, SOHR added, with 3-6 months contracts, in return for “heading to Tripoli.”
SOHR, which has documented the entire Syrian conflict, adds that it obtained audio records of Syrian fighters saying that they are embarking to Tripoli.
“We will move at 10:00 AM from Afrin, and we are not slaves of the dollar but our conditions and debts have pushed us to do this,” he said.
In one of the online videos, another fighter is heard saying: “We come to Libya to raise the banner of Islam.”
For now, these fighters are assembling at the Salah Al Din area, being the southern entrance of the Libyan capital, and the in the Takabali Camp, which is already under the control of pro-Turkey militias.
Syrian registration centres
Back in Syria in Turkish-occupied territory, centers have opened to register the names of those who are willing to enlist in the Libyan so-called “jihad”.
One of these centers lies in Asayish and is under the supervision of the Turkish-backed Al Hazmat Division.
A second is controlled by Al Jabha Al Shamiya and a third in the village of Qibariyah, handled by the Al Mutassim Division.
For now, they are sporadic groups arriving in batches to Libya, expected to coalesce into a division named after Omar Al Mukhtar, a renowned Libyan resistance leader against Italian occupation, who was executed in 1931.
Syrians of fighting age are very familiar with a film about him, made by Syrian director Mustapha Al Akkad, which aired repeatedly on Syrian television before outbreak of the Syria war in 2011.
‘Not quite jihdadists’
“I don’t think this should be viewed in the context of jihadism,” added Lund, saying “The groups allegedly involved are not ideological religious outfits, they’re proxies of the Turkish government. They’re somewhere on a scale between Islamism and Turkish and Syrian nationalism, but also basically mercenaries.”
The deployment aims of Turkish and Syrian troops aims at pushing back the advancing forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA).
Erdogan hopes to establish a no-fly zone over the capital, Tripoli, similar to the one he carved out on the Syrian-Turkish border.
And then, he hopes that through shifting battlefield dynamics, he can strengthen his cards as a powerbroker in Libya, just like he did with Syria through engagement with the two guarantors at Astana, being Russia and Iran.