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Will Syrian rebels kill each other in Libya's proxy war?

Syrian mercenaries from that country's civil war could now meet opposite each other in the Libyan conflict, only this time as Wagner Group mercenaries.

In "The Return," Hisham Matar’s haunting 2016 memoir about seeking to uncover his missing father’s fate in the hands of the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the author pays tribute to a cousin who fought valorously in the North African nation’s 2011 revolution. Following Tripoli’s liberation in August 2011, Hamad traveled to Syria to help like-minded revolutionaries there overthrow their own ruthless strongman, Bashar al-Assad. 

Nine years on, Syrian rebels are streaming into Libya. But their motives are decidedly different. They are going for the money. As their war-shattered country descends into deeper misery under US sanctions, and with no end in sight, many are enlisting to fight on opposite sides of Libya’s ongoing civil conflict pitting the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) against the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by the eastern warlord Khalifa Hifter. The emergence of Syrian mercenaries is the latest cruel twist in Syria’s nine-year-long conflict that has claimed at least 400,000 lives, internally displaced more than 6.2 million people and led roughly 5.2 million more to flee the country, according to the United Nations. Some of the Syrian fighters headed to Libya are children, in breach of international law.

“What we are now faced with is a scenario in which Syrians who fought together to overthrow Assad are now going to be shooting at each other in a foreign land,” said Bassem al-Ahmed, the co-founder of Syrians for Truth and Justice, a nonpartisan advocacy group that monitors human rights in Syria, including the plight of Syrians going to fight in Libya. Ahmed, who is Syrian, said, “I would have never imagined we would be in this situation. It’s an absolute travesty.”

Emadeddin Badi, a Libyan and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the arrival of Syrian mercenaries in his country “is illustrative of the fact that Syrians’ hope for change has been turned to ash by Assad and a passive international community. So it isn’t that the favor [to Libyans who came to fight in Syria] is returned, more so that both Libya and Syria’s revolutions have turned to tragedy.”

“Not everyone is happy with the Syrians in Libya, even amongst the camp that they have been brought to support,” Badi added in emailed comments to Al-Monitor.

The warring parties in Libya have accused the other of importing radical jihadis and assorted criminals to bolster their ranks, part of a propaganda war that is being waged by the Turkish and Qatari media on one hand and the United Arab Emirates and the Egyptian media on the other, with sympathizers of the rival sides weighing in as well.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which has been monitoring the Syrian conflict through a network of local sources, recently alleged that Turkish intelligence had transferred “jihadist groups and Islamic State (IS) members of different foreign nationalities from Syria to Libya in the past few months.” The SOHR maintains they included over 2,500 Tunisian IS fighters. Aaron Y. Zelin, a Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of “Your Sons Are At Your Service: Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad,” debunked the claims, telling Al-Monitor in emailed comments that they were “straight up not credible.”

The Pentagon’s inspector general concluded in a July 17 report that Turkey had sent between 3,500 and 3,800 paid Syrian fighters to Libya over the first three months of this year.

Despite allegations by Hifter and his UAE and Egyptian backers, the US military found no evidence to suggest the men were linked to either IS or al-Qaeda.

“The Libyans who went to Syria in 2011 went out of solidarity to do in Syria what they had done in Libya: overthrow a dictator. It was only in 2012 that you saw Libyans go for overt jihadi reasons. So, what they did was foreign fighting,” Zelin said. “What we are seeing now with the Syrians going to Libya is different because it's mercenary activity. Foreign fighting and being a mercenary are two different phenomena. The former is more about solidarity and ideological conviction with a cause; the latter is about receiving money, a gun for hire.”

Turkey’s intervention earlier this year with officers, heavy weapons, warships and drones, together with the injection of Syrian mercenaries, has tipped the war in favor of the GNA. Hifter was forced to call off his yearlong campaign to capture Tripoli in May and beat a humiliating retreat.  Turkey and Russia have slapped a band-aid on the conflict for now, with mutual pledges to seek a political resolution. But the risk of renewed escalation remains. The ongoing recruitment of Syrian mercenaries is an ominous sign. Turkey and the GNA have vowed to press on till they capture Sirte. The coastal city where Gadhafi met his bloody end is the strategic gateway to the bulk of Libya’s oil, currently controlled by the LNA.

While there are numerous accounts documenting how thousands of Syrians are being recruited by the Turkish-backed opposition Syrian National Army to fight on the side of GNA forces, there is less information available about Syrians fighting on behalf of Hifter.

Mercenaries from neighboring countries like Chad and Sudan have taken part in the Libyan conflict since 2011. But Hifter’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces “is the first post-revolutionary Libyan entity to systematically import them and is now more reliant on them than any other Libyan entity,” said Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The embargo on oil produced in areas under his control has depleted Hifter’s war chest, leaving his top backer and Turkey’s top regional foe, the UAE, to foot the bill. “The [LNA] is effectively desperate for foreign fighters that are competent on the battlefield and who will listen to orders. Syrians are great from the [LNA’s] perspective because they’re cheap bodies to put on the line, as crude as that is," said Megerisi.

Syrian Arab tribes have put out public statements condemning the exploitation of their youths by the Wagner Group. The Russians reportedly began taking Syrians to fight in Libya last year. Wagner typically refuses to comment.

The UN said Wagner had at least 1,200 men fighting in Libya, according to a report that was leaked in May. The Kremlin denies involvement in such activities, including sending at least 14 warplanes to a central Libyan air base. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov last week insisted “the Russian military is not involved in any processes in Libya in any way.”

Megerisi reckons there is also a “geopolitical angle” to putting Syrian boots on the ground. It serves the Kremlin’s agenda of "strengthening the Russia, [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad], UAE triangle that’s forming,” he told Al-Monitor. In March, members of Hifter’s “government” established a diplomatic mission in Damascus. The move was welcomed by Moscow.

Syrians for Truth and Justice and its team of digital fact-checkers have pieced together further details of how Syrians are being recruited and taken to Libya to fight for Hifter with the help of Russia. The information will be made available in a report that is due to be published in the coming days and was seen exclusively by Al-Monitor. It’s the bookend to a May report that focused on Syrians recruited by Turkey for the GNA. They include members of militias who have committed war crimes against Syria’s Kurdish population.

Based on eyewitness testimony and fighters’ accounts of the Syrian government’s collusion with the Russian military and Wagner, the latest report describes how an estimated 3,000 men (at least 22 of whom are children) from Suwayda, Daraa, Quneitra, Hama, Homs, Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and rural Damascus were recruited. They notably include former opposition rebels who fought in the US-backed Southern Front who have signed so-called settlement or amnesty agreements with the Syrian government. Salaries range from $800 to $1,500, a veritable fortune in Syria where the collapse of the pound has pauperized a broad swath of the population.

One recruit from Suwayda who went by the pseudonym Rami M. told Syrians for Truth and Justice he had applied to go to Libya via the regime-sanctioned Syrian National Youth Party. A party official had told some 80 fellow recruits at an initiation gathering that criminal charges against those who fought in rebel factions would be dropped and they would be exempted from reserve military service. “He told us that in Libya, we will be fighting under the supervision of the Russian Wagner company,” Rami M. said.

Another recruit, identified as Yousef A. from Quneitra, said, “I operated within the ranks of the Free [Syrian] Army against the regime, and like the majority of the fighters of southern Syria’s factions, I signed a settlement agreement. The regime, however, did not write off the security reports filed against me, not to mention the poor financial conditions I am enduring, [rising prices and the lack of] job opportunities that turned life into hell. For this reason, I joined the ranks of the fighters in Libya, helped by the Russia-affiliated 5th Legion [of the Syrian Arab Army], because they promised to give a $1,000 salary and cancel all the reports on me under Russian guarantees.”

A third recruit, identified as Asem, who also applied to go to Libya through the Syrian National Youth Party, said he and 150 fellow recruits were supposed to undergo 15 days of training before being deployed. He said “there were Russian officers with us and a captain in the [Syrian] army” present at a meeting in early January at the headquarters of the Syrian army’s 18th division in rural Homs. Asem dropped out upon learning that he would not be guarding Libyan oil fields as originally advertised.

Syrians for Truth and Justice’s Ahmed said he was “shocked” that former opposition rebels would be going to Libya at all, as they would potentially find themselves killing fellow ex-Syrian rebels in the enemy ranks. “Maybe it’s a strategic plan by the Syrian regime. Maybe it's forcing them to go in order to get rid of them,” he speculated.

The fighters are transferred to Libya either via commercial flights from Damascus and Latakia on Cham Wings or from Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Latakia onboard Russian Tupolev jets. What happens to them once they get there is unclear.

“I am working to get access to fighters who are in Libya fighting for the LNA. It’s extremely difficult [because] they don’t have phones on them or internet. They call their families very rarely when they manage to get hold of a phone, and no one has come back yet. It’s pretty new,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Tsurkov, who is renowned in the policy community for her vast network of contacts inside Syria, was the first foreign researcher to flag the recruitment of Syrians to fight in Libya by the Wagner group on her Twitter feed.

“I would say speaking with members of communities from which these fighters went is that all of them did so due to financial incentives. This applies to fighters who are fighting on the GNA side as well as on the Hifter side. No one has any particular interest in the war that is happening in Libya. Very few knew much about it before going there,” Tsurkov said in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor.

“They are in desperate need of money. The salaries that are offered to them in Libya are 20 times more than what they are earning in Syria as fighters. As far as I understand now from both sides, at this stage, there are more people who are interested in going than the number of people who are needed both by Turkey and Wagner. This just shows us the sad state of the situation in Syria,” Tsurkov observed.

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