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Pro-Turkey Syria mercenaries head to Niger to earn cash

A pro-Turkish Syrian fighter holds an assault rifle at a camp for people displaced by conflict in Syria's northern Aleppo province
— Beirut (AFP)

Like hundreds of other pro-Turkish fighters, Omar left northern Syria for mineral-rich Niger last year, joining Syrian mercenaries sent to the West African nation by a private Turkish military company.

"The main reason I left is because life is hard in Syria," fighter Omar, 24, told AFP on message app WhatsApp from Niger.

In northern Syria "there are no job opportunities besides joining an armed faction and earning no more than 1,500 Turkish lira ($46) a month," Omar said, requesting like others AFP interviewed to be identified by a pseudonym for security reasons.

Analysts say Ankara has strong ties with the new military regime in Niamey, in power since a July 2023 coup.

And in recent months, at least 1,000 fighters have been sent to Niger "to protect Turkish projects and interests," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.

For the past decade, Turkey has been increasing its footprint in Niger, mostly through "humanitarian aid, development and commerce", said Gabriella Korling, a researcher focusing on the Sahel at the Swedish Defence Research Agency.

"The defence component of the relation between Niger and Turkey has become more important over time with the signing of a military cooperation agreement in 2020 and the sale of armed drones," Korling said.

Niamey often refers to Turkey, Russia and China as "partners that are respectful of Niger's sovereignty", she added.

Omar, who supports his mother and three siblings, said since leaving his home in August he receives a "very good" monthly salary of $1,500 for his work in the West African nation.

He hopes his earnings will help him start a small business and quit the battlefield, after years working as a fighter for a pro-Ankara faction.

Tens of thousands of young men have joined the ranks of jihadist factions and others loyal to Ankara in Syria's north and northwest, where four million people, half of them displaced, live in desperate conditions.

- 'Guarding mines' -

Omar said he was among a first batch of more than 200 fighters who left Syria's Turkish-controlled north in August for Niger.

He is now readying to return home after his six-month contract, renewed once, ended.

He and two other pro-Ankara Syrian fighters who spoke to AFP in recent weeks said they had enlisted for work in Niger with the Sultan Murad faction, one of Turkey's most loyal proxies in northern Syria.

They said they had signed six-month contracts at the faction's headquarters with private firm SADAT International Defense Consultancy.

"SADAT officers came into the room and we signed the contract with them," said fighter Ahmed.

Ahmed, a 30-year-old pro-Turkish Syrian fighter, sits with his son in a field in Aleppo province

"They handle everything," from travel to accommodation, added the 30-year-old, who was readying to travel from northern Syria to Niger.

The company is widely seen as Ankara's secret weapon in wars across North Africa and the Middle East, although its chief denied the allegation in a 2021 interview with AFP.

Niger borders oil-rich Libya, and in 2020, Washington accused SADAT of sending Syrian fighters to Libya.

Turkey has sent thousands of Syrian fighters to Libya to buttress the Tripoli government, which it backs against rival Russian-backed authorities in the east according to the Observatory and the Syria Justice and Accountability Center.

The Center said SADAT was "responsible for the international air transport of mercenaries once they crossed into Turkish territory" to go to Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey has also sent Syrian fighters to bolster Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, but its efforts to send mercenaries to Niger have been shrouded in secrecy.

Turkey's defence ministry told AFP: "All these allegations are false and have no truth."

Omar said his journey took him to Gaziantep in Turkey, then to Istanbul, where he boarded a military plane to Burkina Faso before being driven under escort to camps in neighbouring Niger.

After two weeks of military training, he was tasked with guarding a site near a mine, whose name he said he didn't know.

He said he and other Syrians worked alongside Nigeriens in military fatigues, but was unable to say if they were soldiers.

"They divided us into several groups of guards and fighters," he said.

Another group "was sent to fight Boko Haram (jihadists) and another was sent to Lome" in neighbouring Togo, he said, without providing details about their mission.

His family collects his monthly salary, minus a $350 fee for his faction.

- Defence ties -

Ahmed, who has been a fighter for 10 years, said he had been told his mission would consist of "protecting military positions" after undergoing training.

He said "there could be battles" at some point, but did not know who he would be fighting.

For Abed, a 30-year-old Syrian who has been displaced with his family for more than a decade, death is a risk he has decided to take

The father of three said he spent six months in Libya in 2020 earning more than $2,000 a month.

In July 2023, the army seized power in Niger, ending security and defence agreements with Western countries including France, which has withdrawn forces who were fighting jihadists.

"The coup in 2023 did not disrupt diplomatic relations between Turkey and Niger," researcher Korling added, pointing to the appointment of the first Turkish defence attache to Niger earlier this year.

Last year, Turkish state television opened a French-language channel covering Africa, and Ankara operates daily flights to Niamey.

"Turkey, given its religious proximity and lack of political and historical baggage, is looked upon quite favourably in Niger especially in comparison to" Western countries, said Korling.

- Promises of citizenship -

Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Turkey was "exploiting" impoverished men in areas under its control "to recruit them as mercenaries in military operations" serving Ankara's foreign interests.

The war monitor and other human rights groups said promises of lucrative payments to mercenaries sent abroad are not always kept.

Mohammad al-Abdallah of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center said his organisation had for example documented "false promises of granting Turkish citizenship" to those sent to Azerbaijan or Libya.

Turkey has sent thousands of Syrian fighters to Libya to buttress the Tripoli government, which it backs against rival Russian-backed authorities in the east

Abdul Rahman noted reports that about 50 Syrian fighters had been killed in Niger, mostly after they were attacked by jihadists, but he said his organisation had only verified nine deaths, with four bodies having been repatriated.

A source within a faction whose members have been dispatched to Niger said about 50 bodies were expected to return in the coming days.

For Abed, a 30-year-old Syrian who has been displaced with his family for more than a decade, death is a risk he has decided to take.

The father of four and sole breadwinner told AFP: "I'm scared of dying... but maybe I could die here" too.

The difference, he said, is that in Syria "I would die for 1,000 Turkish liras ($30), and (in Niger) I would die for $1,500."