Syrian mercenaries in Libya

The cynicism and futility of two ten-year-old Arab ‘civil wars’

Video footage has been widely circulated on Arab social media of Syrian fighters in Libya, sent by Turkey to support the Government of National Accord (GNA), who were captured by the rival forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

The young men are shown looking humiliated and demeaned. They give their names, identify their hometowns in Syria, express remorse, and confess that they only went to Libya because of material inducements: a monthly salary of $2,000 and a promise of being granted Turkish citizenship in future – i.e. after victory has been achieved, assuming they avoid the more likely fate of being sent back in coffins.

These videos are obviously propaganda, part of the psychological side of the supposedly ‘civil’ conflict raging in Libya. Both sides and their respective foreign backers have recruited mercenaries to do battle for them on the frontlines. Haftar, who is backed by the UAE, Egypt, Russia, the US and France, has hired Sudanese, Chadians and Russians to fight for him. The nominally ‘internationally-recognised’ GNA, whose chief supporters are Turkey and Qatar, has Chechens, Turcomans and Caucasians as well as Syrians fighting for it. They are all there for the money. The Syrians are reported to number some 5,000, mostly recruited by special Istanbul-based agencies employed by the Turkish government for the purpose.

Ten years after the ‘crisis’ in Syria began, there could no better illustration of where it has led: of how the ‘revolution’ was derailed and the ‘revolutionaries’ turned into tools used by foreign sponsors to further their own objectives.

In this case the sponsor is Turkey, abandoned by its allies and partners– from the US and France to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE – and left to stand alone. Ironically, most of these allies are now helping Haftar against the GNA in Tripoli, to which Turkey has been rushing combatants, armoured vehicles and drones in a bid to prevent it from being toppled.

The Turkish government did not send these Syrians to Libya to support a popular revolution or resist an oppressive dictatorship. It sent them because it has economic and strategic interests at stake: including oil and gas deals with the GNA and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and other contracts both old and new. It stands to lose them all if the government in Tripoli falls.

Haftar’s motives and methods are no nobler. As a longstanding American client and CIA asset, he made several unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the regime of his former comrade Col. Muammar al-Qadhafi. When NATO acted to topple that regime via its campaign of airstrikes, Haftar joined forces with the Islamist and other factions from Tripoli, Misrata and elsewhere he is now fighting against. His current enemies were his partners – as indeed was NATO-member Turkey. The ironies abound. On both sides of the current frontlines around Tripoli, there are formerly CIA-trained fighters battling it out, be they Syrians, Libyans or mercenaries working for Haftar.

The war in Libya is about power, self-enrichment and economic interests. It has nothing to do with values, visions, democracy or good government. While its principal victims are the people of Libya, these young Syrians should be seen as victims too. They were subjected to one of the biggest acts of deception in modern history when they took up arms in wars designed chiefly to serve US and Western interests: whether to exact revenge against regimes that stood up to Israel, or to stake claims to oil and its spoils.

One can only wonder how these Syrian ‘mercenaries’ really feel about fighting for money on battlefronts thousands of kilometres away from home as their revolution marks its tenth anniversary. There is no need to ask the same of the Russian mercenaries recruited by the Wagner Group supposedly owned by ‘Putin’s chef’ Yevgeny Prigozhin. Those mercenaries are professionals. Nobody fooled them with fatwas or slogans or threw them into battles aimed at destroying their country under the rubric of democracy, justice and deposing dictatorship.

When NATO began bombing Tripoli in the spring of 2011, I wrote an editorial arguing that Libya was a ‘rehearsal’ and the ultimate objective was Syria. The conspiracy duly unfolded there, and could have done in several other Arab states. But I never imagined things could reach the point where Syrian ‘revolutionaries’ were shipped to Libya to fight in a war that has nothing to do with them.
The Libyan people meanwhile pay the price: millions exiled or reduced to misery, having gained neither freedom nor democracy but only suffering and bloodshed – without even considering the expected ravages of coronavirus on a needlessly broken country.

Syrian mercenaries in Libya

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