An estimated 5000 Syrian mercenaries have been sent to Libya by Turkey to fight in support of Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA) since December 2019.
A Libyan National Army (LNA) source says that 17 Syrian mercenaries will attempt to illegally travel to Italy from al-Zawiya, a major human trafficking hub west of Tripoli, Libya. The source says that the militants have paid a smuggler for the boat trip across the Mediterranean and are set to travel this Thursday.
The men are believed to be from the Ahrar al-Sharqiya faction of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA.) Ahrar al-Sharqiya is largely composed of former Hay’at Tahrir-al Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al-Sham members from Deir Ezzor. Much like HTS, the group subscribes to a hardline Islamist ideology. “Ahrar al-Sharqiya are just as bad as [HTS]. They have many problems…they even fight the other TFSA factions,” said Ziad Ibrahim*, a former TFSA fighter.
Ahrar al-Sharqiya has committed a host of war crimes in Afrin since 2018. The militant faction has been part of Turkey’s Operation “Peace Spring,” an offensive of Turkish aerial and TFSA ground attacks on Northeastern Syria that started in October of last year.
On October 12, Ahrar al-Sharqiya assassinated Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf in Northeastern Syria. The militants stopped Khalaf at a checkpoint they erected on the M4 highway and pulled her from her vehicle. Then, they bludgeoned her, dragged her by her hair, and shot her five times before posting gruesome photos and videos celebrating the murder on social media.
Abdullah Hassan*, a TFSA fighter from the Idlib countryside, said that Turkey has been moving Ahrar al-Sharqiya away from civilians in recent weeks. “They have been moving Sharqiya men out of Afrin, and they sent some to Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain, which are occupied by Turkey, because these areas are mostly empty,” he said. “These fighters cannot be around other people. They’re barely human.” Hassan says around 150 Ahrar al-Sharqiya fighters traveled to Libya from Syria just over a month ago, led by their commander Abu Al-Mu’tasim Al-Dairi.
The LNA source said that the Ahrar al-Sharqiya mercenaries are staying in Tajoura, at a base that houses at least 400 hardline Islamist Syrian militants sent to Libya by Turkey. The men were reportedly paid by a Turkish officer who also provided them with cellphones upon their arrival in Libya. Subsequently, the GNA gave the Ahrar al-Sharqiya militants 6 Toyota pickup trucks to use.
The LNA source said there was a clear indication that the Syrian mercenaries were extremists. “The human traffickers give each person making the trip to Italy supplies, like food and water,” he said. “Well, there are also cigarettes in the package…and these men were furious when they saw the cigarettes,” he said.
* an alias