“I just got back from Libya yesterday,” said Zein Ahmad*, a Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) militant in Afrin. “But I had been trying to leave for more than a month.” When the Libyan National Army (LNA) neared Tripoli in April 2019, the rival UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli called on Turkey for military support.
Turkish forces began heavily recruiting militants from SNA factions in Syria to fight on their behalf, and began flying hundreds to Libya every week. The exact number of Syrian militants Turkey has sent is unknown, but estimates range from 5,000 to 17,000. Flights carrying Syrians to Libya continue, despite the Coronavirus pandemic.
Ahmad is a member of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, an SNA faction notorious for its bad treatment of civilians and a tendency to fight other SNA factions in the areas they invade. Ahmad had been based in Afrin with the faction since Turkey’s Operation “Olive Branch” in 2018. The Turkish invasion of Afrin led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. Ahrar al-Sharqiya has been accused of widespread war crimes in the city, including looting, murder, kidnapping, and serial rape.
When asked if he believed in Turkey’s mission in Afrin, Ahmad laughed. “I was a mercenary going to Afrin, and I was a mercenary going to Libya. There is no jihad. The jihad ended when [the Syrian opposition] lost Aleppo to Assad in 2016. Since Aleppo, it has been just money for us. We don’t care who we are fighting.”
Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s atrocities spread beyond Afrin when, in October 2019, Turkey launched Operation “Peace Spring” on North and East Syria. Ahrar al-Sharqiya militants stopped the vehicle of Syrian Future Party leader Hevrin Khalaf at a checkpoint they’d constructed along Syria’s M4 highway. The militants pulled Khalaf from her car, bludgeoned her, dragged her by her hair, and shot her five times. They posted video of the attack on their social media accounts.
Ahmad won’t comment on the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf or any of the other war crimes his and other Turkish-backed factions have been accused of in recent times. “I know the groups did bad things in Afrin when we entered the city,” Ahmad said. “But I never did, personally. I never looted when I was in Afrin. But I did loot when I was in Libya. We all did. They stopped paying us.”
The Syrian militants in Libya were promised salaries ranging from $2000-3000 per month, but reports from militants in several factions suggest the GNA has not kept up with payments as promised. One Hamza Division member said he’s been paid $2000 every month and a half rather than every month. Some Faylaq al-Majd members who have been in Libya for more than three months say they were paid once and never again.
“They told us we would be paid $3000 a month. That never happened. The first month we got $2000. The second month, they gave us $1400. The third month, we weren’t paid at all,” Ahmad said. “So we looted. We took copper from the homes, anything gold we could find, anything valuable we could find. And the Libyans with us would take the items and sell them for us.”
A militant from the Hamza Division says that a GNA-affiliated Libyan militant assigned to his group takes the Syrians into shops in Tripoli so they can sell their stolen wares. “Some fighters were looting instead of fighting,” he said. “In fact, many of our fighters were killed because they would steal from homes near the frontlines, and Haftar’s forces would ambush them and kill them.”
Hilal Hesham*, a businessman in Tripoli, has two friends who own shops frequented by the Syrian militants. “One shop owner tried to call the police when the Syrians came in the first time,” he said. “It was obvious the items they had were stolen. But of course, the police did nothing. It is militia rule in Tripoli. The shop owners aren’t happy with their presence, but they are required to do business with them.”
Hesham says he isn’t aware of the Syrian militants physically harming any civilians. “Maybe they realize that in Tripoli, we are all armed,” he said. “But in my mind, these [Syrian] men are extremists, are terrorists, are ISIS. I want to make it clear that I, and many other civilians here, are waiting for the [Libyan National] Army to enter Tripoli.”
Zein Ahmad says most of the other promises Turkish forces made to the SNA militants failed to materialize. “They told us first that if we stayed and fought for six months, that we would get Turkish citizenship,” he said. “That was lies. They told us if we died fighting in Libya, our families would get Turkish citizenship. Now that so many Syrians have died in Libya, we know this is also a lie.”
Ahmad says that when a fellow Ahrar al-Sharqiya member was killed in a battle in February, his widow in Afrin was given around $8000. “Of course, she did not get the Turkish citizenship,” he said. “She’s living in a camp in Syria with no husband now.”
Ahmad says the Turkish commanders who briefed them on the Libya mission grossly misrepresented the dangers they’d be facing. “They told us it would be minor combat. They said it was safer and easier than fighting in Syria,” he said. “And for the first month, it was. It was great.”
After arriving in Libya, Ahmad stayed in a house in Tripoli with ten other Syrian militants and a Libyan militant who accompanied them whenever they left the house. The house was a well-appointed villa, almost certainly abandoned by its rightful owners when clashes intensified and drew closer.
“Then, after some weeks, heavy battles began. We moved to Salah al-Din. It was worse than in Syria,” Ahmad said. “Bodies fell in the street and no one picked them up. So many Syrians have died.” Ahmad isn’t sure exactly how many Syrians have died in Libya, but says he personally saw more than a dozen killed in battle.
“It was nothing like we are used to in Syria,” Ahmad said. “It’s urban street combat. We don’t have the right weapons or the right skills. We are being slaughtered. And so, many of us started to refuse to fight. Or we’d be taken to the frontlines and hide there.”
Ahmad says that when the Syrian militants began defying orders, Libyan soldiers aligned with the GNA would come and beat them. He says once, when a Syrian had refused to fight three times in a row, a Libyan militiant shot him in the leg.
The number of Syrians desperate to leave Libya is growing by the day. “The last lie that Turkey told us was that we would only have to stay for two months, or three months,” Ahmad said. “But more than three months had passed for my group, and they weren’t letting us back.”
Ultimately, Ahmad was forced to pay his Syrian commander $700 to fly home to Syria. “There were around 100 of us,” he said. “Some paid $500, and some as much as $1000, but then they put us on a plane with the dead and injured and allowed us to return to Syria.”
Ahmad plans to resign from his faction. When asked what he thought the future held for him, he scoffed. “You shouldn’t ask me that. Don’t ask any of us that,” he said. “I don’t even know what the present is going to be for me.”
A Turkish soldier in Tripoli reports a markedly different Libya experience. “Look, everyone is happy,” he said. “All Turkish military here have good morale. And we’re getting good money.” When asked about the situation the Syrian militants are facing in Libya, the Turkish soldier said he didn’t know. “But I heard if they want to return to Syria, they can,” he said.