A New Libya Ceasefire and the Syrian Mercenary Rumor Mill
On Friday, Fayez al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of the Turkey, Qatar, and UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), and Aguila Saleh, President of the Libyan House of Representatives, announced separate ceasefire statements. Both included a call to demilitarize the city of Sirte, though the proposed implementation details varied in each.
The statements drew praise from countries backing both sides, but after a number of failed ceasefires in Libya, it’s unclear whether the latest can succeed. In the short term, the annoucement means an uncertain future for the estimated 10,000 Syrian National Army (SNA) militants brought to Libya by Turkey as part of a military agreement with the GNA.
“Our commander told us we were done fighting,” said Taha Hammoud*, a member of the Faylaq al-Majd faction of the SNA in Libya. “I mean, it doesn’t matter to us. We haven’t been fighting for months.”
In June, GNA forces, supported by SNA militants, captured the city of Tarhuna from the rival Libyan National Army (LNA). Soon after, GNA forces made a push for Sirte and were quickly repelled. Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi announced that Sirte was a red line, and further attempts at incursion would lead Egypt to become more directly involved in the conflict.
Since then, fighting throughout Libya has fizzled. Faylaq al-Majd militants were shipped by the hundreds from positions around Tripoli to a Turkish base in Misrata. “We don’t know why they moved us, but we’re glad they did,” Taha Hammoud said. “We have much more freedom in Misrata, and there’s more life in the area. We can go out on our own. And we found a lot of abandoned houses with gold inside.”
There have been widespread reports of looting perpetrated by the Syrian mercenaries in Libya, and the mercenaries themselves don’t hesitate to confirm them. “All of us have been looting since [the Turkish attack on and subsequent occuptation of the Syrian city of] Afrin,” Hammoud said. “And here, they haven’t paid us what they promised, so it’s a good way to make more money.”
SNA militants were promised salaries of around $2000 a month to go to Libya. I’ve interviewed dozens of Syrians in Libya, and all have reported that they’ve been paid far less. Some said they’d been in Libya for more than five months and received a single payment.
On Monday, Qatari Defense Minister Khaled al-Attiyah and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar met with Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli. Reports emerged that during discussions, the parties reached an agreement to increase the pay of the Syrian mercenaries by 30%. (link to this https://libyareview.com/?p=5779)
Omar Yaghi*, a Hamza Division militant stationed in Ain Zara, said a payment increase seemed unlikely. “It’s just talk,” he said. “Our commanders always tell us we’ll be paid soon, we’ll be paid what they owe, but it doesn’t happen. They might have said they would pay more because they thought they would need us for attacking Sirte, but what do they need us for now?”
Yagri says he gets more information from his friends in Syria than he does from anyone in Libya. “They don’t tell us anything here. We hear news from Syria. And we hear rumors, too…we don’t know anything for sure until it happens.”
Ghassan Bakri*, a Sultan Murad member based in Afrin, says the SNA rumor mill has been especially active following the deployment of Syrians to Libya. “Some months ago, we heard that Turkey would send Syrians to Yemen,” he said. “But that rumor died for now. Then we heard recently that we would maybe go to Azerbaijan.”
Turkey has been Azerbaijan’s staunchest ally in the course of the country’s long-running conflict with Armenia. After clashes broke out between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces near the border between the two countries in July, Turkey reiterated its support for Azerbaijan, vowing to make Armenia pay.
“I heard we would go to Azerba-jian, or whatever it’s called,” Hamza Division member Omar Yaghri said, mispronouncing the country’s name. “I heard they would add $2000 or $3000 to the salary we get now for us to go. I want to go if that’s true, because that’s better than not even getting $2000 here in Libya.”
Omar Yaghri doesn’t know where Azerbaijan is. “I don’t care,” he said. “The important thing is the money. We hear about this, and if it’s serious, me and plenty others want to go. But after we heard about Azerbaijan, we heard about going to Qatar. They said we would get even more money to go to Qatar.”
The latest of the SNA rumors is that Turkey will begin sending Syrian militants to Qatar. Ghassan Bakri said he heard they’d begin sending those who’d been in Libya for several months, and that the salary offered would be $5000. “Honestly, this is the strongest rumor among us. It feels like it might really happen, but we don’t even know why we would be going there.”
The Qatar rumor has reach beyond the SNA. An officer in the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Hasakah said he’d received information from sources about Turkey sending Syrians to Qatar. “It’s for training, and some Syrians will stay on Turkish bases in Qatar,” he said.
Ghassan Bakri remembers when he first heard that SNA militants would be sent to Libya. “I think it was in December last year. My friend was asking me to go with him, and I just mocked him,” he said. “But within weeks, planes were sending Syrians to Libya.”
In February, the SNA and Turkey lost large swaths of territory in Idlib and the western countryside of Aleppo to the Syrian government. Hundreds of SNA militants found themselves homeless. “The extra fighters crowded the bases in Afrin, and the Turks made it clear that really, the only option for them was to go to Libya,” Bakri said. “They told the fighters they’d make enough to start a new life and be able to keep their families in Syria out of the camps. And most of them went to Libya.”
“Look at the Syrian cities the Turks are in. You began to see more Turkish on signs than Arabic. In A’zaz, they changed the name of al-Yadin Square to Ataturk Square. This isn’t about fighting for freedom, this is about a different kind of control. Erdogan is using the Syrians to expand Turkey’s control. This is why we can believe now that he would send us to Azerbaijan or wherever else he wants more control. We have no better options than to let him.”