When rumors first circulated in early December 2019 that Turkey would send Syrian rebel fighters to Libya and pay them like mercenaries to fight in a foreign war they were greeted with skepticism.
Now there are thousands of Syrians in Libya fighting for Turkey and for a ramshackle government in Tripoli that they have no stake or interest in. How did the Syrian rebellion that once sought to un-seat Assad become a tool in Ankara's foreign policy, something between a foreign legion and a gang of mercenaries for hire?
Ankara supported the Syrian rebellion from its early years enabling the rebel groups to use Turkey as a waystation and a place of recuperation. They could bring supporters through Turkey, funding, food and humanitarian aid and they could organize in Turkey, using it almost as a staging area.
Syrian rebels who once fought Syrian dictator Bashar Assad have become a tool in Ankara's foreign policy.
This made sense for Turkey because Ankara supported the rebels ideologically and was also flooded by several million refugees. Up until 2015 this fluid arrangement worked. But in that year things began to change. Two elections in Turkey and the breakdown of the PKK ceasefire led to a crises. The rise of ISIS in 2014 had also brought increased pressure on Turkey to close the Syrian border and build a wall.
Turkey enabled some 50,000 supporters of ISIS to transit the country, often under the naïve view that they might join the increasingly extremist Syrian rebellion. Instead those foreigners joined ISIS and began attacking the Syrian rebels and the Kurds in Syria, as well as the Assad regime. By 2015 when the US had encouraged the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) to become the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Turkey became concerned that a US-backed Kurdish group would dominate eastern Syria.
Turkey saw the SDF as a creeping form of the PKK taking over a long border. While Turkey hadn't feared ISIS on the other side of the border, it didn't want an off-shoot of the PKK there.
By 2016 Turkey had set upon an idea. It would stop the SDF's advance, which had crossed the Euphrates by that time, and it would use Syrian rebels to do it. This became the precursor to the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army. It assembled units such as the Sultan Murad who consisted of Turkmen Syrian minorities. It also called upon Faylaq al-Sham, a unit that had long received support from Turkey. Other rebel units came as well, the Al-Moutasem Birgade, Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Levant Front, Jaish al-Nasr, Jaysh al-Tahrir, Hamza Division, 13th Division, Liqa Suqur al-Jabal and others. Although some of these groups boasted of having large forces, only several thousand participated initially.
By late 2016 Turkey was goading the mostly Sunni Arab Syrian rebels to fight the Kurds.
Turkey had some background in moving these units around. It had already transported some from Kilis to Reyhanli, two border crossings that link Turkey to areas in northern Syria. Now it moved them to fight in an area near Jarabulus on the Euphrates. By this time in late 2016 Turkey was already goading the mostly Sunni Arab Syrian rebels to fight the Kurds. They were told to see the Kurdish YPG as "atheists" and "Infidels" who were working with the Assad regime. This was hammered home during the fall of Aleppo when a small pocked of Kurdish YPG in Aleppo worked with the regime, forsaking the Syrian rebels being pushed out of the city. From then on it was only time until the Syrian rebels believed revenge was in order.
Having completed the operation near Jarabulus dubbed Euphrates Shield Turkey realized it had accomplished three objectives. It had stopped the US-backed SDF offensive from reaching Afrin, a Kurdish canton in northwest Syria, and it had pushed ISIS back from the border, increasing Turkey's role in Syria. A fourth by-product was to make the Syrian rebels dependent on a new relationship operating with Turkey in the field.
The year 2016 became a difficult one for Turkey. A coup attempt resulted in a crises with 50,000 people imprisoned or detained. By 2017 Turkey's regime was in the midst of a constitutional referendum.
Turkey realized that to continue operations with a new entity, called the TFSA or Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, it would not only need to standardize the units involved but also increase Turkey's role in Idlib, where many Syrian rebels were being pushed back by the even more extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Turkey was eyeing greater involvement in Idlib, including observation posts, and didn't want to always rely on HTS for escorts. Also groups like Ahrar al-Sham, independent of Turkey's backing, would need to be neutralized or brought under control.
Turkey planned an operation in 2017 to attack the Kurds in Afrin, in order to continue Turkey's march along the Syrian border. It would bring together up to 20,000 Syrian rebels to attack the YPG in Afrin. Again groups like Sultan Murad, Hamza Division and Faylaq al-Sham would be the building blocks. Increasingly these groups were more extremist and Islamist and Turkey never bothered to turn them into an effective fighting unit, preferring them as menacing cannon fodder to be used for looting and destruction to inflict fear into civilians.
Ankara helped create what the Syrian rebels called a "National Army" or Jaish al-Watani. It was already composed of some 36 different opposition groups by the time of the January 2018 Afrin offensive, according to TRT. Some 10,000 Syrians who were already serving around Jarabulus as part of operations there came to fight in Afrin.
Turkey dubbed the destruction of Afrin "Operation Olive Branch." 160,000 Kurds were ethnically-cleansed, their statues destroyed and shrines of minorities like Yazidis desecrated. Turkey saw this as a success, removing PKK members from the border and giving the Syrian rebels a "victory." Since Turkey didn't want to use Syrian National Army to fight Assad, because Turkey was increasingly working with Russia on a ceasefire in Idlib, it had to find a fight for them. Turkey was buying S-400s from Russia and building a gas pipeline with Russia called TurkStream. That necessitated not using Syrian rebels to fight Assad. Turkey decided the best use for Syrian rebels would be to fight Kurds and weaken the US presence in Syria, giving Turkey power over areas once controlled by the YPG.
Before each Turkish operation in Syria Ankara would hold a ceremony to try to show off the Syrian National Army's cohesion. On the eve of Olive Branch it did this and on the eve of Peace Spring it did the same. On October 9, 2019 as the US was withdrawing from northern Syria due to Turkish threats, the Syrian rebels once again held a ceremony for the "National Army." Turkish pro-government Anadolu media were on hand. Turkish media listed the dozens of groups who were now part of the Syrian National Army. US officials privately saw these groups as Islamists, jihadists, undisciplined fighters involved in ethnic cleansing, but Turkey saw them as shock troops to do its bidding in northern Syria.
When the offensive began the Syrian rebels were given objectives. One apparent objective was to kill a Kurdish female activist named Hevrin Khalaf. She was waylaid on a road in Syria and executed on October 12, 2019. Eventually Turkey and Russia signed a ceasefire in northern Syria, giving Turkey areas around Tel Abyad, much as Turkey and Russia had signed a deal for Idlib. Syrian rebels would run the areas Turkey had acquired.
With Operation Peace Spring a success in October Turkey set its sights on a new operation. Having seen how easily the Syrian rebels could be convinced to fight against Kurds far-away from Assad's troops in Tel Abyad, Ankara realized they could be enticed to go abroad. This would aid Ankara in getting rid of the Syrian rebel problem. The rebels might become pushy and begin questioning why Turkey was working closely with Russia, the country that had bombed them into submission in places like Aleppo in 2016. But if they could be paid to go oversees then they would be someone else's problem.
In November Turkey signed a deal with the embattled Tripoli government in Libya. Although the Government of the National Accord in Libya only controls a small part of the country and is being opposed by Libyan General Khalifa Haftar who is backed by Egypt, Turkey decided it would wring concessions out of Tripoli in exchange for sending Syrians to fight in Libya. Turkey got rights to an exclusive economic zone off the coast of Libya and Tripoli got to be a dumping ground for Syrian rebel fighters.
Early in December Turkey began recruiting the Syrians to fight in Libya. At first it was just rumors and those who reported it were scoffed at. But soon it became clear that dozens, then hundreds and then thousands were signing up and being sent. The Guardian claimed on January 15 that up to 2,000 Syrians are already in Libya at the behest of Turkey. According to the report the Tripoli government pays the men salaries for six months as a kind of mercenary or foreign legion, while Turkey will help with medical needs.
Turkey's Syrian proxies may be in Libya less to win the war than to wring deals from Russia.
Libya is a long way from Aleppo and the fields of Syria where these rebels first were fighting. They have now become Turkey's mercenary army, a kind of motley crew of a foreign legion. Turkey hopes they will stay in Libya, distracted by a new "Jihad" so that they don't make trouble in Syria for Turkey. Turkey wants to work with Russia in Syria and also sign a deal with Russia for parts of Libya.
The Syrian rebels are now a tool of Ankara's foreign policy to be exported wherever Ankara needs leverage. They are used for leverage so that Ankara can wring deals from Russia. While the Syrian rebels may be making a few hundred dollars a month the overall amounts are pennies compared to the billions in arms and energy deals that Ankara wants to do with Moscow. But for just a few million dollars Turkey can gain the leverage to get things done with Moscow and to police its new occupied areas in northern Syria. This is military expedition on the cheap. Turkey doesn't have to invest in Libya or northern Syria so long as it can keep the Syrian rebels distracted with new enemies to fight every six months. The question for Ankara is what happens when there are no more enemies? For now there are enough in Libya.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.