Turkey has recruited Syrian mercenaries, sending 5,000 of them to fight in Libya under dubious circumstances that may violate an embargo on the country designed to reduce the civil war. Undisciplined mercenaries may harm the security situation and are accused of theft, sexual assault and links to terrorist extremism.
The findings in a recent US Lead Inspector General report covering Africa illustrate how Ankara has added fuel to the fire in Libya and sent poverty-stricken Syrians, many of them having already lost their homes in a civil war in Syria, to fight and die for Ankara's energy interests in North Africa.
According to the arms embargo on Libya, it is prohibited to export, sell, supply or transfer military goods and technology to the North African country. The UN has complained about "blatant" violations of the embargo. Turkey is a member of NATO, and it is unusual for NATO members to recruit mercenaries from refugee populations to fight in foreign wars.
However, the increasingly militaristic regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been hosting Hamas and pushing an agenda that has seen Turkey threaten Greece, France, Israel, Iraq, Syria, the United States and other countries. In November, after having invaded northern Syria and forcing the US to withdraw from areas in eastern Syria, Ankara signed a deal with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord in Libya to demarcate water and energy rights in the Mediterranean.
Over the last six months, reports about the thousands of Syrians shipped to Libya have appeared in major media. The Syrians were sent to help bolster the GNA's fight against Egyptian-backed General Khalifa Haftar, who is based in Benghazi. Egypt, Greece, the UAE, Russia and France appear to back Haftar. Libya is now part of a proxy war.
In recent months, Egypt and Greece signed a deal over water rights, the UAE sent F-16s to Crete, Turkish F-16s harassed Greek F-16s, Turkey sent a naval flotilla to harass Greece, the French, Greeks and Egypt held naval drills, Israel backed Greece against Turkey, Turkey threatened to "liberate al-Aqsa" from Israel, the US ended an arms embargo on Cyprus, France signed a defense agreement with Cyprus, and Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed a pipeline deal for the Eastern Mediterranean.
In short: Turkey's involvement in Libya and its shipment of mercenaries helped set in motion a series of escalations over the last six months.
The US Africa Command report is supposed to be presented to Congress quarterly. This one deals with East, North and West African counterterrorism operations. Groups such as al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda are preying on Africa and are causing widespread terrorism across the Sahel. The US has used secret and non-so-secret drones and military bases from Djibouti to Niger to kill terrorists.
However, ISIS recently took over a port in Mozambique, and France's operations in the Sahel are hampered by a coup in Mali. Hard times lie ahead for the fight against terrorism in Africa. Turkey's export of Syrian rebels – some of them religious extremists and others linked to war crimes against Kurds and other minorities – does not bode well.
The US report confirms what is largely known: that Turkish military aircraft are likely flying in the "Syrian mercenaries." In addition, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) assesses that "several dozen military trainers from a private military company, Sadat, were deployed to Tripoli to train both the GNA-affiliated militias and Syrian fighters." The US says the fighters number around 5,000 and that they are paid. Small payments are often late, other reports have suggested.
"In addition to Turkish-supported Syrian opposition mercenaries, Turkey has also deployed several hundred regular military forces to Libya," the US report said. "These individuals included trainers, advisers, ordnance disposal personnel – a large number of IEDs have been found in southern Tripoli – and operators and maintainers of Turkish air defense systems."
Turkey's air defense helped turn the tide against Haftar in April. But then Egypt's government drew a redline near Sirte and warned Ankara against more advances. In July, a mysterious airstrike by unknown planes hit Turkish positions near the key military base at Watiya, which Turkey had helped the GNA retake.
Since then, Ankara has gotten the message that Libya may not be an easy walk in the park the way its invasion and alleged ethnic-cleansing of the Kurdish region of Afrin in Syria was when Turkey invaded in January 2018.
The new US report covers the period from April to June, but it was released only in late August. Washington says the presence of the Syrian mercenaries "will continue to negatively affect the overall security situation in Libya. USAFRICOM described the Syrian mercenaries fighting in Libya as "inexperienced, uneducated and motivated by promises of considerable salary."
This sounds like the same rabble that Ankara has deployed in Al-Bab, Afrin, Idlib and Tel Abyad, where pro-Ankara groups are accused of kidnapping and raping women and holding them in secret prisons, smuggling ISIS members and destroying the graves of minority Yazidis, as well as carrying out targeted killings of activists, such as Hevrin Khalaf.
"USAFRICOM added that there were increasing reports of theft, sexual assault, and misconduct by those mercenaries, which is likely to further degrade the security situation and generate backlash from the Libyan public," the report said. "USAFRICOM said that extremists with previous terrorist links were involved in the Tripoli fighting, although it is possible they were fighting for financial and personal reasons rather than ideological reasons."
The report reads eerily like those about the depravity and abuses done by similar Ankara-backed extremists during attacks on Afrin in 2018 and Tel Abyad in 2019, when there was widespread looting of property.
In June, videos emerged of women who fled a secret prison run by Turkish-backed gangs and extremists. Many Kurdish and minority families have said Syrian rebel extremists backed by Ankara have kidnapped women, stolen property and committed widespread abuses. Reports to the UN and human-rights groups have had the same allegations.
It now appears that Turkey has exported these abuses to Libya under the guise of helping the GNA, but primarily so Ankara can use the mercenary support as leverage for energy deals and conflict with Greece and Egypt.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.