The Syrian Mercenary Battleground in Libya

As tension heats up in Libya, the conflicting sides are finding themselves in a race against time. Despite the unceasing negotiations and the international pleads for ceasefire, Government of National Accord (GNA)-affiliated forces are getting ready for a major offensive in Sirte, the most crucial strategic point for Libyan National Army (LNA) leader General Khalifa Haftar at the moment.

Over the last few months, a massive recruitment operation has been taking place in several areas of Syria, as a desperate effort by the LNA to bolster its manpower and establish a new balance in the operational theater across Libya. The deployment of foreign fighters to Libya is also closely related to the proxy nature of the Libyan conflict, with the roles of Turkey and Russia being  especially fundamental.

Ankara Deployed First Mercenary Forces From Syria to Libya

Haftar wasn’t the first to use mercenaries in the Libyan conflict. By late 2019, when Turkish President Recep Erdogan made clear that the Turkish aspirations towards Libya were far from superficial or simplistic. To that end, a significant number of Syrian rebels were recruited by Turkey and sent to Tripoli. The individuals to take over this mission had previously formed a part of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, fighting against President Bashar al Assad in Syria, and allegedly participating in anti-government and anti-Kurdish operations in Afrin, Azaz, Idlib, Manbij and tal Abyad.

Even though the GNA and Turkey have consistently denied that Syrians fighters were transferred to Libya, according to reliable reports thousands of Syrian rebels who had been formerly fighting in the Syrian civil war have joined the Libyan conflict over the last six months. The foreign fighters are lured by a mixture of religious and political motivations, alongside an attractive financial deal. Ankara is playing the card of radical Islamism and adding support to the transnational movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, while an impressive — by regional standards — salary of approximately 2,000 USD per month is being provided to the hired fighters. According to the same sources, despite the fact that Turkey is responsible for the total funding of these grey operations, the GNA handles all payments to the deployed forces.

Haftar Forces on the Verge of Collapse and the Massive Russia-Backed Recruitment Operation

While the developments on the ground indicate Haftar could ultimately prevail in the long-lasting conflict, the gradual GNA gains since last March have gradually shifted the balance drastically. At the moment LNA forces are under severe pressure, struggling for their very survival. Since the first signs of this balance shift appeared, an aggressive Russian-coordinated effort began to deploy Syrian mercenaries in support of Haftar in Libya.

According to Syrian sources, the recruitment process is being conducted and overseen by Russian authorities through an umbrella network of Syrian security companies. The recruits are coming from several rural areas and villages across Syria, such as As-Suwayda, Harran, Nimreh, Qanawat, and Shaqqa. There are also instances of recruitment taking place in major Syrian cities with a strong Russian presence, including Damascus, Homs, Lattakia, and Tartus. The recruits agree to join various operations starting from simple tasks, such as guarding oil facilities and other targets of high importance, and expanding to actual engagement in battle.

How Does Recruitment Work?

Once recruited the fighters are going through a 2-week training course in the Khmeimim Air Base and then they are flying directly to Benghazi. As most of the recruits have already participated in military operations, during the decade-long severe Syrian civil war, it seems that the training is not a priority considering the time-sensitive nature of their scheduled deployment. There are instances of recruits who flied to Libya without undergoing any training at all, as part of their recruitment process. It has been confirmed through local sources that Khmeimim Air Base is being predominantly used as the primary training facility and point of departure.

Cham Wings Airlines, has been reported to be involved in the air transfer of the mercenaries from Latakia Governorate to Western Libya. Earlier this year, Cham Wings opened an office in Benghazi. In an official statement in March the GNA Ministry of Interior accused the company of transferring mercenaries from Syria to the Libyan front. Cham Wings is a private Syrian company, which has been sanctioned by the US Government over alleged ties with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; the airline has also been accused in the past of transferring fighters from Russia to Syria, possibly members of the “Wagner Group,” to support the government forces in the Syrian conflict. Key Russian players coordinating the whole operation are reportedly acting on behalf of either the GRU, the Russian Military Intelligence Service, or the infamous “Wagner Group.”

Motivation and Coercion

Leaked documents indicate that the contracts which Syrian mercenaries are signing -issued in both Arabic and Russian — provide a monthly salary ranging between 2,000 and 3,000 USD. Even though inconsistencies in payment have been reported, with some unconfirmed statements suggesting that the salary received has been only a fraction of the agreed sum of money, there is no solid evidence to back this claim.

What we do currently know is that numerous contractors have left from Khmeimim to Libya, receiving a stipend of 500 USD each prior to their deployment and a promise that they will receive the rest of the agreed compensation upon their return. There are also additional provisions in the contract covering for any medical support that the contractors might need and providing a reimbursement to the fighters in case they are seriously injured, and a compensation to the family in case a contractor is killed in service. There are no clear indications around the insurance reparations, however according to the data available the figures do not seem to be particularly high.

At the same time, local sources have confirmed on condition of anonymity that in many instances the recruiters are choosing Syrian citizens who have been subject to criminal prosecution or investigation. This way the individuals can be indirectly forced to accept their deployment to Libya and the contract terms can be negotiated accordingly.

As additional rapid developments are set to take place in the Libyan front quite soon, it remains to be seen if the massive recruitment of Syrian mercenaries could pay off for the Libyan National Army and its foreign backers.