In April 2019, General Khalifa Haftar, leader of eastern Libya and head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), launched a surprise offensive against the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Haftar’s forces posed a significant threat, and in response the GNA requested Turkish military support. But instead of sending Turkish troops to Libya, Turkish intelligence officials have started recruiting from the ranks of Syrian opposition fighters.
Ahmed has previously fought in Syria with the rebel al-Hamzat militia, and in early 2020 was flying to the beleaguered Libyan capital. Ahmed’s Al-Hamzat was one of eight Turkish-backed armed groups contracted to send mercenaries to Libya. In Syria, he recalled, combatants were rarely forced into combat. In the Syrian context, if the conditions for a skirmish turned unfavourable, many would simply fall back and fight later. Upon arriving in Libya, however, Ahmed found that was no longer the case. Seeing the front line south of Tripoli, he asked to go home. But his commander replied: “Coming to Libya was your choice, returning is not.
Along with his fellow recruits, Ahmed reluctantly moved into an empty villa near the front line. The first payment of his salary would be made in three months, when he returned to Syria. Despair set in. It didn’t take long for Ahmed to figure out how things worked. “A trader introduced us to the black market,” he said, “where we could sell our bullets and guns to pay for groceries.” Two months later, Ahmed returned home with a broken pelvis and received a quarter of the $10,000 owed. “When I complained, they said that’s what we got for you. If you don’t like it, file a complaint,” Ahmed reported.
Ahmed’s experience was not unique. On the contrary, the ruthless pursuit of profit has defined Turkey‘s mercenary agenda. Corruption is endemic to the process, and high levels of corruption – affecting recruitment, grassroots and return – are bolstering armed actors in northwestern Syria, proof of how foreign interventions can support the economies of war.
Seif Abu Bakr is the leader of al-Hamzat, which formed in 2013 as a division of the Free Syrian Army. Abu Bakr is well known for his tenacity and ruthlessness, and his al-Hamzat received training and equipment directly from the United States and the United Kingdom. This support was first provided to counter the regime of Bashar al-Assad, then to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In 2016, Turkey used al-Hamzat in its military operations against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Years of close collaboration with Ankara paid off when the Turkish intelligence services (MIT) selected Abu Bakr’s militia to recruit mercenaries for Libya. Today, with Syria fast becoming a frozen conflict, Turkey’s mercenary program has helped Abu Bakr and other commanders maintain the sources of income and power they have become accustomed to since the bloody civil war.
In November 2019, the GNA and Turkey signed a generous memorandum of understanding on maritime borders, prompting immediate protests from Cyprus, Greece and Egypt. Within months, Ankara strengthened its support for the GNA; the Turkish military effectively took control of the operations, transporting air defense systems, drones and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.
Back in Syria, Turkish officers imposed no restrictions on the number of recruits for the Libyan front – an influx of Syrians would buy more time to train Libyan fighters and free up GNA personnel for offensive operations – and commanders Syrians quickly took advantage of it. The more male commanders sent to Libya, the more they could skim the summit.
Abo Saied, a recruiter for one of the Turkish-backed militias, said he was not surprised to hear of Ahmed’s woes over his salary. “Commanders to this day confiscate salaries,” he confirmed. But when the fighting in Libya was at its peak, Saied had his own problems. “We had to send as many fighters as we could recruit. The Turks demanded 2,000 men; our battalion only numbers 500 men. So we started sending children without any military experience.
Recruitment spreadsheets provided by Saied showed that at least three fighters sent to Libya were under the age of eighteen. Dispatching from anyone available became the norm. The militias swept through the prisons and gave detained Kurdish men the option to fight or stay locked up. “Many Kurds,” Saied noted, “reluctantly accepted the offer.”
In March 2020, GNA forces, with Turkish support, began pushing Haftar’s LNA out of the southern suburbs of Tripoli. Eight months later, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire. At that time, another front began to heat up for a key Turkish ally. On September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan launched air and ground attacks in Nagorno-Karabakh, reigniting the conflict between Azerbaijani, Armenian and local Karabakh forces.
Saied was recruiting again for the war in the Caucasus, but he had to change tactics. As in Libya, the Turkish intelligence services entrusted the recruitment to Syrian commanders. But those days of freewheeling with no restrictions and little supervision were over. Now, according to Saied, the Turks “were more careful, and they insisted that we send experienced fighters”. The verification process has improved. According to the recruiters, the Turks saw the Azeris as “brothers” and their support for Azerbaijan was ideological, unlike their support for the GNA in Libya, which was “contractual and based on geopolitical interests”.
Recruiters we spoke to claim their main contact was with the Turkish secret service, while logistics were outsourced to ‘unknown companies’. It is likely that these companies are affiliated with SADAT, the private Turkish military company (PMC) founded by Adnan Tanrıverdi, a former brigadier general and close confidant of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In a 2020 report, the U.S. Department of Defense said SADAT “maintains oversight and payment for the approximately 5,000 pro-GNA Syrian fighters in Libya.” Yet, compared to the Turkish military and intelligence, the importance of SADAT in the recruitment of mercenaries is difficult to determine. Still, the company likely coordinates, at least to some extent, with Turkish intelligence.
Corruption was also endemic to Turkey’s mercenary program in Azerbaijan. Hasan, a twenty-five-year-old Aleppo, fought in Nagorno-Karabakh for fifty-five days. “I was told my salary was going to be $2,500 a month and that I would be a border guard,” he told us. Paradoxically, despite the experience requirements of Turkish intelligence, the Syrians sent to Azerbaijan were just cannon fodder. Hasan, who received only an AK-47, immediately understood that he was under-equipped. “High-precision targeting was a very scary thing for me. I never felt the same fear in Syria. After being shot by a sniper, Hasan returned home, where he only received $1,500 Again, only a fraction of what was owed to him.
The Syrians also found themselves under-equipped in Libya, but for different reasons. “We were given old machine guns from back home,” recalls one fighter, “not for lack of better quality guns, but because those guns had been sold on the black market.” As in Azerbaijan, the Syrians sent to Libya found themselves in a very different war. Haftar’s LNA, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, used sophisticated surveillance drones to map the targets. Back in Syria, “neither the regime nor the rebels had the ability to aim precisely”.
The mercenaries recruited by Saied are mostly young men with no income and few job prospects. Respondents saw trips to Libya or Azerbaijan as a chance to save money for a few months, build up some capital and start a small business back home. Many Syrians who signed up to fight in Libya and Azerbaijan were promised, in the event of death, that their family members would receive Turkish citizenship.
It wasn’t long before Syrian commanders were also taking advantage of these citizenship programs. According to the fighters, the commanders started offering Turkish citizenship to the highest bidder. Instead of providing citizenship to the family of a deceased fighter, anyone who could afford the bribe was issued false documents. As the scam grew, Turkish intelligence had to shut down the program altogether.
Given the cynicism and outright profit-seeking that pervaded the program, few mercenaries cared why they were fighting. To motivate them, Turkish officials have tried to portray the Syrian civil war as a global conflict, or to appeal to religion or ethnicity.
Just hours after arriving in Azerbaijan, officials showed Hasan and others a video, allegedly of an Armenian soldier cutting the belly of a pregnant Azeri Muslim woman. The Syrian fighters were unhappy. “They shouted that they would be happy to fight for justice.” Others were told, wrongly, that Yerevan had recruited Kurds from Syria to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet, according to another Syrian fighter, most don’t care.
In Libya, Turkish officers told recruits they were fighting the Assad regime. The Russian PMCs, including those collectively referred to as the “Wagner Group”, had in fact recruited Syrians from Damascus-controlled territory to fight for the LNA. Unlike their Turkish counterparts, however, Syrians fighting for the LNA have reported continuous training and full payment.
While Syrian fighters have now left Azerbaijan, they continue to be based in Libya, where they are often bored and exploited. Mohammed has been on a base in Libya for a year. “Hashish,” he says, “is more popular than crystal meth because it’s cheaper. “We have too much free time,” he says. Mercenaries rarely leave their bases. At first, during the fighting, it was because they were afraid of being kidnapped. Now they know that their isolation is the product of hatred of the Libyans. Mohammed says the Libyans consider them vandals. Syrian mercenaries are also not popular among Libyan militias. For example, in early August, two Syrian mercenaries stationed around Mitiga airport in Tripoli were killed in an anonymous attack.