By Nabih Bulos
Libya’s civil war has long had an international flavor, with no fewer than 10 countries engaged in proxy battles waged by special forces operatives, mercenaries and millions of dollars of materiel.
Now, as Turkey prepares to send troops to the long-embattled North African nation, it also appears to have dispatched Syrian rebel militants to bolster its ally, the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord, against the Russian-supported militiamen of Libyan strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar.
Two videos released on social media on Saturday purport to show Syrian opposition fighters overrunning positions south of the capital Tripoli controlled by Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which has waged a largely unsuccessful campaign to breach the capital since April.
“The Free [Syrian] Army in Libya, protecting Islam,” says a man in fatigues holding an AK-47 in a video, referring to Syrian rebel factions who have fought against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and were once backed by Western countries —including the U.S. — but whose ranks have since been re-organized into the so-called Syrian National Army under the stewardship of Ankara.
Other video depicts fighters with Syrian accents declaring they’ve commandeered a camp formerly held by Haftar roughly four miles south of Tripoli’s central neighborhoods.
Thus far, Turkey’s direct support to the Tripoli government has been limited to armored vehicles as well as drones. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accelerated a parliamentary vote to early January to deploy his nation’s troops in support of the Tripoli government; a move that Turkish officials claim is meant to stave off further chaos in Libya.
“We need to do whatever is needed to prevent Libya from being divided and slide into chaos and that is what we are doing,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Saturday in Antalya. “It is the legitimate government there that we deal with.”
Haftar, meanwhile, has received support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and France, as well as the assistance of mercenaries from Chad, Sudan and Russia.
Erdogan is the Syrian rebels’ top benefactor, but in recent years has wielded them as an auxiliary force to fulfill Ankara’s policy aims. Since 2018, he has deployed them in several operations in Syria that have seen them engage in potential war crimes, including summary executions, as well as looting.
The deployment of Syrian fighters to Libya would represent a further escalation of Libya’s internecine conflict as well as in the rebels’ role carrying out Turkey’s foreign policy initiatives.
“The recruitment of these fighters began 10 days ago. They’re offered around $2,000 to fight in Tripoli for three to six months,” said Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that supports the Syrian opposition, in a phone interview Sunday.
Abdul Rahman added that the militants were culled from the ranks of what were previously Western-supported rebel factions. Some 300 fighters had already been deployed to Tripoli, Abdul Rahman said, and an additional 1,000 were waiting to do so.
The videos spurred swift denials from the Tripoli government as well as leaders in the Syrian National Army.
But experts on determining the legitimacy of videos confirmed the video appeared to correspond to locations in Tripoli where clashes have been ongoing in recent days.
Since the 2011 NATO operation that ousted Libya’s longtime dictator Col. Moammar Kadafi, the country has remained in bedlam, with rival groups fighting for control of Libya’s gargantuan oil and resource wealth.
Haftar, who also holds U.S. citizenship, has depicted himself as the only figure capable of corralling Libya away from chaos.
Nabih Bulos is a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times based in the Middle East.
Los Angeles Times