By Bel Trew & Rajaai Bourhan
Libya has morphed into the world’s newest proxy conflict and at its heart is a labyrinth of mercenary recruitment stretching across Russia, Syria and Turkey.
Morale was so low among the ranks loyal to Libya’s recognised government, a clutch of fighters secretly planned on deserting the battlefield if they were forced to take on the Russians.
The highly-trained mercenaries – \ hired to support renegade general Khalifa Haftar in his bid to take Tripoli – had emerged from the snarl of Libya’s latest war as the most feared force.
For the malaise of Tripoli fighters, better acquainted with shooting Kalashnikovs in flip flops, the lethal accuracy of the Russians was terrifying. Their sniping capability had become legendary among the rank-and-file.
So when the orders came to march south on the enemy positions, a group of fighters huddled together to discuss how they might escape.
The target was Tarhuna, a crumbling one-street town 60km south of the capital Tripoli. With two tiny airstrips, the little-known backwater had morphed into a vital supply line for Haftar since he launched his offensive last April to take the capital from the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
If the town fell, the renegade general would lose his last foothold in west Libya and the GNA would likely win the war.
The problem was Moscow’s mercenaries in the way.
“We were planning on running away. We were very afraid of the Russians because of their target accuracy. They are incredibly professional in using artillery,” one government fighter admitted, with embarrassment.
“Our main goal was staying alive. It is hard to articulate the fear”.
But before the GNA fighters had even left Tripoli, footage was circulating online showing what appeared to be Russian combatants in trucks and cargo planes retreating from the frontlines.
When the fighters finally arrived in Tarhuna the mercenaries had melted away.
“That was the beginning of the collapse of Haftar’s house of cards,” said one GNA military official in Tripoli about Haftar’s loss of the town on 5 June.
“It was the main factor that led to Haftar’s forces withdrawal from the other places,” he added.
Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), now beating a hasty retreat hundreds of kilometres down the coast from Tripoli, deny any foreign fighters exist among its ranks. In interviews with The Independent, its commanders have repeatedly dismissed these allegations as “propaganda” and “lies spread by the GNA and terrorists”.
But UN investigators believe at least 1,200 Russians were hired by shadowy Russian private military companies like Wagner to help Haftar win his war against the GNA.
What caused hundreds of them to withdraw at such a crucial moment is the talk of the town back in Tripoli. Rumours abound of a last-minute deal struck between Ankara and Moscow to allow the mercenaries to exit the frontline unscathed, preventing a potentially deadly confrontation between the two world powers.
“Given the impact on the morale of Haftar’s soldiers, the withdrawal made us feel for sure there was a deal,” said one Syrian mercenary with the GNA.
“All the resistance we faced on all fronts vanished in one night.”
The concluding episode of Haftar’s disastrous attempt to take Tripoli is an illuminating snapshot of how mercenaries have steered victories and defeats in the latest chapter of Libya’s messy civil war.
With wealthy foreign patrons and thousands of soldiers-for-hire deployed on both sides, what was once skirmishes between squabbling fiefdoms of militias has morphed into the world’s newest proxy war.
It has altered the landscape of the country forever and set world super powers including Turkey, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates, against each other.
As one senior diplomat, involved in trying to enforce the UN’s arms embargo, put it: “Libya is the new Syria” – but this time on Europe’s doorstep.
A month-long investigation by The Independent into this murky mercenary underworld shows a labyrinth of recruitment stretching from Moscow to Damascus from Idlib to Istanbul.
Interviews with western diplomats briefed on an ongoing UN probe into arms embargo violations, US military officials, Syrian and Libyan combatants, as well as over a dozen interviews with people across both countries, show the utilisation of the poorest Syrians at the heart of it.
Hired to fight on both sides in Libya, Syrians are once again battling each other – but this time over someone else’s war-wrecked capital thousands of kilometres from home.
April is the cruellest month
Last Spring, things in Libya were looking up.
The UN had scheduled a peace conference in the country’s stunning desert city of Ghadames.
The latest bouts of fighting had shuddered to a halt. In January of that year, police officers from the country’s rival governments had even met in Benghazi to discuss cooperation.
But in April, just days before the peace talks were due to start, the veneer of progress came crashing down. Backed by Emirati air power and later Russian boots on the ground, Haftar launched his ill-fated offensive to oust the Turkish-supported government from Tripoli.
Haftar, nominally linked to a rival administration in the east, has long rejected the GNA as being puppeted by Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which he and his foreign backers, including Egypt and the UAE, deem to be terrorists.
The GNA, which is recognised by the UN but guarded by brigades of often unsavoury militias, has the support of countries including Turkey and Italy. It regards Haftar as a war criminal who would be king.
Increasingly alarmed, the UN has repeatedly and futilely warned that the flood of fighters and weaponry into Libya violates a UN arms embargo. The UN’s acting Libya envoy last month pleaded with the Security Council to stop “a massive influx of weaponry, equipment and mercenaries”.
It is hard to keep up with the tapestry of foreign operatives fighting for scraps of the country that has limped through multiple conflicts over the nine years since Muammar Gaddafi was killed next to a storm drain.
Territory is not measured in metres-squared but in footholds of influence across the region that can be played off each other. For the mercenary companies – like Russia’s infamous Wagner group – Libya is a seemingly bottomless purse.
Haftar started the war on Tripoli in April 2019 with the upper hand, making quick gains with powerful Wing Loong II drones, fighter jets and Pantsir defence systems that western diplomats believe were provided by the UAE and later Russia. Both countries repeatedly deny any allegations of involvement in the war.
On the ground the general’s forces were swelled by an injection of mercenaries, which a UN-commissioned probe says included some 1,200 Russian mercenaries and up to 2,000 Syrian fighters recruited from regime areas of Syria. (The Independent’s own investigation put the number of Syrians at closer to 800).
International diplomats briefed on the UN investigation told The Independent an additional contingent of over 2,000 Sudanese fighters, many of whom arrived during a surge of recruitment in November, also gave Haftar an edge.
But the tide turned with Turkey’s formal entry into the foray that was approved by the Turkish parliament in January despite it being a violation of the arms embargo.
“One of the things Turkey did by officially intervening in Libya is upgrade the weaponry. It’s like they fast-forwarded Libya a new generation,” Oded Berkowitz, deputy chief intelligence officer at Max Security, told The Independent.
Ankara not only deployed a few hundred of its own forces, but sent Bayraktar TB2 drones, Korkut air defence systems and – according to western military observers – at least three Gabya-class frigates, creating a vital air defence bubble protecting Tripoli and neighbouring Misrata.
At the same time, UN investigators estimate that Ankara recruited as many as 3,000 of its Turkish-backed Syrian combatants for Libya’s frontline.
Syrian fighters in Libya, however, told The Independent that the true number was closer to 6,000, due to a surge in recruitment over the last two months.
Even the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in March did not slow the transfer of troops.
Sources on Syria’s border with Turkey told The Independent hundreds of Syrian fighters had crossed over, ready to be deployed to Tripoli this week. Although with the collapse of Haftar’s strongholds, that may not be necessary now.
On Haftar’s side, The Independent was able to confirm a surge in recruitment of pro-regime Syrian mercenaries up until at least mid-May.
Down in the southern desert of Murzuq, along the main smuggling routes from Libya’s porous border desert with Sudan, Libyan residents told The Independent Sudanese fighters in pick-up trucks were tearing their way through the desert to the front lines.
“There is regular movement since the borders are basically open. We have one car, or two, each week crossing the borders,” said one man called Mohamed.
A long way from home
Sitting hunched over his phone amid the pock-marked moonscapes of the Tripoli frontline, Abu Ahmed admitted Turkey’s Syrian mercenaries are miserable.
“Some are so desperate to go home, they shot themselves in the legs so they can get airlifted out,” the battle ravaged ex-rebel said.
Some are so desperate to go home, they shot themselves in the legs so they can get airlifted out
Like most of the Syrians he knows, the 27-year-old says he only agreed to fight in Libya because he assumed it was easy to catch a migrant boat to Europe. “It turns out it’s not,” he added bitterly. “All of the Syrians here for a long time advise: don’t trust anyone and just try to get home.”
After years fighting with rebel factions against Syrian regime forces, Abu Ahmed joined the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army last year as it spearheaded Ankara’s incursion into Kurdish-held northern Syria.
He was first deployed to Tripoli on the GNA side in February 2020. Over the last month of messaging The Independent his mood has gone from bad to worse.
He described how the Syrians’ unruly behaviour – including looting, and stealing weapons – has angered several Libyan brigades, worried about the optics of foreigners fighting their battles. He recalled how one Syrian friend captured a Syrian on the rival side, painting a poignant vignette of the pointlessness of it all.
“Here in Libya they treat us like if we were a sack of money. The Libyans hate us and don’t trust us at all. We just want to go home,” he continued.
Abu Ahmed’s story echoes thousands of other Syrians caught up in the region’s proxy wars. He was just 17 and working in his parent’s shop when the Syria civil war broke out in 2011. He never finished secondary school and so nine years later, to survive, he fights for whoever will pay the most.
That ended up being the GNA, which, with Turkish support, was promising $2,000 a month for four months: a considerable pay rise from his monthly salary of 500 Turkish lira ($70) fighting Turkey’s offensives in northern Syria.
In fact Ankara entrusted top commanders of the Turkish-backed Syrian brigades with their recruitment drive. According to multiple fighters in Libya and civilians in northwest Syria the likes of Fehim Isa, who leads Sultan Murad brigade and “Abu Amsha”, from Suleiman Shah, have done lucrative stints in Libya with their men.
The journey from northeast Syria to Tripoli takes roughly one week. Abu Ahmed described crossing the Hawar Kilis border point, boarding military aircraft from the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep to Istanbul and then flying commercial onwards to west Libya.
Another GNA fighter, who was among the first dispatched in January and is back in Syria, told The Independent the Syrians he was fighting alongside were quickly disillusioned. Even the money promised was not that good.
Omar (not his real name) explains $200 of their monthly salary is siphoned off to their brigade. “The situation in Libya is like in Syria, we fight without any planning,“ Omar added, describing mutinies among the Syrian factions, absent battle strategies and frosty welcomes from disgruntled Libyan militiamen.
“Some Syrians were so depressed they threatened that if they weren’t sent home they’d kill anyone standing in their face.”
He said the Syrians cannot escape home by themselves as it requires transiting through Turkey and so the approval of their commanders.
This disgruntlement began to filter back through the ranks to Syria. A well-placed international diplomat told The Independent the GNA was originally promised up to 9000 fighters but had “recruiting challenges”.
Back in Syria, one man from Afrin, a town on the Syria-Turkey border, said that recruiters, finding it increasingly hard to sign up fighters, targeted civilians. He was approached to help recruit from IDP camps.
“I was offered 200$ for each civilian I could recruit to Libya. It is difficult getting fighters who want to go to Libya,” he told The Independent.
Bel Trew is The Independent’s Middle East Correspondent, based in the region. Bel has covered the region since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, and has reported on uprisings and subsequent conflicts in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. She has also covered the last two wars between Israel and Gaza, and followed the emergence of Isis in Tunisia.
Rajaai Bourhan is a Europe-based Syrian journalist who was living in Syria until 2018. He is based in Madrid | Periodista sirio en Madrid | Amante de la historia.