Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 January 2020

Turkey reportedly sends Syrian fighters to Libya as conflict intensifies

Turkish proxies who have been accused of war crimes are said to have been recruited to combat Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar's LNA

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal to deploy troops in support of the GNA will be seen as a desperate throw of the dice designed to save the Tripoli-based organisation. EPA
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal to deploy troops in support of the GNA will be seen as a desperate throw of the dice designed to save the Tripoli-based organisation. EPA

As the conflict in Libya has intensified, Syrian fighters backed by Turkey have reportedly appeared on the battlefield in recent days to support the Tripoli-based government.

Turkey’s proxies, who have been accused of war crimes and human rights abuses while fighting on behalf of Ankara in northern Syria for the last three years, are said to have been recruited to combat the forces of the Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The development came after Turkey signed two agreements with Feyaz Al Sarraj, Prime Minister of the UN-backed Government of National Accord, on military co-operation and maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean.

Officials in Ankara, however, denied that members of the Syrian National Army (SNA) — a mix of militant groups that have fought for Turkey against ISIS and Kurdish fighters in Syria — have been sent to Libya.

However, videos have emerged that purportedly show Syrian fighters operating around the Libyan capital.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute who has studied Syria’s militant groups since 2014, said a fighter speaking a Syrian Arabic dialect had been identified in a video taken near Tripoli.

In the footage, the fighter refers to the Mutasem Division, one of the many militias that make up the SNA.

According to conflict monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 300 Turkey-backed Syrian fighters had been sent to Libya while others were undergoing training.

Citing “very reliable” sources, the Observatory said the fighters had been recruited from Afrin and Aleppo in north-west Syria on wages of up to $2,000 (Dh7,346) a month.

A SNA source told Reuters news agency that fighters had been signed up on an individual basis to guard Turkish facilities in Libya.

“I would not be at all surprised if some elements of the SNA are being sent to Libya but it is difficult to say this with certainty at the moment,” a defence analyst who asked to remain anonymous told The National.

Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New Ammerican Security, said the battle-hardened Syrian fighters would fulfill a "dire" need to reinforce the Tripoli government's "depleted" forces.

"Turkey's overt entry into the Libyan war also sends a strong message to Haftar's foreign backers that a powerful state actor with well-developed military capabilities is ready to support the GNA," he said.

"The Libyan crisis is entering a new chapter, a war of mercenaries."

The claims came as Turkish MPs prepared to vote on a bill that would give the go-ahead for a year-long stationing of Turkish military advisers and naval forces to Libya.

The parliamentary majority enjoyed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his nationalist allies means it is likely to be passed when MPs vote on Thursday.

The draft legislation states that the LNA threatens companies working in Libya – where Turkish construction firms have a major stake — as well as Turkish merchant ships in the Mediterranean.

The main opposition party said it would oppose the bill, saying it would suck Turkey into another conflict, and called for a diplomatic solution.

Last week, Mr Erdogan said troops would be sent to protect Turkey’s commercial interests in Libya following an official request by Mr Al Sarraj’s GNA for military support.

According to the United Nations, Turkey sent military hardware to the Tripoli government despite an international arms embargo.

Field Marshal Haftar, who is backed by regional and international powers, including Russia and France, launched an attack on Tripoli eight months ago but the fighting has intensified in recent weeks.

The country has been in turmoil and without any overall authority since long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi was deposed and killed in 2011.

Mr Erdogan visited Tunisia last week to discuss the conflict and called for a ceasefire as soon as possible.

Turkey’s involvement in Libya comes as its troops are already heavily involved in pushing back Kurdish fighters in Syria and northern Iraq as well as posting in countries such as Qatar and Somalia, where two Turkish nationals died in a bombing that killed at least 90 people at the weekend.

It is also embroiled in a row over gas and oil drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean that have put Ankara at odds with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel.

Updated: December 31, 2019 07:11 PM

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