By Vanessa Tomassini, Investigative Journalist
Turkey continues to recruit Syrians, including minors, to be sent to Libya to fight alongside the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al-Serraj, against Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). From 15 days, I’m in contact with Ali, a Syrian 25-year-old, currently in the North African country, where he arrived 3 months ago. Ali told me that the Syrian armed group, Jaysh al-Watani, recruited him. He did the administrative procedures as a volunteer in December 2019, revealing that he chose to go to fight in Libya in exchange for Turkish citizenship, more than for the money.
The guy also confirms the rumors about Syrian fighters arrived in Europe by sea. “When we realized that the Turks won’t let us go home, some of us stopped fighting. We have become more of a deadweight than an aid to Serraj and Turkey. Some of my companions, who arrived in Libya with me 3 months ago, have left. They said to try to go to Europe by sea.” Ali affirmed, describing crimes and abuses committed by Turkish officials against civilians in Libya. Ali claims to have arrived in Libya via flight, following 15 days in a Turkish camp for military training. He doesn’t remember where this camp exactly is, but he knows there were Turkish soldiers and translators from Syria, including some from the Sultan al-Murad group.
Ali claims that he signed a six-month contract, received three months’ wages advanced, which he gave to his family before leaving for Libya. “I am afraid for my family in Syria, as when I enrolled, the Turks made me write the names of my parents and brothers. My mother didn’t even want me to leave, that’s why I don’t run away. I’m afraid something will happen to them”. He said, also reporting a worrying health situation. “Many of us are, and have been sick, even some of those who have gone to Italy, or Europe. We don’t know if it’s the coronavirus or not, because nobody tests us. The Turks have told us that if we are sick, it is better because whoever survives understands the battlefield more”.
On January 2, 2020, the Turkish parliament ratified a memorandum, presented by the presidency, to send Turkish forces to Libya and give them a one-year renewable mandate. On January 12, 2020, the LNA-affiliated Sabratha Operation Room Facebook page published a 14-minute and 42-second video showing an individual captured in the city of Sabratha, Libya, by an anti-immigration agency team illegal. The video shows the detainee confessing his affiliation with the Suleiman Shah Brigade, also known as al-Amshat, an armed group affiliated to the Syrian revolutionary and opposition forces, explaining that he entered Libya on January 8, 2020, from Turkey with other Syrian fighters. Since January, the LNA released several videos, shot during the fighting and capture of Syrian fighters. A photo published on May 7, 2020, shows 4 young Syrians following interrogations after they were captured by the Haftar’s Libyan army. From the moment of their capture, these guys also confess that they arrived in Libya via Turkey by plane.
It should be noted that Turkey has taken strict measures and imposed sanctions on fighters who lose videos or photos while in Libya. Particularly after the release of four footages in which Syrian fighters appeared in the city of Tripoli. The latest of these videos shows a Syrian fighter claiming to have received a sum of money in US dollars and Libyan dinars for a month of war. Ali is also very hesitant to talk with me, as he says communications are controlled by Turkish officials. This information was confirmed by the Syrian organization, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), which released a detailed report, on 11 May, demonstrating how fighters are transported from Syria to Libya, via two routes.
Some of those present in Libya have revealed – shows the report – that they have been gathered at the military intersection of Hawar Kilis and from there, transported by bus into Turkish territory. In Turkey, they are dropped off in the camps in the Kilis region, until their documents are completed, and then transported by flight from Gaziantep international airport to one of the Istanbul airports. The second route, according to a worker from the Jarabulus border crossing, consists in taking the road from Syria to Antakya, from Antakya they arrive in Ankara by air and finally transported to Libya through scheduled flights. On January 13, 2020, Syrian fighters released a video and their photos on civilian aircraft belonging to Libyan companies Libyan Airlines and Afriqiyah Airways. The Syrian organization was able to identify three of the fighters who appeared in these photos. They were reportedly killed during the fighting, but the brother of one of them, whose name is Burhan Bashir al-Mahmoud Jadallah, assured that the three are alive and still fighting in Libya, adding that the news of their killing it was invented.
STJ also collected evidence of events that occurred on January 7, 2020, when a ship carrying Syrian fighters, left Turkey for Libya. The ship had an accident that caused 35 Syrian fighters to drown. Those who survived are fighting against Haftar’s forces in Libya. Some of them were killed, and others injured, and were not transferred to Syria for treatment. The hypothesis that these guys may return to Syria seems to not be in the plans of the Turkish authorities. Ali, in our conversations, says that the Turks don’t care about the Syrians, and to many of them, the right to return home, after the 3 months or more, is denied. The false promise of Turkish citizenship seems to recur in the numerous testimonies collected so far.
Muhammad, a young man from Idlib, with whom I’m following the situation in northern Syria, proves that most of the mercenaries who choose to go to fight in Libya are guys without military experience, without education, and come from the poorest levels of Syrian society. They are selected to fight for $ 1,500 to $ 3,000 a month, depending on experience. “With the worsening of the situation in northern Syria, more and more young people, including minors, are enlisting as volunteers. Turks promise them and their first family members citizenship with the illusion that they can travel to Europe after the mission”. Muhammad indicates, adding that local armed groups backed by Turkey promise up to € 60,000 to families if their children die in Libya. “Orphaned Syrian children sometimes are kidnapped, or finish in the hands of these groups for much less. They have nowhere to go, they don’t know how to survive, and fighting is normal for them. In the past, even in Syria, extremist and opposition groups recruited children and brainwashed them with the concepts of armed jihad and liberation, sending them to death. Their families – he continues – often don’t even know where their children are, until they see them in videos on TV or social networks”.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has revealed that at least 150 minors have already been recruited and sent to Libya, including children 15-16-year-old. The Observatory also monitored the story of a 15-year-old boy who left the IDP camp where he was with his family and went to Afrin to work in the agricultural sector. The minor remained in contact with his family for about 20 days, and then disappeared. The child later reappeared in some photos in Libya. Since GNA militias also employ children in battle, it was thought that the children were Libyan, until their families in Syria recognized them. Libyan media reported, on May 14, that 16 of the 150 minors recruited by Erdogan have been killed by the LNA during the fighting in southern Tripoli.