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Turkey to send Syrian rebel fighters to battle Haftar in Libya

Sultan Murad Division, Suqour al-Sham Brigades and Faylaq al-Sham among the armed groups to be deployed in North Africa
Turkey-backed Syrian fighters gather on a road between the northern Syrian towns of Tal Abyad and Kobane (AFP)
By in
Ankara and Istanbul

Turkey will deploy Syrian rebel fighters in Libya to fight against the forces of Khalifa Haftar, sources told Middle East Eye on Friday.

Ankara had already reached out to several allied Syrian rebel groups about the deployment, a senior Syrian opposition source told MEE.

A Turkish source said that the Sultan Murad Division, an armed group made up of Syrian Turkmen fighters, is among the groups set to be sent to North Africa.

The Syrian opposition source said that the Suqour al-Sham Brigades, a faction founded to fight Syrian government forces early in Syria's war, had already accepted the plan and transferred some of its forces to Turkey ahead of deployment.

Faylaq al-Sham, a rebel group with close ties to Ankara, is expected to take the lead due to its members’ previous partnership with Libyan forces.

"Tripoli-based forces previously sent weapons and ammunition to help Syrian rebels in 2011. They even sent some commanders to help them," the Syrian source said.

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"Faylaq al-Sham returned the favour by sending officials to advise Tripoli-based forces in 2014 against Benghazi forces."

The opposition Syrian Interim Government denied it would be sending any troops to Libya. 

"We categorically deny sending any of our forces and military formations to Libya, and our priority in the Syrian National Army is to protect our Syrian people from the regime's militias and its Russian and Iranian supporters," it said in a statement. 

However, one source told MEE that some fighters arrived in Libya three days ago where they were undergoing training at a closed camp.

"One day after their arrival, they were allowed to use their phones to speak with their families," the source said.

"[They were sent to] Tripoli at the request of a Turkish military commander, who was transferred by Ankara from Syria to Libya," he added.

Meanwhile, an activist in the Syrian city of Afrin, some 20 km from the Turkish border, told MEE that: "dozens of fighters who previously served in Eastern Ghouta were recently transferred from the city of Jarabulus to Afrin in preparation for being transferred to Libya."

"Most of the fighters belong to the Mutasim Brigade, the Sultan Murad Brigade, the Hamza Brigade, and Ahrar Sharqiya," he said.

"Each fighter [will] receive $300 upon signing the contract in Syria, and will receive $2,000 per month in Libya."

GNA: If Tripoli falls, Tunis and Algiers will fall

Both Libya and Syria have been embroiled in conflicts since 2011, after uprisings against Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad broke out.

In Libya, Nato-backed fighters toppled Gaddafi, though unrest has continued since, with eastern commander Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) forces facing off against the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in recent years.

In Syria, meanwhile, Assad has, with Russian and Iranian support, rolled back rebel control into a pocket of the country’s northwest.

Turkish-backed groups hold stretches of Aleppo province, and have in recent months been fighting Kurdish forces in the northeast at Ankara’s behest, rather than Assad’s troops.

Pro-Syrian government forces have been staging a ferocious offensive against northwestern Idlib province, the opposition's last redoubt, in recent days.

The United Nations said on Friday that 235,000 civilians in Idlib had fled their homes to escape shelling by Assad's forces over the past two weeks. 

Many of the groups that could be sent to Libya on behalf of Turkey have controversial reputations, and have been accused of war crimes against Kurdish civilians. Amnesty International has accused some Turkey-backed groups of summary executions and abductions.

The UN said it believed a faction of the rebel Syrian National Army was responsible for the killing of Hervin Khalaf, a Kurdish politician who was reportedly dragged from her car and shot alongside other civilians. 

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The deployment of Turkish forces in Libya, where Ankara's ally the GNA is fending off an LNA assault on Tripoli, had been expected.

On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said legislation to send troops to Libya was being prepared after a formal request for assistance had been made by the UN-recognised GNA.

The Turkish parliament is expected to vote on the deployment on 8 or 9 January, and its passage should be a formality.

Erdogan travelled to Tunisia on Wednesday for consultations, meeting his Tunisian counterpart Kais Saied. Erdogan said Tunisia had agreed to help support the GNA, however the Tunisians have denied such a stance has been taken.

The GNA interior minister on Thursday warned Libya's North African neighbours of the repercussions were Haftar, who is backed by the UAE and Egypt, to take Tripoli.

"If Tripoli falls, Tunis and Algiers will fall in turn. This is an attempt to sow chaos in the region and exercise control over North Africa," he said.

A UN report finalised in November said both sides in Libya had been received weapons, equipment and foreign fighters in contravention of an international arms embargo. 

"Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates routinely and sometimes blatantly supplied weapons, employing little effort to disguise the source," said the report.

The report confirmed that 1,000 fighters had been sent to support Haftar by Sudan's notorious Rapid Support Forces militia, who had already been fighting under the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

It also identified the presence of other groups from Chad and Sudan's Darfur region, which both border Libya to the south. 

The UN experts who wrote the report said they were continuing to investigate the role of Canada-based firm Dickens and Madson in the deployment of RSF troops, which was hinted at in a lobbying contract signed with the paramilitary's head Mohammed Hamdan Dagolo in May 2019. 

Dickens and Madson's head Ari Ben Menasche has represented Haftar and several other Libyan clients, apparently on both sides of the conflict, since the fall of Gaddafi. 

Erdogan has justified Turkey's planned troop deployment saying Haftar's forces were backed by the Wagner Group, a Russian security company.

"They are helping a warlord. We are responding to an invitation from the legitimate government of Libya," Erdogan said. "That is our difference."

The Wagner Group is a shadowy Kremlin-backed private military contractor that has also been involved in the Syrian civil war, where Moscow backs Assad against rebel forces. 

The military contractor is also believed to be active in Sudan and the Central African Republic, where it reportedly serves as President Faustin-Archange Touadera's personal security detail

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.