Will Turkey use Syrians to fight in Libya?
On Thursday the Government of the National Accord in Tripoli, one of two governments fighting a civil war in the country, requested Turkey’s military support. This came in the wake of a deal in late November that demarcated economic rights for Turkey off the coast of Libya and led Turkey to promise military support in exchange. For Turkey it meant a chance to expand the military operations it has carried out in Syria and Iraq, and the bases it has in Qatar and Somalia, to establish itself in an area of North Africa for the first time since 1912. But Ankara doesn’t like using its own army to fight in places like Syria, so it has hinted at recruiting Syrians to fight and die for it, leading to controversy.
Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accelerated its use of its military to extend its influence, combining military, economic and diplomatic initiatives from the Horn of Africa to the Gulf and its border regions. It has worked closely with Russia on arms deals and has increasingly positioned itself as a leader of a section of the Islamic world, meeting with Qatar, Malaysia, Iran and Hamas at a recent Malaysia summit where Turkey talked about establishing a new Islamic currency based on the gold dinar. As far-fetched as this seems Turkey has shown then when it says it will do something, it tends to do it. It said for years it would invade Afrin and it invaded in January 2018. It said it would invade eastern Syria, where US-backed mostly Kurdish forces were present and it invaded in October as the US withdrew.
After Turkey signed a deal with the embattled Tripoli government the parliament in Ankara ratified the security aspect of the deal on December 21. From Turkey’s perspective it has leapt at the chance to embrace Tripoli because Tripoli’s government has a similar worldview. It has been backed by Turkey and Qatar for years, including receiving finances, drones and armored vehicles, even as it lost territory to Egyptian-backed Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar. Haftar’s Libyan National Army now controls most of Libya, and his war with the GNA was a kind of proxy war for the region. Egypt vs. Turkey. UAE vs. Qatar. Now it could be a new group of proxies filling the trenches in Libya, men from Syria.
Turkey has painted itself into a corner by saying that it would send forces if Tripoli asked for them. Tripoli asked on Thursday, so now Turkey must act. Turkey has sent officials to Russia to discuss Libya. Russia has been rumored to be backing Haftar. Russia and Turkey have already signed deals over northern Syria in September 2018 in Idlib and October over the area of Tel Abyad. In a sense Libya is just another deal. In Idlib Russia backs the Syrian regime’s offensive and the “deal” Turkey signed was shown to be worthless as 200,000 people have fled in the last few months. In areas near Tel Abyad and in Afrin Russia allowed Turkey to take over parts of Syria even though the Syrian regime would prefer Turkey not gobble up more of Syria.
So the quid-pro-quo could be that Turkey sends forces to Libya to pressure Russia and Russia and Turkey make some deal on Idlib when Russian President Vladimir Putin visits in early January. Turkey and Russia have more in common than drives them apart, including the TurkStream pipeline and the S-400 deal. Some kilometers of Syria or Libya are less important so long as each side can argue that it supported its other allies.
For Turkey the main problem is that Turkey helped create the Syrian National Army of former Syrian rebels who signed on to fight in a Turkish-backed military unit. This unit gathered together a bunch of groups on October 9, many of them extremists who have been accused of looting, kidnapping, and attacks on civilians in Afrin and now in Tel Abyad. Some people joined just for cash, or a chance to loot. US officials called them undisciplined and said they were involved in ethnically cleansing Kurds. Now what happens if they go to Libya.
Reports on Friday indicated that Syrian rebels and the Turkish navy could be sent to Libya. This was reported at Bloomberg and then at other outlets such as The Independent and Middle East Eye. But much was not confirmed. The Turkish parliament needs to greenlight the deployment, although if the Turkish army isn’t sent and just rebel mercenaries, then it can be done without too many questions. Naval forces can be sent just to patrol off shore and secure Turkey’s new economic assets. The Independent claimed that groups linked to the “Turkish-backed Syrian Sham Legion, a moderate Islamic group with tied to the Muslims Brotherhood” could be sent.
Middle East Eye claimed that Ankara had reached out to Syrian rebel groups including the sultan Murad unit, Suqour al-Sham brigade, and Faylaq al-Sham (Sham legion). While the navy guards Tripoli, according to Bloomberg, these units could be sending advisors and members to go fight. The forces that go will also be paid for their services, an incentive. Tripoli may want more than some undisciplined Syrian rebel fighters who have only been able to move forward in Afrin and Tel Abyad with Turkish air and artillery support. Otherwise they have been pushed out of Idlib by more extreme groups, and spend time fighting amongst each other or harassing civilians and posing with weapons or chanting slogans. Turkey will say that it is just supporting the internationally recognized Libyan government’s request. But lip-service for the GNA won’t help Tripoli enough. Tripoli wants air strikes and naval assets and real soldiers to bolster its weakening defenses.
Are these groups “mercenaries” or “jihadists” a some dub them? Why would Turkey recruit Turkmen from units like Sultan Murad or the Mutasim Division to go to Libya where there is no Turkmen community. How will those groups even speak with the local Libyans on the frontline? Recruiting cannon fodder to fight as proxies is not new to Turkey or the Libya war. Iran recruited poor Shi’ites from Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight for Assad in Syria.
The problem for Turkey is that the image and narrative it must put forward about this are confusing. Many pro-Turkey commentators first downplayed the potential deployment, claiming it was just propaganda by enemies of Ankara. Then, when sources indicated high level Turkish officials had been involved already, they had to change their tact. It’s hard to get around the fact that reports indicate some are willing to go just for the money. That could be thousands of dollars a month. But the units mentioned in reports still denied on December 27 they were being recruited to go. But what’s wrong with going for the money, other soldiers join the army for cash incentives, right?
Turkey can likely push a successful narrative that it is just recruiting some people to defend the Tripoli government from a Russian and Egyptian-backed offensive. It can say that as a NATO country it is helping the US and the West. It will argue that whereas Russia is attacking Idlib, Turkey is now supporting the Libyan people. Qatar will likely be paying the bills for the operation, so using Qatar’s extensive media contacts and lobbying efforts, as well as the GNA’s own support network, it will portray this as saving Tripoli.
But for the Syrian rebel groups themselves they will seem even more out of touch than they already are. Displaced from Idlib, they will be seen as going too far-away Libya while Syrians flee bombing.
For Turkey the benefit will be to shift media attention from its promises to resettle millions of Syrians near Tel Abyad, which it won’t be able to do, to a new military nationalist adventure in Libya. A new great Turkish success will show that Turkey has once again done what western countries failed to do: Get a deal from Russia in Libya and in Idlib at the same time. Turkey has US President Donald Trump’s support here because Trump tweeted about how Turkey is the only country stopping the “carnage” in Idlib.
The Libya operation, especially if Syrians start being killed in Libya fighting for the GNA and Turkey, is a challenge for Ankara. But it is also a testament to Ankara’s willingness to be daring and forceful in not just talking but actually put in place an economic-military policy and finding others to fight for Ankara.