Amid the response to the unexpected declaration of a ceasefire in Libya by Egypt’s president on June 6 came another brief detail about the complicated Libyan civil war, one that illuminated one of the most troubling aspects of the conflict. A short Reuters report the day after revealed that Russia was hiring Syrian mercenaries to fight in Libya – fighters who would almost inevitably be facing their compatriots, Syrian fighters previously recruited by Turkey. This was a new twist in the tale of two of the Middle East’s longest running civil wars. A proxy war forged in Syria now is washing up on Libya’s shores.
As with previous ceasefires in Libya, this latest one did not hold. The country remains split between two rival administrations, the Government of National Accord (GNA), recognized by the UN and based in the capital Tripoli, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar and based in the east of the country.
European and Middle East governments have taken sides, overtly and covertly: Turkey and Italy behind the GNA; Egypt, the UAE, Russia and France behind Haftar
But this Turkish-Russian proxy war is particularly concerning because of how it opens up a new battlefield in a conflict – the Syrian civil war – which is itself far from over.
The Russian and Turkish relationship in Syria is enormously complex. On the one hand, they sit together with Iran as part of the Astana track of the Syrian peace process. But they are also rivals on the battlefield, supporting opposite sides, with bloody consequences: only in February, a Russian airstrike killed 30 Turkish troops. Now that rivalry has been taken to a second battlefield very far away.
The appearance of Syrian fighters on the Russian side is only the latest example of Russian involvement in the conflict. Two weeks ago, the US accused Russia of deploying fighter jets to Libya. In a sign of how the Syrian conflict is becoming a staging post for wider conflagrations, the US claimed the fighter jets were originally flown to Russia’s Khmeimim air base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast – where they were repainted to remove any identifying markings – before flying on to Libya.
But the use of Syrian mercenaries by Russia is new. It was the Turkish government that first used Syrians to fight their battles, bringing in thousands of such fighters in January on the side of the GNA. In the brutal logic of war, hiring Syrian fighters and flying them to a battlefield a thousand miles away from home makes a degree of sense.
For Moscow, it forestalls domestic criticism of losing Russian soldiers in foreign civil wars, while also creating a further layer of deniability from international criticism for its covert operations in the region. Already, Vladimir Putin has claimed the shadowy Wagner group – well-equipped mercenaries that have appeared in such disparate combat zones as eastern Ukraine and the Central African Republic – has nothing to do with the Russian state. Now the fighters are not even Russians.
For Turkey, it redirects the attention of the armed men in the Free Syrian Army, now confined to enclaves of northern Syria with no realistic prospect of toppling the regime in Damascus. It means that Turkish citizens will not directly fight Russian citizens.
And for Bashar Al Assad, if, as seems likely, both Russia and Turkey are recruiting from among his current opponents, there’s little harm in letting them go abroad to be killed. Al Assad has never had any problem “internationalizing” the Syrian conflict. Indeed, it provides him with leverage in the event that a future Libyan government gets tired of Syrian militias running around in their country, or European governments become alarmed that some of those fighters have crossed the Mediterranean.
But if it benefits foreign parties to the conflict to bring in Syrian mercenaries, in the long-term it will only harms Libyans. The dangers to Libya of becoming a new battlefield are serious.
The Syrian civil war was, and remains, fiendishly complicated. The kaleidoscopic allegiances of the various militias were entrenched over many years of conflict. The differences between militias – Islamists and secular fighters; Arabs and Turkmen; fighters affiliated with particular regions or political ideologies – have only grown as the years have gone on. Transferring those grievances to a whole new battlefield is risky.
Indeed, the appearance of Syrian mercenaries in Libya is worrying for precisely the same reason that militias were dangerous on Syrian territory – militias can only remain beyond the remit of national political control for so long before they begin to develop an economic and political logic of their own. Commanders seek to expand their militias; they seek ways to enrich themselves and acquire political influence.
The evolution of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham in Syria’s Idlib province is a clear warning. This is a group that severed ideological ties with Al Qaeda and refused a political pact with Turkey, preferring to remain in the no-man’s-land of Idlib, beyond any state control, extorting taxes from civilians and customs fees from checkpoints. Left to themselves, militias tend to acquire a “developmental” logic of their own.
This is the long-term danger of the transference of the fighters in the Syrian conflict to Libya’s territory. Libya doesn’t need Syrians in military fatigues and weapons running around without political control. It has already suffered from nine years of Libyans doing just that.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.