Two thousand Syrian opposition fighters have travelled through Turkey to Libya to fight alongside the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) against the advancing forces of warlord Khalifa Haftar, as reported by the UK-based newspaper the Guardian revealed today.
The deployment of the fighters comes amid speculation and uncertainty regarding the numbers of fighters that have arrived in Libya after Turkey guaranteed to militarily assist the Libyan government. There were reports that a mere 35 Turkish officers had been sent to Tripoli to advise and train GNA forces, but it has now been revealed to be much more, with the deployment having been conducted in stages since December last year rather than in one batch.
On 24 December there was an initial deployment of 300 fighters who travelled into Turkey through the border area of Hawar Kilis in north-west Syria, followed by a further 350 on 29 December. They were then flown to the Libyan capital Tripoli where they have been positioned at the front line on the east of the endangered city.
On 5 January, another 1,350 fighters crossed the border to Turkey, with some having been sent to Libya and others continuing located in training camps in southern Turkey. One source told the paper that the Syrian fighters will band together into a military division named after Omar Al-Mukhtar, the Libyan resistance leader who fought against the invading Italian forces in the early 20th century before he was executed by Italy in 1931. Al-Mukhtar is a much famed revolutionary and national figure in Libya and beyond, and has reportedly become popular with Syrian opposition fighters struggling against the Syrian regime.
Although the fighters were transported by Turkey, they are not enlisted by the Turkish military but have instead signed six-month contracts with the GNA providing them each with $2,000 per month, a significant difference to the 450-550 Turkish liras ($76-93) per month that they earnt back in Syria. They have also allegedly all been offered Turkish nationality in return for their efforts. Turkey is also covering medical bills for any injured soldiers and has taken responsibility for repatriating dead fighters; four have reportedly been killed already, back to Syria.
A senior analyst of the Libyan conflict with the Belgium-based organisation International Crisis Group, Claudia Gazzini, revealed: "This is a very different situation to Syria." The move could, in her perspective, backfire on Turkey due to the fact that in Libya, "anti-Turkish sentiment is already strong because of Ankara's intervention and could grow as a result of this, playing in Haftar's favour."
The deployment of the fighters comes after Turkey made wider steps in recent weeks to increase ties and military support for the GNA by signing pacts on military cooperation and maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean in the end of November. As part of their relations, Turkey offered direct military support last month in order to push back Haftar's advance, which the GNA accepted and called for.
Since the overthrow and killing of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been subject to two rival governments or factions within the country: the GNA which controls most of the west including the key city of Tripoli, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) which controls the east and is led by the formerly-exiled Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Throughout the ongoing Libyan civil war, Turkey – along with the UN – has backed and militarily assisted the GNA against Haftar's forces.