When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted for the first time last February that his government has sent Syrian mercenaries to Libya he was only confirming what was already known. Libyan affairs experts and commentators had already pointed out that fact. It also makes sense for him to send Syrian fighters loyal to him instead of risking his own soldiers.
Erdogan, of course, justifies his military support for the embattled Government of National Accord (GNA) by the ambiguous security deal he signed with the Tripoli-based UN recognised GNA back on 27 November 2019. In return for military help against the attacking Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, Ankara agreed to sign another controversial maritime deal with the GNA allowing it to draw its claimed sea borders. Egypt, Cyprus and Greece disputed the legality of the maritime deal claiming it infringes their own maritime economic areas.
By sending Syrian fighters to Libya Erdogan was only reactivated an old route of fighters and arms but in the opposite direction. Libyan mercenaries, mainly Jihadist, have been involved in the Syrian civil war from as earlier as 2011 and earlier 2012. To reach Syria they had to pass through Turkey. Mahdi Al-Harati, a well-known Libyan-Irish jihadist, founded and commanded Al-Uma Brigade, who once fought alongside different groups including Free Syrian Army in Syria. Al-Harati, who briefly served as Tripoli mayor and was said to have met President Erdogan, had unlimited access through Turkey from where he smuggled fighters and arms. In fact, in 2012 recruitment of young Libyan fighters for the Syrian front was an open secret in Tripoli. Erdogan only reactivated the same route but in the opposite direction.
The connection between the conflicts in Syria and Libya seem to have decimated as the Syrian conflict dragged on and Libya itself once again became a hot spot after the deceptive quietness of 2012. But as the Turkish and Russian roles increased in Syria both Moscow and Ankara sought to use the conflict in Libya as a potential negotiating card. Moscow is openly supporting Khalifa Haftar’s LNA while Ankara is trying to keep the GNA in power after the LNA launched its attack to take the capital a year ago. This further linked the bloodshed in both Libya and Syria highlighting and augmented Russian and Turkish roles in the North African oil rich country. This explains, in part, why Moscow and Ankara managed to bring about a ceasefire during their talks in January this year—however shaky the ceasefire was.
More recently Libya’s interim government, based in eastern Libya and supporting the LNA but not recognised by any other country, is trying to capitalise on the Syrian connection in its own way. A delegation from eastern Libya’s Interim Government visited Damascus last week and met President Bashar Al-Assad and even reopened the Libyan embassy in Damascus which was closed by the former Libyan National Transitional Council back in 2012.
Abdulhadi Elhweg, eastern Libya’s foreign minister, said Libya and Syria are fighting “one enemy”; Turkey, before adding that “our enemies and foes… are those selling Libya to the colonizers, especially the Turkish one,” in reference to the GNA’s security and maritime deal with Turkey.
Haftar himself secretly visited Syria in earlier March and even toured part of the frontlines south of Idlib and the Syrian borders with the Zionist state. Media outlets allied to him aired videos of the visit without saying when exact it took place. Interestingly, Haftar did not meet President Al-Assad or, if he did, it was not mentioned. He was only shown in meetings with top Syria generals. It is unclear what Haftar wanted to achieve by such a visit but there have been reports of Syrian military experts arriving in eastern Libya to support the LNA. These reports have been denied by the LNA.
Turkey’s role in both countries would, obviously, have been discussed as confirmed by Abdulhadi Elhweg whose visit came after Haftar’s. The Syrian link to the Libya conflict is now well established at least in western Libya.
The Syrian connection, however, is unlikely to directly benefit Haftar’s efforts to topple the GNA but it does help indirectly. The more information the Syrian army and intelligence are willing to share with the LNA about the working of armed groups, the better insight it gives the LNA. The coalition of armed militias that are fighting on the side of the GNA includes former Libyan and foreign fighters who fought in Syria. As far as the use of mercenaries is concerned, both the GNA and LNA use them.
However, the dominant roles of both Moscow and Ankara in Syria are likely to have side effects in Libya further complicating the already complicated situation there. Both Russia and Turkey renegaded in commitments made in the Berlin conference on 19 January; to refrain from meddling in Libyan affairs. Any settlement in Libya now is unlikely unless both Moscow and Ankara give it the green light. This is unlikely to happen unless both Putin and Erdogan find common ground to ensure the long-term settlement of their difference in Syria first.
When Moscow fails in Syria, it is likely to seek gains, at least politically, in Libya through its respective proxies. The more this situation goes on the more the two conflicts become intertwined and difficult to solve.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.