War Tore Their Country Apart. Now It's Sending Young Syrians to Fight in Foreign Battlefields

From Libya to Azerbaijan, Syrian mercenaries hired by Russia and Turkey as their homeland sinks into a political stalemate rife with unemployment and few prospects

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Turkey-backed Syrian fighters man a sand barricade near the rebel-controlled town of Tal Abyad in the northern Syria's Raqa province, along the frontline with Syrian Kurdish forces, October 10, 2020.
Turkey-backed Syrian fighters man a sand barricade near the rebel-controlled town of Tal Abyad in the northern Syria's Raqa province, along the frontline with Syrian Kurdish forces, October 10, 2020.Credit: BAKR ALKASEM - AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

More than 45,000 Syrians have registered with the “employment office” set up by the Russian Army at the Khmeimim Airbase in the port city of Latakia, in northwest Syria. This is the base where young Syrians who wish to enlist for military action in Libya go. Every day that goes by without employment means a loss of a hundred dollars or more. Tens of thousands of their compatriots have already joined the task forces operating in the north African country, and the stories they tell about the good life and pockets full of money are having an effect.

According to Syrian and Libyan media, the recruitment of young Syrians to fight in Libya began in 2018 in the town of Talkalakh in Homs Province. The recruiter was the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, which sends mercenaries to multiple countries in service of Russian interests. Although last month Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repudiated knowing anything about such a recruitment drive and denied any Russian involvement, interviews with Syrian fighters who returned from Libya tell a different story.

One of them told the Beirut-based Raseef22 news outlet that anyone between the ages of 18 and 58 is eligible to enlist as long as they served in the Syrian Army or received an exemption from service. Recruits receive two weeks of basic military instruction in which they practice using a personal weapon, learn security tactics and perform group drills. They can then wait for two weeks or more before being flown to Libya.

During this interval, they work for Syrian tribal chiefs who are at the behest of the Russian forces, although they are expected to report to the base within eight hours when summoned. From the moment they sign, their cell phones and passports are taken away. Recruits are not allowed to have any contact with families and friends. Once they arrive in Libya, they are divided into two groups – those who will guard the facilities and oil pipelines controlled by the army of secessionist General Khalifa Haftar, whom Russia is assisting, and those who are ready to participate in combat. They are paid accordingly: Guards earn $1,000 a month and combat soldiers receive three times more.

roops loyal to Libya's internationally recognized government prepare themselves before heading to Sirte, in Tripoli, Libya, July 6, 2020. Credit: Ayman Al-Sahili/ REUTERS

They work for three months straight, after which they receive a month-long paid vacation in Syria. The recruits are not expected to return to Libya if they don’t want to: Supply far outstrips demand, and the ranks can be filled with new recruits at any time.

The work is not without danger. Young Syrians have already returned in coffins, and even though the bereaved family is entitled to a $5,000 “compensation” payment, the deaths have caused some public protests, mainly in southern Syria and in Latakia Province in the north. So the Russian command then decided to avoid recruiting people from these areas. After the first few waves, they also started using a new method, subcontracting recruitment to Syrian citizens who assemble groups of fighters they then oversee at home and in deployment, in exchange for a 25-percent bonus.

Russia is not the only “employer” in this marketplace. Turkey is sending Syrian troops to fight on the other side of the Libyan conflict, supporting the internationally recognized government. Unlike the Russians, Turkey sends in Syrian militiamen who operate under its patronage. Some reports suggest that Turkey is also offering Syrian refugees living within its borders to earn a livelihood by enlisting.

The wages are similar to what the Russian companies pay, but the difference is that mercenaries working for Turkey perform much more dangerous combat missions. The number of casualties among them is much higher, so much so that individual fighters often choose to desert and enlist with Russian companies instead to avoid being sent to the more dangerous frontlines.

Regardless of which side they’re on, all Syrian mercenaries are concerned about ceasefire talks and new efforts to reach a diplomatic solution in Libya – which would mean losing their jobs, and being sent back to Syria, where they have no chance of earning even a quarter of their current income. The future of the talks held this week in Egypt and expected to resume in November remains hazy. There is agreement in principle for a meeting between the two sides in Libya, and a readiness to re-establish the ceasefire that was announced and then immediately breached in August. But disagreements still run deep, and even if the Libyan adversaries manage to see eye to eye, the final outcome is dependent not just on their goodwill but mainly on agreements between Russia and Turkey, as well as Egypt and the UAE, which both support Haftar.

Haftar’s military momentum has been halted and he has lately been regrouping into defensive positions. So while it seems he will not easily be able to serve as the spearhead for the ambitions of Egypt and the Emirates, he could still constitute a powerful obstacle in the path of any peace agreement that does not guarantee him political standing and influence. And some other questions remain, mainly on the process of holding elections and constitutional reform.

The road ahead is still long, and there is uncertainty as to whether these political struggles will be waged under fire or whether the ceasefire will hold during the process.

Plenty of wars to go around

Some of the mercenaries are also being offered another work opportunity in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan where fighting continues between Azeri and Armenian forces for control of the autonomous provinces. Reports from the Syrian Center for Human Rights, which have also been confirmed by French President Emmanuel Macron, say Turkey has sent 1,200 Syrian fighters to the front to aid Azeri forces. They are reportedly paid $1,500-2,000 a month. Turkey gives them military training in the field.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a bloody battlefront where dozens of Syrian fighters, who enlisted because they were promised they would only be guarding oil pipelines and would not see combat, have been killed. This week, it was reported that 200 Syrian fighters asked to return home immediately. The involvement of Syrian mercenaries, mostly belonging to the Turkmen ethnic group and handled by private Turkish security companies under the sponsorship of Turkish intelligence, has Moscow worried. Earlier, Russia issued an official statement calling on all foreign forces to leave the country. The country is trapped between its commitment to Armenia as per a defense pact the countries signed in the 1990s, and its desire to support Azerbaijan as part of its ambition to add that country to its economic alliance and, most importantly, to distance it from American influence.

An Armenian serviceman fires a cannon towards Azerbaijan positions in the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, September 29, 2020. Credit: Sipan Gyulumyan,AP

The recruitment and operation of mercenaries in multinational fronts like Libya and Azerbaijan is nothing new. The UAE recruited mercenaries from Colombia and from several African countries for the war in Yemen. When Qaddafi ruled Libya, he recruited soldiers from neighboring African nations, and Tehran recruited thousands of the Afghan refugees living in Iran to fight in the war in Syria alongside Assad’s forces, promising that they would be granted citizenship upon their return.

In Syria, the practice developed out of frustration and despair, as prospects of a political solution dwindle and an end to the civil war that has now been going on for nine years and has become a fight for survival for more than 13 million refugees and displaced persons, half of them inside Syria. Their living conditions are extremely dire, international assistance only covers about 10 percent of their needs, medical services are practically nonexistent and now the refugees must brace for another winter.

Some, as in northern Syria, where about a thousand refugee camps have been erected, are trying to leave the camps due to the difficulty of living in tents without any sanitation services. They hope to find makeshift shelter instead in open areas. Those who still have a little money join up with a few other families and together they purchase or lease a plot of land from the Syrian owners for $500 a year per dunam (around a quarter of an acre) so they can build concrete shelters.

Syrian refugees ride their bicycles in the Zaatari refugee camp near the border city of Mafraq, Jordan, February 1, 2020.Credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

In Syria, there is already talk about a long-term process of refugees settling in areas under control of the temporary rebel government, in a way that is altering the demographic distribution in the country. In a way, it is a throwback to the way Palestinian refugees settled in Arab countries, as temporary refugee camps became real cities where people have now lived for many decades. Syrian refugees can only dream about being able to return to their homes and securing steady jobs. The lucky ones work in temporary agricultural jobs, or receive rations from aid organizations and donations from Arab and European countries. All of them think about trying to emigrate to Europe or enlisting in local militia under Turkish, Russian or Iranian patronage. Their wage in those outfits is no more than $200 a month.

This is a tremendous pool of potential recruits for anyone looking for mercenaries for any cause. The opportunity is not open to everyone. These militias have limited budgets, and they are often suspicious of potential recruits based on their ethnicity. Alawite refugees will not be accepted by Sunni militias; Christian refugees are always suspected of supporting the Assad regime. Kurdish militias recruit exclusively from among the Kurdish population, even enacting a mandatory draft; while Turkish-sponsored militias will not recruit Kurds and prefer Turkmens or Sunni Muslims.

One troubling question remains: What will the tens of thousands of mercenaries currently in Libya or Azerbaijan do when they return? These skilled warriors are likely to seek employment in the “profession” they acquired on the battlefields and offer their services to any militia or organization in need of fighters, or to any country in the region mired in any war.

It is also an issue for the militias and the regime that find themselves facing fighters operating at the orders of foreign countries. Assad has been trying for two years to merge the militias that support him into the ranks of the conventional army, but he has no clear plan for how to accomplish this and must still contend with actors that may not necessarily oppose him, but still enjoy their war profits and have no intention of forgoing them. His battle to merge and control all of these forces is just beginning.

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