Syrian militants affiliated with groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group are currently being sent by Turkey to fight on behalf of the UN-supported government in Libya, according to two Libyan militia leaders and a Syrian war monitor, The Associated Press reported.
Both sides in Libya’s civil war receive equipment and backing from foreign countries. But Turkey, which has long trained and funded opposition fighters in Syria and relaxed its borders so foreign fighters could join ISIL, has in recent months been airlifting hundreds of them over to a new theater of war in Libya.
Libyan militia leaders in Tripoli told The Associated Press that Turkey has brought more than 4,000 foreign fighters into Tripoli and that “dozens” of them are extremist-affiliated. The two commanders spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
The commanders also highlighted differing opinions within the Libyan militias about accepting Syrian extremists into their ranks. One said the fighters’ backgrounds aren’t important as long as they’ve come to help defend the capital. The other said some commanders fear the fighters will “tarnish” the image of the Tripoli-based government.
Turkey-backed militias in northern Syria have been known to include fighters who previously fought with al-Qaeda, ISIL and other militant groups and have committed atrocities against Syrian Kurdish groups and civilians.
Rami Abdurrahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AP that his war-monitoring network has determined there are at least 130 former ISIL or al-Qaeda fighters among the approximately 4,700 Turkey-backed Syrian mercenaries sent to fight for the Tripoli government.
He said the ISIL militants had joined the so-called Syrian National Army, a patchwork alliance formed by Turkey from different factions who battled the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Most of the groups are loyal to Turkey, and the SNA was used as shock troops last year in Turkey’s offensive against US-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
The Observatory also quoted a Syrian fighter from Idlib province who applied to go to Libya as saying he was motivated by the financial benefits offered by Turkey.
The influx of Syrian, Russian and Sudanese mercenaries has threatened to prolong the war and cripple international efforts to establish a long-term cease-fire. Last month a summit in Berlin brought together the major international stakeholders in Libya but with few concrete results.