Turkey following Iranian model with Libya move
As the days go by, more and more revelations emerge about Turkey sending fighters from the Free Syrian Army or Turkmen Iraqi militias to fight in Libya alongside Tripoli’s Government of National Accord, led by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj. These fighters are transferred using military jets to Tripoli airport, where they are received by a special team of Turkish officers who have been tasked with working with Syrian and Libyan fighters. The UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salama, asserted in an interview with Reuters last month that fighters loyal to Turkey had already landed, saying: “I can confirm that those fighters have arrived in Libya.” Salama estimated that up to about 2,000 fighters had arrived from outside Libya.
For its part, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that Turkey’s transfer of fighters from Syria to Libya was still ongoing. It also pointed out that a total of 1,750 fighters had arrived in Tripoli, while the number of fighters that had arrived at Turkish-administered camps to receive training had reached 1,500, with massive recruitment operations underway in both Afrin and the Euphrates Shield areas. A video was circulated on social media showing four fighters speaking in the Syrian dialect, who were reported to be affiliated with the Turkish-affiliated Al-Rahman Legion. They were filmed sitting in an apartment, with a Kalashnikov assault rifle in the middle of them. One of them spoke explicitly about receiving a lot of money, showing a large number of US dollar and Libyan dinar banknotes.
The New York Review of Books went even further, with reporter Frederic Wehrey recounting the everyday life of Syrian fighters in Libya and what their commander told him in this respect in a recent investigative report published by the magazine. The columnist said that, at the start of his investigation, while he was only 150 feet from the front line, a tall fighter approached him, but suddenly turned back when Wehrey saw him. He wrote: “I’ve been covering Libya’s conflicts for years and noticed some minor but distinctive details about his appearance: A do-rag tied around his head, an olive green tactical vest, and perhaps a certain military bearing. The Libyan commander I was with confirmed it, with a chuckle: ‘That’s not a Libyan look.’” The reporter then recounted a conversation he had with the chief commander of the fighters, who he said told him: “I belong to the Turkish army. We all have homes in Istanbul and Gaziantep.”
In the same context, Sky News Arabia reported last week that the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle spotted a Turkish frigate escorting a ship carrying armored vehicles, which was heading to Tripoli.
These details of Turkey sending its troops to Libya alongside Syrian fighters brings to mind the Iranian regime’s experience in Syria, as well as the media and political handling of this issue.
Many Turkish fighters are using their deployment as an opportunity to enter mainland Europe
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
At the start of its intervention in Syria, the Iranian regime denied all reports that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had members and paramilitary fighters present in the country. Later on, Tehran admitted a presence but claimed that this was confined to offering military advice to Bashar Assad’s forces without engaging in fighting. However, with an increasing number of IRGC members killed, including senior commanders like Maj. Gen. Hossein Hamadani, Iran admitted to sending IRGC and paramilitary fighters to Syria. Iran claimed they were there in order to defend Shiite shrines such as Sayyidah Zaynab and others in Damascus. However, the fighters were not confined to Damascus, but spread right across Syria.
Another striking similarity between Iran and Turkey is that they both turned to fighters who engage in conflict purely for personal benefit. The Iranian regime deployed fighters from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Afghan refugees who had fled to Iran seeking asylum, using financial incentives of about $500 per month and intimidation to get them to fight in Syria. The Afghan refugees were promised many things, such as permanent residency for themselves and their families in Iran, as well as their children being admitted to Iranian schools, which had previously rejected their applications because of a lack of residency documents. The IRGC, represented by its powerful elite arm, the Quds Force, formerly headed by Qassem Soleimani, was responsible for the recruitment, training and deployment of fighters to Syria, with IRGC training camps in northern and central Iran overseeing three-month basic training courses. The fighters were then sent to Syria on military jets or on the IRGC’s civilian Mahan Air airline’s passenger planes.
Despite the Iranian regime deploying Pakistani and Afghan fighters (the Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun Brigades), as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah and numerous Iraqi proxies, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Abu Al-Fadl Al-Abbas Brigade, it was ultimately Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict that tilted the scale in favor of the Syrian regime thanks to its aerial bombardment. Based on the Syrian experience, we can possibly predict how things will play out for the Turkish fighters in Libya, both with and without aerial support, with the former likely to be extremely costly.
Another similarity between the fighters of Iran in Syria and those of Turkey in Libya is that many Turkish fighters are using their deployment as an opportunity to enter mainland Europe. A number of Western Persian-language news agencies and television stations revealed during the course of a series of interviews conducted with Afghan nationals located in Eastern Europe that they had fled the fighting in Syria and joined refugee convoys to Europe, disguising themselves as Syrians. Similarly, we find media reports mentioning that many Syrian fighters sent by Turkey to Libya have also fled to Europe in general and Italy in particular. One report described how 17 fighters arrived at the Italian mainland on boats that sailed from ports controlled by the Al-Sarraj government, while many more former fighters who fled the battlefield are reportedly on their way to Europe.
The Iranian regime sent many heavily indoctrinated fighters to Syria. They are largely recognizable by their brightly colored, often red, bandanas decorated with sectarian slogans. Tehran claims that these fighters are performing their religious duties. In addition, it has claimed that they volunteered to fight in the ranks of Iran’s army under the rule of the Islamic Republic. Turkey, which is following in the footsteps of the Iranian regime, is learning from Tehran and indoctrinating the fighters it has dispatched with an ideology allegedly based on restoring the Ottoman Empire. These loyalist fighters also wear bandanas similar to those of the Iranian fighters. Ahmad Shihabi, a top-ranking commander in the Syrian National Army that is loyal to Turkey, said in an interview broadcast on Akit TV last month: “We are willing to sacrifice our lives, our children, and our elderly for the sake of our country… for the sake of the Ottoman Caliphate. We will go wherever there is jihad. We won’t stop.”
In conclusion, both Iran and Turkey are using Arab fighters to kill their Arab brothers in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and other conflict hotspots in order to fulfill their own self-serving, nationalist projects.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami