(Reuters) – A Russian drive to recruit Syrians to fight in Libya for militia leader Khalifa Haftar accelerated in May as hundreds of mercenaries joined, said five Syrian opposition sources and a regional source known to the case.
FILE PHOTO: Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar meets Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (not pictured) at Parliament in Athens, Greece, January 17, 2020. REUTERS / STAFF / File Photo
Private military contractor Wagner Group is conducting the engagement with Russian Army oversight, according to two senior Syrian opposition sources and the regional source. A former Wagner group member said it first sent Syrians to Libya in 2019.
The Russian Ministry of Defense and the Wagner Group did not answer Reuters questions.
Turkey, meanwhile, says it is providing military support to the other side of the conflict, the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in February that fighters from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army were in Libya as well as Turkey’s own military.
Russia has been a solid ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has helped him crush the uprising at home. Moscow’s involvement in Libya is an extension of its ambition to influence the project in the eastern Mediterranean, some experts say.
Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have also supported Haftar because they suspect the GNA of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group they strongly oppose.
Turkey, on the other hand, has entered into agreements with GNA across maritime borders and wants to protect its own interests in the region.
ECHOES OF SYRIA
Russia and Turkey’s involvement on opposite sides of the Libyan conflict has echoed the war in Syria, where they have also supported warring parties. Experts also warn that it could exacerbate the conflict.
“Russia and Turkey are both escalating their firepower and numbers in Libya, where Europe has been trapped on its heels,” said Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“Russia has tried to match Turkey’s efforts to send Syrian mercenaries, but with mixed results.”
Wagner has up to 1,200 people posted in Libya, according to a confidential U.N. report seen by Reuters in May. The Russian state has refused to have forces in Libya.
When asked in January whether the Wagner group is fighting in Libya, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if there are Russians in Libya, they do not represent the Russian state, nor are they paid by the state.
A spokesman for Haftar’s Libyan National Army denied that it had recruited Syrian fighters. It has repeatedly highlighted the presence of Syrians fighting alongside its enemy.
U.S. officials said on May 7 that they believed Russia was cooperating with Assad to transfer military fighters and equipment to Libya.
The Syrian government’s Ministry of Information did not respond to questions sent via email.
Haftar’s opponent, GNA, has been provided with drones, air defenses and advisers from Turkey.
GNA Deputy Defense Minister Saleh Namroush said his request for military support was a response to what he called “international interference in Libya.”
“Turkey is the only country willing to help us end the broad civilian killing and destruction of the UAE, Russia and others,” he said.
OFFERS FOR RENTING POSTS
New recruits to the Russian effort to support Haftar included 300 from the Homs area, among them former Free Syrian Army fighters, according to one of the two higher opposition sources, and approx. 320 from the southwest, said a third source.
The pace of employment increased as Libya’s fighting intensified and the war in Syria died, the regional source said.
According to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, which reports on the Syrian conflict using a network of sources on the ground, more than 900 Syrians were recruited by Russia for battle in Libya in May.
The fighters are being trained at a base in Homs before traveling to Libya, according to sources, citing salaries ranging from $ 1,000 to $ 2,000 a month.
The fighters’ move into Libya violates a U.N. arms embargo, and the U.N.’s Libyan envoy on May 19 called for the Security Council to stop “a massive influx of weapons, equipment and mercenaries.”
Many former Syrian rebels lagged behind in areas reclaimed by Damascus and its Russian allies, signing agreements that required them to pledge allegiance to the state. But their lives remain tightly restricted and monitored by authorities.
Since 2014, Libya has been divided between territories controlled by the Tripoli government and territory in possession of Haftar’s eastern based forces in Benghazi.
Haftar is supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt according to UK experts and some sources of security. The countries deny direct participation in the conflict.
Despite this backing, forces loyal to GNA conquered Haftar’s last major stronghold near Tripoli on Friday, with the sudden collapse of his 14-month offensive over the capital.
On Thursday, Erdogan pledged to increase Turkey’s support for its ally in Libya to unlock the gains. On Saturday, Haftar was in Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced a new peace plan.
The retreat, which reverses many of Haftar’s gains from last year, extends GNA’s control of most of northwestern Libya. However, Haftar and allied groups still control the east and much of the south, as well as most of Libya’s oil fields.
Editing by William Maclean and Mike Collett-White