Syrian prisoners of Libya’s conflict: Those who sent and received them remain silent

Prime Minister of the Libyan "al-Wefaq" government, Fayez al-Sarraj, Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, and Syrian prisoners in the hands of Haftar's forces (edited by Enab Baladi)

Prime Minister of the Libyan "al-Wefaq" government, Fayez al-Sarraj, Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, and Syrian prisoners in the hands of Haftar's forces (edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Taim al-Haj 

The presence of Syrian fighters for the benefit of both parties to the conflict in Libya is no longer a questionable assumption, as the social media accounts of the Libyan military factions are teeming with video recordings showing Syrians held prisoners whilst fighting in Libya. 

By the end of 2019, there was news spread about the presence of Syrian fighters on the Libyan soil, with a Turkish consent, fighting alongside the internationally recognized government of “al-Wefaq” against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA)/”al-Wefaq”, which is under the attack of the retired Major General Khalifa Haftar’s forces, who controls eastern Libya including its oil sources.

The Syrian participation in Libya’s conflict remained debatable for a few months, until the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, tackled it on five January of this year and talked about the deployment of non-Turkish soldiers fighting along the al-Wefaq government against Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya.

 Erdoğan did not disclose the nationality and number of those soldiers at that time, to reveal later on 21 February that members from the Syrian National Army (SNA) affiliated with the Syrian opposition are present alongside the Turkish military trainers in Libya.

Today, after more than two months have passed since the Turkish President’s talk, the picture has started to unfold more and more about the nature of the Syrian fighters in Libya.

Video footage from Libya shows confessions of some Syrian fighters who have been taken prisoners, saying that they came across Turkey to fight alongside the “al-Wefaq” government in exchange for financial benefits.

The arrival of Syrian fighters in Libya is not limited to those brought by Turkey, as Russia, which stands with Haftar, is also working to send Syrian fighters. Still, these videos were not published to illustrate that they were captured by “the government of al-Wefaq.”

The last Russian attempts to recruit Syrians to fight in Libya failed. On 12 April, media activists from southern Syria published photos of buses carrying dozens of young men, with whom Russia agreed to send them to fight in Libya alongside Haftar’s forces, against the government of al-Wefaq.

However, as monitored by Enab Baladi, the agreement was not implemented. Those young men appeared to figure out the truth behind their deployment to Libya, and the main purpose was to fight, not to guard oil wells, as Russia first agreed with them.

“ Al-Wefaq” answers Enab Baladi’s questions

Given this general scenario, a major question arises about the fate of the Syrians, who were held captive by the conflicting forces in Libya. The question here focuses on those who were brought by Turkey to Libya. To date, Turkey has not made an official statement about procedures that should be taken regarding the Syrians arrested by Khalifa Haftar’s forces, neither has the government of “al-Wefaq.” 

Enab Baladi posed this question to “the government of “al-Wefaq,” which the captured Syrian fighters said was the one that signed a contract with them to fight as “mercenaries” on its side against Haftar for monthly salaries.

The official spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the al-Wefaq government, Muhammad al-Qiblawi, responded by saying that what was aired by Khalifa Haftar-linked media was not either credible nor it can live up to be a documentation tool.

He reinforced his view, saying that video footage that appears to show a Syrian member fighting alongside the government of al-Wefaq is being portrayed as evidence of the Syrian participation in the Libyan war, but the footage turned out to be fabricated and that the prisoner is a Libyan fighter, not Syrian.

Al-Qiblawi refers to the video, which shows a man speaking the Libyan Arabic dialect, claiming that he is a Syrian fighter on the side of the “government of al-Wefaq” against Haftar. This video has been received with skepticism since it was first posted, and even Haftar’s media outlets backed out of publishing the video and deleted it.

However, Enab Baladi reaffirmed to Muhammad al-Qiblawi, the official spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the al-Wefaq government, that there are dozens of video recordings in which prisoners speaking the Syrian Arabic dialect circulated, without any fabrication, and provided him with some of these recordings.

 Al-Qiblawi responded by saying, ” the al-Wefaq government concluded a memorandum of understanding with the Turkish government, to provide it with logistical and military support, the equipment and soldiers who train our forces at various levels, and these soldiers are all from Turkey and hold its citizenship.”

Syrian National Army (SNA) made no comment

Enab Baladi asked about the fate of the captured Syrian fighters to two senior SNA leaders, but they only said that they did not know about these fighters.

Enab Baladi also asked this question to a spokesperson for one of the SNA factions who, in turn, asked to be excused from the answer, and not to be named.

The fact that the SNA has not issued any comment to date about the Syrian fighters held by Haftar’s forces coincides with an old statement by its spokesperson, Major Youssef Hamoud, who told Enab Baladi on 25 December 2019 that the information about a Turkish offer to send fighters from his forces to Libya is incorrect. He emphasized that “no offer was made to [the National Army] in this regard.”

International humanitarian law and mercenaries

Ibrahim al-Olabi, founder and director of the UK-based Syrian Legal Development Program, believes that the Syrian prisoners in Libya’s war are entitled to be treated humanely in accordance with the laws of war or the International Humanitarian Law (IHL- as it is known formally). Al-Olabi said that the prisoners shall not be tortured or ill-treated. They shall have the right to access food, water, and health in addition to communicating with their families. 

According to al-Olabi, if Syrian prisoners commit war crimes, they shall receive a fair trial in accordance with the IHL and within the principles and conditions of the trials, meaning that they have a constitutional right to self-defense and a public trial.

Al-Olabi pointed out that the Syrian and international human rights organizations can shed light on the way these prisoners are treated and demand that they must not be harmed. Al-Olabi stressed that he has not monitored human rights reports so far on this issue and that what is being reported about the existence of “Syrian mercenaries” in Libya is the only news.

Who are the mercenaries?

According to the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing, and Training of Mercenaries, issued by the United Nations on 4 December 1989, a mercenary includes “any person who is specially recruited locally or abroad, to fight in an armed conflict, and the mercenary’s primary motivation for taking part in hostilities is the desire for private gain via material compensation paid to him/her  by a party to the conflict.”

The convention also stated that the mercenary is “ not a member of the armed forces of a party to the conflict; has not been sent by a State which is not a party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces. In addition to the significant private gain, the mercenary aims to  overthrow a Government or otherwise undermine the constitutional order of a State; or Undermining the territorial integrity of a State.”

In short, the definitions contained in the convention, which includes 21 articles, mercenaries are people who are recruited by one state to fight for in another, with the aim of achieving political gains.


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