Mercenarism tarnishes Syrians’ image

A fighter carrying multiple Kalashnikovs

Mercenarism tarnishes Syrians’ image

A fighter carrying multiple Kalashnikovs

A fighter carrying multiple Kalashnikovs


Ali Darwish- Zeinab Masri- Nour al-Deen Ramadan

“ We wanted to lift ourselves out of poverty, and that’s why we decided to fight for other countries’ interests,” with these words Abu Mohammed, 25 years old, answered a question raised by Enab Baladi about his motives for going to fight in Azerbaijan as a mercenary.

Abu Mohammed (a pseudonym for security reasons) spoke about the Azerbaijani forces’ advancement at the Armenians’ expense in the ongoing battles in the disputed Karabakh region between the two countries. He also talked about his presence with other Syrian fighters on the first lines in the battles and guard points.

Leaving his wife and two sons behind, Abu Mohammed set off from his tent in the villages of Afrin, to a cantonment of fighters in Afrin, after he got his name registered with representatives of the “Sultan Murad” division, one of the Turkish-backed “National Army” factions.

He slept overnight in Afrin and moved in the morning to a military base in Hawar Kilis, Hatay Governorate, Southern Turkey, near the Syrian border.

Abu Muhammad was then transferred with other fighters by buses to Antakya, and they boarded an “Ilyushin Il-76” military plane from an airport to Ankara, then to the Azerbaijani capital Baku. They dispersed on the outskirts of the Karabakh region. They stayed overnight in the region to begin the battle on the following day.

At the beginning of October, social media accounts mourned Major Kinan Ferzat after being killed in the Azerbaijan battles.

Major Kinan Ferzat comes from a wealthy military family. He was among those displaced from the northern countryside of Homs in 2018, after an agreement with the Syrian regime forces. They went to the opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria. He was one of the soldiers in the “Sultan Murad” division.

Both Russia in the regime-controlled areas and Turkey in the opposition areas are actively recruiting Syrians to fight in Libya and Azerbaijan, despite their standing on opposite sides in these battles.

Turkey supports the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) forces in Libya and Azerbaijan in its battles against Armenia. On the other hand, Russia supports the Libyan National Army forces led by retired Major General Khalifa Haftar.

“Syrian mercenaries” has become a common term in the Arab media outlets referring to the Syrian fighters who have moved to Libya, Azerbaijan, and Armenia to participate in the ongoing battles.

In this file, Enab Baladi discusses the reasons that have led Turkey and Russia to rely on Syrian fighters in battles outside Syria, the social and economic reasons that have driven the Syrians to go into battlefields that have nothing to do with them, and the effect of this situation on the stereotype of Syrians.

Security companies are one of the new tools for gray-zone disputes and agency wars, which have been resorted to since the United States attacked Afghanistan in 2001.

What are Turkey’s and Russia’s motives behind using Syrian fighters?

Syrian fighters are recruited to carry out multiple tasks outside the borders by non-governmental security companies, whose activities began in Turkey after 2012 and in Russia since 2013, according to what researcher Abdul-Wahab Asi told Enab Baladi.

Security companies are one of the new tools for gray-zone disputes and proxy wars, which have been used since the US attacked Afghanistan in 2001.

The gray-zone: A geographical space experiencing a no-war no-peace situation, such as the Karabakh region, or conflict in an unstable security environment such as Syria and Libya.

Recruitment through security companies contributes to clearing governments’ responsibility for operations outside of borders, especially those in the gray-zone. As competition between Turkey and Russia becomes tougher, security firms become more suited to manage the two parties’ rivalry through the proxy war.

According to researcher Assi, the reliance on Syrian fighters is linked to the benefit of their combat experience, or the need for numerical abundance in covering cross-border fighting fronts or exoneration from liability.

The aim of using the Syrian elements by the Russians and the Turks is to supplement their forces with fighters, to support their friends on the fronts, and to reduce the presence of their elements as much as possible on different battlefronts, according to the interview of the military analyst, Major General Mahmoud Ali.

Major General Mahmoud Ali ruled out that sending fighters outside Syria might impact the local fighting fronts at present because most of the fronts are “quiet,” and no battles are raging. There are “large” forces in opposition-controlled areas.

He also does not see hidden reasons for using the Syrian fighters, especially the undisciplined elements in the opposition-controlled areas, because the ” Syrian National Army” bodies in the “liberated” areas can hold them accountable. If the abuse is significant, then the Turks take care of the matter.

Researcher Abdul Wahab Assi agrees with Major General Mahmoud Ali that sending fighters does not affect on the fronts, saying that in the complex environment of operations that most of the fronts are experiencing, Turkey uses a deterrence strategy in which it relies on its heavy military deployment as well as the implementation of extensive and continuous arming and training operations for opposition fighters, covering any attrition in its ranks.

As for Russia, it also relies on specific military units to carry out its combat operations, such as the “25th Division” special missions, commanded by Suhail al-Hassan, whereas the recruitment operations often affect elements who had previously fought in the ranks of the Syrian opposition, and carried out “settlement” agreements later on, according to researcher Assi.



Elements from the National Army participating in battles in Eastern Idlib - 24 January 2020 (Sultan Murad Division / Twitter)

Elements from the National Army participating in battles in Eastern Idlib – 24 January 2020 (Sultan Murad Division / Twitter)

Reasons why the Syrians are fighting overseas

Speaking to Enab Baladi, the economic researcher Jalal Bakar explained that soldiers could not be sent to fight outside their own countries, nor can they go by themselves, without a decision from their commanders or factions. When soldiers go on a military mission is not the same as going as militias.

When fighters go fighting by themselves, that is a “personal attitude,” not an organized matter, which means that going individually could be for the sake of money, but sending them in an organized manner comes with a decision, based on the importance of having any soldiers in an area to terminate the battle raging there.

According to the researcher, “We are not basically sure that fighters from Syria were sent to other war zones,” noting that going for money occurs when the fighters suffer from an economic situation in which they are unable to directly meet their needs and the needs of their families and relatives.

Nowadays, no one goes to any war zone if he is not obliged, either on the national level or on the financial level, according to researcher Jalal Bakkar.

Syrian citizens, wherever they may reside, whether in areas under the control of the Syrian regime or those under the control of the Syrian opposition, face hard economic and living crises. They basically suffer from the lack of job opportunities, shortages of a stable income, the volatility of the Syrian pound against foreign currencies, the high cost of basic commodities, increasing prices in general, and a stifling fuel crisis.

A regime that has wiped out national identity

 When talking about sending Syrian fighters to fight in countries other than their own and waging wars other than theirs, we must return to the Syrian regime’s nature. The Syrian regime has striven to devote all of its political strategy to “domesticate” the Syrian people and subjugate them into a specific ideology that is it is own.

This has been the case since the former Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in the seventies. He endeavored to “dismantle and disrupt” Syrians’ national identity, according to what the Syrian sociologist, Talal Mustafa, explained to Enab Baladi.

The Syrian regime, especially after 2011, after realizing the existence of a new will among Syrians, and among the youth in particular, and an identity crystallizing towards a national identity based on the concept of freedom, dignity, and citizenship, began with “dismantling” the Syrian national identity and even personal identity. Therefore,  it deliberately formed military militias and not an army on both sides of the conflict, pointing to the need to differentiate between the concepts of the army and the militia.

The regime has formed, in the areas under its control since 2011, loyal military militias that are not disciplined morally, socially, or militarily, which live on “pillage and theft,” according to Dr. Talal Mustafa.

Furthermore, the regime has facilitated the presence of militias alongside the Syrian militias it itself established and has called up “sectarian” militias that do not possess a national identity in their country, whether they come from Lebanon, Iraq, or Iran.

As for the Syrian opposition, several undisciplined military organizations and uncontrolled military militias were formed at the expense of what was initially called the “Free Army,” but they did not follow any guiding legal or ethical system. The “Free Army”  started with a group of elements and officers who had the moral, social, and political standards and even the Syrian identity. They defected from the regime’s army because their moral and social grounds did not allow them to sit idly and watch the killing of the Syrian citizens, refusing instead to participate in their killing.

The formation of militias was of the wishful making of the regime, according to Talal Mustafa. Thus, there have existed several militias, loyal or rival, socially or morally incoherent.

As a result of the cessation of the battles and, to a certain extent, the lack of ‘theft or pillage’ opportunities, especially in the areas under its control, the Syrian regime directed Syrian fighters in its areas and other areas to “mercenaries” fighting in Libya or Azerbaijan. Likewise, it could direct others to fight in other countries in the future.

“Fighting” is a profession

According to Mustafa, Syrian fighters go to fight in other countries for many reasons, the most important of which is “pressing subsistence needs,” For about ten years, these fighters have been earning their income through fighting or “pillage” and thefts. They no longer have the possibility to secure any material gain from this war.

Whether enrolled with the Syrian regime or the Syrian opposition, the fighters have not learned a profession to enable them to work and earn a living. If they leave fighting with the militias they have joined, they will become unemployed. They will not be able to work because the financial matters need a political solution to create job opportunities for these young people on both sides.

Job opportunities will be available only by finding a political solution and carrying out training sessions on new professions. Otherwise, these fighters will continue to make a living from the “killing profession” wherever they go to make money for themselves and their families.

“Fighting” has become a basic occupation, therefore, according to Dr. Talal Mustafa, when they go to participate in the battles of Azerbaijan or other countries, they go with a “functional combat mission, which generates a few USD dollars for them, and there is no political, national, or even humanitarian or ideological background warranting this occupation.”

The doctor emphasized the absence of any moral or ethical value system or any ideological background, neither patriotic nor religious, that could explain the Syrians’ fight in Azerbaijan or Libya or any other destination they were asked to go to.

In many countries, some groups and institutions work as professional organizations for fighting, guarding, or protection, especially the American ones in Iraq or many Arab countries frequented by fighters assigned assassination missions or dignitaries’ protection. In the Syrian case, fighters fall in this pattern, as they profess such an occupation. 

On the other hand, there does not seem to be a military reason that has prompted the fighters to accept recruitment operations carried out by the security companies. The focus is rather on receiving material compensation. However, the Syrian military mediators on both sides, who carry out the task of linking up the security companies with the fighters, may be excluded from this. According to researcher Abdel-Wahab Assi, they are concerned with financial rewards and protection and the desire to reinforce their positions within the military units they operate.


Members of the National Army in battles in Eastern Idlib - January 2020 (Sultan Murad Division / Twitter)

Members of the National Army in battles in Eastern Idlib – January 2020 (Sultan Murad Division / Twitter)

Media’s contribution to forming a negative stereotyped image about Syrians

A stereotype is generally known as a judgment made due to a superficial preconceived idea, in which there is not much information about a particular category or matter. Therefore, the public is led to extrapolate the feature and extend it to an entire community without making it specific.

The entrenchment of stereotypical images and ideas in society serves the media, governments, and capital owners’ interests. The negative stereotype plays a large role in justifying something because this something begins in the human mind well before it is concretized in reality.

Stereotypes are usually formed from images that the public receives from a social context that involves other community members and the media. The image may thus be incomplete and sometimes distorted from reality.

The term “Syrian mercenaries” began to widely circulate for the first time at the beginning of this year, after news of the transfer of fighters from the “Syrian National Army” (SNA) to Libya to fight alongside the Libyan “Accord” Government, which is supported by Turkey, against the retired Major General Khalifa Haftar.

The circulation of this term through the media contributed to the formation of a stereotype within the Arab public that a large group of Syrians are “mercenaries,” according to what Enab Baladi monitored from the accounts of Arab activists on “Twitter.” In fact, the number of fighters who were transferred to Libya does not, at best expectations, exceed a few thousand. 

Following the outbreak of confrontations between Azerbaijan and Armenia at the end of last September, the term “Syrian mercenaries” has quickly re-emerged in the media. The media raced to announce the news, with some exaggeratedly focusing on the size of the news item and amplifying it, according to Enab Baladi, through its coverage of several media reports.

Mass media coverage has shown that the news about the transfer of Syrian fighters to conflict zones outside Syria was exploited to reinforce political positions between the party supporting the medium in question and the party transferring the fighters.

In return, this news has contributed to feeding and shaping a stereotypical image among the Arab public that all Syrian opposition fighters are moved abroad or are ready to be moved outside Syria to participate in disputes fuelled by international parties.

Yazan Badran, a media researcher at the University of Brussels, said in his interview with Enab Baladi about the contribution of the media to the creation of this stereotype image of Syrians, that the use of the term “mercenaries” has a logical argument for using this attribute to label the combatants who can be designated as such whether they are Syrians in Azerbaijan or Libya (if they are loyal to the opposition or the regime), Afghans in Syria or Russians in Ukraine. Yet another strong argument contradicts this view, i.e., that the word “mercenary” carries a clear value judgment that describes these people. Therefore, the media should find a more neutral term such as ” fighter. “

According to Badran, this is a serious debate, and there is no one single correct answer. Some institutions such as “BBC” or “The Guardian” are still unable to define a clear policy on this term. However, they most likely will avoid using the word “mercenary” in their titles, but it can be found in the article’s body.


Sultan Murad Division training in Northern Syria - 8 August 2020 (Sultan Murad / Twitter)

Sultan Murad Division training in Northern Syria – 8 August 2020 (Sultan Murad / Twitter)

Two reasons to focus on the term

A well-known principle states that “every field tends to fill up instinctively,” which means that people resort to filling their knowledge gaps with information that may be dubious, and this information often forms stereotypes.

Researcher Yazan Badran believes that the media’s focus on Syrian combatants is based on two reasons. The first reason is more generic, and it is related to the coverage made by international media organizations to local conflicts from a regional perspective. This means that from the point of view of international media institutions, the regional level of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia (in terms of Turkish intervention, for example) has a higher information value for its audience than the local dynamics of this conflict. It is likewise for Libya and Syria (at least after the Russian intervention).

The second reason, which is more specific, concerns the conflict in Azerbaijan. Thus, the presence of foreign fighters in a given conflict indicates that it will turn into a regional conflict (Russian fighters in Libya or Ukraine, Afghans, and pro-Iranian militias in Syria, as well as Syrian fighters who are loyal to Turkey in Azerbaijan and Libya). Moreover, and always according to researcher Badran, this development, particularly concerning the conflict about Karabakh, a historical conflict contained and prevented from turning into a regional conflict, indicates that the rules of the game have changed, which from the media point of view, has high news value.

Impact on the rest of the Syrians

The media play an important role in influencing public attitudes, opinions, perceptions, and behavior patterns. The data, information, and images we receive influence the shaping of these images and trends. Therefore, the media’s use of the term “mercenaries” hurts the rest of the Syrian people.

The use of the term “mercenaries” will have a negative impact on the image of Syrian fighters (especially those who belong to the opposition) and on the Syrian opposition more generally among the public. Undoubtedly, some media organizations that use this term are happy with this, but the act predates the description, and that is the basis, according to Media Researcher Yazan Badran.

The role of independent Syrian institutions is to check this prejudice, according to Badran, by focusing on the factors that urge Syrian fighters to participate in conflicts in which they have no part, and by highlighting local complexities and differences, in other words, by clarifying the inner contradictions of the simplistic stereotype conveyed by the term “mercenary.”

Who are the “mercenaries”? 

According to the International Convention against the Recruitment Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, issued by the United Nations in December 1989, a mercenary is “any person specially recruited, locally or abroad, to fight in an armed conflict, and his primary motive to participate in hostilities is the desire for private  gain through compensation provided to him by one of the parties to the conflict.”

The agreement also describes a mercenary as not a party to the conflict, nor a member of the armed forces of the two parties, and one who has not been sent by a State that is not a party to the conflict  on official duty, in addition to his goal being personal gain and “overthrowing a government or otherwise undermining the constitutional order of a State.”

To sum up, the definitions covered by the Convention, which includes 21 articles, “mercenaries” are people who are recruited by one country to fight for it in another country to achieve political gains.

In a previous interview with Enab Baladi, the Director of Syrians for “Truth and Justice” Organization, Bassam al-Ahmad, considered that Syrian fighters who go to Libya are  “mercenaries,” wondering what would the motive of any Syrian person to fight in Libya under the banner of Turkey other than obtaining financial inducements.

Al-Ahmad told Enab Baladi that countries are now relying on a”mercenary,” other than their own fighters, to fight on their behalf in another country for political purposes. For, indeed, killing regular soldiers affects public opinion and impacts elections in that country.

There are many reasons that prompt combatants to fight under the banner of a country different from their own, including financial compensation that can reach hundreds of dollars, especially because of the deteriorating economic condition experienced by the combatant’s country, encouraging such combatant thereby to belong to the party that pays the most, that is in addition to the promises he is given such as acquiring the nationality of the country under whose banner he is fighting upon his return from combat.


Members of the Syrian regime forces on a hillside in the city of Daraa, south of the city – 2 February 2020 (AFP)

“Mercenarism” … an age-old phenomenon

The term “mercenary” is not new. It is an old phenomenon, and countries and empires have followed it over the past centuries, including the Egyptian or Pharaonic or British Empires. According to what researcher Basil Youssef al-Nayrab says in his book “Mercenaries, Shadow Armies.”

In his book, published in 2008, the researcher monitored the growth of the phenomenon of “mercenaries” in hot conflict areas. It was either “to save the regular soldiers’ lives, or because the regular soldiers were unable to run things and control the inflamed areas, and even when (the mercenary) is killed or dragged along the streets and burned, or even captured, no one mourns him, or collects his remains, or even negotiates for his release.

 In the current era, private (non-governmental) military and security companies have proliferated, recruiting fighters and prompted them to fight in other countries, such as the American “Blackwater” company that fought in Iraq.

Fuzzy laws for “mercenaries”

Despite international warnings to states against recruiting “mercenary” fighters and using them as a means to violate human rights and commit massacres and crimes, the laws governing this phenomenon are still fuzzy and dependent on the existing political climate, as no mercenary has been publicly and clearly prosecuted in international courts to this day.

The International Convention on the Recruitment of “Mercenaries” indicated that “the recruitment, use, financing and training of mercenaries should be considered as offenses of grave concern to all States, and that any person committing any of these offenses should either be prosecuted or extradited.”

Mercenaries” in Syria

Syria witnessed the arrival of Russian “mercenaries” through the “Wagner” Group, which is the official name of a private military company that recruits, trains, and then sends Russian “mercenaries” to fight. It is closer to the armed formation that performs the same duties as the army, but it is organized and funded by individuals and not by the State.

For its part, the private Russian newspaper “RBK” estimated Russia’s expenditures on the participation of “mercenaries” in Syria’s operations at more than $ 150 million, until the date of the article’s publication in September 2016.

According to the newspaper, the wages of the “Wagner” elements range from about 1,500 US dollars during training at the “Molkino” base in Southern Russia to five thousand US dollars during participation in operations in Syria.

Iran has also recruited tens of thousands of fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Lebanon to support the Syrian regime.

Iran has taken advantage of its Afghan refugees’ precarious legal status, estimated to number about 2.5 million, and has recruited 14-year-old children to fight in Syria. According to the Human Rights Watch Organization, it has also provided incentives by offering Iranian citizenship to their families in case of death, injury, or capture during their military missions.


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