Russia and Syria send mercenaries to Libya, despite truce

Hundreds of Syrians deployed to Libya despite ceasefire: report
3 min read
24 June, 2021
Despite a ceasefire signed in October, Russia and Syria have continued to send "hundreds of Syrian mercenaries" to fight in Libya, a new report alleges.
Syrians were sent to Libya for "protection services," but in reality, have served as mercenaries.

Hundreds of Syrians have been sent to fight in Libya by the Syrian government and Russian security firms in violation of the October ceasefire in Libya, a new report from Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) revealed on Thursday.

The report details how Syrian government organisations, including National Defense Militias (NDF) and Baath party offices, recruited mostly Syrian civilians to fight in Libya alongside the Libyan National Army (LNA) during a six-months period between October 2020 and April 2021. The Libyan ceasefire agreement signed on October 23, 2020 specifically stated that all foreign fighters must leave the country before January 23, 2021.

Recruits are told that they would be paid a generous $1,000 a month (average monthly wages range from $15-$25) and that any potential issues they might have with Syrian security forces will be waived if they enlist. Deployment to Libya also exempts them from conscription in the Syrian army - often a death sentence if they are sent to the frontlines in Idlib or to comb the central Syrian desert for IS fighters.  

Poverty is a compelling factor for recruitment, as over 80% of Syria’s population lives below the poverty line. One of the sources interviewed in the STJ report noted that after his cousin returned from his service in Libya, "he was able to buy a house, where previously he could not afford a pack of cigarettes".  

After enlisting, recruits are screened and assessed by the Wagner Group, a Russian private security firm known for militarily supporting the Kremlin’s allies in Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Libya, among other countries. Once they arrive in Libya, the Wagner Group assigns Syrians to specific duties and locations, and supervises them for the duration of their duty there.

Nominally, Syrians deployed to Libya are only meant to work in service or guard roles, but according to a leaked copy of an employment contract, recruits agree to serve in both "service and combat" roles, which indicate that Syrians are "likely to be used as mercenaries in military activities", according to the STJ report.

Recruiting and employing mercenaries in Libya is not only a violation of the ceasefire there, but also of international law, as Syria has been a signatory to a UN convention against the use of mercenaries since 2008.

Further, at least four children were sent to fight in Libya since October 2020, according to local sources quoted in the STJ report.

Libya has been embroiled in civil war since Arab Spring protests led to the removal of the Muammar Gaddafi's government in 2011.

Since then, the country has been mainly split between the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the LNA, the former backed by Turkey and the latter by Russia and Egypt, among others. The October ceasefire has held up so far, and elections are tentatively planned for December 24.

Syrians are fighting as mercenaries on both sides of the Libyan conflict, as Turkey has deployed Syrians from the opposition-held areas in the northwest of the country, while Russia deploys them from regime-held areas.

The UN says there are 20,000 foreign fighters in Libya, of which 13,000 are Syrian, according to informal estimates.