The Syrian Mercenaries Fighting Foreign Wars for Russia and Turkey
“They sent us directly to the front lines. The situation is terrible. Terrible. There is fighting every day. We are charged with storming. There is no rest. There are many men missing and we can’t get to them,” explained Abdel Basit, a Syrian mercenary speaking from Azerbaijan (for their safety, I have altered the names of all living Syrians in this report). What made this former Syrian rebel, displaced from his home in Rastan, in rural Homs, decide to sign up to fight in a foreign country? His father, who is still in Rastan, had to take out a large loan because of a family emergency, but “his salary is not enough [to pay it off]. I was forced to go. Against my will,” he said, repeating the phrase with exasperation in his voice.
Abdel Basit is one of hundreds of Syrian fighters who, since the beginning of September, have been dispatched by Turkey to wage war against Armenia in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. In this competition for regional dominance, Syria’s broken and broke men have become the cannon fodder. Four of Abdel Basit’s friends from Rastan were killed in the span of two days, shortly after disembarking in Azerbaijan. Two more were killed a week later.
The Syrian war, which has cost the lives of at least half a million people and displaced more than half of the pre-war population of 21 million since it began in 2011, is gradually turning into a frozen conflict: the front lines have stabilized since March 2020, the longest period since the outbreak of fighting in which there have been no new offensives. The ability of any force to advance is limited by the presence of foreign forces: the United States (still) in the northeast; Russia, Iran, and the Damascus regime controlling most of Syria; and Turkey in the north. Unable to shift the balance of power in Syria, Turkey and Russia in particular are looking for new arenas where they can project power and gain the upper hand in their competition with each other.
This might have meant respite from hostilities for the Syrians who have been fighting on behalf of Russia and Turkey in Syria, but that was not to be. Numerous countries that intervened in the Syrian civil war, including the United States, Israel, and Iran, created or supported their own Syrian proxy forces, but only Russia and Turkey began exporting theirs as mercenaries to fight in foreign conflicts. The mercenaries Turkey sent to Libya, starting in late December 2019, and now also to Azerbaijan, are largely drawn from the ranks of a proxy force created by Turkey back in 2016, now known as the Syrian National Army (SNA). Ankara used this force to secure its southern border against the Islamic State, or ISIS, in 2016, and later, again, to wage war against the Kurdish YPG militia (People’s Protection Units) in northern and northeastern Syria in 2018 and 2019. This proxy army was able to reengineer the demographics of the border regions, displacing most Kurdish inhabitants and replacing them with Arabs, themselves displaced by the Assad regime from further south.
Meanwhile, Russia drew the mercenaries dispatched it dispatched to Libya from the ranks of pro-Assad militias and formations of the Syrian Army, which Russia and its private security company, Wagner Group, have been cultivating since 2015. These forces include the 5th Corps, Division 25 (formerly known as the Tiger Forces), the Quds Brigade, and the so-called ISIS Hunters. Russia and Assad originally deployed these forces against Syrian rebels and ISIS, but starting in early 2020, Russia began recruiting men from these formations to travel to fight in Libya. In addition, Russia recruited some active service personnel and militia members in the Syrian National Defense Forces to fight alongside the Wagner Group’s forces in Libya, backing those of the rebel general Khalifa Haftar.
Typically, as civil wars wind down, men demobilize and return to civilian life. Indeed, many of the men recruited by Russia and Turkey to fight abroad had already quit fighting, either by finally being demobilized from the Syrian Army after eight to nine years of service, or by quitting the rebellion due either to injury or a sense that the armed rebellion has lost its way, or in an attempt to find a less dangerous profession. But the Syrian economy is so ruined that even the demobilized fighters who possess some labor market experience and skills struggle to find civilian jobs.
Then, too, there are the men who have even fewer alternatives. The nearly decade-long war has created a generation of young men whose only marketable skill is fighting. These are often young men who were still in school when the fighting started, whose education was then disrupted by the war. In my conversations with them, some insist on using only voice messages and calls, as they struggle to write even in the simplified version of Arabic used in speech.
My interviews with dozens of men who departed to Libya to fight alongside the two warring sides, or who were deployed or registered to deploy in Azerbaijan, show that their primary motivation for joining is monetary. In Syria, SNA fighters earn average wages of about 500 Turkish lira, generally paid every two months, which works out at about $1 per day. In northern Syria, this daily wage would cover the cost of two and a half packets of bread, which is about how much an average family consumes daily. In Libya, fighters were promised a far more generous monthly wage of $2,000, but in reality up to 50 percent of this is siphoned off by rapacious commanders who control the payroll. In Azerbaijan, the fighters I spoke to have not been paid yet, since they were deployed less than a month ago, but they were promised between $600 to $2,500 a month for contracts lasting three months: all salaries significantly higher than they could earn in Syria.
In turning Syrians into guns for hire, Russia and Turkey were helped by the collapse of the Syrian pound, stemming from Lebanon’s economic implosion, Covid-19-related lockdowns, the appearance of visible fissures in the leadership of the clannish Syrian regime, and the imposition of additional US sanctions under the 2019 Caesar Act. The rapid devaluation of the Syrian currency, starting in October 2019 and only stabilizing this June, by which time it had lost about half its value, led to a doubling in the prices of basic goods, including ones manufactured and grown locally. Impoverished Syrians had already cut out meat, poultry, and fruit from their diets; now they had to forego eggs and vegetables, too, and increasingly rely on cheap carbs, mainly bread. Malnutrition rates among Syrian children doubled in 2020.
“We were distributing bread in one of the camps in Idlib [Province], and I was surprised to see that it housed about a thousand families, almost all of them headed by women,” said Amer, an activist from Maarat al-Numan who was displaced from his hometown when the regime occupied it in February 2020. “When I asked them where their husbands or brothers were, they told me they went to Libya,” Amer told me. “I asked them, ‘How did you permit them to do this?’ They told me, ‘if they did not go, we would die of hunger or sell our honor [turn to prostitution]’.” So, rather than the wives selling their bodies, the men sold theirs.
Months after this bread distribution, Amer was shocked to learn that a cousin of his had been killed in Azerbaijan. Muhammad a-Shahne, a former fighter with a number of local rebel groups, quit military service and crossed to Turkey in August 2019, where he worked for a few months before deciding to come visit his family. While he was in Idlib, the Turkish authorities voided his residency permit, preventing him from legally re-entering Turkey, where his fiancée awaited him. He was desperate to make money somehow, because he could not afford either the cost of his fiancée’s dowry or a house in which they could live. He tried smuggling himself back into Turkey, but failed. It was then that he decided to sign up to fight in Azerbaijan.
“We treated him like I’d treat a brother. We assigned him to be a driver, to take fighters from the dormitory to the gathering points, no danger at all,” said Rustum, Muhammad’s commander who belongs to the Sultan Murad Brigade, part of the SNA, speaking to me from Azerbaijan. “We did this to keep him safe, since he is the only one [son] to his parents with his seven sisters.” Rustum had been visiting the hospital where his own brother was receiving treatment for injuries incurred in the fighting when Syrian fighters at the front line called for yet another medical evacuation. “It was not required of him to do the evacuation,” the commander said, of a-Shahne, “but he decided to go and was hit by a sniper bullet and martyred.” A-Shahne’s family has received no compensation. Unlike families of Turkish-backed fighters who were killed fighting in Syria and Libya, the mercenaries fighting for Turkey in Azerbaijan were not promised Turkish citizenship.
Others are driven by a different kind of desperation. Samir who signed up to fight in Libya in the ranks of the SNA, was one of the first men in Aleppo’s working-class Shaar neighborhood to organize protests against the Syrian regime in 2011. He later joined the armed rebellion, along with two of his brothers. The three fought in the ranks of various factions in the city and were injured many times. His brother Mansour nearly died in a chlorine gas strike in late 2016. After the city fell, the men were displaced to northern Aleppo Province, where, unable to find other jobs, they joined the ranks of the SNA. Finally, faced with his family going hungry, Samir decided to register to fight in Libya. “There, he became hooked on drugs,” said Mansour.
Drugs and alcohol are cheap and readily available in Libya, more so than in Syria. My conversations with fighters in Libya indicate that drug and alcohol use among them is widespread. Some of the fighters would call me up at odd hours, clearly intoxicated. Most of the salaries of the Syrian mercenaries in Libya (on both sides of the war) go directly to their families back home, to prevent the men from escaping with the cash by boats to Europe. But they do receive pocket money, about $300 monthly for the SNA fighters. Some of them spend much of it on partying. “After coming back from Libya, he spent all the money he got on drugs,” said Mansour. “Now he signed up to go to Azerbaijan. He needs the cash.”
Over the course of 2020, such mercenary deployments gradually became accepted as a social norm in Syrian communities, and the mercenary economy took on a more institutional character. Initially, Turkey had trouble persuading Syrians to fight abroad. SNA fighters resisted orders from their Syrian commanders to deploy to Libya and had to be coerced to do so, under threat of expulsion from the ranks. While fighting for Turkey in Syria could somehow be rationalized as serving the interests of the rebellion, fighting in Libya could not. With time, though, as the fighters found out that the promised, more lucrative salaries did come through, their attitudes changed. They saw more of their friends going abroad and gradually became accustomed to the idea, even, in some cases, excited by it. Now, both in regime-held areas of Syria and in the Turkish-controlled areas, to get accepted by recruiters and shipped overseas, the fighters need either to have a personal connection (wasta) or to hand over a cut on their future mercenary wages.
The recruitment of fighters to capture Nagorno-Karabakh has exposed the economic desperation of many Syrians—and the willingness of others to profit from it. An entire industry of recruiters and agents has emerged: in addition to the main recruiters—the commanders of three Turkish-backed factions, Fahim Issa (who leads the Sultan Murad Brigade), Sayf Abu Bakr (of the Hamza Division), and Muhammad Jassem, also known as Abu Amsha (of the Sultan Sliman Shah Brigade)—a broad network of profiteers has grown up among the associates of these commanders.
Starting in early August, these middlemen set up brick-and-mortar offices in Afrin, in northern Syria, to register recruits to Azerbaijan. They also created groups on the popular messaging service WhatsApp for the same purpose and advertised their offers in other WhatsApp groups used by SNA members. Some of the middlemen register men in exchange for a commission on their future income and then pass them on to recruiters closer to the commanders of the three factions, who also take a cut. The recruitment drive is now operating on a vast scale, with at least a thousand fighters already dispatched, and several thousands more being recruited, according to a recruit working with the Turkish-backed Sultan Sliman Shah Brigadefaction and a Sultan Murad fighter already in Azerbaijan. The recruiters are now even accepting civilians with no fighting experience.
Initially, these recruiters told prospective fighters they would simply be guarding oil facilities. But once Azerbaijan engaged in hostilities with Armenian forces, the Syrians were thrown into the front line. After dozens of them were killed in the span of a few days, the recruitment pitch changed. Today, some agents claim to guarantee that their recruits will be sent to safer areas; this is false, since Syrians cannot know which fronts will remain dormant and which will flare up. Other recruiters claim that the situation at the front has stabilized and that the fighting has become less deadly. (This claim also appears deceptive, since recruiters contacted over the past week have been refusing to register injured former fighters, on grounds that fighting requires perfect health.)
These falsehoods may seem pointless: enough men have heard by word of mouth, from friends and relatives already dispatched to Azerbaijan, about how heavy the fighting is, about the hours it takes to evacuate the wounded, leaving some to bleed out at the front. It is possible such lies are what Syrians need to hear to persuade themselves to fight, and maybe die, in a faraway place. Regardless, many Syrians feel compelled to go.
The recruitment to Azerbaijan and Libya reveal the desperate pragmatism of Syrians who have been reduced to subsistence in a country ruined by war—a war whose end is nowhere in sight, and which will, in any case, be determined by outside powers that helped destroy the country. The two countries that intervened most decisively in Syria to advance their interests, Turkey and Russia, as well as those that stood by as Syria drowned in blood, place virtually no value on Syrian lives, but see them instead as pawns in their own geopolitical chess game. Syrians—former rebels, militia members, and ordinary civilians—are simply leaning into the part they’ve been assigned: as pawns. Refusing to accept this logic means they and their families go hungry.
This change in attitudes has occurred across communities bitterly divided by the Syrian civil war. Hussein, an Alawi activist in Tartous, whose friend, a Syrian Army veteran, recently left to fight in Libya alongside the Wagner Group, explained how views in that community, which has generally backed the Syrian regime, have shifted over the course of this year. “Initially, there was a lot of criticism of those going,” he said, because of opposition to fighting abroad to advance the interests of a foreign nation. “Now people think that the person is taking care of his family. There is nothing left here.”
Featured image: Syrian National Army soldiers praying before an event mark the first anniversary of the Turkish-backed Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria Tal Abyad, Syria on October 13, 2020; many former SNA fighters are now deployed as mercenaries in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan. Bekir Kasim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Posted on New York Review of Books, October 16, 2020.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a research fellow at the Center for Global Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank, where she specializes in the Levant. A doctoral student in political science at Princeton University, she has also worked as a consultant with the International Crisis Group, Freedom House, the Atlantic Council, and the European Institute for Peace, among other institutions. (October 2020)
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