By Lindsey Snell
On September 22nd, I received several reports from sources inside the Syrian National Army (SNA), the umbrella organization of all Syrian opposition factions backed by Turkey, that the first deployment of SNA men to Azerbaijan had taken place. For months before this, rumors that Turkey would be sending militants to Azerbaijans had been swirling among the SNA. “The men were taken to Turkey, forced to shave their beards and wear civilian clothes, and then they began their journey,” a Hamza Division militant in Afrin said.
Days later, reports emerged that Syrians had been among those killed as the tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area escalated. “They tricked us. They told us we were coming to guard a Turkish base. Then we get here and it’s fighting, right away, it’s fighting. The sons of bitches will not return us,” said a Hamza Division militant in Azerbaijan. “The fighting isn’t like anything I have seen. It’s like a movie. It’s constant bombardment.”
This isn’t the first time Turkey has sent their Syrian mercenaries into foreign conflicts. Since December 2019, as part of an agreement with the Tripoli-based, UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Turkey has been sending SNA militants to buttress GNA-affiliated militias against the rival Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. SNA militants signed up for deployment en masse, lured by promises of salaries around $2000 a month, exponentially more than the ~$100 such fighters would receive in Syria.
In reality, none of the dozens of SNA militants I’ve communicated with in Libya received more than a fraction of the payment they were promised. Across all factions, the average monthly payment of an SNA militant in Libya is around $400. Most I’ve spoken to openly admit to looting civilian homes to supplement their incomes.
Most of the SNA militants didn’t know much about the situation in Libya. “We will be there to fight Russia,” one SNA militant told me. “Haftar wants to destroy the Sunnis,” another said, unaware that Haftar, like the vast majority of Libya, is a Sunni. Of the dozens of Syrian mercenaries I was able to communicate with in Libya, all said that they were told to expect little combat.
Initially, the mercenaries’ expectations of their Libyan deployment were met. The men lounged in plush villas in and around Tripoli that had been abandoned by civilians fleeing the fighting. They told their friends in Syria it was an easy time and encouraged them to come, too. Then, intense fighting between the GNA and LNA began. Some factions, such as Sultan Murad, lost hundreds of men over the course of a few weeks. “The Turks said they would be with us,” one Sultan Murad militant in Ain Zara said. “But they’re not with us. We’re dying alone. The bodies of our men are rotting in the streets.”
In June, GNA forces, backed by SNA militants, captured the city of Tarhuna from the LNA. The GNA made a push for the strategic city of Sirte immediately after and were repelled by LNA forces. Since then, for the most part, fighting in Libya has stalled. Syrian militants in Libya have had little to do. Those who have been in the country for several months have been granted new freedoms, such as permission to leave their bases in civilian attire without a Libyan escort, a luxury previously forbidden by the GNA.
Despite their apparent lack of purpose, Turkey continues to send SNA forces to Libya. “I should return to Syria soon,” said one Faylaq al-Majd militant who has been based in Misrata for several months. “I’ll prepare myself quickly, and then I’ll go to Azerbaijan. They just sent 450 to Misrata from Syria to replace the ones who have been here for a long time. Most of us will go on to Azerbaijan.”
For as little as the SNA militants knew about Libya before agreeing to go there to fight, their knowledge of Azerbaijan is even more lacking. SNA factions are exclusively Sunni and adhere to an extremist interpretation of Islam. Azerbaijan is a Shiite-majority country, a detail few of the Syrian militants were initially aware of.
“We can’t fight alongside the Shias,” one SNA militant said, in a recording disseminated across several factions. “I understand if you want to go to Azerbaijan, and it’s not a problem. I know financially, things are hard. But the Shias are our enemies more than the Christians are Jews.”
Some SNA militants in Libya were less conflicted about supporting what they consider to be an enemy force. “We’ll fight whoever,” said the Faylaq al-Majd man in Misrata. “I swear, we’ll steal the cloth off the Kaaba [the holiest site in Islam]. Maybe that’s why they want to send the ones who were already in Libya for a long time. They know we will do anything for money.”
It’s unclear whether reports of hellish conditions from their SNA brethren in Azerbaijan will deter more from agreeing to join the fight there. “People are dead. Torn to pieces. There are 35 people we don’t know anything about,” one said today. “There hasn’t been one Azerbaijani or one Turk with us when we are fighting. So many of us want to return to Syria, but they pulled their weapons on us and forced us to stay and keep fighting.”
Lindsey Snell is a print and video journalist specializing in conflict and humanitarian crises. She has produced documentary-style videos for MSNBC, VICE, Vocativ, ABC News, Ozy, Yahoo News, and Discovery Digital Networks. Her print work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast, al Araby and others. One of her pieces, on Aleppo schools hit by airstrikes, won an Edward R. Murrow award in 2016.