On May 4, Libya’s new interim government demanded that Turkey remove its forces from the country, which for the past decade has been riven with war involving foreign countries.
“We call on Turkey to cooperate with us to put an end to the presence of all foreign forces and mercenaries, in order to preserve the sovereignty,” Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush told a visiting Turkish delegation in Tripoli on May 4.
But Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded that his country’s military came at the request of the Libyan government and should remain to train the Libyan troops. In January 2020, Turkey announced it has begun sending regular troops to aid the government in Tripoli, but Ankara has denied ties to foreign mercenaries in Libya.
On May 6 in Germany, Cavusoglu said:
“We agree that all foreign mercenaries in Libya need to leave the country. But there are also bilateral agreements (with the Libyan government for Turkish troops to be stationed there). And that is a different issue. And we cannot and must not prevent such a cooperation. And one must not call those instructors mercenaries.”
That is misleading. The statement ignores multiple credible reports that Turkey has recruited Syrian mercenaries and sent them to fight in Libya by the thousands – even child fighters.
The U.S. Defense Department's Inspector General concluded that in the first three months of 2020, Turkey sent some 3,500-3,800 Syrian mercenaries to Libya.
According to other estimates, Turkey has sent anywhere from 13,000 to more than 16,000 Syrian mercenaries. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported in July 2020 that “the number of recruits who arrived in Libya rose to 16,100 Syrian mercenaries, including 340 children under the age of 18.”
Turkey’s government recruited Syrian mercenaries promising $2,000 a month and Turkish citizenship, various Western media outlets reported in January 2020.
Skirmishing over the presence of foreign forces has continued since last fall.
Libya’s U.N.-supported Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the capital Tripoli, had been at war since 2011 with the self-styled Libyan National Army, under the command of Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France support Haftar, who controls Eastern Libya, while Turkey backs the Tripoli-based government.
A United Nations resolution adopted in October demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Libya “without further delay.”
All the nations involved in Libya largely ignored the U.N.’s January deadline to withdraw forces.The United States condemned violations of the deadline and called on all foreign powers to “immediately cease all military intervention.”
In April, the United Nations, Arab League, European Union and African Union also demanded “the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries from the entirety of Libya’s territory.”
The Government of National Accord, however, was removed in late March as it failed to implement a U.N. Security Council peace plan. With the agreement of the warring sides, the GNA was replaced by an interim government to ensure a smooth transition of power ahead of the general elections to be held in December.
The interim government also has consistently urged removal of all foreign forces from Libya.
In his remarks, Cavusoglu disputed the idea that “the Turkish presence in Libya is equivalent to that of illegitimate groups.”
The U.N. estimated in December that more than 20,000 foreign mercenaries are in Libya, including Syrians, Russians, Sudanese and Chadians.
German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that Syrian mercenaries recruited by Turkey could become a new security threat in the Middle East.
On April 29, The Associated Press cited unnamed diplomats as linking the killing of Chad’s President Idriss Deby with Chadian rebels “believed to have been armed and trained in Libya.”
Deby died on April 19 of wounds sustained during a fight with an unknown rebel group. U.N. Security Council members “linked the mercenaries and foreign fighters in Libya with what happened in Chad, and stressed the importance of getting the foreigners out,” the AP reported.