Parties in the Libyan conflict reached a permanent ceasefire agreement across the country on 23 October 2020. The agreement contained a term on the removal of various groups of foreign forces and mercenaries from the country before 23 January 2021. However, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) obtained information verifying that recruitment drives and mercenary deployment to Libya are still underway.
Hundreds of Syrians were transferred to Libya by armed Syrian groups and Russian security companies between 23 October 2020 and early April 2021. Furthermore, STJ discovered that the large percentage of recruits sent to Libya during the recent period were civilians from several Syrian provinces, including the countryside of Damascus, As-Suwayda, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa, as well as the city of Palmyra in Homs province. Notably, most of these provinces are controlled by the Syrian government.
The enlistments, but not transfers, were carried out by para-military groups directly linked with the Syrian government, including the National Defense Militia in Deir ez-Zor, the Army of Free Tribes in Raqqa, a number of Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party offices across various Syrian provinces, volunteer conscripts or soldiers with the 5th Corps of the Syrian Army, and al-Sayyad Company for Guarding and Protection Services, previously known as Islamic State (IS) Hunters.
These government affiliates lure Syrians into mercenarism in Libya by offering them salaries up to 1,000 USD a month and other tempting benefits, such as “writing off the names of those involved in security issues [from lists of people wanted by the Syrian government] and exempting potential conscripts from compulsory and reserve military service within the ranks of the Syrian army.” In doing so, recruiters exploit the disadvantageous humanitarian and economic conditions suffered by many Syrians as a result of the ongoing conflict.
After being recruited, informed sources and eyewitnesses interviewed by field researchers with STJ testified that the Russian Wagner Group is practically responsible for vetting the new recruits. Once Syrian recruits arrive in Libya, the company supervises the assignment of fighters to military bases, camps, and facilities, allegedly to perform guard services.
In addition to witness testimonies, STJ obtained a list of names likely sent by Syrian-armed or partisan bodies to Russian forces in September 2020. The list contains the names of 15,688 Syrian citizens. The sources which provided STJ with the list claimed that these names belong to recruits approved for deployment in Libya. Syrian entities responsible for recruitments appear to have preliminarily approved the recruits, then provided the Russians with detailed personal information about the people on the list, including the person’s name and surname, the names of his father and mother, and his place and date of birth, including his residence and additional remarks. STJ could not verify whether the recruits discussed in this report had their names included on this list.
Within the context of continued recruitment of Syrians as fighters to Libya, STJ also obtained evidence that the Turkish government— another actor in the Syrian conflict recruiting and deploying mercenaries — continued sending Syrians from the areas where they maintain a military presence to Libya to participate in combat alongside the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA). Turkey not only transferred men to Libya, but additionally trained Syrian women to perform medical and logistical tasks before flying them to Libya, as well as additional transfers of civilian police personnel with their families.
Recruiters in areas controlled by the Syrian government continued the same mercenary transfers and flight routes they used in the past. They deployed Syrian recruits to Libya on board civilian carriers, such as Cham Wings Airlines, or military aircraft. When flown on military aircraft, recruits left Syria from the Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia Province, landing at either al-Khadim Airbase or Benina International Airport, the two major arrival destinations for recruits previously deployed to Libya.
To obtain details on the use of civilian carriers for military purposes, STJ interviewed a source with Cham Wings Airlines. The source said that at least 30 flights took off from Damascus International Airport to the Libyan city of Benghazi, flying recruits between early January and early April 2021. Furthermore, the source pointed out that over 30 similar flights were carried out from late October to late December 2020.
Additionally, STJ accessed information demonstrating that even though Syrian recruits were recently being assigned only to protection and guard services at military camps and facilities, their recruitment contracts clearly indicate that they must also perform combat-related tasks. This information is corroborated by a copy of a recruitment contract published by the news website Suwayda24. The second party to the contract—signed in As-Suwayda province— is al-Sayyad Company for Guarding and Protection Services. Article (11) of the contract defines the service term. The article reads: “For three months, the worker [recruit] shall continue to carry out his service and combat duties.” The nature of the duties the recruits signed up for is reemphasized in Article (12), reading: “The worker, while working for the Company and for the duration of his service and combat tasks, is obligated to complete confidentiality and not to disclose, by any means, information that indicate his location or the nature of the tasks assigned to him.”
Image 1- Copy of the contract with the al-Sayyad Company for Guarding and Protection Services, overseeing recruitment of Syrians to Libya as fighters. The copy shows Article 11, discussed above. Credit: News website Suwayda24.
These articles are concerning because they indicate that contracted recruits are likely to be used as mercenaries in military activities, especially as a former report by STJ exposed that the Russian Wagner Group, colluding with entities affiliated with the Syrian government, recruited 3,000 Syrian civilians and fighters from across the country. The company sent the recruits to fight in Libya beside the Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, against the Turkey-backed GNA, commanded by Fayez al-Sarraj.
Therefore, even though hostilities in Libya have stopped under the recent ceasefire agreement, affiliates of the Syrian government continue to use their headquarters to enlist Syrians under written contracts that assign them both service and combat tasks. These government agents are also allowing recruiters access to Syrian military and civil airports to facilitate the transportation of Syrian recruits to Libya, where they will likely be used as mercenaries in conflict zones.
The Syrian government has been a signatory to the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries since 23 October 2008. However, the government has failed to establish measures to end the practice and abide by the provisions of the convention.
Article 1 of the convention defines a mercenary as a person who:
- Is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;Is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar rank and functions in the armed forces of that party;
- Is neither a national of a party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a party to the conflict;
- Is not a member of the armed forces of a party to the conflict; and
- Has not been sent by a State which is not a party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.
The Syrian government’s inaction regarding their affiliate’s use, financing, and recruitment of mercenaries on Syrian territories breaches several of the convention’s provisions, particularly:
- Article 2: “Any person who recruits, uses, finances or trains mercenaries, as defined in article 1 of the present Convention, commits an offence for the purposes of the Convention.”
- Article 5:
- States Parties shall not recruit, use, finance or train mercenaries and shall prohibit such activities in accordance with the provisions of the present Convention.
- States Parties shall not recruit, use, finance or train mercenaries for the purpose of opposing the legitimate exercise of the inalienable right of peoples to self-determination, as recognized by international law, and shall take, in conformity with international law, the appropriate measures to prevent the recruitment, use, financing or training of mercenaries for that purpose.
- They shall make the offences set forth in the present Convention punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account the grave nature of those offences.
Local sources, as well as civilians transported to Libya who have recently returned home, indicated that the Russian command had already returned batches of mercenaries deployed to Libya over 2020 to Syria. These batches returned after their contract terms—between three and six months— ended. The remaining batches were still performing tasks on the day this was written, on 30 April 2021, because many recruits opted to renew their contracts.
Additionally, STJ interviewed two local sources informed of the recruitments in Deir ez-Zor province; one with access to the lists of names of conscripts and recruits who registered to go to Libya in al-Bukamal area. The sources told STJ that recruitment brokers also continued to enlist and transfer children to Libya from late October 2020 to early April 2021. The sources confirmed that at least four children, two from Deir ez-Zor and two from Homs and Palmyra, were recruited. The sources said that Firas Iraqiya—a commander of the government-affiliated National Defense, which operates in and around Deir ez-Zor— enlisted these children and provided them with fake identity documents proving they are over 18.
The Recruitment and Transfer of Syrians to Libya
Syrians, both civilians and fighters, were first recruited in As-Suwayda province in December 2019. Later, similar recruitment drives were monitored in the provinces of Quneitra, Daraa, Damascus and its countryside, Homs, Hama, al-Hasakah, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zor. Tracking the practice, STJ previously published a report revealing that a Russian security company, aided by the Syrian government, recruited at least 3,000 Syrians to deploy to Libya as mercenaries alongside the LNA against the Turkey-backed GNA.
The Russia-led recruitment drives corresponded to similar drives by the Turkish government, headed by Turkish security companies and the factions of the opposition’s Syrian National Army (SNA). Keeping tabs on these operations as well, STJ published a report documenting that the Turkish command continued to recruit and transfer Syrians, both civilians and fighters, to Libya to fight as mercenaries alongside the GNA against the Russia-backed LNA. Notably, these last batches of fighters were flown to Libya after the permanent ceasefire agreement was signed on 23 October 2020.
As part of its ongoing effort monitoring the recruitment of Syrian children in hostilities, STJ also published a report confirming that Turkey and their affiliated opposition armed groups continue to enlist children into combat in Libya. For the purposes of the report, STJ obtained evidence that dozens of these child soldiers were stationed at military barracks in the Libyan city Tripoli, particularly at a military camp facility near Mitiga International Airport.
This extensive report draws 11 interviews. Field researchers with STJ interviewed a civilian recruited to Libya who returned to Syria in 2020, a relative of a second civilian, from As-Suwayda province, who was deployed to Libya in late 2020 and returned home in March 2021, as well as three media activists, two from As-Suwayda and one from Damascus’ countryside.
The field researchers also obtained the testimonies of a local source from Deir ez-Zor, and a female relative of a civilian who was recruited and transferred from Deir ez-Zor to Libya in February 2021, as well as the account of the relatives of a civilian who was recruited and transferred to Libya from Deir ez-Zor in 2021 and was still there on the day of reporting, 8 April 2021.
Pertaining to the recruitment of children, STJ reached out to two informed local sources, who confirmed that under-18 males were recruited using fake IDs.
To gain insights on the flights to Libya, STJ interviewed an employee of the civilian operator Cham Wings Airlines and a civilian, from As-Suwayda, who was recruited and transferred to the Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia.
Field researchers conducted all 11 interviews online between late 2020 and March 2021, while STJ’s digital forensic expert cross-checked the information obtained by the organization with flight schedules from Damascus International Airport to Libya during the period under study.
 Jaysh al-‘Ashayer (Army of Tribes) is a para-military armed group affiliated with the Syrian government forces. The army is backed by the Syrian Republic Guard and mainly operates in Raqqa province. The army is stationed over the area between the al-Sabkha and Ma’adan east of Raqqa, under the command of Turki Mikhlif al-Mer’ie, known as Turki al-Buhamad, who is a member of the al-Buhamad Tribe. Al-Buhamd is in charge of 200 to 1500 fighters.
 Several sources indicate that, in 2017, officers in charge of the Russian Khmeimim Air Base in Syria pushed for establishing a private security company called al-Sayyad. The company was founded and obtained a license to carry out protection and guard services. The company is headquartered in Hama’s countryside. Al-Sayyad is considered the Syrian façade of the Russian security group Wagner. Pertaining to its relation with the Russian company, al-Sayyad recruited thousands of Syrian young men to deploy them to the Russia-controlled gas fields and phosphate mines in the countryside of Homs. The sources also reported that in October 2020, al-Sayyad’s agents prepared lists with the names of potential recruits, intending to sign contracts and travel to the oil fields and gold mines that Russia seized near the Venezuelan-Colombian border. Other sources indicated that the al-Sayyad company, formerly known as IS Hunters, is commanded by Fawaz Mikhail Gerges, one of the key persons involved in recruiting Syrians to Libya, in cooperation with the Wagner Group. A number of IS Hunters were reportedly killed in US strikes on Syrian government forces and their allies in Deir ez-Zor in February 2018.
 “Putin and al-Assad throwing hundreds of Syrian young men as mercenaries into the Russian war; dozens are from As-Suwayda” (in Arabic), Suwayda24, 22 June 2020, https://suwayda24.com/?p=14322 (last accessed: 11 June 2021).
 “In Collusion with the ‘Syrian Government’, a Russian Security Company Recruits Thousands of Syrians as Mercenaries to Fight in Libya alongside ‘Haftar’,” STJ, 28 July 2020, https://stj-sy.org/en/in-collusion-with-the-syrian-government-a-russian-security-company-recruits-thousands-of-syrians-as-mercenaries-to-fight-in-libya-alongside-haftar/ (last accessed: 11 June 2021).
 “International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries,” OHCHR, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/Mercenaries.aspx (last accessed: 11 June 2021).
 “International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries: CHAPTER XVIII, Penal Matters,” Treaties UN, 4 December 1989, https://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=XVIII-6&chapter=18&clang=_en (last accessed: 3 May 2021).
 Firas Jaham, 37, known as Firas Iraqiya, is a resident of the Jourah neighborhood in the city of Deir ez-Zor. He joined the ranks of the National Defense Militia in 2011 and ultimately became their Commander-in-Chief.
 See footnote 4.
 “An Uncertain Fate Awaits Thousands of Syrian Mercenaries in Libya,” STJ, 3 March 2021, https://stj-sy.org/en/an-uncertain-fate-awaits-thousands-of-syrian-mercenaries/ (last accessed: 12 June 2021).
 “Syria-Libya: Child Soldiers Stranded at Mitiga International Airport,” STJ, 12 March 2021, https://stj-sy.org/en/syria-libya-child-soldiers-stranded-at-mitiga-airport/ (last accessed: 12 June 2021).