Russia is sending Syrian fighters into Libya to back rebel commander Khalifa Haftar, according to a U.N. probe that suggests desperate militants left over from the Syrian civil war are now being paid to fight on opposite sides of Libya’s conflict.
While reports have swirled for months that Turkey was flying Syrian militants — including some with extremist ties — into Libya to support forces aligned an internationally-backed government in Tripoli, U.N. experts now say Moscow is now doing the same for Mr. Haftar in a bid to the Libyan capital.
The findings of a special U.N. panel examining the situation were reported on Wednesday by Bloomberg, which claimed to have viewed the panel’s first extensive report on mercenaries operating in Libya.
The news outlet said the U.N. report found 800 to 1,200 mercenaries from the Wagner group — headed by a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin — are engaged in a large-scale effort to bolster Mr. Haftar and that the effort has recently involved the flying as many as 2,000 Syrians into Libya to back the rebel commander.
The U.N. panel cited reports that Syrians in the town of Douma were being recruited on an $800 monthly salary and mentioned “credible” open source reports on Russian efforts to recruit Syrian fighters, according to a Bloomberg article.
The article dovetailed with an opinion analysis published Tuesday by Foreign Policy, in which Beirut-based freelance journalist Anchal Vohra asserted that Russia began turning to Syria for fighters in March after Turkey had already “flooded” Libya’s war with its own Syrian proxies.
“[Moscow] roped in its Syrian ally Assad to back its preferred Libyan warlord and began scouting for men willing to render services in a foreign conflict in exchange for cash,” she wrote, citing Syrian rebels as saying the recruitment was led by a Russian defense ministry official who was formerly an envoy to a Geneva-based effort aimed at ending hostilities in Syria.
The exposure of Turkish and Russian backing of opposite sides of the Libyan war during recent months has underscored the complexity of the conflict in Libya, which has vast oil reserves and is viewed as a Mediterranean gateway connecting Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
The country has gone without stable government since a 2011 rebellion — backed at the time by NATO and the administration of then-U.S. President Barack Obama — ousted and killed long-time Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
More recent years saw the United Nations recognize a Libyan government in Tripoli born out of U.N.-mediated talks in 2015. Qatar and Italy have support the Tripoli, although Turkey has emerged as its biggest backer. On the other side, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, France and Egypt are seen to back Mr. Haftar and his rebels.
Despite Libya’s geo-strategic significance, Trump administration has been slow to respond. It has preferred to stay out of the conflict, although administration officials have offered rhetorical support over the past year to both sides.
With that as a backdrop in February, a top Libyan official defended his government’s decision to accept help from Syrian militants — even though some are suspected of ties to extremist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State — saying Tripoli had no choice after being ignored by the United States.
“When you are drowning in water and somebody sends you a life jacket, what are you going to do — look at who sent the life jacket or take it?” Omar Maiteeq, a deputy prime minister in the Tripoli government told The Washington Times at the time.