“I never looted when I was in Afrin. But I did loot when I was in Libya. We all did. They stopped paying us”
“I just got back from Libya yesterday,” said Zein Ahmad, a Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) militant in Afrin. “But I had been trying to leave for more than a month.” When the Libyan National Army (LNA) neared Tripoli in April 2019, the rival UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli called on Turkey for military support.
Turkish forces began heavily recruiting militants from SNA factions in Syria to fight on their behalf, and began flying hundreds to Libya every week. The exact number of Syrian militants Turkey has sent is unknown, but estimates range from 5,000 to 17,000. Flights carrying Syrians to Libya continue, despite the Coronavirus pandemic.
Ahmad is a member of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, an SNA faction notorious for its bad treatment of civilians and a tendency to fight other SNA factions in the areas they invade. Ahmad had been based in Afrin with the faction since Turkey’s Operation “Olive Branch” in 2018. The Turkish invasion of Afrin led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. Ahrar al-Sharqiya has been accused of widespread war crimes in the city, including looting, murder, kidnapping, and serial rape.
When asked if he believed in Turkey’s mission in Afrin, Ahmad laughed. “I was a mercenary going to Afrin, and I was a mercenary going to Libya. There is no jihad. The jihad ended when [the Syrian opposition] lost Aleppo to Assad in 2016. Since Aleppo, it has been just money for us. We don’t care who we are fighting.”
Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s atrocities spread beyond Afrin when, in October 2019, Turkey launched Operation “Peace Spring” on North and East Syria. Ahrar al-Sharqiya militants stopped the vehicle of Syrian Future Party leader Hevrin Khalaf at a checkpoint they’d constructed along Syria’s M4 highway. The militants pulled Khalaf from her car, bludgeoned her, dragged her by her hair, and shot her five times. They posted video of the attack on their social media accounts.
Read more: investigative journal