While a ceasefire in Syria has reduced combat between rebels and government forces, mercenaries from the two sides are still fighting in Libya on behalf of their Russian and Turkish backers, AFP reported.
Turkey supports some Syrian rebels and Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord, while Russia supports Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and Libya’s eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar.
Ankara and Moscow brokered the recent truce in Syria, but fighting is ongoing in Libya, where Haftar’s forces have been trying to seize Tripoli for over a year.
A recent rapprochement between Assad and Haftar shows the increasing overlap between the two conflicts.
In March Libya’s parallel eastern government reopened the Libyan Embassy in Damascus after it was closed in 2012, while flights recently resumed between the Syrian capital and Benghazi, Haftar’s domain 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) east of the Libyan capital.
A recent confidential United Nations report identified 33 flights by Syria’s private Cham Wings Airline to Libya this year, believed to be carrying Syrian mercenaries.
“It is estimated from ground sources that the number of Syrian foreign fighters supporting [Haftar’s] operations is less than 2,000,” wrote the UN experts, who are monitoring an arms embargo on Libya.
The experts alleged that Cham Wings flew the Syrians to Libya for three-month contracts with Russian private military company Wagner, who reportedly recruited the mercenaries to fight for Haftar. Moscow denies any role in the presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya.
When the UN panel asked Damascus about the flights to Benghazi, the Syrian government said the flights were for civilians, “particularly those Syrians living in Libya.”
“The panel is unconvinced of the veracity of that response,” the UN experts wrote.
The experts estimated that up to 5,000 Syrian mercenaries may be in Libya, including “those fighters recruited by Turkey in support of the GNA.”
Turkey has acknowledged sending fighters to support the GNA in Libya but has not specified the number.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights believes the number to be much higher and says Turkey has sent 9,000 Syrian mercenaries to Libya, including 150 minors.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said that “3,300 more fighters are being trained in Turkish bases” before being sent to front lines south of the Libyan capital.
Abdel Rahman said the Syrian mercenaries belong to the National Army, a coalition of pro-Turkish Syrian rebels based in Idlib province, and estimated that 298 of them have been killed in Libya, including 17 child soldiers.
He was unsure of the number of Syrian mercenaries supporting Haftar.
The observatory reported that a new plane carrying at least 122 Syrian rebels arrived in Libya on Sunday.