A Russian paramilitary group with alleged links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has been recruiting young Syrians to fight alongside troops supporting rebel leader Khalifa Haftar in Libya, IranWire has learned.
Recent events in Libya and the shift in Haftar's control there have exposed the extent of Russia's influence in the country. It has become evident that Russia has intensified its efforts to recruit civilians in Syria and former members of the Syrian opposition to fight alongside the militias of retired Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, who is trying to topple the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord.
These Russian endeavors coincided with the Syrian regime's re-opening of the Libyan Embassy in Damascus in early March, following its closure in 2011. The measures have also coincided with the Libyan Embassy's reception of Khalifa Haftar's "interim government" after a Haftar-backed Libyan delegation traveled to Syria and signed a memorandum of understanding to reopen embassies on both sides, at the same time pledging to secure political, security, and intelligence coordination and consultation to fight what they described as "terrorism and Turkish aggression" against Libya and Syria.
A citizen journalist from the Syrian governorate of Al-Quneitra told IranWire that Russia has recruited young Syrians to fight in Libya alongside the government of retired Major General Khalifa Haftar in order to protect its interests there.
Abu Umar Al-Naimi from Al-Quneitra confirmed to IranWire that a recruitment operation had taken place in the town of Mumtana in Al-Quneitra Governorate in late April: 350 young men between the ages of 20 and 30 were sent to a training camp belonging to the 18th Division of the Syrian regime's forces in Homs Governorate, central Syria, in preparation for their transfer to Libya.
Al-Naimi added that the youth were recruited in Al-Quneitra by Muhammad Al-Ar, who goes by the nickname Abu Jafar Mumtana, and who was formerly the commander of the Elite Brigade in the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. The brigade was one of the largest factions in the opposition army fighting against troops loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad in Al-Quneitra, which, Al-Naimi said, became one of the "most important arms of the military security forces" of its Sasa branch operating in the city after the settlement agreement of 2018 took place in southern Syria. The agreement between rebel opposition forces and the Syrian government was sponsored by Russia, and resulted in opposition forces leaving the Al-Quneitra area.
A journalist going by the name Abu Hassan Al-Joulani, and who is also from Al-Quneitra, stated that the group that left for Libya in late April is the first batch of soldiers to leave Al-Quneitra in exchange for seductive sums of money of up to US$2000 per month per fighter, with three-month renewable contracts for whoever wishes to extend them.
Al-Joulani believes that the fighters were "deceived" as the combat mission was meant to be limited to protecting oil wells in Libya. However, a Russian officer (who is in charge of the camp in Homs Governorate) confirmed to them that their mission was to "liberate Libya from terrorism" and fight alongside the Haftar government in order to take control of the capital, Tripoli.
Russian Endeavors: Between Success and Failure
The Russian Wagner Group has successfully managed to recruit men from Syrian cities and towns to its army of cross-border militias, while at the same time failing to persuade others to fight in Libya.
According to information obtained by IranWire from an individual who attended the meeting, a Russian officer met with leaders of groups affiliated to security branches in the city of Daras in order to recruit people to fight alongside Haftar's forces in Libya.
At the meeting, the Russian offer included a monthly provision of $1,000 to each fighter under a two-month contract, renewable for whoever wishes, in exchange for fighting within the Russian Wagner Group alongside the forces of retired Major General Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
"The Russian offer was rejected by the majority of people in Houran,” Abu Muhammad, a member of a central committee in Daraa, told IranWire.
However, a number of group leaders did agree to the Russian offer, including Arif Al-Jahmani from Sida, Thair Abu Al-Layl from Al-Sanameen, and Wasim Zarkan from Kafr Nasij.
In turn, the director of the independent Houran Media Foundation, Akram al-Mufalani, told IranWire that the youth of Daraa and Al-Quneitra governorates were being recruited for the benefit of the Russian Wagner Group and to protect oil installations in Libya.
Al-Mufalani noted that after the fighters arrived at the 18th Brigade camp in Homs Governorate, they were informed by the Russian officer that their mission was "to fight alongside the Haftar government to liberate Libya from terrorism," which prompted a number of them to ask to return to their villages.
According to Al-Joulani, the young men who refused to go to Libya were able to return to their towns after making contact with their families and informing them of the reality of the mission assigned to them, who in turn put pressure on Abu Jafar Mumtana and forced him to return their sons from Al-Furqalas camp in Homs Governorate.
In an exclusive interview with IranWire, a man from Al-Quneitra whose brother was one of the fighters from Mumtana, and who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, confirmed that the young men had been deceived: they had been promised that they could count their combat service in Libya towards their compulsory military service in Syria; that they would receive salaries ranging from between $1500 and $2000 per month; that their duties would be limited to protecting oil facilities; and that they would be allowed to visit their families once every three months. The source said that about 100 fighters had returned to Syria, while others stayed to fight in Libya for more money.
The source pointed out that the fighters had been recruited from the north of Daraa and Al-Quneitra Governorates from the towns of Mumtana, Um Batna, Mashara, Al-Mal, Kafr Nasij, and Al-Tiha, and that most of the fighters, who had previously fought in the opposition Elite Brigade had been engaged in battles against the Syrian regime forces.
It is worth noting that the Libyan government has stated that a number of flights recently arrived in Benghazi from Syria carrying a number of fighters and experts on board preparing to support Khalifa Haftar's forces.
In a statement issued by the interior ministry of the internationally-recognized Libyan National Accord government, it said: "The experts have links to the Russian Wagner Group, which includes mercenaries, as well as links to (Lebanese) Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards."