Syria’s Wretched Foreign Legion

Turkey and Russia deceived an entire generation of desperate Syrians into fighting foreign wars, then abandoned them

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Syria’s Wretched Foreign Legion
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels gather in a location near the town Taftanaz in northeastern Idlib province, on February 28, 2020/Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images

Mazen was building his family a tent when friends approached him about deploying to Libya as part of a Turkish-backed militia.* His family had been repeatedly displaced from their home in regime-held Syria and was settling into a makeshift encampment in opposition-held northern Idlib. His young son, Rami, was gravely ill. It was a life of extreme, untenable poverty. In July 2020, Mazen traveled over 1,000 miles in hopes of changing it.

Mazen was offered $2,000 for each month of deployment, a sum that could fund at least a year’s rent for a stable home in Idlib. His determination to enlist was bolstered by the compensation promised to his family should he die overseas. Turkish-backed forces advertised a condolence payment of $60,000, an almost unheard-of sum in wartime Syria. “There is death here, and there is death there,” Mazen reasoned, “but if I die there, the kids will live.”

The decision was not easy. “There were relatives who criticized us,” says Mazen. “‘Do you want to be a mercenary?’ But there was need … you’d see a sick child and you couldn’t do anything for him; that’s what made me leave.”

Turkish-backed recruiters told Mazen that he would be facing the Islamic State, Iranians, and Russians — the enemies of the Syrian revolution. He had doubts, given Turkey and Russia’s fragile ceasefire in Idlib. His doubts were soon borne out. He discovered on arrival that he had been deceived about whom he would be fighting and how. Turkish-backed fighters in Libya were pitted mainly against Libyans, and even other Syrians recruited by Russia. “It was a feeling that couldn’t be described,” says Mazen. “Fear of God because we knew we were fighting Muslims just like us. … I thought ‘this is haram.’ I tried not to kill.”

Commanders exacerbated the trauma with insults, humiliation, and beatings. “If you messed up a task or an instruction,” recalls Mazen, “they would beat you violently until they broke your bones.”

Fighters who contemplated leaving — of whom there were many — were dealt with brutally by the commanders.

One fighter who arrived 15 days after Mazen became “afraid of the battles” and told his commander he wished to return to Syria; guards broke both of his legs and threw him in the unit’s prison until his contract expired. Another young man was told “you can either return in a coffin or after your contract is completed.” Fighters who contemplated leaving — of whom there were many — were dealt with brutally by the commanders. Mazen, too, hoped to return early but was trapped.

Facing violence from all sides and with no way out, many fighters turned to alcohol and drugs. As much as 90% of Mazen’s battalion drank or used, including the commanders, he reported. Stimulant pills were a survival tool when battles lasted days and a second’s inattention could mean death. Meanwhile, hashish and alcohol offered a coping mechanism, even for the once devout.

Some fighters took desperate measures, intentionally shooting themselves to escape front-line fighting or to force commanders to send them back to Syria. Commanders ensured against such defections by withholding salaries until fighters’ contracts ended.

Mazen’s deployment was cut short by a head injury. Leaving one battle, he entered another — to get what he was owed. Mazen expected that some of his pay would be siphoned off by commanders and recruiters but hadn’t realized how much they’d keep. He only ever got half of the $2,000 he was promised. His commander stole his entire first month’s salary as “compensation for travel expenses.”

With the pay he did receive, Mazen built a one-room home for his family. His son, Rami, is still in and out of the hospital, and Mazen struggles to keep up with the bills. He was furious at his commander’s greed but only tried to reclaim his money through intermediaries and over text for fear of violent retaliation.

Mazen is among the thousands of Syrians who have fought as mercenaries in Libya, Azerbaijan, and possibly elsewhere, on both Russia and Turkey’s behalf. They are driven by dire financial need — debts to be paid, homes to be built, families to be supported — and a sense of futility. Dozens have been killed and hundreds have come back after their contractual deployments, but none return to the life they left behind.

Basam was 15 when the Syrian civil war began, and at 17, he dropped out of school to join the revolution. For years, he fought with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose coalition of rebel groups. But as the FSA slowly crumbled, so did Basam’s hope for a changed Syria.

Basam’s hometown in northern Hamah was recaptured by the regime. Displaced to opposition-controlled northwestern Syria, he could only choose between living under salafist-jihadist Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham or Turkish occupation. Forced to pay premium rents in cramped Idlib province, Basam was out of money.

When fellow revolutionaries abandoned the national cause for a personal one, Basam followed. Turkish-backed recruiters instructed him to come to Afrin, in Turkish-held northwest Syria, wearing civilian clothing. From there, he would travel undercover by bus into Turkey, then fly via commercial airline from Istanbul to Tripoli. In Syria, he had been a local, fighting openly for a revolution he believed in; in Libya, he would be a stranger, fighting in secret for an uncertain cause.

To preserve deniability, Basam and his fellow Syrians were isolated from their Libyan counterparts. Syrians were assigned to fight in different sectors than Libyans and sequestered on their bases when not in combat. From the Turkish perspective, their isolation had an added advantage: preventing fighters from establishing social networks that could facilitate escape.

The few Libyans with whom Basam did have surreptitious conversations painted a picture of a successful revolution — a jarring contrast from Basam’s experiences in Syria. Libyans, he claimed, could imagine an end to their war with the triumph of the anti-Gaddafi Libyan opposition. Impressed by their political know-how, Basam was all the more aware of the failings of Syria’s revolutionaries. If the Syrian opposition had been so unified, he thought, they may have been able to “settle the war militarily in their own country.”

Newfound clarity did not bring new hope, however. It only made Basam wish he could resume his pre-war life as a student. When he does, he will have little to show for the eight years he lost to the revolution. In the end, Basam had to pay his commander $600 for the privilege of returning to a shattered Syria.

Jasem never joined the Syrian revolution, having grown up in reliably regime-loyalist Latakia province. On the other side of the Idlib front lines, the local economy fared no better. At 26, Jasem needed a job and viewed foreign deployment as a worthwhile investment. He gave a Russian-backed recruiter a down payment to confirm his slot in a battalion headed to Libya. Recruitment fees range from $100 to $500, with fixers upcharging inexperienced fighters or reconciled rebels. Jasem paid $150.

Russian-backed forces in Libya operated a more institutionalized version of the same brutal industry. They deployed in battalions of fixed size, discouraging any individual attempts to defect or otherwise escape. Jasem soon tired of his role in Libya, but his commander quashed his hopes: he would return when his contract expired “and not a single hour sooner.”

Russian mercenaries, including members of the notorious Wagner Group, provided Syrian fighters training that “never stopped” in military camps in eastern Libya. Unlike Mazen, who was forced to beg for his salary, Jasem expects to be paid in full according to a fixed pay schedule upon his return. Fighters’ experiences under Russian command are more organized and consistent, but no less risk-laden. Jasem has no intention of reenlisting once he returns home.

Hossam did not tell his family he would be deploying to Azerbaijan. His childhood friend Tamer had recruited him for the Turkish-backed effort to retake parts of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. For both of them, the opportunity seemed too well-paid to pass up. Hossam was his mother’s only son and felt responsible for his six sisters. Tamer had five children. His family had been forced to move five times in six months due to rising rents in Idlib province. Each could earn a living in Syria, but only barely. After nearly a decade of fighting, Tamer still received only $25 per month in Idlib. Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, he could make 40 times as much.

Azerbaijan provided a glimmer of hope, not just for financial stability, but for a way out. Prospective fighters are sometimes told they or their families would be entitled to Turkish citizenship after their deployment. A foreign passport was worth more than any financial incentive and worth any risk. Hossam and Tamer promised to watch out for each other’s families if one didn’t make it back.

Tamer worried for his friend Hossam on the battlefield. The fighters around him included recently enlisted civilians “who had never before held a gun.” Turkish-backed recruiters had told them they would be guarding borders, bases, and gas fields. Instead, Tamer found himself in the midst of ferocious battles — fighting that “did not stop for even an hour.”

While Hossam was on the frontlines, his family believed he was working as a civilian in Turkey. They only learned of his deployment to Azerbaijan from his friends back home. They were distressed by the risk he had assumed for them; they called and demanded that he return to Syria. Hossam swore to come back as soon as he received his first salary. Ten days after arriving in Azerbaijan, and with return already on his mind, Hossam died on the battlefield.

There is no formal accounting for Syrian losses in Libya or Azerbaijan, on either the Turkish or Russian side. The fighters estimate that a few hundred have died in each theater. Countless stories of camaraderie and loss remain untold. Those who were able to return home were lucky; the bodies of the less fortunate piled up in Mitiga and Baku airports. Mazen shared his flight home with the bodies of three Syrian fighters, “one of whom was torn to pieces.”

Two days after his death, Hossam was flown back to Syria and buried by his mother and six sisters. Hossam’s death affected Tamer greatly. The grief he experienced watching fellow Syrians die in combat on foreign soil for foreign motives persisted as he attempted to reintegrate. Upon his return to Syria, Tamer put his wages toward a three-room house for his family.

His newfound stability, however, rests on the continued existence of the last opposition stronghold in Syria. Should the Assad regime resume its offensive in Idlib, Tamer would be forced to return to Turkish-backed front lines — this time in Syria — to defend his new home. Tamer sees fighting for Turkey, in Syria and abroad, as his duty, in recompense for Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition. He claims he does not regret serving in Azerbaijan.

Perhaps this belief aims to rationalize his sacrifice; if it was their duty to fight for Turkey, Hossam did not die in vain. Tamer consoles himself further with the knowledge that Hossam’s family obtained the financial security for which Hossam risked his life. A Turkish-affiliated commander appeared at their home over a month after the funeral and Hossam’s mother was given the $60,000 condolence payment.

Other families feel forgotten, having received no compensation and little word of their loved ones. In Libya, 150 Turkish-backed fighters are believed to have been captured by opposing factions. Some speculate that Russian-backed forces handed the detainees over to the Assad regime, a death sentence for any member of the Syrian opposition. Turkish-backed commanders swore to the families and comrades of the disappeared that they would find them and negotiate their release. “But we hear only promises,” said one fighter. “You feel as if those who disappeared vanished into thin air, as if they had never existed.”

Despite their false promises, Turkey and Russia still have their pick among thousands of underemployed and desperate young Syrians. New fighters continue to enlist even as those who have already deployed lay bare the deception. Basam noted: “After I left, several people who were against my going to Libya followed me there to escape the difficult living conditions in Syria.” In Syria’s flourishing war economy, recruiters demand fighters pay for the privilege of signing up. Those fighters continue to pay after they enlist — with money, loyalty, and on occasion their lives.

The ideals that drove the Syrian revolution tended to collapse when they collided with Turkey’s and Russia’s foreign wars. Libya was “totally different” from Syria, Mazen realized, because Syrians have no interests there — only Turkey does. Turkey has worked to bring its Libyan and Syrian proxies under the same umbrella as “revolutionaries,” but fighters were unwilling to conflate the two. Fighting in Syria felt, to them, existential; fighting abroad felt like a mistake, one few were eager to repeat.

Turkey and Russia require a constant influx of fighters to prosecute their foreign policy agendas and view Syrians as expendable. Deployment of Syrians will likely accelerate and extend geographically; in the next ten years, thousands of Syrians may be fighting in diverse theaters of Russian and Turkish interest, from Venezuela to Yemen. Fighters enlist to break out of their hopeless reality, with promises of citizenship or money. The citizenship never materializes, and the money never stretches as far as they hope.

The Syrian economy stands little chance of recovery while the war persists. This creates a vicious cycle: Without other employment opportunities, additional men are pushed into signing on for dangerous, low-paid tours abroad. Besides oil, gas, and phosphates, mercenaries are now on the short list of Syria’s profitable exports. Structural economic inequality divides those who buy and sell mercenary labor from those who provide it and sets the stage for explosive conflict in the coming decades. Without a resolution to the conflict at home, with hope and opportunities dwindling, Syrians will continue to perish abroad.

* All names of interviewees have been changed for their protection

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