Guns for Hire The Renewed Dependency on Mercenary Fighters

Countries like Russia and Turkey are increasingly using mercenaries to fight wars on their behalf. It complicates efforts to end such conflicts and turns war into a way of life for some.
A pro-government militia fighter with a wounded comrade in Tripoli.

A pro-government militia fighter with a wounded comrade in Tripoli.


Ricard Garcia Vilanova / AP Photo

Muhammad was 17 when the war started in his home country of Syria. He was getting ready to begin pursuing an engineering degree in the city of Homs. Adnan, meanwhile, was 30 years old at the time and was working in Homs as a carpenter. His third child had just been born.

Muhammad and Adnan fought on different sides in the civil war in Syria. Muhammad served in the military of dictator Bashar Assad and was eager for stability, while Adnan joined the rebels because of his faith in the revolution. Both dreamed of living in a peaceful, united country.

Now, nine years later, they are once again facing each other across the front lines - but not in Syria. The two are fighting some 2,000 kilometers away from home. In Libya.

In the North African country, Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj is battling the warlord Khalifa Haftar for power in the country. Sarraj is primarily supported by Turkey, while his opponent is backed by Russia. Adnan is making his money as a mercenary in Sarraj's militia network, while Muhammad has joined Haftar's Libyan National Army. And both are asking themselves the same question: How did it come to this?

The story of Muhammad and Adnan, two men from Homs who are now fighting against each other in the desert of North Africa, illustrates the tragic progression of the conflict in Syria. It is also a lesson in modern-day warfare.

Increasingly, governments that are involved in military conflicts are turning not to their own countrymen, but are instead relying on foreigners who they pay as mercenaries. Countries like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Iran are ignoring other countries' borders and sovereignty, sending hired guns into foreign countries because they don't like the regime in charge, because they want access to natural resources – or because mercenaries belonging to their enemies are there. It is yet another example of countries seeking to occupy the vacuum left behind by the accelerating withdrawal of the United States.

Hiring mercenaries is a way of fighting a war on the cheap. Regional actors can go into battle with little risk and at relatively low cost. Leaders can engage in conflict without having to answer for the body count. The fighters themselves, meanwhile, have few protections because of their dependence on their paymasters. Mercenaries are fighting in numerous conflicts around the world, including in Syria, Yemen and Libya. People like Muhammad and Adnan have become the playthings of global politics.

An Attractive Offer

Adnan was convinced that Assad could be toppled when he joined the Hamza Division, a part of the Free Syrian Army, after the outbreak of the war. He also found personal success on the battlefield, rising to become a commander in the division. But the FSA continued to lose ground, and with help from Russia and Iran, the Assad regime pushed the rebels into the northwestern province of Idlib, where they were only able to survive with Turkish support.

In recent years, Adnan has hardly fought Assad at all, instead helping the Turkish army of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan drive out Kurdish militias from the border region. "We are dependent on Erdogan," Adnan said over the phone. "We have to fight wherever he wants."

It was no surprise to Adnan when a Turkish middleman handed him a new assignment last December. He was tasked with assembling as many men as he could for the war in Libya.

At the time, Adnan couldn't even find Libya on a map. And when it came to the conflict there, he only knew what the Turks told him: that an internationally recognized government was struggling to defend itself from a warlord – from a "putchist" and a "terrorist."

Still, the offer they made him sounded attractive: For every month that he fought on Sarraj's behalf in Libya, Adnan was to receive $2,000, far more than he was making in Syria. In early January, the Turks flew Adnan and 30 comrades with a Turkish Airlines plane from the border town of Gaziantep to Libya. It was the first time in his life that he had flown.

Fighters for the Sarraj government in Tripoli

Fighters for the Sarraj government in Tripoli


In Tripoli, the Sarraj regime was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the support. In the preceding months, the prime minister had lost almost all the area under his control, with the exception of the capital city, to the warlord Haftar. Erdogan's mercenaries, it was hoped, would turn the tide.

Adnan and his men were put up in apartment blocks in Tripoli and received weapons and training from the Turkish secret service agency MIT, Adnan says. Then, they were sent to the front.

With the help of around 7,000 Syrian mercenaries along with drone support, Turkey has been able to turn the tide in the Libyan civil war, making Erdogan the proxy ruler of the African country that is home to the continent's largest oil reserves. General Haftar has not only had to concede the loss of Tripoli in recent weeks, he has also been forced out of strategically important coastal cities like Sabratha.

Nevertheless, Adnan regrets his decision to come to Libya. DER SPIEGEL has spoken with him by phone several times in recent months, and his desperation has steadily risen during that period. The frontline battles are often more intense than they were in Syria, he says. "Every day, we send 100 injured fighters home and fly 300 new ones in," he says. In contrast to Syria, he adds, he doesn't see the point of the Libya operation. "I fought against the Syrian regime because I believed in a future for my children. Look where I have ended up."

"Keep Fighting"

Friends in Syria accuse him of having sold out the revolution to earn money in Libya. But even if he wanted to, Adnan complains, he couldn't simply quit. The Turks, he says, only allow the injured to go home, which is why some of his comrades have shot themselves in the leg. Others, he says, have boarded refugee boats in the hopes of making it to Europe. Adnan says that he would also try to get to Europe if he didn't have children in Turkey. "I have no other choice than to keep fighting," he says.

Adnan's compatriot Muhammad is on the other side of the front in Libya. But he, too, has the feeling that he no longer controls his own destiny and that he is under the control of foreign powers. His primary motivation for speaking to DER SPIEGEL was to highlight the experience of Syrians in Libya. Like Adnan, he has declined to provide his last name out of fear of repercussions.

Muhammad's life has been dominated by war. He was still a young man when he joined the Desert Falcons, a militia organization that fought alongside the Assad regime against the rebels. A few years ago, the Desert Falcons were disbanded as a result of internal power struggles, with remnants of the militia joining an army unit that was armed and controlled by Russia, Assad's most important ally. Since then, Muhammad has answered to Moscow.

In January, his commander asked him if he was interested in fighting on Russia's behalf in Libya. He was told he would be paid $1,000 a month for his services and would receive a month of paid vacation every quarter.

Russia is not an official party to the Libyan conflict, but with the help of a military subcontractor, the so-called Wagner Group, it controls part of the battlefield. The Wagner Group is a private Russian security firm with close ties to the Kremlin and an important Haftar supporter, along with the UAE and Egypt. Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Haftar as his man in North Africa, and it is sure to have made him nervous watching the warlord lose ground to the Erdogan-Sarraj alliance in recent months.

Muhammad says that middlemen operating on Russia's behalf set up recruitment offices in Syrian cities – called al-Sajjad, or "the hunter" – for the Libya operation. For every Syrian that brokers send to North Africa, they receive a commission of 200 euros. After years of civil war, large swaths of Syria have been destroyed and it is almost impossible for young men to find normal jobs. It didn't take Muhammad long to make his decision. In one of the recruitment offices, he signed a contract in Arabic and Russian, committing himself to fighting on Haftar's behalf for at least three months.

Afterwards, he said, he and 50 other men, most of whom were younger than 30, were transferred to the Russian military base Hmeimim, not far from the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, where they received two weeks of military training.

Feeling Drained

The Russians gave the mercenaries IDs labelled "Friend of Russia," to enable them to pass through Libyan checkpoints. Then they flew with the private Syrian airline Cham Wings from Damascus to the Libyan city of Benghazi.

Once in Libya, Muhammad and his comrades were dressed in the uniform of Haftar's army and placed under the command of Russian Wagner officers. He says they fought in several different places, like southern Tripoli, on the coast and, for the last several weeks, in the country's east.

According to the United Nations, around 2,000 Syrians were fighting for Haftar and the Wagner Group in the month of May. Muhammad, though, estimates the number to be closer to 5,000. Immediately after the losses suffered during the battle for Tripoli, the Russians called in large numbers of reinforcements, he says. The Assad regime, he continues, even released detainees from Syrian prisons to send them into battle in Libya.

Muhammad sleeps during the day and fights at night, and has begun feeling drained. "I ask myself what I am doing here," he says. Muhammad has heard that Turkey pays its mercenaries far better than the Russians and is thinking of switching sides. "In Syria, I fought for victory," he says. "Here, it's only about money."


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 29/2020 (July 11, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

Fighters like Muhammad and Adnan, who have sold themselves to foreign powers, have existed for centuries. The Thirty Years' War, for example, was fought primarily by mercenaries. In the 20th century, Western colonial powers frequently used guns for hire for their African campaigns. In recent years, though, the use of mercenaries has taken on a new dimension.

Whereas the U.S. and Britain merely outsourced certain services to private security companies like Blackwater during the war in Iraq, the use of mercenaries today has become a key element in the military strategies developed by many governments. On some Libyan battlefields, you won't find many Libyans at all, with the fighting being done by Syrians, Sudanese and Chadians.

No country, though, perfected this hybrid approach to waging war as early as Iran. General Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by the U.S. in January at the Baghdad airport, was both the partial creator and the able leader of a monstrous apparatus of militias from half a dozen different countries.

Back in the early 1980s, Hezbollah in Lebanon became the first bridgehead of Iran, then under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. But the country only began expanding its power once Soleimani took over command of the Quds Force, the elite foreign wing of the Revolutionary Guard. In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, Shiite seminars were opened up, fighters recruited, cells established and militias formed, under inspirational names from Islam's early history.

Even More Difficult

The military might of Soleimani's continuously growing organization was on full display in Syria. The Assad dictatorship was on the brink of collapse and was relying almost exclusively on the Alawite minority, of which Assad is a member. Furthermore, the regime's brutality was pushing more and more people into the arms of the rebels.

"The Syrian army is useless," Soleimani is said to have told an Iraqi politician. To save Iran's longtime ally, Soleimani first sent the Hezbollah to Syria, and followed up with fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – a total of around 50,000 men. Weapons, ammunition and replacement parts were flown in via Iraq, saving Assad from collapse – until Russia's air force was able to definitively turn the tide in 2015.

Iran's mercenary network has developed into a multinational organization that can rapidly assemble ever-changing groups of fighters in division-sized units: with Iraqis taking orders from Lebanese or Afghans under the command of Iranians. Ultimately, though, all chains of command come together in Tehran, even after Soleimani's death.

The model has been emulated elsewhere. Just as Iran-led groups would be joined together in constantly shifting compositions, Turkey, UAE and Russia are also weaving together the various conflicts they are involved in, which makes bringing those conflicts to an end even more difficult.

Compromise is not part of the plan being pursued by the wannabe powers. Victory is the only option, primarily against foreign opponents. And this lack of regard for the theaters of their intervention doesn't just prolong the violence. It can also make reconstruction impossible.

It is also unlikely that the parties to the conflict in Libya and elsewhere will succumb to exhaustion, as Western foreign policy experts like to assume. Every dictator or rebel leader can ask his protector for more air strikes, munitions or troops at any time.

Libya's government is currently holding some 400 hostile mercenaries, mostly from Sudan and Chad, in a prison in the port city of Misrata. One of the prisoners introduced himself to a DER SPIEGEL employee, who was visiting the facility, as Mohamed Idriss. He's from Darfur, the region in western Sudan that has been rocked by a civil war since 2003. Idriss fought with the Sudan Liberation Army against the country's dictator, Omar al-Bashir, before he joined the troops fighting for the Libyan warlord Haftar three years ago. The UAE mediated the move.

The Sudanese mercenaries helped Haftar take over large swaths of the country, with Idriss rising to become a colonel, with 450 mercenary fighters under his command. The operation was lucrative for him, he says, and he earned between $1,000 and $3,000 each month. Everything that he and his troops managed to loot during their campaigns was sent in trucks back to Darfur.

When the tide of the war began to shift in recent months after Turkey became involved, though, it became clear to him, Idriss says, that Haftar and the Russians were treating him and his men like second-class fighters. Whereas the Wagner Group quickly withdrew their mercenaries from the front around Tripoli, the Sudanese were left behind on the field of battle. Many died, while others, like Idriss, were taken prisoner.

The colonel is convinced that he will get out of prison sooner or later. The UAE has promised, he says, to do what it can for him. What would he do if he was released? "Continue fighting." In Libya. In Sudan. Wherever. And for whomever. He can no longer imagine doing anything else.

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