Turkey's Deployment of Syrian Mercenaries in Africa

June 6, 2024
Turkey's Deployment of Syrian Mercenaries in Africa

Turkey has recently deployed hundreds of Syrian mercenaries in Niger. As early as January, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Turkish authorities were recruiting fighters from northern Syria, particularly from the "Sultan Murad" brigade, a faction closely associated with Turkey. 

This is not the first time the Turkish government deployed Syrian mercenaries to support friendly countries. In 2020, Syrian mercenaries were sent to Azerbaijan as shock troops during the second Nagorno-Karabakh War, helping to break through Armenian defense lines. Similarly, these fighters were recruited to support the Tripoli government in Libya against the rapid advances of Haftar’s forces and Russian Wagner mercenaries.

What distinguishes this deployment from previous ones is that this time, Turkey is recruiting Syrian mercenaries to serve under Russian command. This arrangement highlights the extent of Russia's comfort in cooperating with Turkey on security matters. 

Niger's Shift in Alliances 

Niger used to be a bastion of Western influence in sub-Saharan Africa, even after successive coups in recent years in the region. However, in July 2023, the Nigerien army followed suit and took power by overthrowing a democratically elected government in a coup d’état. The relationship between Niger and France immediately deteriorated, as Paris publicly supported the ousted leader. Antagonizing the United States was next in line. Eventually, the junta decided to foster amicable relations with authoritarian governments that would not question its legitimacy. Niger's new allies now include fellow coup-makers in the Sahel, such as Burkina Faso and Mali, as well as authoritarian regimes in Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Turkey.

The arrival of Russian military advisers in Niamey in April 2024, to the chagrin of France and the US, and the expulsion of Western troops, firmly indicate that security matters in Niger are now managed by the Kremlin. The French troops left the country last year and the US disengagement will end no later than September 15, 2024. However, Russia is constrained by its own limitations in finding necessary troops due to its engagement in a protracted war in Ukraine and cannot readily rely on private security companies, such as Wagner.

The Role of Syrian Mercenaries

This shortage necessitated subcontracting the job of protecting oil facilities and military sites in Niger to another trusted ally. On May 30, 2024, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Turkey transferred Syrian mercenaries, including top commanders, to Russian military control, effectively disavowing responsibility for them.

These mercenaries, driven by poor economic conditions in northern Syria, receive significantly higher salaries in Niger, reportedly up to $1,500 per month. SADAT, a shadowy security company with close ties to the AKP government in Turkey and often compared to Russia's Wagner in its operational style, has been allegedly instrumental in recruiting these fighters. 

The presence of up to 1,000 Syrian mercenaries in Niger could only happen with the approval of the Kremlin. This controversial deployment underscores Turkey's ongoing support for friendly regimes with questionable legitimacy in Africa. However, the use of mercenaries rather than Turkish troops suggests that Turkey seeks to avoid being seen as directly involved in the conflict in Niger.

Additionally, the Turkish government might have the intention to profit from Niger's natural resources by protecting mines and oil sites. According to a recent report by SwissAid, a substantial portion of the gold imported from Libya to Turkey is smuggled from other African countries. The presence of Syrian mercenaries in Niger, one of Libya’s neighbors, might facilitate such operations.

Syrian mercenaries who once fought against Russian forces in Syria and Libya now serve Russian interests in sub-Saharan Africa. Besides, they have been sent to one of the most dangerous locations in Niger, resulting in nine Syrian casualties already. These shifting allegiances and actions of these mercenaries—from fighting against authoritarian regimes in one country to serving them in another—underscore that their presence in Africa is driven primarily by individual interests. 

The involvement of authoritarian regimes, namely Turkey and Russia, in deploying Syrian mercenaries to support a friendly regime in Niger, highlights a troubling trend of authoritarian learning. These regimes leverage private military companies and mercenaries to advance their geopolitical interests, often at the expense of local populations and democratic processes. Consequently, mercenaries, regardless of whom they serve, negatively impact governance, human rights, and stability in the countries they operate in.

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