When the revolution against longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi erupted in Benghazi last year, Masoud Bwisir was quick to take up arms for the cause — and became a bit of a celebrity. A businessman, Bwisir was also a musician and eventually wrote one of the unofficial anthems of the revolution. A video filmed by the pan-Arab news channel al-Arabiya showed him playing his signature guitar at the front, with an RPG slung across his shoulder. Meanwhile, he fought regime forces across the country, learning to make and defuse bombs.
Today, the father of a 1-year-old infant is packing his bags for another fight: Syria. As rebels in the country struggle to bring down another strongman, hundreds of Libyans have flocked there to help. They have brought their fighting experience to the battle and may even be arranging weapon shipments to the underequipped Syrians.
“We came to help the Syrians in their fight,” explains a Libyan using the nickname Abu Yusuf, reached by phone in the Syrian province of Aleppo. “We just couldn’t stay home and watch the killings anymore. It was too much.” Yusuf belongs to Liwa al-Umma, a brigade established by Mahdi al-Harati, deputy commander of the Tripoli Military Council (TMC), an organization that sprouted during the Libyan revolution. Largely funded by Qatar, the TMC received first-rate weapons and training from the small Persian Gulf emirate. Liwa al-Umma officials refuse to say whether Qatar is funding their activities in Syria, but the brigade has deep pockets. Its financial outlays include the purchase of uniforms for Syrians who have joined the outfit.
Within weeks of the successful conclusion of their revolution, Libyan fighters began trickling into Syria. But in recent months, that trickle has allegedly become a torrent, as many more have traveled to the mountains straddling Syria and Turkey, where the rebels have established their bases. “There are some Libyans but not large numbers,” says Khaldun, a first lieutenant who defected from the Syrian army, downplaying reports of massive flows into the area. “Maybe up to 300, but not a thousand.”
The Free Syrian Army sent Khaldun to Libya to coordinate with the interim government there, known as the National Transitional Council. Though he is reluctant to discuss the precise details of his mission and whether the Libyans have sent his fighters weapons, he does admit the Syrians “asked the Libyans for ammunition.”
Some Syrians are more frank about the assistance the Libyans are providing. “They have heavier weapons than we do,” notes Firas Tamim, who has traveled in rebel-controlled areas to keep tabs on foreign fighters. “They brought these weapons to Syria, and they are being used on the front lines.” Among the arms Tamim has seen are Russian-made surface-to-air missiles, known as the SAM 7.
Libyan fighters largely brush off questions about weapon transfers, but in December they claimed they were doing just that. “We are in the process of collecting arms in Libya,” a Libyan fighter in Syria told the French daily Le Figaro. “Once this is done, we will have to find a way to bring them here.”
Today Libyans in Syria prefer to steer conversations to their didactic efforts. They note that their eight months of battlefield experience has provided them with valuable skills their Syrian comrades lack. “We know how to fight,” says Ahmad, a Libyan fighter near Aleppo who only gave his first name in a phone conversation. “And we came here to teach Syrians how to do that.”
Libyans also have a confidence inspired by their victory that is largely absent in Syrian fighters. In training sessions and one-on-one conversations, they try to impart this self-assurance to Syrians, who are sometimes unsure whether their 17-month struggle will end in triumph.
Libyans emphasize that their presence is limited to training Syrians and arranging aid shipments. But some sources have revealed that they are manning a checkpoint deep in rebel-held territory.
In Benghazi, Bwisir says he has no plans to remain on the sidelines when he arrives in Syria. “I am going to the front lines just like I did here.” And when he gets there, hundreds of Libyans will welcome him to the fight.