A pocket guide to the Syrian armed opposition

Laura Rufalco, Trainee, GREMMO.

July 07, 2014.

The Syrian civil war, the bloodiest conflict of our Century, opposes a multitude of non-unified – and more often than not antagonistic – groups that, even if they have a goal in common, toppling Assad, they operate in different ways, propagate different ideologies and have different visions of what a post-Assad Syria would look alike. The number of armed people fighting Assad is estimated to be up to 100.000 combatants, divided in about 1.000 armed groups. The extreme difference existing between those groups, their inability to unite themselves in the pursuit of their goals and the internal war existing among them is one of Assad’s biggest assets. Indeed, Bachar al-Assad was able, thanks to Iranian and Russian support, to fight back this fragmented opposition and regain considerable strength. In the words of Aron Lund:

 “There is no central command structure on the national level. Instead, the Syrian insurgency has evolved into a curious hybrid between supra-national and sub-national structures, where rival networks of foreign sponsors shop around for support among locally rooted groups, without the intermediary step of a national Syrian leadership.[1]

This article aims to establish a non exhaustive profile of the most important armed groups engaged against Bachar al-Assad, taking into consideration their aims, ways of action and sponsors, whenever this kind of information is available. Nowadays, the most effective groups combating Assad are considered hard-line Islamists. But before analyzing them, we will initially take a look at the first military group to try to organize itself in a unified armed opposition: the Free Syrian Army (FSA), since at the beginning of the conflict they seemed to be the leader organization representing those who were asking for changes in Syria.

  • The Free Syrian Army (FSA):

Created on July 2011, the FSA is a group composed of tens of thousands military dissidents of Bachar al-Assad’s army and civilians. The headquarters of the group is in Turkey, a country that was, along the USA, an important international support of the Syrian opposition in the first months of the war. The FSA was supposed to act as an umbrella organization believed to coordinate the different groups present in the Syrian battlefield. Its former leader, Riad al-Assad, was indeed first considered as the grand leader of the Syrian rebel groups affiliated to the FSA. As the FSA proved to be ineffective, Riad al-Assad lost its importance to the FSA and to the opposition in general, being replaced at first by Salim Idris. Indeed, at first, several brigades popping out within Syria, including secular and Islamists brigades, commonly declared their affiliation to the FSA. However, as the months passed by, the FSA proved to be a failed organization, with no real links to the groups operating in the battlefield and unable to unify them. Without a real military force and lacking organization, the FSA quickly lost legitimacy in the eyes of the international community and of the groups fighting under its flag. Trying to regain legitimacy and with international support, the brigades fighting under the FSA created the Supreme Military Council, SMS. A BBC News Guide to armed and political opposition in Syria describes the composition of the SMC:

“The SMC has 30 members, six representing each of five « fronts » in Syria – Northern (Aleppo and Idlib), Eastern (Raqqa, Deir al-Zour and Hassaka), Western (Hama, Latakia and Tartus), Central (Homs and Rastan) and Southern (Damascus, Deraa and Suwaida). Each front has a civilian-military council and a commander.”

As the SMC struggles to justify its existence, they have to face the danger of hard-line Islamists groups in Syria. With the rise of ISIS in Iraq, the FSA launched an attack to Islamic State in a city near to the Iraqi border.  As the conflict deepened and become more fragmented, we witnessed the arrival of Islamist groups that were more effective in combating Assad, but also that were feared by the Western World for their common goal of establishing an Islamic state in Syria and beyond. Those Islamists groups, however, proved to be more effective on the battlefield than moderate groups and, as they gains power, the FSA and the SMC lose ground in terms of legitimacy, international support and in terms of combatants, which are deserting the organization to fight in other groups.

  • The Syrian Islamic Front.

Following months of negotiations between a few of the most prevailing Islamic groups fighting in Syria, the Islamic Front was established on November 2013, with an estimated force of about 60.000 combatants. The Islamic Front is an ‘umbrella organization’, a mainly Salafi group financed by the Gulf wealth petro monarchies and private donors. With about 45.000 fighters, it operates as a coalition of several Islamist brigades and it is, at present, the largest alliance of groups combating Assad. Its number one priority is to remove Bachar al-Assad and his family from power – a fight that they consider must be kept inside Syrian border. Even if the group’s ideology is close to that of al-Qaeda and an-Nusra, the Islamic Front rejected the entry of an-Nusra in its coalition, for fear that this might reduce foreign investment. The Front was created by the alliance of eleven powerful groups:

“Kataeb Ahrar al-Sham; in all of the governorates

Liwa al-Haqq, in Homs

Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiya, in Aleppo and its countryside

Jamaat al-Taliaa al-Islamiya, in the Idleb countryside

Kataeb Ansar al-Sham, in Latakia and its countryside

Katibat Moussaab bin Omeir, in the Aleppo countryside

Jaish al-Tawhid, in Deir al-Zor

Kataeb Suqour al-Islam, in Damascus and its countryside

Kataeb al-Iman al-Muqatila, in Damascus and its countryside

Saraya al-Mahamm al-Khassa, in Damascus and its countryside

Katibat Hamza bin Abdelmuttaleb, in Damascus and its countryside[2]

Even if the Islamic Front refused to be affiliated to an-Nusra, it is evident that both groups are on sociable bases, and they even share a few common goals. They even share responsibility in performing ‘governance activities in areas where the regime has ceded power’. Contrary to an-Nusra, the Islamic Front does not have, by now, international inspirations. Their top priority is to topple Assad and, once they achieve their goal, they intent to establish an Islamic State within the Syrian border.

  •  Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar

Formed in March 2013, al-Muhajirin is an ‘army of emigrants and supporters’, composed in its majority by foreign fighters, especially from the Caucasus. It’s a fusion of jihadists’ brigades, such as Khattab Brigade and the Army of Muhammad. Its leader is a Chechen jihadist, Omar al-Sishani, and the group aims to create an Islamic State in Syria, which puts them closer to the ISIS and an-Nusra.  Estimated to have about 1.000 fighters, they operate in the surroundings of Aleppo Province.

  • Jabhat an-Nusra.

Jabhat an-Nuṣrah li-Ahl ash-Shām is the only al-Qaeda affiliated group operating in Syria. Its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, openly declared allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria tried to attach the an-Nusra front. Their ideology is known as ‘Salafi Jihadist’, and the group was labeled as a terrorist organization by the U.S government on December 2012.  Previously to the Syrian civil war, Jabhat an-Nusra members were part of al-Qaeda in Iraq; they were organized in Syria on January 2012 as a small armed group of less than 7.000 men. An-Nusra is considered as one of the most effective group combating Assad. They were able to capture large parts of Syrian territory, notably important oil fields. The attack strategy of the militia includes suicide bombing and other terrorist tactics. Their primary objective is the fall of Bachar al-Assad, in order to create an “Islamic State with a Salafi interpretation of Islam throughout all Muslim lands and the establishment of a global caliphate with the Quran and the statements of the Prophet as the only sources of law.” The group considers the Syrian borders illegitimate, as it was designed by imperialist powers decades ago. They are, therefore, in favour of an international action – they are also operating in Lebanon. The most part of those combating within Syria, however, are of Syrian nationality. Further than combating Assad, the group “provides governance activities” in the regions under its control. An-Nusra and the ISIS share the same creator, Baghdadi, and even if both groups are issued of al-Qaeda, they were at first in extremely antagonizing position. An-Nusra, however, is known for collaborating with the Syrian Islamic Front, since they partially share the same goals and ideology. Contrary to the ISIS, the An-Nusra is moderately popular among the Syrian population, and the group even has its own website. Several countries were accused of financing the group, mainly Qatar and other wealthy Arab Gulf monarchies, as well as Turkey. As a latest event, the an-Nusra Front announced that now they are willing to collaborate with ISIS in order to create a Islamic Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. 

  • The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The ISIS is a highly unpopular, hard-line and gruesome group aiming to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Syria, Iraq and surrounding countries. The past few months the group became more present in the newspapers thanks to its seizure of Iraqi cities Mosul, Kirkuk, Tikrit and other towns along the Euphrates River. The group was able to partially secure the Syrian and Jordanian border and now poses a security threat to Jordan and Israel, as well as to the Assad Regime. Even if ISIS is fighting to topple Assad, contrary to the IF and an-Nusra, the fall of the Assad Regime is not their number one priority, since they want to reshape the borders of the Middle East by unifying the Sunnite Arab states under Islamic law, with no regards to the minorities living in the region. They have indeed proclaimed a Caliphate in-between Syria and Iraq, from Aleppo to Diyala.  The group shares, however, a few similarities with an-Nusra: initially with about 5.000 fighters, the ISIS is the illegitimate child of al-Qaeda. Its leader, Abu Bakr ak-Baghdadi, the previous leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, is one of the co-founders of the an-Nusra front. In April 2013, Baghdadi decided to expand its action to the Syrian conflict, and to include the an-Nusra front in his newly formed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. However, both an-Nusra and al-Qaeda rejected the ISIS and demanded its complete dissipation, a command that was ignored by Baghdadi. Henceforth, an inside war between the ISIS and other armed opposition groups took place. In 2013, the ISIS allegedly executed the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, pushing the IS and the an-Nusra to fight in order to ‘expel ISIS from Syria’.  However, the latest events puts ISIS as one of the most powerful armed group operating in the region, and a real threat not only to Assad and its allies, but also to the countries that were backing the Syrian opposition, as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. As the group gain power, its former opponents have to rethink their strategy towards them: lately, the an-Nusra Front declared its allegiance to ISIS, which allowed the Islamic State to gain more power in Syria, but can further destabilize the Islamic opposition to Bachar al-Assad’s Regime.

The Syrian civil war is, partially, a proxy war opposing regional actors. It is evident that the conflict has its own dynamics and domestic features, but the support of foreign countries and groups make the conflict last longer and with more intensity. With the rise of the ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the creation of the Islamic Caliphate, the Syrian conflict has crossed permanently the Syrian borders. The two most powerful groups opposing Bachar al-Assad, an-Nusra front and the Islamic State, are not only sworn enemies of Assad’s supporters, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, but they are also a major security threat to Europe, Turkey and the United States. As this hard-line Islamist groups gain more ground and power, so does Assad, since his initial threat of an Islamic rise in the region become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which means that those who defended him before are comforted in their support, meanwhile those who were opposed to him, mainly the U.S. and Turkey but even Saudi Arabia, are faced with a major terrorist threat in an extremely volatile region.

Comparative board of the Islamic Opposition

 

Islamic Front

An-Nusra

ISIS

International Action

NO

Yes, mainly in Syria and Lebanon. Yes, mainly in Syria and Iraq, but on the border of Jordan and Israel.
Recognition of the Syrian border

YES

NO- Syrian border seen as the illegitimate fruit of Imperialist Western Powers action.

NO- Syrian border seen as the illegitimate fruit of Imperialist Western Powers action.

Top priority. Topple Assad. Topple Assad and implementing Islamic Law in Syria. Establishing an Emirate in Syria, Iraq and the surrounding countries.
Antagonism against Iran and Israel

YES

YES

YES

Al-Qaeda affiliated

NO

YES

Formerly

Governance activities

YES

YES

NO

Work with other opposition groups

YES

YES

NO

Opposite to a democratic rule

YES

YES

YES

Financing

Openly by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, also probably by Qatar and Turkey.

Private donors and probably by Qatar and other Gulf countries. Money from Oil Fields in Syria.

Iraq accuses Saudi Arabia of financing ISIS; Qatar, Kuwait and the United Emirates are also suspected of giving them money. Oil fields.

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[1] LUND, Aron. Syria’s Salafi insurgents: The rise of the Syrian Islamic Front. UI Occasional papers, Published by the Swedish Institute of International affairs, January 2013.

[2] LUND, Aron. Syria’s Salafi insurgents: The rise of the Syrian Islamic Front. UI Occasional papers, March 2013.


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