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Opposition Factions Of The Syrian Civil War

The researchers Ryan O’Farrell and Cody Roche have compiled an incredibly useful list of Opposition Factions in the Syrian Civil War for the investigatory website, Bellingcat, which is well worth a read in its own right:

“The Syrian rebellion began in early March 2011 as a protest movement demanding an end to corruption, political liberalization and economic reforms. Unlike similar uprisings throughout the Arab world, Syria’s government remained cohesive, focused and largely intransigent, launching a bloody crackdown that killed thousands of protesters and other civilians. The deployment of the Syrian Arab Army, in addition to various paramilitaries of significant local variation (generally called “shabiha” by the Opposition) intensified the crackdown, and caused the conflict to militarize. From around April 2011 to Summer 2012, the SAA experienced a massive wave of desertions and defections, losing approximately half its active personnel, as soldiers refused to fire on demonstrators and otherwise suppress their countrymen. These defectors, estimated to number between 30–40k, formed the nucleus of the armed Opposition, which emerged in June 2011 and became organized enough to declare the “Free Syrian Army” in August.

The war has only intensified until the present, and the rebel landscape throughout Syria has remained geographically, ideologically, structurally and diplomatically fractured, while also experiencing extremely dynamic changes. In broad terms, several trends emerge: a) hard-line Islamist groups have steadily become more prominent, out-competing, marginalizing and on several occasions, violently displacing the defector-centric nationalist groups that were the nucleus of the initial militarization of the rebellion; b) the offensive posture adopted by the regime in early 2013, following a broad retreat and consolidation throughout much of 2012 and enabled by extensive material, financial, military and personal intervention by Iran and Russia, has seen the rebellion fractured into approximately six “theaters”, each with unique intra-rebel and international dynamics; c) the number of men deployed by rebel groups around the country has steadily and consistently grown over the past five years, from 40k men in June 2012 to 75k men in March 2013 to approximately 125k men today.

Each of these groupings and “theaters” have unique stories that have resulted in the current revolutionary landscape.”


8 comments on “Opposition Factions Of The Syrian Civil War

  1. I think that is pure American wishful thinking. There is no Free Syrian Army it’s just brand name the Americans and the Turkish Intelligence MIT thought up to make funding and arming the rebels palatable. Yes there are militias who still identify with the FSA label but there is no such organisation.

    Here is a more realistic run down on rebel groups.

    The largest and strongest in Jaysh al Fatah (‘Army of Conquest’), a coalition of jihadi groups in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, funded and armed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and probably Turkey too. Within this coalition the strongest groups are Jabaht al Nusra (who up until last week were al Qaeda’s offical Syrian branch) and Ahrar al Sham. This group has a hardline Islamist agenda, much like ISIS but more subtle in tactics. They did most of the fighting in the recent battle to break the regime siege of Aleppo.

    Next up is Fatah Haleb (‘Conquer Aleppo’), which is a grouping of militias that are Islamist too but not as hardline as JaF in Aleppo. Among this coalition are the US ‘vetted’ militias who receive advanced weapons such as TOW anti-tank guided missiles. They comprise most of the militias within east Aleppo city, but it’s a fairly heterogenous bunch including Arabs, Turkmens, difrent politcal outlooks etc. But the dominant ideology is politcal Sunni Islam.

    Around Damascus, the main rebel force is Jaysh al Islam (Army of Islam) which is also Saudi funded and armed. They are mainly entrenched in the neighbourhoods of Ghouta and Yarmouk, just outside Damascus, where the regime has been unable to dislodge them since 2011/12. Again, hardline Islamist ideology.

    Lastly, in the south you have the last holdout of the 2012 style FSA in the Southern Front, based around Daraa city which again is a coalition of groups. This is held up as the stronghold of the secular democratic opposition but in fact this just means that they don’t have a specifically Islamist agenda, because they have no political agenda apart from removing Assad. They cooperate with al Qaeda linked Jabhat al Nusra.

    I notice in the link they list the Syrian Democratic Forces as a rebel group. But this is actually another American brand name and, at best, half truth. The SDF is 90% the Kurdish YPG (Syrian affiliate of the PKK). Some rebel groups gravitated towards the YPG because they were the only group consistently fighting ISIS and ISIS had expelled all other rebel groups from eastern Syria. In 2015 the Americans sponsored a formalised alliance and came up with the name SDF to placate Turkey and make it look like they were not backing the PKK, which they are. The Kurdish war aims are basically indifferent as to whether Assad goes or not as long as they carve out their own autonomous part of northern Syria, known as Rojava. In north western Turkey the SDF/YPG mainly fights the Sunni rebels as they try to connect their enclave at Afrin with the ‘canton’ at Kobane. The discipline and motivation of the PKK fighters makes them very formidable on the battlefield and with US airstrikes they have defeated ISIS many times. But they are basically irreverent to the main war in western Syria.


    • Some good points, John, and an alternative analysis. In fairness, though, when you drill down into the details of the groupings the authors do include a lot of caveats, pointing out the complex relationships, or paper strengths, of some organisations. That said, it is quite labyrinthine stuff. A friend recently compared the complexities of allegiances in Syria to the early days of the Civil war here but that is a fairly shallow comparison. The differences between Pro-, Anti- and Neutral IRA (and all the layers in between) during 1922-23 is nothing to the bewildering collection of competing factions and shifting alliances in Syria.


      • The thing is though, in broad strokes what the above link does is try to promote the whole ‘moderate opposition’ thing the Americans have been pushing from day one. Painting the war as a ‘democracy vs dictator’ thing. It has really obscured a realistic view of the conflict, which is in essence a Sunni Arab Islamist rebellion against a secular dictatorship ruled by religious minorities.

        I’m actually working on a book on the Civil War right now as well as following events in Syria and one thing that I’m struck by is the relative discipline and cohesiveness of the anti-Treaty IRA compared to factions in Syria. Having read through a lot of IRA correspondence, I can say that Liam Lynch’s orders were basically obeyed – he ordered not to shoot informers, they weren’t shot, he ordered a campaign against the Senate, it began. Aiken when he takes over orders a ceasefire and dump arms and its obeyed. The emphasis has always been on the chaos, but there were no meaningful splits on the anti-Treaty side.

        I think a better Irish comparison would be the Eleven Years War (1641-52) with its bewildering series of factions within factions and constant changes of allegiance. There are really a lot of parallels. It was a religious war, in the context of civil war and state collapse. While there was a rebel umbrella group the Confederate Catholics, it was hard to keep it together from dissolving into the sum of its parts, which were local landowners and their retainers.


        • I agree that it has become a “Sunni Arab Islamist rebellion” – in broad terms – but I’m not sure I would describe the early days of the uprising that way. The first months were largely an anti-authoritarian insurrection with a strong base among the Sunni communities. They wanted political, social and above all economic reform. Democracy, of some sort, was being demanded in line with events elsewhere in the Arab Spring countries. However the Islamist engine for change did not come until later. The “secular” nature of the Syrian state was a Ba’athist fig leaf for a family-led Alawite dictatorship, propped up by the self-serving in the Sunni and other communities. Some blow-up was inevitable again after the Hama massacre and events subsequent to that.

          The 1920s’ Civil War, for all its horror, was certainly a more civilised affair than the internecine bloodletting elsewhere in contemporary Europe (Russia, Finland, etc.). Though that may due to the weakness of the Anti-Treaty forces during the latter part of the conflict, following their reluctant/confused attempt to crush the embryonic Pro-Treaty breakaway faction in Dublin between July-September 1922. It was British support which brought the conflict to a swift end, not a lack of willingness on both sides to pursue it to the bitter end.

          Just read that article again, excellent stuff. It would be great to see some earlier, Medieval stuff on the Irish Story. It’s a much neglected subject in terms of popular availability. I just paid over 80 euros for this collection. A price most people would rightly baulk at.


          • Thanks re the article. Yes we must aim to cover a wider time period on the Irish Story. When my civil war book is finished I’ll be able to devote more time to it. I actually studied early modern history, but I’d love to find some medieval contributors.

            Re Syria; to be honest I’m very skeptical about the idea that this was ever a democratic uprising. I remember the early days when the protests started after Friday prayers in the Mosques and the protesters chanted ‘Allahu Akhbar’. Plus there’s the fact that from a very early stage the rebel groups had no problem allying themselves with the likes of al Nusra and ISIS. Remember it was the latter who turned on the rebels in the end, not the other way around. Now if they were democrats this surely would have presented some ideological problems?

            The Assad regime was completely undemocratic and fairly corrupt, but it was basically secular, there wasn’t religious discrimination, in fact I gather the school curriculum taught that Sunni Islam was the only correct religion. Yes it needed serious reform if not replacement, but that doesn’t change the fact that the armed rebellion is a Sunni Islamist affair, armed and funded by the most reactionary powers in the region – the Gulf states – and bizarrely, the US. What your seeing now is that even people who approved of the original protests think the regime is the only game in town (eg this guy and that even parties who were banned under the old regime now fight alongside state forces, e.g. the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (yes I know how the name sounds).

            Also the Kurdish YPG who used to be neutral have ended up at war with the rebels in Aleppo. Basically anyone who is not a Sunni Islamist has taken the opposite side.


            • Yes, but they were also shouting “God, Syria, Freedom” or similar sentiments outside the mosques, at least in Dara and other places in March-August 2011. The use of mosques is not especially significant given their role as places of worship, learning, socialising and communal gathering. It would be like Sinn Féin doing rallies following Sunday mass during the 1916-23 revolution (or indeed the Redmondites and Carsonites on the other side).

              Yep, organised anti-state violence in some areas, particularly against the police and Ba’ath Party, was kicking off by April 2011, though arguably that was in response to state violence and repression. The fig-leaf reforms, actual or promised, were coupled with arrests, detentions, disappearances, etc. I would agree that non-state actors, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. quickly stepped in to the vacuum created by the withdrawal or alienation between the security forces and local communities in places like Jeser al-Shagour, Hama and so on. But that was like the IRA, Official and Provisional, moving into the space vacated by the civil rights movement (a more tenuous analogy, I admit).

              The US and Western calls for Assad to quit in the late summer were seen by the people in the streets of Syria as a clarion call for a more general uprising, violent and non-violent. Somewhat similar to events in 1991 and Bush Sr’s calls to the Shia Iraqis in the south of Iraq to rise up against Saddam during the first Gulf War. It had much the same bloody, confused and inconclusive result.

              Of course by 2012 the world and its mother was becoming mired in the Syrian conflict for all sorts of reasons.

              The Syrian Kurds are playing their own game, though crippled by their own internal divisions (and the lack of real support from some of their Iraqi counterparts). Not to mention the animosity of the Turks. Very hard to see them coming out of this without, at least, some sort of autonomous zone in north-eastern Syria.


  2. Well, we’ll agree to disagree. I think that outside powers very quickly co-opted internal protests and sectarian divisions and backed what became quickly a Sunni Islamist rising. If it was a democratic uprising then why isn’t there one politico-military rebel organisation anyone can show me that supports democracy? Sadly it’s a fiction.

    (I’m not necessarily against religion btw, but I am against political religion. I feel religion should be a personal faith, not something to impose on society and certainly not by force).

    My opinion for what it’s worth is that the Russian peace plan which offered a new constitution and free elections if a ceasefire of February this year held was the best solution. But both sides sabotaged it – mainly Assad I would have to say, because both (all) sides and more importantly their backers still think they can win. The key to peace has to be getting the rival backers to back off and get their clients to agree on a ceasefire.

    Re the Syrian Kurds, lots of good and bad things. Actually they don’t suffer that much from internal divisions because the PKK franchise the PYD has monopolised power and kicked out any Kurdish rivals, but to be fair, much of their agenda is quite admirable; local councils running the local administration, compulsory representation for women, emphasis on women’s rights etc. But I think they are going to go down to dirty deal between the Turks and the regime as part of an eventual settlment and their current friends the US will not save them. Actually I fear for them.


    • No problem. Personally I see late summer/early winter 2011 as the transition from spontaneous protests/insurrection to organised outside interventions by nation-states and/or international groupings. Certainly the Turks were involved in some way with the formation of the Fee Syrian Army in Jul-Aug 2011 (via Riad al-Asaad and his associates). By 2012 it was open season with god knows how many people involved in the mess. What was remarkable, I supposes, was how quickly Assad’s neighbours turned on him, a mere matter of months from street protests to several insurgencies.

      I don’t think explicitly liberal, secular democratic groups along Western lines existed in Syrian in 2011 – or subsequently – nor could they. Culturally the country was not and is not in that space. But something working towards those ideals might have emerged in time (a long time, admittedly).

      Looking forward to that book!


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