Explainer: who are Syria’s anti-Assad forces?

One of many: a Free Syrian Army fighter. Reuters

When the Arab Spring hit Syria in 2011, few would have predicted that a simple uprising in Deraa would lead to full-blown conflict with over 250,000 dead and millions fleeing the country.

The original opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime appeared to be a combination of secular and moderate religious forces committed to democracy, human rights and ridding the country of corruption. But just like the chaos thrown up by the Lebanese Civil War, the Syrian conflict has given birth to over 1,000 different militias, making it devilishly hard to distinguish who’s fighting for what.

Provided it has free access to arms, any group can form a militia – and though many of the militias are anti-Assad forces, they also complicate matters by fighting each other.

Though there are an estimated 300,000-plus fighters across anti-Assad forces, these groups are not fighting a united front, and the alliances among them are constantly shifting. Many groups have splintered off after disagreements, and rebel groups have had to shift their attention from fighting Assad to fighting extremists.

So with Russia’s recent strikes against what it has opaquely called “anti-Assad forces”, it pays to ask just who the main groups opposing the Damascus regime actually are.

Uneasy coalition

Alongside extremist Islamist groups, the opposition includes moderates, secularists and Kurdish groups. The Syrian Revolutionary Command Council (sometimes referred to as the Syrian National Coalition) is the primary secular faction, though it does include a number of Islamist militias. This alliance of 72 factions was formed in August of 2014 to help the anti-Assad forces co-ordinate better. It has received support from both the West and Saudi Arabia.

The Syrian opposition flag. Reuters

The council’s most notable coalition member is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which since 2012 has been led by Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir. The FSA was initially able to co-ordinate effectively on the battlefield, but has struggled to capitalise on its early success.

The group has a constitution and bylaws to govern the affairs of its members, and appears to be committed to democratic ideals. But it’s been somewhat overshadowed by new jihadist groups, and whereas it once had over 50,000 fighters, many of whom had military experience as soldiers in the Syrian Army, desertions have now reportedly shrunk its ranks dramatically.

Fission and fusion

Then there are other Islamist groups neither allied with the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council nor affiliated with either al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS). And not all of them have always been considered dangerous by the West.

Most notable among them is the Islamic Front, which formed in November of 2013. At one point it had somewhere between 40,000-70,000 fighters, but it suffered heavy losses after IS emerged in Syria, and there are now conflicting reports on its strength. The group claims to work in limited co-operation with other opposition factions, and it continues to receive support from Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, while most media attention has gone to groups that have been affiliated with al-Qaeda, the most effective group in this bloc is in fact the al-Nusra Front.

An al-Nusra Front member with the group’s flag. Reuters

The al-Nusra Front began in Iraq in August of 2011, when the leader of Islamic State in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, authorised the creation of a Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda in August of 2011. It began recruiting Islamists released from prison in Syria who were already fighting Assad and Syrians who were already in Iraq fighting US-led coalition forces under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The al-Nusra Front’s forces are particularly aggressive, successful and well-trained. Though the West supported it when it seemed to be an arm of the FSA, that changed in December of 2012 when it became clear that the group was affiliated with al-Qaeda – which it is to this day.

Though al-Nusra was also initially affiliated with IS while IS and al-Qaeda were allies, that ended when IS’s al-Baghdadi moved to fully absorb al-Nusra into his group. Al-Qaeda’s leadership officially cut ties with IS in February 2014, which ended al-Nusra and IS’s relationship as well.

Land grabs

IS, meanwhile, is still operating on a scale none of the other groups can hope to match. It claims to have over 100,000 fighters, a figure Middle Eastern governments have repeated (Western sources claim it has around 30,000) and has taken control over parts of Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq. No longer tied to al-Qaeda, it now controls territory roughly equal in area to the UK, though it may have recently lost territory in Iraq. As many as 10m people may now be living under its control.

Considered the most extremist and brutal of Syria’s opposition groups, IS so far seems to have avoided any direct head-to-head confrontations with Assad directly – perhaps part of the reason Assad’s newly interventionist ally, Russia, has apparently declined to strike IS directly.

The group has a budget of US$2 billion a year and sustains itself through extortion, human trafficking, kidnapping and oil sales, to name but a few.

But IS is not the only organised group controlling a substantial chunk of Syria. There is also a confederation of Kurdish forces fighting under the Kurdish Supreme Committee. These groups have also received support from various Kurdish parties, including the Kurdish Workers Party and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

The People’s Protection Unit, the armed link of the committee, counts among its ranks more than 50,000 fighters, and it claims to control an area of Northern Syria as large as Qatar and Kuwait combined.

So whatever the complexity of the relationship between Russia, US and rest of Europe, they can’t hold a candle to the dizzying array of allies and enemies fighting on the ground.

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