Overview of the Armed Factions in Syria
by Dr. Haytham Mouzahem — In the space of three months, Syria’s rebel factions have lost their stronghold in Aleppo, fled to Idlib and witnessed the election of a new US president who’s as reluctant to help them as the outgoing one – if not more so. So what better time to recap who’s who, how they’ve evolved over time, and what the future may hold for them.
1. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) – aka the “good guys” in Western chanceries – was established on July 29, 2011 by officers who defected from the Syrian army. It quickly evolved into a military umbrella for hundreds of mainly Islamist and Salafist battalions and brigades, alongside more secular forces that remain loyal to the revolution’s original quest for freedom.
Over time the FSA has witnessed countless divisions and defections, making it difficult to gauge its fighting strength. Some estimates however suggest the FSA retains about 30,000- 35,000 fighters in southern Syria and 13,000 – 16,500 in the north. Unit size varies greatly, with some fronting a couple dozen poorly armed fighters while others are well equipped with tanks, armor-piercing missiles and other modern weapons provided by the United States and Arab gulf countries, via US-led command centers in Turkey and Jordan.
2. Following a string of FSA defeats at the hands of the Syrian army on the one hand and jihadist groups on the other, US President Barack Obama lost confidence in the group and curtailed US support.
That left room for the emergence of Jaysh al-Fateh (“Army of Conquest”) to fill the void in northern Syria, where most jihadist factions (with the exception of the Islamic State) fall under its umbrella. The group was founded on March 24, 2015 out of seven major factions: Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jund al-Aqsa, Jaysh al-Sunna, Failaq al-Sham, Liwa al-Haqq and Ajnad al-Sham. The Turkestan Islamic Party, a jihadist faction of the Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang, western China, joined Jaysh al-Fateh in May 2016.
The group has periodically been riven with dissension, however, notably when Jund al-Aqsa was accused of cooperating with IS in November 2015.
For its part, Jund al-Aqsa has accused some factions of being traitors for participating in the December 2015 Riyadh opposition conference with more secular rivals. Jund al-Aqsa finally quit the group in October 2016 and joined al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, JabhatFateh al-Sham, in October 2016 after armed clashes wih Ahrar al-Sham, but only after it announced its opposition to IS.
3. Ahrar al-Sham is the most prominent Syrian faction. It was established in May 2011 by Hassan Abboud, who was assassinated in 2014. Ahrar al-Sham is a jihadist Salafist movement whose focus is limited to the Syrian homeland. Ahrar al-Sham receives financial and military support from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia [It is from governments]. It has about 20,000, including 1,500 foreign fighters. They are concentrated in northern Syria, particularly in the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and Hama, and its general commander is Ali al-Omar, aka Abu Ammar, who was elected in November 2016.
Two currents are fighting over the movement: a jihadist one that refuses to participate in peace talks with the Syrian regime, and a brotherhood current that accepts the notion of a political transition and tries to keep the movement away from al-Qaeda. This internal conflict helps explain why the group participated in the Riyadh conference while at the same time refusing to sever ties with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a designated terrorist group on the US and Russian hit list.
4. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, was founded in 2012 by Abu Mohammed Julani as a Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq. The group announced its disengagement from al-Qaeda in July 2016 and changed its name to JabhatFateh al-Sham. But it has not abandoned its Salafist Jihad ideology and refuses to participate in peace talks while imposing Sharia law over areas it controls and seeking to establish an Islamic emirate in Syria.
Its split from al-Qaeda is widely viewed with skepticism as a tactical move to protect the movement from US and Russian strikes and allow its integration into more “moderate” factions.
The group has about 15,000 fighters, including a battalion of foreigners of about 3,000. The movement receives secret funding from some Gulf businessmen, and Qatar is accused of providing it with financial, armament and promotional support. The movement controls a number of oil wells and imposes taxes in areas under its control. Its forces are concentrated in northern Syria, particularly in the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and Hama, as well as in the south, in Daraa and Qalamoun and Golan.
On Jan. 28, several jihadist groups announced their dissolution and the formation of a new armed group called the Organization for the Liberation of the Levant, commonly referred to as Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is a merger between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, Liwa al-Haqq, Ansar al-Din Front and Jaish al-Sunna. The new group is headed by Hashem al-Sheikh, known as Abu Jaber, former leader of the Ahrar al-Sham movement. Several prominent jihadist clerics, namely Saudi Abdullah al-Muhaysini, announced that they have joined the newly formed jihadist group.
The defection of the former spokesman of Ahrar al-Sham, Sheikh Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, from the movement — and announcing their full allegiance to the HTS — came to end the division within Ahrar al-Sham, between two ideological currents, one close to the Muslim Brotherhood and the other adopts al-Qaeda vision, when the latter defected from the group.
5. Jabhat al-Nusra’s refusal to integrate into Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq led the latter to establish the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as the Islamic State) in August 2013 so that the organization’s mandate would cover both Syria and Iraq. This caused a rift with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who wanted to keep the two al-Qaeda offshoots separate. Baghdadi rejected Zawahiri’s decision and announced his split from al-Qaeda, subsequently launching attacks on areas under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and occupying many of them.
Since then, IS has emerged as one the most extreme – and effective – groups fighting in Syria. It has fought fierce battles against other Arab Sunni rebels, the Syrian army and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), while massacring civilians and prisoners without mercy. IS is mainly active in Raqqa, Der ez-Zor and the Aleppo countryside, where it is subject to constant raids from the US-led international coalition, Russia and the Syrian army. It is also waging battles in Palmyra and Al-Tabqah against the Syrian army and in Al-Bab in the Aleppo countryside against Turkish-backed rebels. In Raqqa, IS is battling the YPG and US-backed Sunni Arab tribes. Most of the organization’s militants are foreigners.
6- Amid all the Arab-on-Arab fighting, Syria’s Kurds have joined the fray to try to secure an autonomous region in the country’s north. The Syrian Democratic Union Party secretly formed a military arm, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in 2004, but they announced it only after the outbreak of the war in 2011. Turkey considers the group to be a terrorist affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The YPG are allied with Arab tribes as part of Syria’s Democratic Forces, which was formed in 2015 to fight IS. They enjoy US weapons and air cover against IS. The YPG has taken over large regions in the north and east of Syria, where it has proclaimed self-rule and impose taxes on citizens and visitors. They are mostly present in Qameshli governorate, especially in Al-Hassakah, and in Afreen and Kobani in the Aleppo countryside. The YPG can front about 45,000 fighters, but that number might become around 100,000 after conscription was imposed in their areas of rule.
7- The Authenticity and Development Front is a Salafi Islamic alliance allied with the YPG. It was formed in November 2012 and espouses a moderate national Islamic credo. The Front enjoys US and Saudi support. Its militants are estimated at about 5,000, positioned in Aleppo and Der ez-Zor. Its secretary general is Khaled al-Hamad.
8 – The New Syrian Army was formed in November 2015 by the Authenticity and Development Front but split from it in September 2016. The New Syrian Army is led by Khezaal al-Sarhan who espouses national secularism. It is trained and armed by the US and is also allied with the Kurds. Its forces are focused in north and east Syria, especially in Raqqa, Der ez-Zor and Aleppo countryside.
9 – The Kurdish moves have alarmed Turkey, which has responded by launching a military incursion into northern Syria aimed at preventing the Kurds from creating a united break-away region. Harakat Nour el-Din al-Zinki, established at the end of 2011, is Ankara’s main ally in Syria and is part of the Euphrates Shield Forces led by Turkey that have clashed with the Kurds in northern Syria.
It is a moderate Islamist movement close to the Muslim Brotherhood that fronts about 5,000 fighters. Several factions have joined it, including Jaish al-Shamal, increasing the number of associated fighters. The movement receives funding and arms from Turkey, Qatar and a US-supervised depot in Jordan known as the Military Operations Command (MOC). It is present mostly in Aleppo, Idlib and their countrysides. The movement is led by Toufiq Chehab al-Din.
10 – The Sham Legion is also a part of the Euphrates Shield forces in north Syria that receive support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf organizations. http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/55344
It was formed on March 22, 2014 when 19 brigades operating in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Hama and Rif Dimashq united. The legion, which some of its brigades are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, espouse Islamist Salafi thought.
The legion was part of Jaish al-Fateh but withdrew from it in January 2016. It counts about 4,000 fighters, with no known foreigners among them. It is mostly present in Idlib, east Aleppo and Hama and Homs countrysides and is led by Anas Sheikh Wiss.
11 – Yet another faction is Jaish al-Islam, formed on Sept. 29, 2013 and made up of more than 50 brigades and armed factions. The group, led by Zahran Alloush who was assassinated in 2015, espouses traditional Salafism rather than jihadism and receives funding and arms from the Saudis and the MOC in Jordan.
Jaish al-Islam is the closest to Riyadh’s line of thought and is mostly present in northern Ghouta near Damascus, with about 12,000 fighters. It recently announced the opening of a camp to welcome around 1,000 foreign fighters.
Abu Hammam Issam Buwaydani is the commander of the group.
12 – The Sham Front was formed at the end of November 2014 through the merger of major factions in Aleppo and its countryside.
Most factions withdrew four months after its establishment, but Liwa’ al-Tawhid, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, remains part of the group, which counts about 3,000 militants.
The Sham Front receives funding and arms from Turkey, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Brotherhood Gulf supporters. The front is localized in north Syria, especially Aleppo and Idlib and their countrysides. It is led by Hussam Yassin.
13 – Finally, the al-Rahman Legion was formed in 2012 and includes Islamist groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army in Rif Dimashq around the capital, Damascus. It espouses an anti-Salafist Islamic Ash’ari creed.
The legion merged with the Islamist Union in 2016 to add to its Islamic character. It is led by Abdul Nasr Shmeir, who defected from the Syrian army in early 2012. The legion counts about 6,000 militants and is funded and armed by the United States, which has reportedly provided it with anti-tank TOW missiles. It is mostly present in eastern Ghouta, Jobar and eastern Qalamoun.
All in all, some estimates have found that 120,000 to 125,000 militants joined in the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad that broke out in 2011. About 55,000 of those (44.7%) are believed to be affiliated with factions that the United States classified as moderate and supplied with money and arms, including in some instances TOW missiles. Another 12,000 militants (9.8%) are affiliated with moderate Islamic groups, while local Salafist and jihadi groups count about 28,250 militants (23%). Finally, international jihadi groups include count 18,850 militants (15.4%), while the rest are divided among smaller local armed groups.
Although they outnumber the regular army, the rebel factions remain divided and riven with internal disputes and foreign allegiances. As a result, they have failed to form a single united army under a clear national program.