Factions Fighting in the Syrian Civil War
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Much has changed in the Syrian opposition and pro-Assad government militia landscapes since articles I co-wrote were published discussing the groups active on both sides, in August 2016 and November 2016 respectively. Here I shall give an outline of updates for each major faction/power bloc within each side of the Syrian conflict in the following order:
- Syrian Opposition
- Free Syrian Army
- Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army
- Ahrar al-Sham
- Independent Islamists
2. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham
3. Transnational Sunni groups
5. Syrian Democratic Forces
6. Assad government forces
- Pro-government militia
- Shi’ite and non-Syrian groups
7. Islamic State
Free Syrian Army
Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups have continued to reorganize, conducting what has accurately been described as a “decentralized insurgency” throughout Syria. Major battles that have been fought of late are “O Servants of Allah, Stand Fast” in Damascus and “We Saddled the Horses” in Eastern Qalamoun which both began in March 2017, as well as battles “In the Path of God We Go” and “Echo of the Levant” in Hama also in March 2017. According to figures collected by open source analyst Ryan O’Farrell, the manpower of FSA factions throughout Syria (excluding Southern Front groups) is estimated at ~35,000, which falls within the 30,000–67,500 figure that Fabrice Balanche estimates for what he categorizes as “secularist” rebel groups. Major groups include 1st Coastal Division of Latakia, Army of Victory and Al-Ezzah Army of Hama, Free Idlib Army, as well as Homs Liberation Movement. FSA groups continue to receive Western and regional support via the Jordanian based MOC and Turkish based MOM (Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi), including anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), artillery, grads and mortars. This support was rumored to have began as early as the Summer of 2013, but began in earnest in April 2014 with the first sightings of tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (TOW) ATGMs.
While in the past groups tended to drift away from an explicit FSA identity, a recent trend has been for groups who had adopted Islamist symbolism and rhetoric to shift back to adopting more nationalist style imagery — notable examples include Levant Front, Al Rahman Corps and more recently Islamist faction Jaysh al-Islam. Another example of this was an ex-Jabhat al-Nusra Shura member Saleh al-Hamwi stating that the time had come to declare that the Islamic project in the Revolution had failed, and a clear nationalist project must be advanced.
Significant changes include:
- United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) backed group the New Syrian Army dissolved and remnants re-emerged as The Revolution’s Commandos Army
- 101st Infantry Division withdrew from Northern Division and re-brand as 21st Unified Force
- Army of Liberation re-brand themselves as Al-Nokhba Army
- 16th Infantry Division re-brand as Division 23
- Brigades of Glory withdrew from and now act independently of one of the main groups in Eastern Ghouta, Al Rahman Corps
- There has been the formation of many new City Councils in the countryside of North Aleppo, done so under the protection of the Turkish-backed “Euphrates Shield” Operation
Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army
The Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army groups continue to inch closer to ever more inclusive coalitions in order to make greater use of their forces, which are likely greater than a previous estimate of 25,000 including the myriad of minor groups in Southern Syria. Three significant Southern Front coalitions have formed recently:
- Jaysh al-Thawrah
- Muhaja Support Operations Room
- Coalition Forces of the South
Major developments in Southern Syria include on-going clashes with Jordanian/Western backing in Daraa against ISIS affiliate Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, as well as the major Southern Front-led Battle “Death Over Humiliation” that began in mid-February 2017 and liberated the vast majority of the heavily fortified Manshia district in Daraa City.
Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya — commonly known as simply Ahrar al-Sham — emerged at the beginning of 2012, with its exact founding date remaining uncertain. Unlike other groups, Ahar al-Sham’s members have claimed to have began to form armed groups after the Arab Spring reached Egypt, even before March 15, 2011 when the Syrian Revolution began. In terms of foreign support, Syria analyst Ömer Özkizilcik has confirmed that Ahrar al-Sham receives Grads from Qatar. Without a doubt the most significant development in the Syrian Opposition landscape has been the rise and ensuing rivalry of Ahrar al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
In the wake of the Syrian Opposition’s military defeat by the Assad government’s Iranian and Russian backed forces in the Battle of Aleppo at the end of 2016, the groups active in greater Idlib (including newly displaced Aleppo groups) were thrown into turmoil. Seizing upon these developments, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) attacked several prominent FSA groups under the pretext of an anti-Jihadi clause being a condition of the Astana Peace talks in Kazakhstan, and then quickly declared the creation of HTS a few days later. As a result of this there has been a great sorting out, with radical Islamist orientated groups and sub-groups joining HTS, and more moderate factions seeking the protection of major group Ahrar al-Sham. In this way, the botched creation of HTS in some ways backfired with several major FSA groups joining Ahrar al-Sham where they enjoy some measure of autonomy, whereas HTS demands the full merger of groups joining in a manner much akin to so-called Islamic State (IS).
The number of independent factions has dwindled in the wake of the Ahrar al-Sham/HTS rivalry since the beginning of 2017, as the luxury of such autonomy is often no longer possible in the face of a predatory HTS and resurgent Assad government. One of the few to emerge recently, the Tribal Youth Movement of Hama, is likely have links to Ahrar al-Sham. In a surprising turn of events, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has recognized several of the larger of these groups as “moderate,” including Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and Sham Legion. Among the more recognizable of the smaller of these groups include Ajnad al-Sham and Sunna Army — two Jaysh al-Fatah member groups who may still be in this still active coalition — yet only two major independent groups in addition to the ascendant and already discussed Ahrar al-Sham remain:
Sham Legion (also known as Faylaq al-Sham), founded March 10, 2014, are a well established Islamist faction in Northern and Central Syria with an estimated manpower of some 4,000 fighters, a successor of several former FSA groups which straddles the divide between moderates and more hard-line religious groups. This latter trait became most apparent of late in a statement the group made offering to mediate negotiations between Ahrar al-Sham and HTS. Sham Legion are Turkish MOM joint operations center backed and TOW anti-tank guided missile supplied. Often seen as being one of the few groups still actively fighting on the ground that has links to the Muslim Brotherhood, this view is not without merit as they have incorporated at least two former Muslim Brotherhood affiliated groups into its ranks — Shields of the Revolution Council of Idlib/Hama and Ajnad al-Sham originally of Darayya.
This faction is very active in greater Idlib and territory liberated in the Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield Operation in North Aleppo, where they recently incorporated former Nour Al Dein Al Zenkey fighters in the form of newly created Fursan al-Thawra Brigade. Sham Legion is infrequently spotted in Homs and occasionally cooperates with Homs Operations, yet noticeably has lacked any presence in Southern Syria throughout the Syrian conflict.
Jaysh al-Islam (JaI) are a large group of < 17,000 manpower (likely several thousand less due to the subsequent loss of its Northern Sector), which was founded in October 2013 as a merger between some 50 groups, with that number rising to over 60 within a few months. A predecessor group called Liwa al-Islam had been founded sometime after June 22, 2011 a few months after Zahran Alloush had been released from prison in the early stages of the Syrian Revolution — before that, Alloush had briefly led the small group Katibat al-Islam. Jaysh al-Islam is politically important due to the proximity of their stronghold in Eastern Ghouta to the Syrian capital of Damascus. This faction is known to be well armed including owning a 9K33 Osa SAMs and several Zelzal-2 artillery rockets, but notably has lacked MOC support throughout the Syrian Revolution. Jaysh al-Islam was once a member of the Islamic Front coalition (now largely irrelevant yet still technically active) — Jaysh al-Islam left the Islamic Front some time ago and have recently adopted FSA branding and the use of the Syrian Independence flag.
The group has suffered a number of set backs: in the wake of the death of its reportedly charismatic founding leader Zahran Alloush on December 25, 2015, Jaysh al-Islam was involved in a fierce bout of infighting primarily with fellow Eastern Ghouta based Opposition group Al Rahman Corps but also involving the now defunct Jabhat al-Nusra led Fustat Army coalition. Adding to this, having initially operated on an impressive pan-Syrian basis, Jaysh al-Islam have recently seen its Northern sector join Ahrar al-Sham, leaving the bulk of their forces in Eastern Ghouta yet also maintaining forces in Daraa, Homs, Quneitra and Rif Dimashq.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham
The creation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) on January 28, 2017, was spearheaded by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the re-branded successor group of powerful Jihadi al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, along with several former hard-line Ahrar al-Sham members including the founding leader of HTS Abu Jabir. The founding members listed in the first official statement published by HTS were:
- Liwa al-Haqq
- Nour Al Dein Al Zenkey
- Jabhat Fateh al-Sham
- Sunna Army [disputed]
- Jabhat Ansar al-Din
The goal of HTS was Syrian Opposition unity under Salafist elements and leadership, with the poorly hidden hand of former Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani lurking in the background. This effort largely failed to produce the results that were desired for by Islamist hardliners — other than several of the main Sunni Jihadi groups on the ground in Northern Syria joining, the only truly significant Syrian Opposition groups to join were Jaysh al-Fatah coalition member Liwa al-Haqq and former TOW ATGM recipient Nour al-Dein al-Zenkey. While some elements of Ahrar al-Sham and Sham Legion were initially drawn into HTS, these groups manged to stem the tide of defections quite quickly. Jaysh al-Farouk of Hama, a once major FSA group with sectors across much of Syria, was the only significant group of a couple hundred men to join HTS on March 20, 2017 long after the initial foundation of the faction. The future of HTS represents great importance and danger for the Syrian Opposition going into the future. Important to note is that some have taken the re-branding of JFS as HTS more seriously than others, with influential Jordan based Jihadi militant scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi being somewhat critical of HTS and fretting over the role of “the diluters.”
Transnational Sunni Jihadist co-belligerents
Several smaller Jihadi groups who fight alongside both the Syrian Opposition and HTS have merged with the recently formed latter group, and others who remain nominally independent are clearly within their sphere of influence such as the Turkistan Islamic Party and Nogai Jamaat. A major event that occurred recently was the fighting between the reemerged Jund al-Asqa (under the new title Liwa al-Asqa) and the rest of the Syrian Opposition as well as HTS in Hama and Southern Idlib, an extremely bloody conflict that left over 100 dead and ultimately forced the ISIS affiliated group to leave for Raqqa.
Many coalitions exist, or have existed, in the Syrian conflict. For the sake of brevity I shall only mention the main ones that have remained active and relevant over a long period of time, or significant new ones which have appeared.
Jaysh al-Fateh (meaning “The Army of Conquest”) was formed on March 24, 2015, to take part in the Idlib offensive that forced the Assad regime from most of Idlib. The inital member groups were:
- Ajnad al-Sham
- Ahrar al-Sham
- Jabhat al-Nusra
- Jund al-Asqa
- Sunna Army
- Sham Legion
A second incarnation of JaF — with Jund al-Asqa leaving and the Turkistan Islamic Party joining — was formed in May 2016 to focus on operations in Aleppo. This coalition is apparently still active negotiating agreements and forming security forces in Idlib, despite many former member groups merging with Ahrar al-Sham and HTS. Al-Meqdad ibn Amr Brigade, Nour Al Dein Al Zenkey and Suqour al-Sham Brigade joined JaF much later, taking part in the Great Battle of Aleppo. The member groups who later merged with other factions are Suqour al-Sham Brigade and Al-Meqdad ibn Amr Brigade who joined Ahrar al-Sham, as well as Nour Al Dein Al Zenkey and Liwa al-Haqq who merged with HTS — the status of Sunna Army (which was a founding member of this coalition) seems unlikely given that HTS falsely claimed they had joined them in their formation statement. It is worth noting that two relatively unsuccessful JaF coalitions were formed in Southern Syria (one in Western Qalamoun and another in Daraa), both of which are now defunct.
Homs Operations is a well established and highly active coalition that was formed in June 2014 in the Homs pocket. Several of the founding groups are no longer active, and Homs Operations have subsequently brought together many groups across the ideological spectrum. Sham Legion is known to ally themselves with this coalition on occasion. Current member groups are:
- Ahrar al-Sham
- FSA Al-Ezzah Army
- FSA Homs Corps
- FSA Jund Badr 313
- FSA Tawhid Army
- Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham
Fatah Halab [meaning “Aleppo Conquest”] was formed 26 April 2015, and as of April 2017 Fateh Halab is still active with FSA Division 23 identifying themselves as fighting under this coalition. The groups known to have last been in this coalition included many FSA groups, several independent Islamist groups, as well as Sham Legion. The groups are too numerous to list, and following Ahrar al-Sham and HTS related mergers, it is unclear which groups are currently still members of this coalition — please refer to this article for the full membership of Fatah Halab at its peak.
Al-Binyan al-Marsus Operations Room are a board coalition of Southern Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, HTS and independent Islamists active since at least February 15, 2016 in Daraa Southern Syria. Unlike other coalitions which have self explanatory titles, the Operation Room’s name requires some explanation to a Western audience — it refers to either ayah 61:4 of the Quran or Hadith 222 of The Book of Miscellany in Al-Nawawi’s The Meadows of the Righteous relating a saying of the prophet Mohammad regarding the unity of the believers being similar to the structure of a building. Despite being active for far longer, this coalition only really came to prominence with the successful and controversial Battle “Death Over Humiliation” in early 2017. Member groups are too numerous to list, please refer to this infographic for the member groups of al-Binyan al-Marsus Operations Room at the outset of the Battle Death Over Humiliation.
Unified Military Council for Deir ez-Zor
The recently formed Unified Military Council for Deir ez-Zor coalition is significant in the growing controversy around what has been dubbed “The Race to Raqqa,” with at least one other such group being formed recently — Army of the Eastern Shield. These groups/coalitions are possibly part of a Turkish-backed plan for an “al-Jazira Shield” Operation on Tel Abyad that has been rumored since at least October 2016. Turkey has clearly been laying the groundwork for this by meeting with the representatives of some 50 East Syrian tribes, and an FSA Army of Victory commander stated in April 2017 that a new military formation will launch a new Operation against ISIS from SDF-occupied Tel Abyad. Important to keep in mind is that some of the largest Arab Sunni tribes in Raqqa — Al-Na’im, Al-Breij, Al-Bayattrah and Al-Ajeel — all hold views that make them incompatible with the Kurdish-led SDF, as was the conclusion of a recent Washington Institute for Near East Policy report “Eyeing Raqqa: A Tale of Four Tribes.” The Unified Military Council for Deir ez-Zor includes major North Aleppo groups as well as small Deir ez-Zor diaspora Brigades, including the following:
- Euphrates Martyrs Brigade
- Faruq Brigades [Deir ez-Zor Sector]
- Immigrants to God Brigade
- Levant Front
- Liwa Ghuraba al-Furat
- Martyr Ali Rain Brigade
- Sons of Deir ez-Zor
- Sultan Murad Division
- Tajammu al-Qaqaa
Syrian Democratic Forces
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are a YPG dominated force estimated at ~50,000 manpower by US government officials. The SDF appears to have undergone a decisive break with the previously discussed Syrian Opposition groups and openly cooperated with both the Assad government and one of its main backers, Russia. The cooperation with Russia has gone as far as SDF commanders claiming that Russia is building a base in Afrin, and stories are emerging from Aleppo of the Manbij Military Council allegedly conducting deals with a Syrian government figure Rami Makhloud. Rojava Peshmerga continue to be excluded from Syrian Kurdistan for political reasons, and non-PYD political parties face increasing repression.
However, the SDF has continued to maintain support from the Western Operation Inherent Resolve coalition that began in September 2014 in the form of airstrikes, and Western special operations forces continue to aid them in Operation “Wrath of Euphrates” in the Raqqa governorate. The SDF still counts among it several minor FSA groups in Aleppo and Raqqa, and cooperates closely with FSA Al Nukhbah Forces. New SDF groups to emerge include Fursan al-Jazirah from East of Tel Abyad. While the “Northern Federation” can in no way what-so-ever any longer be considered associated with the mainstream Syrian Opposition, the history and composition of its forces are important to keep in mind. For more details on leftist fighters in the SDF, see The Carter Center report “Foreign Volunteers for the Syrian Kurdish Forces.”
Over the past few months, pro-Assad militias and groups, both domestic and foreign, have continued to be generated in Syria. This ongoing trend includes the generation of new groups, existing groups creating new branches, and existing groups reorganizing or realigning themselves as the regime makes use of its Armed Forces personnel that has shrunk by as much as 50% of its pre-war figure of ~300,000. However, some of the biggest developments in the past few months come from the central government and regime’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) themselves. Two developments worth noting are attempts to bolster the SAA and bring some of the militias under more central control, and continuing attempts to “rehabilitate” rebel fighters.
The formation of the “5th Corps” is an example of the first point. So named as the traditional SAA Order of Battle consisted of three corps, while last year there was an attempt to create a “4th Corps” by the Assad regime and its Russian backers ostensibly to consolidate control over pro-Assad fighting groups in Latakia. Unlike the defunct 4th Corps, which never really got off the ground, the 5th Corps has become an important part of the SAA. Armed with newly delivered Russian weapons, the 5th Corp first saw combat around Tiyas in January, participated in the campaign to retake Palmyra, and more recently has been participating in the fighting in north Hama. While the size of the 5th Corps is unknown, they have been able to consolidate a few of the non-SAA groups fighting for Assad. Most notably, Kata’ib al-Baath (Ba’ath Brigades) has at least in part joined the 5th Corps. Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr (“Marines” or “Navy Seals”) allegedly is to be folded into the SAA as well, with some rumors that this means the 5th Corp. In Aleppo, along similar lines, the formation of the 30th Republican Guard Division in Aleppo in January under Major General Zayd Ali Saleh seems meant to bring Aleppan loyalist groups under its umbrella.
An example of the second trend is the formation of Fawj al-Haramoun. Based near Mt. Hermon, Fawj al-Haramoun is meant to consist of some 1,200 former rebel fighters, providing a vehicle to “rehabilitate” them. The Assad regime has continued putting effort into “rehabilitating” former rebels by incorporating them into regime-linked militia groups with incentives including salaries and not having to be forcibly displaced — this policy is especially focused on Southern Syria and the Damascus area with mixed success. Numbers to date remain small, but it is something to watch with news of casualties of former rebels who had their “status settled” from areas such as Wadi Barada increasing.
Shi’ite Jihadists and non-Syrian groups
A number of new Shi’te Jihadi groups have arrived in Syria or made their presence on the ground known, with The Institute for the Study of War now putting the figure of Iranian backed foreign militants at 30,000. Israeli Defence Forces intel officials have stated that Iranian presence in Syria was 2,500 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Army at peak involvement, with 1,000 remaining now. The casualties spread out between Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese and Pakistani Shi’ite fighters is now at least 2,384 killed in action between January 1, 2012 — April 18, 2017. The Iraqi Nujaba Movement created a “Brigade for the Liberation of the Golan,” and a confusing new pro-government Kurdish force affiliated with the anti-Turkish Syrian National Resistance has emerged that is limited to North Aleppo and seems to mainly patrol border areas that the SDF shares with the Assad government. A significant development is influential Iraqi Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr — linked to several militias — speaking out against Syrian President Assad, calling for him to resign and comparing his potential fate to that of Libya’s killed Col. Gaddafi.
Islamic State (IS) technically entered Syria from Iraq in 2012, under Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl al-Sham. Initially fighting alongside the Syrian Opposition and Jabhat al-Nusra (a group ISIS had longstanding ties with), in 2013 the group declared itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which Jabhat al-Nusra spilt from. In 2014 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declared itself the Islamic State, and turned on all other groups in an attempt to form what was claimed to be an “Islamic Caliphate.” While this new group calling itself the Islamic State was able to seize large parts of Eastern Syria, it has encountered many set backs of late in Aleppo, Eastern Qalamoun, Homs and Raqqa.
Officials at the US Pentagon estimated the group’s manpower to be 15,000–20,000 in August 2016, and while the group is very monolithic, a small isolated IS affiliate in Daraa holds the title Khalid ibn al-Walid. While the territory IS holds is clearly receding on all fronts in both Iraq and Syria, this is not the only criteria upon which the group’s legitimacy is based, and it remains to be seen how much longer IS maintains the ability to conduct costly surprise offensives especially on fronts with the Assad regime.
Thanks to both Type 63 and John Arterbury for initial help with the Arabic in the infographics, without which all future versions would not have been possible, and Abdulelah al-Qahtani for his continued help with this aspect. Also thanks to Vince Beshara who gave his insights in the government militia section of this article, as well as for his continual help with constant updates to the regime militia and regime foreign fighter/Jihadi infographics, as well as WarReports for aiding with the correct hierarchy for Iranian forces. Ryan O’Farrell contributed greatly with Syrian Opposition faction figures. Šerif Imamagić, Hasan Mustafa, Alexander McKeeve, Noor Nahas, Nawar Oliver, Ömer Özkizilcik, Yazid Umayya, Hampton Stall and Syria in Brief continue to help greatly with discovering details of little known factions and sub-factions. Aymenn J Al-Tamimi, Tom Cooper, and others gave critiques of the infographics upon which improvements in the groups included and their organizational structure have been made.
Originally published at www.bellingcat.com on April 29, 2017.