Syrian Opposition Factions in the Syrian Civil War
The following collaboratively written article is the result of months of research in a joint project by Ryan O'Farrell and Cody Roche. Fully updated versions of the infographics can be seen here, and a follow up article has since been written, “Assad Regime Militias and Shi’ite Jihadis in the Syrian Civil War.”
We have divided the known active Syrian Opposition and associated factions into seven categories:
- Free Syrian Army
- The Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army
- Independent FSA friendly groups
- Transnational Jihadi co-belligerents
- Syrian Democratic Forces
- Notable defunct factions
The factions are further categorized by region:
- The South: Deraa and Quneitra
- The Capital: Damascus, its suburbs and its sieges
- The Desert: Dumayr to Tanf
- Isolation: the Rastan pocket
- The heartland of the Revolution: Northern Hama, Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo
- Besieged on all sides: the Azaz-Mare’ pocket
Kaleidoscope of Actors
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.
Free Syrian Army
The question of how exactly to define FSA groups is tricky. In the narrowest definition of the term, only “day one” groups of officers and soldiers defected from the Ba’athist controlled Syrian Arab Army [SAA] count. This definition is not suitable for this project for a number of reasons. The first reason is that original brigades of officers/soldiers have for the most part joined other larger successor groups or mini-coalitions, with notable examples of this including FSA Army of Victory and FSA Army of Liberation. The second reason is that such a narrow definition does not account for groups that define themselves as FSA, and receive foreign and internal backing on this basis in terms of funds, weapons, and political support. So for the purposes of this project, groups known to be early revolution FSA, groups self identifying as FSA, and groups openly adopting obvious FSA branding/symbolism have been grouped as FSA.
Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army
The Southern Front are easily the most complex grouping of Syrian Opposition factions to deal with. The sub-coalitions within the Southern Front seem to resemble Matryoshka dolls, with shifting and often overlapping coalitions and operation rooms rallying around influential factions that are very difficult to keep track of. In this way, the Southern Front resembles command structures from an earlier stage of the conflict, with this being due to fighting in the area remaining largely frozen since Jordanian MOC support was reduced after the Southern Storm Battle stalemate in Daraa City.
Independent FSA friendly groups
Groups in this category range from independent moderate aligned groups who noticeably forego FSA branding such as Harakat Bayan, to borderline jihadi groups such as Ajnad al-Sham. Several of these groups have absorbed FSA Brigades such as Nour Al Dein Al Zenkey and Al Rahman Corps. An interesting factor to consider is that along with the mainstream FSA groups, these faction near universally make use of the Syrian Independence flag — although not always consistently. Eastern Ghouta based Al Rahman Corps is a good example of this:
Another major non-FSA Syrian Opposition group is Ahrar al-Sham, who similarly make use of the Syrian Independence flag in an inconsistent manner, which has been a point of contention. Sham Army briefly left Ahrar al-Sham with 1,500 men allegedly due to the latter group's refusal to use the Syrian Independence flag on official statements; Sham Army have since rejoined Ahrar al-Sham as of late June however. Labib Nahhas, head of foreign political relations for Ahrar al-Sham stated in March 2016 that the group has no problems with using the Syrian Independence flag and that they recognize it as a revolutionary icon.
The most complicated and messy aspect is that of regional coalitions — in all areas of Syria, the FSA and mainstream political Islamists have forged alliances of convenience with problematic transnational Jihadi groups as a matter of necessity. Occasionally these more radical Jihadi groups have clashed with FSA brigades, with notable examples being the skirmishes primarily in Idlib involving JaN that led to the effective disbandment of the FSA faction Harakat Hazzm in early 2015, and the current issues faced by FSA Division 13 and FSA Army of Liberation also involving JaN.
Transnational Jihadi co-belligerents
Non-ISIS Jihadi factions fall into two categories: Al-Qaeda orientated factions such as Turkistan Islamic Party [TIP], and “third-way Jihadi” factions such as Jund al-Aqsa. All are united in their opposition — at least on the face of it — to the Assad regime and ISIS.
Democratic Syria Forces
This project will not focus on the SDF, yet they deserve mention as the FSA character of the Arab components—and some Kurdish elements—is undeniable. Hence it is appropriate to include them here as they make up a part of the Syrian Revolution, pursuing their own debatable goals.
Notable defunct factions
Several groups that are no longer active deserve special note—while some have disappeared in the history of the Syrian Civil War, others are important for understanding the development of present day groups. One such group from the early days of the revolution lost in the fog of war was Faction to Liberate the People, a leftist group of 35 members that was active in Hama in 2012. Although small, groups like this are important to mention as the international extremist left-wing who support the Assad regime have sought to delete these people and their stories from history.
Another group vital for understanding the development of contemporary groups was the Muslim Brotherhood linked Shields of the Revolution Council. The Muslim Brotherhood was the faction that led the 1976 uprising against the Assad regime that ended in the 1982 Hama Massacre with the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and militants. While active in the early days of the Syrian Civil War, the Muslim Brotherhood’s lack of presence in Syria on the ground resulted in them being out-maneuvered by other factions and their foreign backers, leading to Shields of the Revolution Council’s apparent disbandment in early 2015 — several brigades formerly affiliated with them later joined Sham Legion, one of the largest and most influential FSA aligned groups.
A particularly interesting group was FSA Infantry Division 30. Active in North Aleppo in small numbers as part of the United States’ ill fated New Syrian Forces [NSF] train-and-equip program, this group folded quickly due to a lack of support and experience on the ground. However, the group’s symbolism held vital clues that would later resurface in the Eastern Qalamoun and Homs based New Syrian Army, including a new version of that group’s logo in their promotional material:
The New Syrian Army, a formerly Authenticity and Development Front linked group which developed in the intricate rebel ecosystem of Abu Kamal which was destroyed by ISIS when they took over, have also used this patch:
Lastly, as a historical curiosity, there was a group in Deir Ezzor called Saddam Hussein Martyrs Brigade. This Brigade was last known to be active in October 2013 before the ISIS takeover of Eastern Syria.
The South: Daraa and Quneitra
The southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra were the first to revolt against the Assad regime, experiencing the first protests in March 2011 in response to the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers. As the situation spiraled out of control, Daraa also experienced the initial violent crackdown by police, and later the first major regime military operation to suppress protests that had proven too large and sustained for the local security forces to handle.
Being the home of a disproportionate amount of officers in the pre-war SAA, the province also rapidly became a nucleus of the armed rebellion, alongside pockets in Homs and the Jisr al-Shoughour-to-Jabal al-Zawiya corridor in Idlib. Daraa city was even the scene of one of the first acts of armed resistance during the uprising, when ad-hoc militia held off the SAA’s armored assault for around a week in late April 2011 as the military’s siege began.
Through the five intervening years, the war in Daraa and Quneitra has continued to evolve, with dozens, perhaps even hundreds of small, highly local militias popping up throughout late 2011 and 2012. By early 2013, these local militias had coalesced into larger coalitions capable of offensive, conventional attacks on fixed positions, and rebels managed to seize strategic sites throughout Daraa and Quneitra, including multiple border crossings and — most critically — the 38th Brigade base, which contained vast stores of weapons and ammunition. A region of strong tribal and clan identity, the various militias arose through and remain largely structured around those traditional, often family-centric networks. In turn, individual militias have organized themselves into multiple layers of fractious coalitions, built around geography, tribal dynamics, and the personal relationships of commanders. This process of building progressively larger — though often unstable — coalitions-of-coalitions culminated in the formation of the Southern Front (Jabhat al-Janoubi) by 49 factions in February 2014. The Southern Front quickly became the largest umbrella organization in the south, in total comprising some 25–30k fighters, the bulk of southern Syria’s rebel groups and manpower.
Unlike other areas in Syria, the southern rebellion remains dominated by defector-led nationalist FSA groups, while Salafi-jihadist groups like Jabhat al Nusra (as few as 500 fighters to as many as 1500 fighters), Ahrar al Sham (several hundred) and IS (2200–2500) remain comparatively weak. This can largely be credited to two factors, the first being the disproportionate number of Houranis in the SAA, and thus a relatively high number of defectors, and the consistent support of regional and international intelligence agencies. Beginning as early as December 2012, Saudi, Jordanian and American intelligence has supplied select armed groups, an effort that became formalized towards the end of 2013 as the Amman-based Military Operations Command (MOC). Beginning in April 2014, the MOC began provisioning select southern rebel groups with BGM-71 TOW anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), beginning a longstanding “vet and equip” program for moderate groups. Being comprised of moderate FSA units under a comparatively cohesive and stable umbrella organization, approximately half of the Southern Front’s constituent groups have since become recipients at some point or another. In addition to those missiles, Southern Front groups have received extensive support from the MOC in terms of tactical and strategic advise, salaries ($50–100 per month per fighter), equipment and weapons, enabling a series of significant victories through 2014 and the first half of 2015.
In June 2015, the SF launched “Operation Southern Storm” to wrest control of Deraa city northern and eastern districts from government control. The operation, wildly oversold given the resources devoted, ended in stalemate and failure. The MOC expressed intense dissatisfaction over the choice of target, and discontinued support for much of the latter half of 2015, causing the Southern Front to lose much of its operational capability, cohesion and, through defections, its size. The first half of 2016 has been dominated by the Cessation of Hostilities, and the south has been among the only areas in the country to largely adhere, under huge pressure from the MOC. Instead, it has turned much of its attention to a local IS affiliate, while several new sub-coalitions have formed and non-SF groups like Alwiyat Furqan have grown in prominence.
Currently, approximately 58 Southern Front member groups are organized in a variety of shifting alliances, operations rooms and mergers, now being reorganized around four of the largest units with close ties to the MOC: Youth of Sunnah Brigade, Yarmouk Army, 24th Infantry Division and Amoud Houran Division. Operations rooms — some of which are temporary and operation-specific while others are closer to durable coalitions based on geography — are used to coordinate offensive operations.
Other groups include the former Jabhat al Nusra, which fields a comparatively small and — according to a FSA spokesman — shrinking presence in the south, down from 3000 to under 700 by May 2015, though other estimates put their numbers closer to 1500. More prominent still is Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid, or the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, the local IS affiliate, which controls a patch of territory bordering both the Israeli-occupied Golan and Jordan. Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid (JKW) is composed of three groups, Liwa Shuhada Yarmouk, Harakat Muthanna al-Islammiya and Jaysh al-Jihad, which merged in the wake of a counteroffensive by moderate groups in March/April, which was itself launched in response to an an offensive by LSY and HMI in early March. Together, the three groups comprising Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid now field around 2200–2500 fighters, making them the largest extremist group in Daraa by a significant margin. Several other groups independent of the SF are also present, some having gained prominence during the Cessation of Hostilities, which the SF has largely adhered to at the insistence of the MOC and under significant criticism from other segments of the Opposition.
The Southern Front have been in constant skirmishes with regime forces during this time period, including launching a small number of TOW ATGM strikes against isolated regime positions, and the Southern Front and related groups have responded to criticism by launching some token offensives. United Operation room offensive إن عدتم عدنا [roughly “The Promised Return”] involving Jaysh al-Sabtain was launched in February 2015. Furqan Brigades led operation “Labayk Daraya” [لبيك داريا] managed to liberate the town of Doha in Quneitra on 2016–07–06, and another Furqan Brigades spearheaded offensive “Heya Lil Lah” [هي لله] was launched in the Triangle of Death — a strategic area at the intersection of Daraa, Quneitra and Rif Dimashq — along with other factions the following month in mid July.
The capital: Damascus, its suburbs and its sieges
The suburbs of the capital — vast belts of new and newly-expanded towns populated by the arrivals of hundreds of thousands of economic migrants over the past decade and a half — quickly became a critical focal point for the rebellion. Much like other poor, largely rural areas predominated by conservative Sunni Arabs, these districts experienced significant dissatisfaction with the government, receiving little in the way of largesse, but were constant victims of its corruption and repression. The densely populated urban areas from Douma through Irbin, Zamalka and Ein Tarma quickly became the scene of sustained protests and the violent crackdowns that followed. Similar situations arose in southern belt neighborhoods like Yalda, Babbila, and Beit Sahem, and western suburbs like Moadamiyah al-Sham and Darraya.
As local rebel militias emerged in Summer/fall 2011 in the capital’s suburbs, they developed enough capability and cohesion to launch a large-scale offensive into the city in Summer 2012. “Operation Damascus Volcano” was pushed back, despite a bombing that killed senior government cabinet officials inside the “Crisis Control Room”, and the rebels have not since managed offensive operations into the heart of Damascus.
In broad terms, the intervening years have been dominated by government counteroffensives that have attempted to divide, bombard and besiege Opposition-held districts into negotiated exits and/or truce agreements. After lines had stabilized in the aftermath of the “Damascus Volcano” battle, government forces took strategic areas along the highway to the airport, and advanced around the southeastern and northeastern flanks of eastern Ghouta in March 2013, besieging the pocket, although not ending smuggling. These surround-strengthen-siege strategies were repeated in the southern and western suburbs, whose proximity to the large belt of military bases south and southwest of the capital made the strategy easier to implement.
Accordingly, several areas of Damascus now hold around 250k of the 900k (5% of Syria’s population) facing siege. Other war crimes have also taken place, most infamously the government’s use of sarin nerve agent in an attack on several suburbs in eastern Ghouta during a counteroffensive in August 2013. This counteroffensive was essentially suspended in the aftermath, and following an investigation by the UN, a deal was struck between the US and Russia for Assad to surrender his stockpile.
The government’s policy of isolating and besieging rebel-held districts has continued, leaving only FSA-held Darraya (5–6k civilians), the large pocket in eastern Ghouta (~175k civilians) and IS-held Yarmouk refugee camp as areas of sustained, active fighting. Other besieged neighborhoods, namely a belt of southern suburbs, Moadamiyah al-Sham in western Ghouta and several neighborhoods northeast of the city center, remain under the control of rebel units, but maintain tenuous, one-sided truce arrangements with the government.
In eastern Ghouta, intra-rebel dynamics are governed by intense rivalries, which have often been outright hostile, tempered by the universal pressures of siege. Jaysh al Islam is the most powerful, formed in September 2013 as a merger of as many as 60 factions in Ghouta and led by Zahran Alloush until he was killed in an airstrike in December 2015. Fielding around 10–12k fighters in the pocket, JaI comprises around half the rebel strength in Ghouta, and possesses the rebels’ best equipment, including multiple MBTs, AFV, artillery pieces and an Osa SAM system. The second largest group is Faylaq al Rahman, which absorbed Ajnad al Sham Islamic Union’s eastern Ghouta units in February 2016. Now fielding 6–7k fighters, FaR/AaS rivals JaI to the point of open hostilities, including a disastrous bout of infighting in March and April 2016 that killed over 500 Opposition fighters and enabled major advances by government forces. Other groups of note are Jaysh al Fustat, a Jaysh al-Fateh offshoot comprised of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Ahrar al Sham and several other small local factions. JaF aligned with Faylaq al Rahman during the March clashes with JaI, producing arough division of the pocket into two halves, though pressures from advancing government forces, prominent local civilians and outside sponsors forced a tenuous ceasefire agreement.
The pocket was never subject to the CoH, despite JaI’s leadership position on the Higher Negotiations Committee, and the sustained operations by government forces — in addition to the blocking of humanitarian aid and daily artillery and airstrikes — have kept eastern Ghouta as one of the most active battlefronts of the war, and one of the most miserable and deprived places for civilians in Syria.
The desert: Dumayr to Tanf
The desert stretching from Dumayr and the eastern Qalamoun to the confluence of the Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian borders has been relatively peripheral to broader conflict dynamics for much of the war. Serving primarily as a no-man’s land through which most factions could shuttle men and materiel from the east to Deraa and from the Jordanian border through Dumayr into eastern Ghouta, the region’s importance has been amplified since IS expelled, absorbed or destroyed Opposition groups in Deir Ezzor in between April and June 2014. Groups — including Jabhat al Nusra (now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) — fleeing Deir Ezzor city, al-Bukumal and other areas along the Euphrates river valley often escaped to the Deraa and the eastern Qalamoun mountains, where longstanding militias like the CIA-vetted/equipped Ahmad al-Abdo Martyrs Brigade have a strong presence.
From these redoubts, some groups have attempted to launch counteroffensives eastward, such as the Army of the Eastern Lions (Jaysh Usood al-Sharqiya), and more recently the US/UK-backed New Syrian Army. Formed by remnants of Kataib Allahu Akbar, an FSA group that fled Al Bukamal after IS’s seizure, the NSyA has since “man for man been receiving…the most qualitative and quantitative [American] military assistance of any counter-ISIL force” in Syria, namely because the the NSyA’s relative isolation from regime territory avoids awkward political issues for its Western backers, as former UK Prime Minister David Cameron indicated during the Parliamentary debate over expanding the UK’s anti-IS air campaign to Syria.
As the situation currently stands, Jaysh al Islam controls Dumayr city and transit routes into the mountains, while Ahmad Abdo Martyrs Brigade retains a highly-mobile force that predominates from the mountains south towards the Jordanian border. The New Syrian Army captured the Tanf border crossing with Iraq, making it their base and controlling territory to its northwest towards eastern Qalamoun and northeast towards Al Bukamal. Despite much publicity, however, the New Syrian Army remains a small faction of 150–300 fighters, comprising but a fraction of the men fielded by Jaysh al Islam, Ahmad Abdo Martyrs Brigade, Tahrir Sham, Army of Eastern Lions and others that hold territory in and around the eastern Qalamoun mountains.
Thus the past 6–8 months have seen the desert areas in Syria’s southeast transform from a transit route that almost all factions could pass through to one of the largest stretches of FSA-controlled territory in Syria, albeit sparsely populated and almost completely devoid of population centers. These groups have found eastward counteroffensives quite difficult, however, as the NSyA’s recent failed assault on Al Bukamal proved costly and embarrassing.
Isolation: the Rastan pocket
Another besieged pocket of rebel control is a stretch of territory in northern Homs province, centered on Houla, Talbiseh and Rastan. Rastan emerged in late-Summer 2011 as a hotbed of rebel activity and eventually one of the rebellion’s earliest urban strongholds, with local coalitions like the Khalid bin Walid Battalions and the Rijal Allah Battallions securing control in January 2012. They withdrew from the town in March, for fear of an impending regime assault causing too much damage, but regained it in April 2012 under a new umbrella coalition called the Rastan Military Council. These battalions, in addition to remnants of their rival Farouq Battalions, have since evolved into the current landscape, shaped by the Opposition’s losses elsewhere in Homs, including the negotiated withdrawal from Homs city in 2014.
This pocket now comprises the remainder of rebel-held Homs, in addition to a besieged suburb of Homs city, Al Waer. After major offensive operations cleared rebel bastions near the Lebanese border in Qusayr and Tal Kalakh in Spring/Summer 2013, the government won Homs city itself after besieged fighters opted to withdraw to the Rastan-Talbiseh pocket in a UN-brokered deal in May 2014. Since then, front lines have remained relatively stable.
Currently, the five strongest groups in the pocket consist of Harakat Tahrir Homs, centered on Rastan, the Authenticity and Development Front-affiliate Jaysh al Sham, centered on Talbiseh, in addition to several Islamist groups that cooperate through the Northern Homs Countryside Operations Room. These include Faylaq al Sham, Ahrar al Sham, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, though all three extensively cooperate with other factions in the pocket. Other smaller groups include Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaa and Ajnad Homs, both comparatively-moderate Islamist in ideological dispensation.
The Rastan pocket is quieter than other fronts in Syria, largely because the regime wants to concentrate its forces and efforts elsewhere, while the isolated rebels find resupply and reinforcement difficult enough to preclude major offensive operations. Skirmishes and airstrikes are sill frequent, especially on areas with significant civilian populations, but the pocket has not faced the intensity of fighting that has been seen in places like eastern Ghouta or Aleppo. However, it is difficult to imagine that the regime will focus elsewhere indefinitely, given the political and military risks of a major swath of rebel-held territory in the center of “useful” Syria.
The heartland of the Revolution: Northern Hama, Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo
The heartland of the rebellion remains in north, centered on Idlib province, but also comprising adjacent parts of Aleppo, northern Hama and Latakia. This “greater Idlib” is by far the largest contiguous area of rebel control, contains 3/5 of the rebellion’s manpower and some of its most powerful groups. It has also become the base of the rebellion’s most radical factions, including Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra — now officially disassociated from Al Qaeda and renamed “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham” — and its periphery is the scene of Syria’s most fierce fighting.
Idlib, particularly the border areas near Jisr al Shughour, Jabal al Zawiya and parts of Sahl al Ghab, emerged in fall 2011 as hotbeds of the burgeoning insurgency. Long neglected by the central government, especially after the neoliberal reforms of the early 2000s ended many of the Hafez-era agricultural subsidies and pivoted the Ba’ath Party’s core constituency from rural areas to urban business interests, Idlib became an early flashpoint for the insurgency as armed conflict emerged in late-Spring/early-Summer 2011. Indeed, Jisr al Shughour became the scene of deadly clashes between security forces and militia as early as June 2011, and the heavy military crackdown that followed resulted in the war’s earliest large-scale refugee outflows as 11k civilians fled to Turkey.
Throughout 2012, highly-local rebel militias formed around village and town identities and powerful personalities, much as they did throughout the country. These then coalesced into larger coalitions spanning larger areas, usually drawn together through personal relationships and sources of funding that commanders could acquire from expatriate Syrians, religious figures and other benefactors. The the end of 2011 and half of 2012 saw the emergence of rebel groups comprising several thousand fighters, as opposed to the village militias that had dominated the armed revolt up to that point. Jamaal Marouf’s Jabal Zawiya Martyrs Brigade, which went on to form the Syrian Martyrs Brigade and later the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, formed in December 2011 and dominated the Jabal al Zawiya area of central Idlib. Liwa Ahrar al Shamal, formed in March 2012, dominated the Kilis-Aleppo corridor north of Aleppo city, while Liwa Derat Izza predominated in the western Aleppo countryside, both going on to form the larger coaltion Liwa Tawhid — now evolved into Jabhat al Shamiya — in Summer 2012 for the assault on Aleppo city itself. Also emerging in “greater Idlib” in late 2011 was Kataib Ahrar al Sham, a conservative Salafist group that has since become one of Syria’s largest and most powerful factions, already fielding 6–7k men by August 2012.
Coalitions that could claim members on a national scale first formed in fall 2012 at the behest of foreign sponsors, the first being the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (30k fighters, 1/3 of insurgency) in September, followed by the more conservative, Salafist-dominated Syrian Islamic Front in December. While comparatively loose coalitions primarily serving to unify rhetoric and political action, both would dominate for the first half of 2013, until a “notable coalescence of insurgent factions” again reorganized the insurgency in fall 2013. Most notable was the establishment of the Islamic Front in November, which came to include the bulk of Syria’s insurgency, now dominated by Islamist factions, albeit with significant ideological variation. In addition, nationalist, pro-democracy and comparatively non-ideological FSA factions in much of Idlib coalesced into the 12–15k-strong Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) in December 2011, both in response to the Islamic Front, at the behest of foreign sponsors (namely Saudi Arabia) and in preparation with the outbreak of widespread hostilities with an aggressive foreign jihadist faction that had begun to find purchase in rebel-held Syria.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant had been declared by leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in April 2013 as the newly-expanded successor organization to the Islamic State of Iraq, which had long fought the Americans and Iraqi government after the 2003 invasion. Jabhat al Nusra was itself an offshoot of ISI, and Baghdadi attempted to re-absorb the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate as Syria’s civil war offered an extremely attractive vacuum in which to further ISI’s project. However, Baghdadi’s unilateral declaration was not well-received by Syria’s Opposition or Jabhat al Nusra itself, which rejected ISI’s attempt to re-assert control. This created strong tensions throughout the latter half of 2013, with ISIL primarily devoting its resources to sidelining and muscling out other Syrian rebel factions. After months of occasional skirmishes, murders, negotiations and assassinations, open hostilities broke out between ISIL and almost the entire Syrian Opposition, including Jabhat al Nusra. Over the course of the first eight weeks of 2014, ISIL was driven out of Latakia, Hama, Idlib and much of Aleppo in an offensive spearheaded by Western and Gulf-backed moderate groups.
For most of 2014, Syria’s rebellion found itself fighting a multi-front war under the burden of debilitating — even fatal — internal divides. ISIL seized critical northern cities like Manbij, Raqqa and Tal Abyad in the first few months of 2014, and cleared all other insurgent factions from Deir Ezzor by June, ending the Opposition’s presence east of Aleppo. Meanwhile, insurgent offensives seized a strip of the Mediterranean coastline near the Turkish border for the first (and only) time in March, and pushed regime forces out of critical towns in northern Hama. But by the second half of 2014, those internal fissures came to the fore. The US and KSA-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front, which dominated much of Idlib and included the bulk of localized nationalist groups, was swiftly decapitated by Jabhat al Nusra in October and November, with leader Jamaal Marouf forced to flee to Turkey. This produced the nucleus of Jabhat al Nusra’s proto-emirate in Idlib, with JaN securing control of both critical border areas and most of Jabal al Zawiya, a large, central, mountainous base area. Nusra strengthened their position with assaults on the US-backed Harakat Hazm,which also dissolved in February 2015.
With some of the most prominent nationalist factions effectively neutralized, a new evolution in the northern insurgency took place. Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, joined by other Salafi-jihadist and conservative Islamist factions, formed the Jaysh al Fateh (Army of Conquest) coalition in March 2015, and the coalition proceeded to win major strategic victories in Idlib province through July. The regime’s long-standing Idlib salient, which stretched along the highway from Jisr al Shughour to Ariha and on to Idlib city, was seized by early June. These victories, securing the Opposition’s second provincial capital (the first being Raqqa, controlled by ISIL), signified the effective discontinuation of the Islamic Front as an effective merger in the north, as Ahrar al Sham focused its energies on the new alliance and Liwa Tawhid retaining its presence in and around Aleppo city. Both would continue to use the title, at least until Liwa Tawhid/Islamic Front (Aleppo) again transformed itself into Jabhat al Shamiya in June 2015.
Another critical coalition that formed in the first half of 2015 was Fatah Halab. Formed as an operations room for factions operating in and around Aleppo city, the coalition has become one of the most durable. Dominated by FSA and moderate Islamist groups, Fatah Halab claimed as many as 22k fighters, thereby rivaling Jaysh al Fateh in size, if not in offensive combat capability. Being composed of dozens of smaller, often localized factions, Fateh Halab has not managed the kinds of large offensive operations that Jaysh al Fateh has, but does retain critical international support, and includes around twenty US-vetted units provisioned with TOW ATGMs.
The remainder of 2015 solidified this rough division of the northern rebellion into two wings, dominated by the Salafist-oriented Jaysh al Fateh and the FSA/moderate Islamist Fatah Halab. Other nationalist FSA groups operate throughout “greater Idlib”, particularly in northern Hama and Latakia. In terms of manpower, Jaysh al Fateh-aligned groups field approximately 30k fighters, while moderate Islamist and FSA groups field comparable numbers of men. That said, the structural deficiencies of the nationalist and moderate groups have made Jaysh al Fateh’s dominance uncontested, as groups like Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham have the men, internal cohesion, command and control and equipment to crush almost any rivals. Despite the “bulk of available fighters remain[ing] tied down in tiny Free Syrian Army grouplets”, they “have little ability or motivation to go on missions outside their home town”, resulting in the dominance of jihadist factions with large deployable reserves.
The Russian intervention in late September, in addition to large-scale deployments of foreign Shi’a jihadist militias organized by Iran, has significantly altered the rebel landscape yet again. Intense air bombardments and the injection of new men and materiel has enabled major government advances in Latakia province and the northern and southern countrysides of Aleppo. This military pressure has entrenched Jaysh al Fateh, the most capable rebel formation in the north, though the rebels have been unable to fully reverse the regime’s advances in Latakia and southern Aleppo, or stop the encirclement and siege of rebel-held eastern Aleppo city. It is in this context that Jabhat al Nusra reinvented itself as Jabhat Fateh al Sham, disavowing ties to Al Qaeda and encouraging other factions to merge with it. This would further integrate Jabhat al Nusra and Al Qaeda into the Opposition landscape and tremendously complicate policy for the Opposition’s regional backers, while giving much ammunition to the regime’s narrative, but the Opposition’s desperation for the military benefits of a merger may overrule political concerns.
Facing a critical juncture under intense military and diplomatic pressure, the northern rebellion remains the focus of Syria’s conflict. While Deraa and Quneitra effectively still observe the ceasefire and Damascus and Homs face the slow attrition of siege, it is “greater Idlib” where the rebellion will find its fate.
Besieged on all sides: the Azaz-Mare’ pocket
The most recently formed pocket of rebel-held territory is the crescent-shaped strip of territory from Mare’ to Azaz and along the Turkish border in northern Aleppo. The pocket was formed in February 2016 by twin offensives by Iranian-backed Shi’a jihadist militias and the YPG of Afrin, both with extensive Russian air support, which cut off Aleppo city from its primary supply line to Turkey. This has left the rebels in Azaz, Mare’ and adjacent villages wholly dependent on their access to Turkey and the assistance of American airpower and Turkish artillery, sandwiched between a hostile YPG to the west and ISIL’s northern Aleppo territory to the east.
What has emerged in the intervening several months has been an exhausting back-and-forth between IS and the Opposition over the villages to the southeast of the pocket, with some changing hands dozens of times. This stretch of territory had always been dominated by moderate Islamist and FSA groups, especially Ahrar al-Shamal/Liwa Tawhid/Islamic Front (Aleppo)/Jabhat al Shamiya, and with its being cut off from a front with regime forces by the YPG — with whom it has a tenuous US-brokered ceasefire — the Opposition has devoted almost all of its focus to fighting IS. This has allowed the US to intervene directly on their behalf in ways that were never possible in the fight against the regime, including direct air support, massive weapons shipments and training.
Accordingly, groups with close ties to both the CIA (Jabhat al Shamiya, Islamic Safwa Battalions) and the DoD (Firqat al Hamza, Liwa Mutassim) have become the dominant rebel formations. However, given limited manpower reserves, complete dependence on access to the Turkish border, and a long, difficult-to-defend frontline with IS and the YPG, the 3–4k rebel fighters under the nominal authority of the Hawar Kilis Operations Room have found it tremendously difficult to make strategic, stable territorial gains.
There are many, many people to thank, without which this enormous project would have been impossible. @JohnArterbury and @LlamameIshmael deserve great credit for giving intense Arabic support in the early stages of this project, as well as @NoorNahas1 towards the end of the project for his incredible research skills in finding more obscure Syrian Opposition groups and their social media. @RaoKumar747 helped with tracking down information on a certain hidden group, and @putintintin1 deserves thanks for his pictures of Faction to Liberate the People from 2012. Šerif Imamagić provided extensive help with identifying and providing an up-to-date overview of little known Southern Front operations rooms and subgroups.
Lastly we must acknowledge the superb pre-existing work on the Syrian Opposition by @arabthomness, @archicivilians, @HasanMustafaS and @Syria_Rebel_Obs who have all done incalculably valuable work on documenting the Syrian Revolution. The work of @Weissenberg7 as well as @joaska_ helped greatly with information regarding small lesser known jihadi groups.