Mapping Syria’s Armed Opposition: Rebel Groups by Theater

Syria’s conflict is arguably one of the most complex and dynamic armed conflicts in the world, involving the national militaries of dozens of countries and thousands of domestic and foreign armed groups, all intertwined in a fractious myriad of coalitions and alliances. Perhaps the most complicated and difficult to understand are the armed groups participating in the rebellion against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which transitioned from mass protests to armed rebellion in the second half of 2011. One of the most challenging and difficult problems for policymakers is mapping these groups - which adhere to a wide variety of ideologies — and understanding their relative strengths. But without doing so, devising policies that seek to empower and strengthen certain elements of the armed opposition is tremendously difficult. I seek here to provide a rough breakdown of Syria’s armed rebellion, not including the Islamic State group (ISIS, ISIL) or the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), using publicly available estimates and basic arithmetic. For obvious reasons, this list is subject to change, and some estimates are certainly disputable. Some liberties were taken with regards to manpower estimates of smaller groups when numerical estimates have proven unavailable, roughly in line with media presence

Overall, there are likely somewhere between 120–125k fighters that belong to armed groups participating in Syria’s rebellion. Nationally, 54800 (44.7%) of these belong to armed groups vetted by the CIA and provided (at some point) with TOW Anti-Tank Guided Missiles. The CIA’s vetting program involves interviews with commanders and intercepts of their communications as a means of ascertaining their political acceptability, and is arguably the closest thing to a measure of political moderation. In addition, there are approximately 12000 fighters (9.8%) belonging to moderate Islamist groups that have not been vetted by the CIA. Nationalist Salafist groups — jihadist groups which don’t possess aspirations beyond Syria’s borders — comprise some 28250 fighters (23%), while transnationalist jihadist groups like Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra comprise roughly 18850 fighters (15.4%). A large number of small and generally highly-localized armed groups comprise the remainder, roughly 10000 fighters (~8%).

Below is a rough breakdown of these statistics, divided into three theaters: the north (Aleppo, Idlib, Hama and Latakia governates), the capital Damascus and its suburbs, and southern Syria (Deraa and Quneitra governates). A rebel-held pocket in northern Homs province may contain something like 5000 fighters split amongst FSA and Islamist groups, but information is difficult to gather, and I have declined to address the Rastan pocket accordingly.

Northern Syria (Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Latakia): 68500 fighters (55.7%)

CIA-vetted TOW-recipient groups: 27800 fighters (40.6%)

Northern FSA: 16800 fighters (24.5%)

-Army of the North: 9000 fighters

  • Falcons of the Mountain Brigade (Liwa Suqour al-Jabal): 1000 fighters
  • Division 13 (Forqat 13): 1800 fighters
  • Northern Division (Forqat al-Shamal): 3250 fighters
  • Army of Victory (Jaysh al-Nasr): 3000 fighters

-First Coastal Division (Forqat al-Awwal As-Sahli): 2800 fighters

-Al-Furqan Brigades (Alwiyat al-Furqan): 500 fighters

-Sultan Murad Brigade (Liwa Sultan Murad): 1000 fighters

-The Army of Glory (Jaish al-Izza): 1000 fighters

-The 1st Regiment (Al-Fauj al-Awwal): 500 fighters

-46th Division (Forqat 46): 500 fighters

-The Central Division (Al-Forqat al-Wasti): 500 fighters

-Division 16 (Forqat 16): 1000 fighters

Levantine Front (Jabhat al-Shamiya): 7000 fighters (10.2%)

-Levantine Front core (mostly ex-Tawhid units): 2500 fighters

-Revolutionaries of al-Sham Battalions (Katā’ib Thuwar al-Sham): 1000 fighters

-Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement (Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki): 3000 fighters

-Army of Mujahedeen (Jaysh al-Mujahideen): 500 fighters

Sham Legion (Faylaq al-Sham): 4000 fighters (5.8%)

Non-vetted moderate Islamist groups: 6000 fighters (8.8%)

“Be Upright As Ordered” (Tajamu Fastaqim Kama Umrat): 1000 fighters

Authenticity and Development Front (Jabhat al-Asala wal Tanmiya): 5000 fighters

Nationalist Salafist groups: 15250 fighters (22.3%)

Movement of the Free Men of the Levant (Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham): 15000 fighters

Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam): 250 fighters

Transnationalist jihadist groups: 13850 fighters (20.3%)

al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al Nusra): 12000 fighters

  • Army of Emigrants & Supporters (Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar): 1000 fighters

Soldiers of al-Aqsa (Jund al-Aqsa): 600 fighters

The Supporters of the Religion Front (Jabhat Ansar al-Din): 500 fighters

Turkestan Islamic Party (Ḥizb al-Islāmī al-Turkistānī): 500 fighters

Supporters of the Caliphate Brigade (Liwa Ansar al Khalifah): 250 fighters

Assorted other groups: 5500 fighters (8%)

Rif Dimashq: 22000 fighters (17.9%)

CIA-vetted groups: 1000 fighters (4.5%)

Martyrs of Islam Brigade (Liwa’ Shuhada al-Islam): 1000 fighters

Non-vetted moderate Islamist groups: 6000 fighters (27.5%)

Rahman Legion (Faylaq al-Rahman): 6000 fighters

  • Rahman Legion core: 3000 fighters
  • Islamic Union of the Soldiers of the Levant (Al-Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad al-Sham): 3000 fighters

Nationalist Salafist groups: 12000 fighters (54.5%)

Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam): 12000 fighters

Transnationalist Salafist groups: 1000 fighters (4.5%)

al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al Nusra): 1000 fighters

Assorted other groups: 2000 fighters (9%)

Southern Syria (Deraa and Quneitra): 32500 fighters (26.4%)

CIA-vetted groups: 25000 fighters (77%)

FSA Southern Front: 25000 fighters

Nationalist Salafist groups: 1000 fighters (3%)

Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam): 250 fighters

Movement of the Free Men of the Levant (Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham): 500 fighters

Transnationalist Salafist groups: 4000 fighters (12.3%)

al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al Nusra): 2000 fighters

Islamic Muthanna Movement (Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya): 2000 fighters

Assorted other groups: 2500 fighters (7.7%)