Soldiers, rebels, jihadists …

Armed groups in the Syrian war, form, self-dissolve, merge and are many. We present a tentative, complex list of their acronyms that came into existence over the last three years. The Islamic Front was announced on 22 November, 2013. It is likely supported by the Turkish, Saudi and Jordanian intelligence services. It is a coalition of seven groups that claim to have 45,000 fighters (according to other sources, the fighters are 40,000). This rebel group merger aims at establishing an Islamic state in Syria. The Islamic Front political bureau chief Abu Khalid al-Suri (whose real name is Mohamed Bahaiah), is also the coordinator of Al-Qaeda in Syria. Since he is also Ayman al Zawahiri’s main representative inside Syria, he basically belongs to the Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), better known as Ahrar al-Sham. The fact that a person belonging to another movement (though ideologically similar) has been chosen as the coordinator of Al Qaida in Syria is an indication of the extreme fluidity that characterizes the Syrian jihadist scenario. Al Qaeda in Syria is represented by two formations: the al Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS is the abbreviation in English and Daech in Arabic).

The Nusra Front

The first rebel group, with about 7,000 fighters, is largely made up of men of Syrian origin, while the second group has 8,000 fighters, most of whom are foreigners. The Nusra Front seems to focus its attention on Syria, sharing with other Syrian groups the goal of bringing down the Assad regime and establishing an Islamic state in Syria. The Daech, instead, has a broader horizon:  that of imposing a caliphate stretching from Iraq into northern Syria. The Daech is in fact giving a hard time to the Iraqi security forces in Sunni areas of Iraq, particularly in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. The violence against civilians and against members of other armed groups (even ‘Islamic groups’) made the majority of Syrians distance themselves from Daech’s conduct. In early January, clashes were reported in northern Syria between Daech units and other armed formations of the Syrian opposition, with more than a thousand victims. Islamic Front’s militants and those of another newly formed coalition, the Army of the Mujahedeen, are Daech’s main enemies. While the Nusra Front is playing an ambiguous role: apparently opposing Daech, but in reality trying to mediate between the different Syrian movements.   Abu Khalid al-Suri, the al-Qaeda coordinator in Syria, is the one who mediates between the several factions and in particular between the Al Nusra Front’s leader, Abu Mohammad Al-Joulani, and  Daech’s chief, Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, (also known as al-Baghdadi and Abu Doua). In mid-January, Al Suri posted on his twitter account a statement expressing strong disapproval of Daech’s conduct. Behind all this there are Saudi Arabia’s maneuvers for controlling Syrian rebel movements. Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar, have been among the major sponsors of jihadist and al-Qaeda groups, though, recently, Qatar seems to have withdrawn its support from the Syrian rebel groups. Turkey and Western countries have supported FSA. Riyadh has also financed Daech which, by now, however, seems to have become self-sufficient and apparently out of control. Saudi Arabia,  as a consequence of the West’s pressure, is also financing other movements not only to bring down  Assad but also to oppose Daech. The Saudi Arabia involvement must be assessed in the context of its rivalry with Iran, which supports Assad and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. In order to bring down what they consider to be a pawn  in the hands of Iran in the Levant, Riyadh has spared no expense. Those  groups that adhere to the two coalitions supported by Saudi Arabia (the Islamic Front and the Mujahedeen Army) are provided with Croatian weapons. Pakistani trainers are in charge of training militias in guerrilla tactics. Chechen militants join al-Qaeda-linked groups fighting in Syria as well.


The SMC (Supreme Military Council of the former Free Syrian Army) represents the ‘moderate’ coalition (in the Western media’s terminology that confuses wishes for reality) which was the first to take arms against the regime in the initial phase of the war. SMC has its operational core  in Turkey. The SMC has thirty groups. Gen Idris is the chief-of-staff, however observers have said the FSA is simply a loose network of brigades rather than a unified fighting force. Brigades supposedly report through the chain of command to Gen Idris, but he has yet to assert operational control and serves more as a  conduit for arms supplies. SMC-aligned brigades retain separate identities, agendas and commands. The SMC is supported by Western countries, Turkey and some Arab states, such as Jordan. A few groups which left the SMC have joined the Islamic Front. And some militiamen  who have been trained by U.S. special forces in the Jordan base of Mafraq, come from some formations that refer to the SMC. They will be sent to Syria with weapons provided by the CIA according to a recent resolution of the Congress. Their task is to create buffer zones in Syrian territory to secure the borders with Jordan and Israel. This operation coordinated by the Americans, Israeli and Jordanian authorities could involve 180,000 Druze living on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, who have so far kept out of the conflict.

The Kurds

The Kurds inhabit the regions of northern and northeastern Syria. Since the Syrian civil war, Syrian government forces have abandoned many Kurdish-populated areas, leaving the Kurds to fill the power vacuum and govern these areas autonomously. The state’s inaction may reflect a strategic decision to avoid opening up another front of conflict. In fact Kurdish groups have clashed several times with different factions of the armed opposition in Syria, especially against jihadists. The country’s most powerful Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (known by its Kurdish acronym PYD), is linked to the Turkish PKK, but it has also established links with the autonomous  government of the Iraqi Kurdistan which, in turn, is in good relations with Ankara. In this complex situation the Syrian Kurds may become pawns in the hands of the different powers of the area (the  Syrian government, Turkey, Iraq, Iran) but also key players who can rely, in a near future, on partners such as Israel or perhaps the USA.

The  government

At the outbreak of the uprising (March 2011) which then degenerated into civil war, the Syrian army, which has 13 divisions, numbered about 220,000 men.  The regime, in order to crack down on rebels can rely on the Republican Guard responsible for the safety of the Presidential Palace and the Alawi military units, in particular the 4th Armoured Division which is an elite formation of the Syrian Army commanded by Maher, Bashar Assad’s brother, and it is regarded as the best trained and equipped of the Syrian Army. The division has its military base in Mezzeh, in the south of Damascus. The Syrian Army’s specialized divisions also include two Special Forces divisions and the 17th Army Mechanized Division (all units made up of both: Alawite and Sunni). At the outbreak of popular protests in Syria, the regime, for its brutal crackdown on demonstrators, availed itself of the Baath Party militia and what has become notoriously known as the ‘Shabiha’ militia, referring to groups of bandits, a sort of mafia-style organization involved in trafficking of all kinds, linked to the regime. With the support of Iran, the Shabiha militia was transformed into a real paramilitary formation, similar to the Iranian Pasdaran. Assad is supported by the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian force of about 3000 men, under the command of General Ibrahim Hamadani, one of the lieutenants of the Qods Force, the unit of the Pasdaran for special missions abroad. Furthermore, even Shia Iraqis have sent volunteers to fight alongside Assad. As for Hezbollah one of their main tasks is to keep the road corridor linking Damascus to Beirut open, a strategic objective for both Assad and for the leadership of the Lebanese Shiite movement . Despite the international embargo, the regime continues to receive military assistance from Russia, as well as from Iran, either directly or through Ukrainian and Belarus companies. Among the military technology received by government forces there are Iranian drones and sophisticated radar systems able to detect the source of the rocket and mortar shooting of the rebels. (J.F.C.)


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