As the humanitarian crises rages on, rebel groups throughout Syria are still locked in violent clashes over territory. Some of these groups are fighting the regime, some are fighting each other. In recent months the question of who the international community can actually support has been met with increasingly opaque responses and we have seen significant changes in the make-up of the Syrian opposition. Whilst it would be naive to suggest that there are no distasteful elements fighting the regime, it’s plain wrong to believe that any support for the rebels is support for Al Qaeda or faceless “terrorists”.
The first significant development has been the creation of the Jaysh Al-Islam (Army of Islam). This coalition of fifty or so groups under a shared commitment to installing Sharia Law is backed by Saudi Arabia and is now one of the largest forces in the country. The nascent movement attracted groups away from other coalitions, such as the Western backed Free Syrian Army. The FSA have noticeably lost support among Syrians as we will examine later on. Whilst some saw it as a move away from that elusive secular opposition, the group’s adoption of a more religious tone has been effective in combating the jihadists present in Syria, notably the Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL), this has been achieve through marginalisation. The JAI now offers a moderate religious option, fighters with a religious motivation are no longer being pushed to the extremist fringes. JAI’s numbers are difficult to ascertain for certain, but one reliable estimate from analyst Joshua Landis puts them into at least in the low tens of thousands. It should be noted that just because these groups are Islamist in outlook doesn’t mean they are hostile to diplomacy or the West, in fact they already claim to have sent a delegation to the UN to gather support. Perhaps the most significant example of this is Ahrar ash-Sham, a movement with Islamist credentials and a stated goal to see an Islamic caliphate re-established (though not against the will of the Syrian people), have a fighting force of between 10,000 and 20,000 and are one of the best equipped forces fighting the regime. The group appear to be concerned about proceeding carefully – they were responsible for the rescue of kidnapped NBC journalist Richard Engel and they even claim to have called off operations that were judged likely to cause civilian casualties. This group is typical of what makes up the JAI and are therefore cannot be looked at in the same way as the Al-Qaeda backed groups.
The groups that have been gathering the most headlines outside of Syria have been the extremists, Jabhat Al-Nusra (JAN) and Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL). Both groups are either Al-Qaeda affiliates, or operate with Al-Qaeda backing. ISIL can be traced back to 2003 when it became active in response to the American invasion of Iraq. They number around 8,000 and have been responsible for attacks on churches and the kidnapping and executing of Westerners. ISIL have been particularly effective in Syria despite their low numbers and this can be attributed to their efficient organisational structure and an enthusiastic funding streams at the grass roots level. When civil order and justice have broken down, ISIL have stepped in to provide food and shelter for broken communities, whilst imposing law and order in accordance with Sharia. They are particularly hostile when it comes to diplomacy and indeed the Western world, as their publicly stated aim is to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region of Syria and Iraq. Jabhat Al-Nusra are of a similar size to ISIL with the most generous of estimates putting them at an absolute maximum of 8,000 fighters, most of whom are foreign. Like ISIL, JAN are committed not to overthrowing the regime, but to establishing a Sunni caliphate. In April the leader of ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced that the two groups had merged, yet this was immediately refuted by JAN leadership. Their relationship since has been marred by dispute and clashes, and a fierce rivalry has developed between the groups despite their many similarities. It is important to note that even when their numbers are combined they do not represent anything close to a majority of opposition forces.
The western backed Free Syria Army is harder to define. Theoretically speaking it has a hierarchical command chain lead by Salim Idriss, a former General in the Syrian Army, who defected last year. The reality is that in many instances it is comprised of loosely affiliated groups. Some are simple village militias set up by aggrieved residents, others are defected battalions from the Syrian Army but their numbers are believed to amount to no more than 150,000. They have lost support in recent months and suffered significant defections for several reasons. Firstly, many inside Syria now see them as the West’s way of influencing the conflict in Syria for their own interests – Syrians don’t want their future to be devised according to what Washington and Whitehall want. Many in Syria also take issue that the organisation is being run from Southern Turkey. Secondly, the organisation is remarkably inefficient and disorganised. Their leadership comprises a mix of defected military personnel and exiled politicians and has never really had a much of a plan for the country post Al-Assad. Their reliance on support from Western nations (particularly the US and UK) has not borne fruit – any willingness that these countries had to support armed opposition groups within Syria by supplying weapons or undertaking any sort of intervention has recently been buried under a mountain of hostile debate. Indeed, any support that has been committed has been marred by constant setbacks, for example in June of this year the United States authorised several shipments of weapons to rebel forces but most of these did not arrive for several months, and on arrival they were deemed insufficient. Small arms, radios and night vision goggles are very little match for the Syrian Air Force’s MiG fighter jets. This has left the FSA at a huge disadvantage when compared with the Iranian and Russian supplied Syrian Army and the Al-Qaeda backed groups JAN and ISIL.
This is by no means an exhaustive account of the rebels groups operating in Syria, there are some significant armed forces outside of those mentioned, notably the YPG, a force set up by Syria’s Kurdish population to defend its communities, they have clashed with JAN and ISIL whenever they have attempted to take over Kurdish towns. Also absent is the Ahfad Al-Rasul Brigade, a Qatari funded group of perhaps 10,000 fighters who have been operating independently with some success. The groups which I have mentioned are however those which have the size and manpower to significantly alter the military stalemate that Syria is currently caught up in. Yes, there are groups operating in the country hell bent on creating an islamic caliphate by any means necessary and yes there are other groups whom we might deem to be but they are most certainly in the minority. Many of the more moderate forces are now fighting on two fronts against the extremists and the regime, something that goes to show that Syria is not yet the wasteland of extremism it is oft portrayed as in the media. If we are going to talk about Syria then we mustn’t allow the reality to be distorted by those words “Al-Qaeda”, “terrorist” or “suicide bomber”, for it does a great injustice to the thousands for moderate foot soldiers battling a great tyrant.
Thanks to Richard Booth, Alex Blackford and Charlie Miller for proofreading
Pictures: Syria Freedom House