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Brookings Now

A Glossary of Forces in the Syrian Civil War

Fred Dews

“The conflict in Syria has become an intensely complex affair, incorporating overlapping political, religious, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal narratives,” writes Charles Lister in his new survey of Syria’s military landscape. Lister, a visiting fellow in the Brookings Doha Center, analyzes the Western-backed opposition, the spreading influence of jihadi militants, and the evolving capabilities of pro-government forces. Concluding that “a definitive military victory appears out of reach for all sides,” Lister argues these parties will remain at a standoff until a political solution is reached. However, as armed groups multiply on either side, even an agreement between government and opposition will be unlikely to end the violence.

Below is a glossary of the key actors—pro-government, opposition, and jihadis—within the considerably complex conflict dynamics that Lister analyzes in the survey. Be sure to download and read the paper (also available in Arabic) for his context, strategic analysis, and policy recommendations.

PRO-GOVERNMENT

Lister: “[G]overnment forces—principally the Syrian Arab Army (SAA)—have both encouraged and adapted to the war’s sectarian overtones, primarily deploying Shia and Alawi units in front-line operations alongside increasingly professionalized paramilitaries and Shia militias composed largely of foreign fighters. All the while, both sides receive considerable levels of support from foreign states, organizations, and individuals.”

Syrian Arab Army (SAA) Principle government military force. Prior to outbreak of revolution in Syria in 2011, its manpower was estimated to be about 295,000 personnel. After causalities and defections, the SAA consists of about 125,000 personnel today. Lister: “The SAA’s critical manpower problem has left it consistently unable to sustain intensive offensive operations in more than one strategic region at a time.”
National Defense Force (NDF) A pro-government militia organization established by the government and trained by Hizballah and, allegedly, Iran’s Quds Force. Contains as many as 100,000 personnel.
“Shabiha” Gangs of armed militia initially used by the Assad regime to suppress protests in 2011. Now mostly part of the NDF.
Hizballah A Shia Islamic militant group and political party based in Lebanon. Contributes anywhere from 3,500-7,000 personnel to fighting opposition forces inside Syria at any one time.
Iraqi Shia elements Along with Iran and Hizballah, Iraqi Shia elements have established, trained and sometimes commanded Shia pro-government militia groups.
Russia Sells weapons and spare parts to the SAA. Lister: “Ammunition, space parts, and even repair of helicopters in Russia, have represented a critical form of support for the Assad regime.”
Iran Key regional ally of Syria. Lister: “Syria has long been Iran’s closest strategic ally in the region, particularly for its role as a direct conduit for Iranian support to Hizballah in Lebanon.”

Iran provides financial credit assistance, military supplies, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel, including its Quds Force, to train pro-government militia and paramilitary forces.

 

OPPOSITION CAMP

Lister: “The anti-government insurgency currently involves approximately 100,000- 120,000 fighters—roughly 7,000-10,000 of whom are non-Syrian nationals—divided among over 1,000 distinct armed units. A majority of these factions are further organized into an assortment of coalitions, fronts, and temporary local alliances known as ‘military operations rooms.’”

State actors

Friends of Syria Umbrella group of opposition-supporting countries, including the United States and European allies. Lister: “the United States is now primarily focused on preventing further regional spillover, and on countering the existing—and still growing—threat posed by jihadis, including al-Qaeda.”
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey Main countries in the region supporting the opposition forces. Lister: “the more determined providers of practical military assistance to the Syrian armed opposition.”

Political opposition actors

Syrian National Coalition (SNC) A political coalition of groups and individuals opposing the Assad regime. Also known as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The most powerful insurgent organizations in Syria rejected the SNC’s authority and openly opposed the Geneva II talks in late 2013.
Supreme Joint Military Command Council (SMC) Backed by western governments. Formed on December 7, 2012. Now split into two factions, half loyal to Saudi-linked commander Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir and the other half to Brigadier General Selim Idriss, linked to Qatar. Idriss was “the West’s favorite partner.”

Armed insurgency inside Syria

Free Syrian Army (FSA) Lister: “An important umbrella term for those groups and coalitions generally perceived to be acting in the interest of the exiled SNC opposition.”
Syrian Revolutionaries Front An alliance of FSA brigades formed in December 2013 in response to the Islamist Front merger. Linked with the SNC. Launched the initial anti-ISIS operations.
Faylaq al-Sham One of the “politically independent, but largely moderate, rebel alliances” that maintains “a moderately Islamic undertone.” Linked with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Jaish al-Mujahideen Another of the moderate rebel alliances with a moderately Islamic undertone. Based around Aleppo.
Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union An Islamist group based around Damascus.
Hayat Duru al-Thawra An alliance of insurgent units under the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Began operations in January 2013.
Islamic Front The largest and most powerful military alliance in Syria, formed in November 2013. Composed of “seven groups capable of deploying a total of approximately 50,000-60,000 fighters.” Has called for the establishment of an Islamic state, but its members fall along a broad ideological spectrum.

Author

It is “a crucial actor in the overall opposition dynamic, as it has the potential to definitively shape the ideological direction of the insurgency.”

Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya

“Avowedly Salafi” and known to coordinate with Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.

Alwiya Suqor al-Sham

An Islamist Front group that was previously part of the SMC.

Liwa al-Tawhid

An Islamist Front group that was previously part of the SMC.

Jaish al-Islam

An Islamist Front group that was previously part of the SMC. In September 2013, at least 50 Islamist groups united under Zahran Mohammed Alloush to form Jaish al-Islam.

Kataib Ansar al-Sham

Islamist Front group.

Kurdish Islamic Front

Islamist Front group.

Liwa al-Haq

Islamist Front group.

 

JIHADIS

Jabhat al-Nusra Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Lister: “aims in the long term to establish an Islamic state in Syria as a stepping stone to liberating Jerusalem and establishing an Islamic Caliphate.”

Operates at a very local level and enjoys notable levels of support, or at least tacit acceptance, within the anti-government civilian population. Established by Abu Muhammad al-Joulani in mid-2011.

ISIS Formed in mid-April 2013 by Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Perceived as “imperious, self-interested, and unconcerned with taking part in a broader revolution.” Disavowed by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in February 2014 for “its consistent brutality and refusal to participate in Islamic-court mediation efforts proposed by the opposition.”

Moderate insurgents opened a front against ISIS in early 2014.

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