What began as a peaceful uprising against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in March 2011 has now become a fully-fledged sectarian war with regional and international ramifications, so much so that it is often hard to keep track of which groups are fighting for what, against whom, and with the funds and weapons of which party or country.
Understanding the tapestry of Syria’s civil war better can help us to understand the quirkiness of the current scene and how unpredictable it is likely to become as time goes by. While any sketch of the dozens of fighting groups in Syria at present will have to be rudimentary, due to the continual influx of fighters and the shifting of alliances, it is of value nevertheless.
In the first few months of the war, the conflict had not yet acquired its sectarian flavour. As officers abandoned the Syrian army for the rebel groups, the conflict appeared to be a classic rebellion, with government forces fighting against the rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
However, this was not to last, since extremists from neighbouring countries and other parts of the world started coming into Syria, adding layers of complexity to the local conflict and bringing in the experience they had gained in other war zones and their allegiances to backers in foreign capitals.
FSA moderates, failing to control the increasingly fluid situation, found themselves facing a debacle, especially since calls for armament and/or Western-led intervention fell on deaf ears. The more the extremists gained ground, the weaker the moderates seemed to become.
While there are dozens of groups fighting in Syria today, their tactical and strategic alliances and the scope of their ambitions change all the time. The regime is receiving help from its Shiite friends, and not only in Iran and Lebanon. The Iraqis have also proven to be a force to contend with, and the ease with which they can move across the porous borders has offered them an additional advantage.
Iran has sent in members of its Revolutionary Guard to act as trainers and logistics experts. Hizbullah has sent battle-hardened troops, which also play a major role in coordinating the war effort of Shiite combatants from other countries. Fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bahrain and several African nations have also joined the mêlée.
However, Iran is the chief bankroller of the Shiite groups, many of which have come into Syria on the pretext of protecting the sacred burial sites of members of the Prophet Mohamed’s family, also known as the Ahl Al-Beit.
The number of Shiite combatants in Syria is not clear, although one estimate puts it at 40,000 fighters. The names of these militias read as if taken from the history books of early Islam: Ashab Ahl Al-Haq (Truthful People Contingents), Liwa Ammar Ibn Yasser (Ammar Ibn Yasser Brigade), Saraya Taliat Al-Khorasani (Taliat Al-Khorasani Company), Kataeb Musa Al-Kazem (Musa Al-Kazem Battalions), Harakat Hizbullah Al-Nojaba (Valiant Hizbullah Movement), Liwa Al-Hamd (Grace Brigade), Faylaq Al-Waad Al-Sadeq (True Promise Legion), Liwa Zul Fiqar (Zul Fiqar Brigade), Kataeb Sayed Al-Shohada (Great Martyr Battalions).
Some of these groups are offshoots of earlier groups that have fought in other countries. Others are branches of extant sectarian militias that operate across borders, especially in Iraq. Some are the result of mergers among small units of combatants, while others are the result of splintered armed contingents.
MILITIA GROUPS SUPPORTING THE REGIME: Ashab Al-Haq are a collection of several fighting units, the best known of which is the Liwa Kafil Zeinab (Zeinab Guardian Brigade), which often assists Lebanon’s Hizbullah and the Syrian army in combat operations.
Liwa Kafil Zeinab is also the branch of an Iraqi militia of the same name, which has parliamentarian representatives in Baghdad. Meanwhile, Liwa Ammar Ibn Yasser is an offshoot of Iraq’s Badr Legion, a Shiite Iraqi organisation established by Iran’s Baqir Al-Hakim during the time of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The Badr Legion has spawned other groups in Syria, including the Shahid Mohamed Baqer Al-Sadr Battalion and the Kataeb Sayed Al-Shohada.
The Saraya Talia Al-Khorasani militia group, deriving its name from an eighth-century Shiite fighter who acquitted himself brilliantly against the Damascus-based Umayyad Dynasty, was formed in September 2013. It is active inside and outside Damascus, especially near the Sayeda Zeinab Mausoleum and in Al-Qaem.
Kataeb Musa Al-Kazem was one of the earliest combat units that came from Iraq to Syria. It is mostly made up of Iraqi fighters who are devout followers of the seventh Shiite Imam Musa Al-Kazem. It operates near the Shiite Mausoleum and in the outskirts of Damascus.
Hizbullah Al-Nojaba is a group that coordinates several fighting groups, including those of Iraqi, Yemeni, and Bahraini origin. It is believed to be an offshoot of the Ashab Ahl Al-Haq. One offshoot of the Hizubllah Al-Nojaba is the Al-Hamd Brigade, which is active in Aleppo and Damascus and often cooperates with Liwa Ammar Ibn Yasser and Liwa Zul Fiqar.
Liwa Zul Fiqar has gained recognition among Shiite groups because of its performance in battles in Damascus and near the city’s airport. It was formed in June 2013, but lost many of its Iraqi commanders in the first battles. It then sought to merge with larger fighting units and is now mostly dedicated to the protection of the Sayeda Zeinab Mausoleum in Damascus.
Faylaq Al-Waad Al-Sadeq is made up of Iraqi Shiites. Stationed in Najaf, its fighters have offered considerable support to Al-Assad’s forces. Kataeb Sayed Al-Shohada, which consists mostly of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is believed to be crucial for training and logistics. Liwa Abul Fadl Al-Abbas (Abul Fadl Al-Abbas Brigade) is a combination of Ashab Ahl Al-Haq and the Geish Al-Mahdi (Al-Mahdi Army).
All of the above groups are predominantly Iraqi, and they maintain a high level of coordination in the battlefield. But some Shiite groups are also mostly local, such as the Liwa Abul Fadl Al-Abbas and Hizbullah-Syria groups.
The Liwa Al-Imam Al-Hassan Al-Mojtabi, which performed well in the battles in and around the city of Al-Qasir, consists mostly of Iraqi units and often flies a banner carrying the words “Ya Hussein”. A recent addition to the scene is the Liwa Al-Assad (Al-Assad Brigade), which has yet to be tested in battle.
The Iraqi combatants, who are more interested in protecting Shiite burial sites than bolstering the regime, have brought into Syria the kind of fresh combat experience they have gained fighting Sunni groups in their own country. Iraqis often lead most of the contingents that are composed of Iraqi fighters as well as the fighters from other countries.
Kurdish groups have mostly stayed out of the foray for the time being. The Kurds are supposedly sympathetic to the Al-Assad regime because of the privileges it has granted them. However, groups such as the Wehdat Al-Hemaya Al-Kordiya (Kurdish Protection Units), have nevertheless thus far focused on protecting their own areas rather than helping the regime.
MILITIA GROUPS FIGHTING THE REGIME: The forces fighting the regime range from moderate groups seeking to create a democratic and modern state to Al-Qaeda affiliates devoted to the establishment of an Islamic state.
The moderate groups feature defectors from the Syrian army who came together in the first months of the conflict to pose the first credible challenges to the regime. Meeting in Turkey in August 2011, they formed the General Command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with Riyad Al-Asaad as chief of staff.
At least for a while, the FSA had the full political, financial, and military backing of Gulf and Western countries, and it served as the military wing of the expatriate Syrian opposition. However, divisions within its ranks, as well as the hesitancy of its supporters and the meteoric rise of jihadist groups in the country, later eroded the capabilities of the FSA as well as its status as the country’s leading armed opposition group.
In a bid to reverse its dwindling fortunes, the FSA changed its leadership in February 2014, sacking its former military boss, Salim Idris, accused of gross mismanagement, and replacing him with Abdullah Al-Bashir. Yet even so, over the past few months troubles within the FSA have led to defections, with some of its officers either leaving to join hardline groups or forming their own independent militias. The Islamic Front and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front are both offshoots of the FSA.
The FSA is run by a General Command of 30 officers, six for each of the five battle fronts in the country. These fronts are the northern front of Aleppo and Idlib, the eastern front of Al-Riqqa and Deir Al-Zur, the western front of Hama and Latakia, the middle front of Homs and Resten, and the southern front of Damascus and Daraa. Operations in each of these fronts are directed by a military commander in coordination with a joint civilian-military command council.
In February, the FSA General Command declared the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist group, accusing it of violating the ideals of Islam, spreading sedition in the country, collaborating with the country’s enemies, conspiring against the opposition, hiding weapons from fellow combatants, using aid money to buy loyalties, and preparing the ground for taking charge of the country after the end of the civil war.
The FSA stated that the actions of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood were “delaying the victory of the revolution and exploiting the weakness of the opposition.” However, curiously the FSA has not made such accusations against the Al-Qaeda affiliates operating in the country, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front.
What made the statement even more remarkable was the fact that it conflicts with the position of Turkey, a country which has given refuge and support to many Syrian opposition groups, including allies of the FSA.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Al-Nusra Front was formed in 2012 and claims to have 6,000 men under arms. It says that most of its fighters are Syrians, but recent reports show that many foreign fighters have joined its ranks. The group’s mastermind is Abu Mohamed Al-Julani, who may have been killed in recent clashes. Al-Julani learned his trade fighting in Iraq with the Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi militia, which is linked to Al-Qaeda.
Even more extremist than the Al-Nusra Front is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also an offshoot of Iraqi affiliates of Al-Qaeda. ISIS was formed through the merger of the Iraqi and Syrian branches of the Islamic State in April 2013. Although Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri reportedly opposed the merger, his orders were ignored by the leaders of ISIS, who have since questioned his credentials as the global leader of the jihadists.
OTHER ANTI-REGIME GROUPS: Other groups fighting the regime include the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), formed in September 2012 and believed to have nearly 40,000 fighters under arms.
The SILF is a cluster formation of 20 or so rebel groups, including the “brigades” of Al-Faruq (Decisiveness), Islamic Al-Faruq (Islamic Decisiveness), Al-Tawhid (Unity), Al-Fath (Conquest), Al-Islam, Suqur Al-Sham (Hawks of Syria), and Majlis Thuwar Deir Al-Zur (Deir Al-Zur Revolutionaries Council). Not all of these groups have the same ideology, but most range from hardline to moderate. The SILF considers itself to be an ally of the FSA, but it frowns upon the foreign aid the latter is receiving.
Haraket Ahrar Al-Sham Al-Islamiyah (the Islamic Movement of the Free People of Syria), or HASI, was formed in December 2012 and comprises eleven groups, all of which are of the extremist strain. It claims to have 3,000 men under arms. Fighting under HASI’s banner are the Liwa Al-Haq (Truth Brigade) in Homs, the Ansar Al-Sham (Supporters of Syria) in Idlib, the Geish Al-Tawhid (Army of Monotheism) in Deir Al-Zur, and the Liwa Mojahidin Al-Sham (Syria Jihadists Bridage) in Hama.
The SILF only cooperates with Al-Qaeda affiliates in battle, though it does not necessarily fully endorse their ideology or methods. It has its own brand of extremism and desires to create a Sunni state in Syria after the fall of the Al-Assad regime.
The Islamic Front was formed in November 2013, a collation of seven of the country’s most active militia groups at the time. It seeks to create a Sunni state through the merger of all the opposition currents under one umbrella. It has also been known to mediate between the FSA and Al-Qaeda affiliates.
The Ahfad Al-Rasul (Grandsons of the Prophet) is an alliance of over 40 Islamist groups that claims to have over 7,000 men under arms. It cooperates with the FSA but maintains independent links with Gulf and Western countries. The Jabhat Al-Asalah Wal-Tanmiya (Integrity and Development Front), or JAT, claims to have 13,000 men under arms. It is an Islamist umbrella group active in Aleppo and Deir Al-Zur as well as on other fronts.
The groups fighting under JAT’s banner include the Liwa Nur Al-Din Zanki (a 12th century military leader) and the Liwa Ahl Al-Athar (Brigade of the People of Tradition).
The Hayat Duru Al-Thawra (Revolutionary Shields Organisation) is a Brotherhood offshoot of the FSA that contains dozens of small factions operating in Idlib and Halaf. It calls itself an “Islamic-democratic moderate alliance.”
The Tagammu Ansar Al-Islam (Supporters of Islam Congress) includes seven Islamist groups stationed in Damascus. Among other minor militia groups engaged in the fight against the regime is the Liwa Shohada Al-Yarmuk (Martyrs of Yarmuk Brigade) which has moderate Islamist ideas. The Kataeb Al-Wahda Al-Wataniya (National Unity Battalions) claims to have 2,000 men under arms. It is devoted to the creation of a democratic and civilian state for all ethnicities and social groups in Syria.
Finally, the Islamic Kurdish Front, which claims to have 1,000 men under arms, is opposed to Kurdish secessionists and seeks to keep the country’s Kurdish areas within the boundaries of Syria.
The story has been first published in Al-Ahram Weekly