Freedom fighters? Cannibals? The truth about Syria’s rebels

The US wants to send them arms, Vladimir Putin says they’re cannibals – but what do we really know about the opposition movement fighting to topple Assad? Syria expert Aron Lund profiles some of the most powerful factions

Battlefield alliances: The major groups

The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF):

Leader Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi (Ahrar al-Sham)

Affiliated fighters Group’s own figures claimed about 25,000 in Dec 2012

A hardline Salafist alliance created in December 2012, which receives funding from conservative clerics in the Gulf. The SIF has distanced itself from the Western-backed FSA, but it is also wary of Jabhat al-Nusra’s al-Qa’ida connection. Unlike the SILF and the FSA, the SIF has demonstrated some degree of internal cohesion and significant ideological homogeneity. It is dominated by Ahrar al-Sham, but the front also includes the Haqq Brigade (Homs), the Haqq Battalions (northern Hama), the Ansar al-Sham Battalions (northern Latakia), and the Tawhid Army (Deir al-Zor). It is demanding an Islamic state with sharia law.

AFFILIATES: Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement

The Free Syrian Army:

Leader Brig Gen Salim Idriss

Affiliated fighters Many different claims. Most recently, in June 2013, Idriss claimed he is the leader of 80,000 fighters

The FSA name has been used by several overlapping rebel networks since mid-2011. This version, which is also often referred to as the Supreme Military Council, was created in December 2012 after pressure from Western and Gulf Arab nations, which seek to make it the military wing of Syria’s civilian exile group, the National Coalition. Foreign funding has drawn numerous rebel commanders to the FSA, including all the SILF heavyweights. But these commanders retain operational control over their own forces, and Idriss therefore serves more as a spokesperson than a military leader. Idriss steers a secular-nationalist line, while many of the factions that make up his army have opted for some form of Islamic rule.

AFFILIATES Syria Martyrs Brigades, Farouq Battalions, Tawhid Brigade, Suqour al-Sham Brigades and Islam Brigade

The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF)

Leader Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh (Suqour al-Sham)

Secretary General Zahran Alloush (Islam Brigade)

Affiliated fighters Spokesperson says 35,000-40,000 June 2013

The SILF is a very loose Islamist alliance created in September 2012, around a bare-bones ideological plank demanding more Islam and less Assad. It now includes about 20 armed movements, among them powerful factions like Farouq and Tawhid. The SILF members joined the new version of the FSA at its inception in December 2012, and now make up the bulk of its fighting force. A representative of the SILF describes it as ”the largest of the revolutionary coalitions”.

AFFILIATES Farouq Battalions, Tawhid Brigade, Suqour al-Sham Brigades and Islam Brigade

MILITANT FACTIONS

Farouq Battalions

Leader Osama Juneidi

Numbers Approximately 14,000 now, according to their spokesperson.

Area National, but associated with Homs also has strong presence on Syrian-Turkish border

Affiliation SILF, FSA

The Farouq Battalions is a large, Islamist-leaning group which has its roots in the earliest Free Syrian Army formations created in Homs province in summer and autumn of 2011. It rose to prominence when leading the failed February 2012 defense of the Baba Amr neighborhood in the city. Since then the original group has expanded tremendously and it now runs affiliates across the country. A  well-funded northern wing, Farouq al-Shamal, controls important border crossings and is rumored to enjoy Turkish patronage.

Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic state of Iraq

Leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani (Jabhat al-Nusra); Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Islamic state)

Number: a report this year by the Quilliam Foundation said Jabhat al-nusra had 5,000 fighters, but this is impossible to verify

Area Syria - Iraq

Affiliation al-Qa’ida

In mid-2011, the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq sent a group to Syria to create a jihadi movement. In January 2012, it emerged as Jabhat al-Nusra with a string of suicide bombings. Declared a terrorist group by the US since December 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra has co-operated with other rebels on the ground but shunned alliances. In April, Baghdadi declared a merger of the Iraqi group with Jabhat al-Nusra under the name Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. This was opposed by Nusra’s leader, but Baghdadi persisted, backed by many foreign jihadis. Both groups are in Syria, the dispute unresolved.

Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement

Leader Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi

Area Syria (It is strongest in northern Syria, in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo, but has affiliates all over the country.)

Numbers Several thousand at least, maybe as many as 10,000. SIF (the alliance of which they make up around 75 per cent of forces) circulated an informal claim that it had  25,000 fighters back in December.

Affiliation SIF

Ahrar al-Sham is likely to be Syria’s largest salafi faction. It claims to run about a hundred local armed groups, as well as offices for humanitarian aid and sharia law. It was created in the Idlib-Hama region in early summer 2011. In December 2012 it spearheaded the creation of the SIF alliance, which drew like-minded Islamist groups into its orbit. In spring 2013, several SIF member factions merged into Ahrar al-Sham, greatly adding to its numbers and influence. It seeks an Islamic state based on sharia law.

Syria Martyrs’ Brigades

Leader Jamaal Maarouf

Numbers High thousands? Even 10,000? Maarouf claimed in an interview in December 2012 to have more than 18,000 fighters, but this is disputed.

Area Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib

Affiliation FSA

Originally named the Jabal al-Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade, a name change was engineered to match Jamal Maarouf’s growing ambitions in mid-2012. The group remains concentrated in the rugged, rural Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib, and has spawned only a few branches elsewhere. Unlike his local Islamist rival, Suqour al-Sham’s Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh, Maarouf seems  to have no particular ideology, but he is nevertheless said to enjoy Saudi funding.

YPG – Popular Protection Units

Spokesperson Khebat Ibrahim

Numbers Some thousands

Area Kurdish-populated areas, northern and north-eastern Syria, Aleppo.

Affilation Supreme Kurdish Committee, PKK

The YPG is the dominant Kurdish armed group, which took over large sections of northern Syria in August last year. It is not-so-secretly loyal to the PKK, which has by now forcibly co-opted most other Kurdish groups in Syria. The YPG has deep misgivings about the Arab opposition mainstream, which it considers to be Islamist and under Turkish influence, and it has steered a middle way between the regime and the rebels. True to the PKK’s Marxist tradition, the YPG makes a point of training female fighters. The YPG does not seek independence for Syria’s Kurds, but does argue for a form of self-governance within Syria.

Islam Brigade

Leader Zahran Alloush

Numbers Thousands

Area Mainly Damascus

Affiliation SILF, FSA

The Islam Brigade was set up by the Alloush family from Douma, east of Damascus. The elderly patriarch Mohammed Alloush, a religious scholar, lives in Saudi Arabia. His son Zahran, a salafi activist jailed by the government in 2009, founded the group when he was released from prison in mid-2011. It rose to prominence after bombing the National Security Office in Damascus in July 2012, which killed several of Assad’s leading military officials. Considers itself “the biggest faction in the Damascus region” and claims to have 64 sub-battalions, but it refuses to give an estimated number of fighters.

Tawhid Brigade

General leader Abdelaziz Salama

Military commander  Abdulqader Saleh

Numbers Spokesperson claims ”around 11,000”

Area Aleppo, with smaller groups around the country

Affiliation SILF, FSA

The Tawhid Brigade was created in July 2012 through the merger of a disparate collection of militias from the Sunni Arab countryside  surrounding Aleppo. Soon thereafter, the group led the charge into the city itself, but the rebels became bogged down during the autumn of 2012 after some initial victories. The Tawhid Brigade remains the dominant force in the Aleppo region, although it also has small affiliates elsewhere. It demands some form of Islamic governance, but says that religious minorities should be treated as  equal citizens.

Suqour al-Sham Brigades

Leader Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh

Numbers Several thousand, possibly climbing towards 10,000

Area Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib

Affiliation SILF, FSA

The foundations of the Suqour al-Sham, one of Syria’s best-known Islamist groups, were laid in the summer of 2011 in the town of Sarjeh in Idlib’s Jabal al-Zawiya region. It has now grown considerably and some of its sub-units, such as the Dawoud Brigade, have been pushing south into Hama province alongside more radical Islamist groups. Suqour al-Sham helped create the SILF alliance, with Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh serving as its leader since the start.

About the writer

Aron Lund is a Swedish writer and researcher who has published extensively on Syrian opposition movements. He is a regular contributor to the Swedish Institute for International Affairs. Mr Lund is considered one of the best informed observers of the Syrian opposition

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