Who is Fighting Whom in Syria?

Three years on, there is no end in sight for the conflict in Syria. Over 140,000 people have died in the three-year-old civil war, while 2.5 million have fled the fighting, many of them to other countries. The United Nations says Islamist militant groups in Syria linked to al Qaeda are killing civilians and preventing aid delivery. The Syrian regime is fighting for survival, and without substantial Iranian and Russian help, the regime would not have lasted this long.

Multiple Groups, Multiple Interests

It would appear that some groups have a vested interest in prolonging the conflict. Particularly those who control the borders, the oil fields, and the car and drug rackets. There is no clear black and white picture. Apart from the regular army, there are Iranian and Iraqi militias fighting alongside the regime. Hezbollah is heavily involved on the government side. Also there are the so-called “Shabbihas,” the regime’s paramilitary group, known for its brutality against innocent civilians including women and children.

three childred killed in syria
This man grieves for his three children, killed in Jobar, Damascus

To complicate the picture further, there are several Jihadist groups who are supposed to be anti-regime but are in fact working and co-ordinating with the regime. The most prominent is ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) which is funded by Tehran and controlled by Syrian military intelligence. Its remit is to discredit the true revolution.

It would be impractical and unwieldy to include every group and gang that is fighting in Syria. I restrict myself to the main and most active groups in the field.

Not all groups are fighting the regime. Some of them are openly fighting alongside the regime and other Islamic groups are secretly working with the regime and are fighting the secular Free Syrian Army and its moderate Islamic allies.

Three Main Categories Of Fighters

To simplify a confusing picture, it would be useful to divide the warring factions into 3 main categories: First is the regime’s side, second is the al Qaeda affiliates who have been penetrated by the regime and third is the Free Syrian Army and its allies who are fighting against the regime of Bashar al Assad.

The First Category

The Syrian Regime and Foreign Militias Fighting On the regime’s side

Still the most effective military force in Syria with access to heavy weapons, an air-force, barrel bombs, tanks, artillery and ground to ground missiles. The regime’s military capabilities have been beefed up by Hezbollah, Russia and Iran. Even war-torn Iraq is helping by sending Shi’ite militias to fight the anti-regime forces.


The Lebanese Shiite militant group, funded by Iran and controlled by Tehran, has at Iran’s behest sent its fighters to fight alongside Assad’s forces, providing a significant boost to the government’s overstretched military. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah vowed to fight to the end to protect Bashar al Assad’s regime. It must be stated here that Nasrallah, the Leader of Hezbollah cannot take any decisions without Tehran’s prior approval. Since the 2006 war with Israel, many people in the Middle East considered Hezbollah as a resistance movement fighting the Israelis. But its intervention in Syria on the government side has undermined its credibility and alienated many of its supporters. It is now viewed in the Middle East as another sectarian terrorist group.

Iraqi Militias

The most prominent group is Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (literally it means: groups of the righteous). The group is under the command of Qassem Suleimani, the Iraq-based Iranian general who is also the commander of al Quds brigade. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is composed of Iraqi Shi’ite fighters, but is Iranian funded and controlled. Press reports indicate that Qais al-Khazali, an Iraqi Shi’ite imam is responsible for recruiting fighters from the Shi’ite community who are subjected to sessions of brain-washing and rudimentary military training before being sent to Syria. Estimates of the numbers of Shia fighters in Syria range between 8,000 and 15,000.

The Iraqi militias are being sent to Syria ostensibly to protect and defend the Holy Shrine of “Sayyidah Zaynab” near Damascus. The other Iraqi group of fighters is Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, which has been at the vanguard of attacks against the almost exclusively Sunni opposition across Syria.

These Iraqi groups, with Hezbollah and other assortments of Iranian militias along with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, are helping to give the edge to the Assad regime’s forces.

The Second Category

Al Qaeda Affiliated Groups Controlled And Manipulated By The Regime

Such groups are supposed to be fighting the regime. In fact they are not. Their actions on the ground indicate that they are helping the regime. They are fighting against the Free Syrian Army and other secular groups. The most prominent group is: ISIL/ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/also known as ISIS: Islamic State of Iraq and Sham).

In the spring of 2013, assisted by Iran and Iraq, the Islamic State fighters moved into Syria, establishing a major presence, particularly in the opposition-held north. Syrian activists say the group is largely composed of foreign fighters, and is the most ruthless opposition outfit on the battlefield.

There is mounting evidence that ISIL/ISIS is working with Damascus and Tehran and instead of fighting the regime, it has been actually fighting the Free Syrian Army and other moderate Jihadist groups. It has no democratic agenda but wants an Islamic state ruled by Sharia laws. This state of affairs suited the regime as it has frightened the Syrian people and made the regime look good by comparison.

This group is fighting against moderate secular groups and has alienated many Syrians because of its brutal tactics such as beheading, kidnapping and flogging. ISIS, which has steadily been enforcing a religious tyranny across a broad swath of land, had been ousted from many of its strongholds and was being surrounded in others. Its brutal practices have damaged the revolution, weakened the Free Syrian Army and boosted the regime.

Jabhat al-Nusra

Like ISIS/ISIL, this Islamist extremist group which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, has been infiltrated by the regime and is doing the regime’s bidding in the areas under its control. Al Nusra and ISIS are manipulated by Syrian Military Intelligence. Al Nusra is playing a dual role. Certain groups operating under Jabhat al Nusra are fighting the regime, but others are fighting the Free Syrian Army. The U.S. has designated the Nusra Front a terrorist organization.

The group has claimed responsibility for many of the deadliest suicide bombings targeting regime and military facilities. The presence of Islamic extremists among the rebels is one reason the West has not equipped the Syrian opposition with sophisticated weapons, such as anti-aircraft missiles. It has also clashed with the moderate opposition groups and has weakened the Free Syrian Army.

The Third Category

These are the groups fighting the regime and battling ISIS/Al Nusra

Free Syrian Army

a – The Mainly Secular Free Syrian Army

b – The Supreme Military Council (Free Syrian Army)

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed in August 2011 by army deserters based in Turkey, led by Col Riad al-Asaad. Its banner was soon adopted by armed groups that began appearing across the country. Despite this, the FSA’s leaders had little or no operational control over what was happening on the ground in Syria. The opposition’s Western and Gulf Arab backers sought to encourage a centralised rebel leadership and in December 2012 a number of brigades affiliated themselves to a newly-created Supreme Military Council (SMC).

Syria’s more moderate rebel units, known together as the Free Syrian Army, regrouped more than a year ago under a unified rebel command called the Supreme Military Council, headed by Gen. Salim Idris, until February 2014. The SMC’s then chief-of-staff, Gen Idris, wanted it to be a more moderate and stronger alternative to the jihadist rebel groups in Syria.

Idris has been recently replaced by General Abdul ILAH al Bashir.

The FSA is now centralizing its operations and command structure.

SMC Affiliates

Martyrs of Syria Brigades Led by Jamal Maarouf. Estimated number of fighters: 7,000

Originally called the Martyrs of Jabal al-Zawiya Brigade, the group was formed in late 2011 in Idlib province. Although its name was changed in mid-2012 to the Martyrs of Syria Brigades to reflect the growing ambitions of its leader, its operations are still focused in north-western Syria.

Northern Storm Brigade

The Northern Storm Brigade is an Islamist FSA unit that controls an important border crossing between Syria and Turkey. In September 2013, there were deadly clashes between the Northern Storm Brigade and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the jihadist group stormed the town of Azaz.

The Ahrar Souriya (Free Men of Syria) Brigade, which operates under the SMC, was set up by Colonel Qassem Saad al-Din, a former air force pilot from the northern town of Rastan.

Many of the groups are small and operate on a local level, but a number have emerged as powerful forces with affiliates across the country or formed alliances with other groups that share a similar agenda.

There are other groups fighting the regime.

Islamic Front

In November 2013, seven Islamist groups – Hirakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyah, Jaysh al-Islam, Soquor al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Haqq, Ansar al-Sham and the Kurdish Islamic Front – declared that they were forming the largest rebel alliance yet in the 33-month conflict, with an estimated 45,000 fighters. They said the new Islamic Front was an “independent political, military and social formation” that aimed to “topple the Assad regime completely and build an Islamic state.” They outlined a new command structure, with key roles shared between the seven groups, and said they would work towards a “gradual merger.”

The Islamic Front does not include al-Qaeda affiliates like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front, but its charter welcomes foreign fighters, as “brothers who supported us in jihad,” suggesting it is willing to co-operate with them.

Its agenda is the setting up of an Islamic State. The Islamic Front rejects the Geneva conference, and has said it will not abide by any agreement reached at the talks. As it comprises many sub groups, it was easy for the regime to penetrate such groups and steer them into actions that serve the regime and discredit the revolution. The Islamic Front receives modest help from Turkey and Qatar. The less radical groups are funded by Saudi Arabia.

Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya

Leader: Hassan Abboud. Estimated number of fighters: 10,000 to 20,000

Ahrar al-Sham’s fighters are renowned for their discipline and ability. They were some of the first to use improvised explosive devices and to target military bases to capture weapons. The group operates a “technical division” that carries out cyber-attacks and a “relief office” that runs social services and carries out public works.

Jaysh al-Islam

Leader: Zahran Alloush. Estimated number of fighters: 9,000+

Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) was formed by some 50 Islamist factions operating in and around Damascus in September 2013. Zahran Alloush, a former imprisoned Salafist activist whose group Liwa al-Islam (Battalion of Islam) is the most prominent and powerful member of the alliance, said it had been formed to “achieve unity among the units of the mujahideen and avoid the effects produced by the divisions within the National Coalition.” Some observers believe that this group has been compromised by the regime.

At the behest of the regime, ISIS has also been stirring up trouble in the Kurdish Al-Jazira district. The Popular Protection Units (YPG) – the mainly Kurdish militia that controls this “canton,” known as al-Jazira, along the Turkish and Iraqi borders in remote north-eastern Syria – rallied for a counter-attack, and the ISIS fighters pulled out.

French authorities reported in January 2014 that roughly 700 French residents had travelled to Syria to join in the fight against Syrian forces. The travel of French pro-jihadists to Syria exceeds the number of Europeans who left to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. France will soon adopt preventative measures, currently practiced in Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands, to stop minority youths from pursuing jihad in Syria.

As the conflict continues, more and more groups are springing up, the picture is becoming more and more complicated, and the Syrian people are paying the price.

Video: Who Are ISIS?

Sources: Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Al Arabiya, BBC, Homeland Security News Wire and local Syrian sources.

Nehad Ismail
Nehad Ismail is a writer and broadcaster, who writes about issues related to the Middle East from his home in London.