What’s going on? 08.07.16

This post mentions various factions involved in the Syrian civil war – if you want to have a refresher, here are some of the most important in this post:

Syrian Democratic Forces/SDF – Mainly Kurdish faction operating in Northern Syria, backed by the West, fighting against ISIL

SAA – Syrian Arab Army, the military force of the Assad government, fighting against ISIL and rebel rebel groups. Does not fight against SDF.

VBIED – Vehicle-borne improvised explosive device

If you want a more thorough refresher, have a look at my posts here:
Factions of the Syrian civil war part I
Factions of the Syrian civil war part II
Last month’s post

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This month brings developements all across Syria, from the western mountainous province of Latakia to Aleppo City to the siege of Manbij in the North.

Perhaps the most interesting change compared to this time last month is the failure of the SAA Raqqa offensive. The Government forces had made great progress towards the “capital” of the Islamic State, al-Raqqah, even breaching for the first time into Raqqa governorate. Unfortunately for them, ISIL forces under the command of Emir Ahmad Kafrouma of Tabqa airbase launched a series of counterattacks mostly involving suicide-VBIEDs to great effect, pushing the Syrian armed forces back and eventually forcing them to retreat. This marked a great failure for the SAA and undoubtedly serves to lower morale among the troops.

On the other hand the Assad government forces have made great gains in/around Aleppo City. It appears that during the last day or so the SAA has captured positions overlooking Castello Road, bringing them 300m from the road, which is the last major road connecting the rebel-held parts of the city to the outside world.

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Red line signifying Castello Road, red-colored area showing Assad forces, blue-colored showing rebel forces

 

If the news is true that the Syrian army is indeed close to capturing and closing the road, this means that the Syrian rebels are completely encircled and surrounded – deprived of food, small-arms ammunition and artillery shells. In essence, if Aleppo City falls, the war will be almost certainly be over. 

I believe that the loss of Aleppo would signify the beginning of the end of the war, as the rebels would lose all of their DIY military-industry, lose tens of thousands of men and completely demoralize the revolution. In addition, it would free up ~55,000-60,000 men of the SAA, Hezbollah, Iranian Guard Corps, etc who would then go on to squash the remaining rebel-held areas.

I do not believe that this would happen in a week, or even in a month, but if Aleppo falls, I reckon large-scale war will be over in a year.

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Syrian Army commanders standing alongside Castello Road

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It also appears that Kurdish forces for the single Kurd-held neighbourhood of Aleppo City, Sheikh Maqsood, have decided to co-operate with the regime, pushing towards Castello road from the opposite side as well. This could be revenge/payback for the fact that Rebel forces have shelled the Kurdish neighbourhood before.

On the Northern Syrian front the SDF has completely enveloped and has started sieging the city of Manbij. ISIL is not giving up easily, and is continuously launching counterattacks. These counterattacks are both in the form of conventional fighting and suicide car-bombs/SVBIEDs. However the SDF forces have the advantage of US airstrike behind them and therefore will probably defeat the remaining ISIL forces remaining in the city in due time.

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Lastly, there has been some fighting in the western Latakia province, in which a coalition of rebel forces including the following:

Turkestan Islamic Party

Jabhat al-Nusra

Ahrar al-Sham

Faylaq al-Sham

First Coastal Division

Jaish al-Izza

Jaish al-Tahrir

Jaish al-Nasr

attempted to take some territory from the Assad forces. It appears that the rebels did make some gains, even taking the city of Kinsabba (video is a tour of captured Kinsabba filmed by rebels), but the real situation is unclear.

From my sources it also appears that the SAA have launched a counteroffensive aptly named ‘Mountain Storm’ to retake the city.

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SAA has captured Shillif, and is moving towards rebel-held Kinsabba.

 

This is all for now, if you have any questions feel free to email me at erikkannike@gmail.com or leave a comment.

 

What’s going on? 08.07.16

What’s going on? 08.06.16

This post mentions various factions involved in the Syrian civil war – if you want to have a refresher, here are some of the most important in this post:

Syrian Democratic Forces/SDF – Mainly Kurdish faction operating in Northern Syria, backed by the West, fighting against ISIS

SAA – Syrian Arab Army, the military force of the Assad government, fighting against ISIS and rebel rebel groups. Does not fight against SDF.

If you want a more thorough refresher, have a look at my posts here:
Part I
Part II

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This month brings developments mainly in Northern Syria, around Aleppo and the areas geographically north of it.

Perhaps the most interesting developments took place on the Raqqa front, with both the Syrian government forces and the Kurdish-lead Syrian Democratic forces advancing on the city. For context – the city of ar-Raqqah and the majority of Raqqah governorate surrounding it have been under ISIS control for the past three years. In fact ar-Raqqah is the “capital” and the biggest city of the Islamic State in Syria.

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The question now is who will reach it first – the Kurdish-backed forces or the Assad government forces? Another important thing to consider is the city of Al-Tabqa (visible on the map above as well), which houses a military airfield and most importantly the Tabqa dam. This dam is the biggest in region and control over it means essentially control of the water-systems and over the flow of the Euphrates river. If the Kurds were for example to reach the dam before the SAA (Assad forces), they would have immense leverage in a post-war situation to demand more rights for themselves.

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A while ago it seemed like the Kurdish-backed forces were making a serious push for the city of Raqqah, but this week they have instead shifted their focus to the city of Manbij, visible on the map above as the area where the orange arrows are concentrated – showing the advancing SDF forces. This operation is significant because it involved the crossing of the Euphrates river by the Kurdish-backed forces – something Turkey had warned them not to do previously. Indeed, the Euphrates was supposed to be Erdogan’s “red line”, not to be crossed.

Of course, as we can see on the map, the yellow area signifying Kurd-controlled area now extends across the Euphrates, in spite of what Erdogan had forbid them to do.  Crossing the river was not an easy task however, as ISIS had blown up the only bridge in the area, therefore protecting them from any kind of attack.

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Condition of said bridge

However, the SDF (Kurdish lead) forces therefore did something that has never been done before in the Syrian civil war – they conducted an amphibious assault, sending men and equipment over using boats. This was only possible thanks to heavy support by the US Air Force, which bombed ISIS positions on the other side of the river, allowing the Kurds to form a beachhead on the other bank
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Another interesting thing to note that it was not only the Kurdish/Arabic SDF that was on the ground establishing the beachhead against ISIS – there were some mysterious foreign “grey men” present with Western equipment and wearing non-local outfits

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The aforementioned “grey men”

 

These mysterious people are quite obviously US Special Operations members, who have been sent there to assist the Kurds in their fight against ISIS.

As of 21:00 08.06 the SDF forces have essentially advanced to surround the city of Manbij and will probably launch the offensive to take the city soon.

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One thing to note is that the city is not empty – although being under ISIS control it still very many civilians living in it. This means that and offensive to take the city will force a huge number of people to become refugees or internally displaces persons – indeed, the UN has warned that the Manbij battle could uproot more than 200,000 Syrians. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) of the UN over 20,000 have been displaced already with 216,000 potentially more being displaced. As of now it seems that the border crossings have been closed by the Turkish side, meaning that the fleeing civilians are trapped in Syria, and even worse, in ISIS held territory. Here is a dilemma which the Turkish government must face – will they open the gates and let the refugees in, knowing that they can’t care for them and that the border areas with Syria are already saturated with people fleeing from the conflict.. or will they keep the gates closed, and deal with the moral repercussions of potentially being responsible for civilians being slaughtered at the hands of ISIS. As one can see, there are no black&white choices when it comes to the conflict in Syria.

In the next post I will talk about the situation in Azaz and Marea. Until then!

What’s going on? 08.06.16

The liberation of Palmyra

During the last week of March the ancient city of Palmyra/Tadmur was liberated from ISIS by the combined forces of the SAA, various Shia militias and Russian advisors.

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The offensive was more successful than anticipated, with the Government forces recapturing the city in quite a short amount of time, which is unexpected due to the urban nature of the fighting.  This shows to things – the weakness of the ISIS forces stationed there and the strength of the Syrian combined forces.

I will give a brief overview on the national forces which participated in the assault on the city.

The bulk of the fighting forces was made up of three special battalions – the Tiger Forces, the Desert Hawks Brigade and the SAA Marine forces.

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The Tiger Forces are perhaps the most famous unit of the entire SAA – they were formed in 2013 as a Special Forces unit to serve mainly as an offensive force. They have participated in most big pushes by the Syrian Government forces and have achieved notable successes such as breaking 35-month long siege of the Kuweires Military Airbase in Northern Syria. The airbase and the men stuck in it had become somewhat of a legends in the conflict, surviving against all odds in a completely surrounded and isolated airbase for almost three years while constantly pushing back the ISIS siege. The Tiger Forces were the ones who finally created a corridor for the liberation of the bases during the 2015 September-November Kuweires offensive.

 

The liberation of Palmyra

The ethnic and religious groups of Syria

Part of the reason why the conflict in Syria is so complicated is because of the huge diversity of ethnic and religious groups living there. The rivalries and tensions between these peoples play an important role in the war and help explain what is going on.

The Sunni Muslims

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The biggest ethnic/religious group in Syria are the Sunni Muslim Arabs, making up around 70% of the country’s population. Sunni Islam is most popular sect of Islam in the world, and is being supported and spread mostly by Saudi Arabian efforts.
The Sunni Arabs in Syria are the biggest supporters of the rebel forces, and in recent years have developed increasingly hostile feelings towards the Shia Muslim Assad government. They have always been the majority in a country that is lead by the minority. Feelings toward Shia Muslims have become so negative that chants such as “Death to Shiites!” and “Christians to Lebanon, Shiites to death!” have become quite regular in the Sunni Arab sphere.

The Shia Muslims/Alawites

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Shia Islam is the second big sect of after Sunni Islam, to which about 12% of Syrians adhere to. The majority of these followers are Alawites, as is President Assad. Although the Alawites are a minority in the country, they have held control over almost all aspects of the government since 1971 when the father of Bashar al-Assad took power. The Shiites around the world are mainly supported and funded by Iran, as a counterweight to Saudi Arabia. The Shiites are seen as heretics by many Sunni Islamists, and as such almost all Shias in Syria support the Assad regime, as they (somewhat justifiably) fear a massacre or even a genocide in revenge should the Sunni groups come to power.

The Kurds

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I have already mentioned Kurds in the previous post:

The Kurds are a separate ethnic group in Syria and Iraq making up somewhere between 7-10% of Syria’s population. They have long sought autonomy, if not independence and the Syrian civil war provided an opportunity to finally make those dreams true. The Kurds stand out for being one of the few groups to fully recognize women’s rights, for being being secular (keeping religion seperate from the state) and for not discriminating based on religion or ethnicity. They are also one of the only groups who have not committed any unnecessary acts of violence in the course of the war.
Thus, the Kurds are seen as the only real allies of the NATO countries in the war. It should be noted that there is one large exception to this, as Turkey, a NATO member, absolutely despises the Kurds and sees them as a grave enemy, having on occasions even bombed them. This of course creates a very tricky situation with the rest of NATO arming the Kurds and Turkey fighting them.

Most of the Kurds are also Sunni Muslims, but religion is not a determining factor for them.

The Turkmen

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The Syrian Turkmen are essentially ethnic Turks who have lived in the region since around the 11th century. They speak Turkish and are heavily funded and armed by Turkey itself. Although only making up around 1% of the population, they have been mentioned quite a lot in the news recently, as they were the group that captured and later killed one of the Russian pilots that were shot down by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet. The main groups have positioned themselves against Assad and ISIS.

The Assyrians

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The Assyrians are descendants of one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and see themselves as the original natives of the land they inhabit. They make up around 4% of the population. Assyrians are Christians and as such have been heavily discriminated against by extremist Islamist groups during the war. As a result, many Assyrians have taken up arms to defend themselves from the chaos. The armed groups are quite bafflingly named, as the pro-government one is known as Sootoro, while the pro-Opposition/Kurd one is known as Sutoro. This war is confusing like that ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

The Druze

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The Druze are followers of an 10th century off-shoot of Shia Islam. They make up around 3% of the population. Although they consider themselves Muslims, most of the Sunni Islamists do not agree. They are vehemently opposed to being conscripted to the Assad forces, often countering with weapons and sometimes even breaking Druze who refused to serve out of prison. As a minority group they too have been subjected to terrible abuse by some sides of this war. For example in the summer of 2015 Jabhat al-Nusra massacred a large amount of Druzes who refused to convert to their religion. In most cases, the policy of Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda shootoff, read more here) is forced conversion and destruction of shrines. As for ISIS, their policy is violent annihilation of Druze without any mercy.

The ethnic and religious groups of Syria

Factions of the SCW Part II

In the last post we had a look at some groups involved in the fighting, mainly ones that would be considered by the Western public to be the “bad guys”. In this post I will give an overview of who and what could be more or less be seen as the “good guys”, at least from a Western perspective.

 The Kurdish groups

Perhaps the best known opposition groups are the Kurdish groups, which deal mostly with fighting ISIS and occasionally various al-Qaeda affiliate groups. The Kurds are a separate ethnic group in Syria and Iraq making up somewhere between 7-10% of Syria’s population. They have long sought autonomy, if not independence and the Syrian civil war provided an opportunity to finally make those dreams true. The Kurds stand out for being one of the few groups to fully recognize women’s rights, for being being secular (keeping religion seperate from the state) and for not discriminating based on religion or ethnicity. They are also one of the only groups who have not committed any unnecessary acts of violence in the course of the war.
Thus, the Kurds are seen as the only real allies of the NATO countries in the war. It should be noted that there is one large exception to this, as Turkey, a NATO member, absolutely despises the Kurds and sees them as a grave enemy, having on occasions even bombed them. This of course creates a very tricky situation with the rest of NATO arming the Kurds and Turkey fighting them.

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Group of female YPG fighters
  • People’s Protection Units (YPG, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) – The main armed forces of the Kurdish forces in Syria, serves as the protection units of the areas under Kurdish control, mainly fightings the Islamic State. The group has received perhaps the most foreign aid of any group in the conflict, with Western nations such as Germany, USA, France and other EU countries supplying them with weapons and training. The group generally co-operated with “moderate” opposition groups against the IS, but avoids conflict with the Syrian Government. The group has many subunits, for example the YPJ, which are the “Women’s Protection Units”, a solely-female fighting unit which is equal to all male units and serves alongside them on the front lines. The estimated size of the YPG is around 37,000 personnel (including around 13,000 members of the Women’s Protection Units).
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    Emblems of the YPG and YPJ

    As the forces of the male and female battalions generally operate together, they are collectively referred to as YPG/J. The Kurdish forces have also drawn many foreign volunteers looking to make a change in the war. Unlike the recruits of Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State, Western volunteers of the YPG/J are usually not persecuted by their respective governments upon return. This is understandable, as the Kurds are a friendly force for the West.

 

The “Moderate opposition”

The so-called moderate opposition groups are a complicated case, although they were the first ones to actually emerge as a credible force against the Assad government, they have now been significantly weakened because of fracturing and defections to other more extreme organizations.

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Flag of the SDF, showing their name in Arabic, Aramaic and Kurdish.
  • Syrian Democratic Forces – A relatively new formation, founded in October 2015 as an alliance between several Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian groups. Mainly established to defend the people from ISIS and other hardline Islamist groups and to eventually expel and defeat them. This group also enjoys the support of the U.S-led alliance against ISIS – US aircraft have allegedly dropped ammunition and weapons to them. The SDF is also unique because it has stated a democratic Syrian state as its goal, one which is inclusive to all ethnic and religious groups.  This is of course in stark contrast to to the various Islamist militias (including ISIS), which do not tolerate religions apart from their own. Generally considered the most favorite/most favorable group for the Western nations. The size of the SDF is estimated to be around 55,000 fighters. The SDF also includes the abovementioned YPG/J, who are the biggest member in the alliance.
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A group of SDF fighter with their American-provided M16 rifles.

As you can see, the list of “good guys” is not very long. Another factor is that these groups mainly operate in the north of the country, leaving the rest to groups that are.. not so good.

 

Factions of the SCW Part II

Factions of SCW Part I

The first few posts shall serve as a simple guide to give a broad overview of the different groups participating in the war. I will try to give an overview of the indigenous forces that are directly fighting on the ground i.e not including the forces which are only involved in bombing campaigns with no boots on the ground (NATO, Russia, Gulf Countries etc) or foreign groups assisting Assad (Iran, Hezbollah, etc).
This first post will cover the various factions of the Shia government and the biggest Sunni opposition groups.

 

The Syrian Government

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Bashar al-Assad

Of course the most important element of the entire conflict is the Assad government, which was established in 1971 by Hafez al-Assad who ruled until 2000 when his death caused the transfer of power to Bashar al-Assad. The entire conflict began during events of the Arab Spring in 2011 when the regime launched a violent crackdown on protesters, which instead of suppressing the protesters caused them to take up arms instead.

Currently there are two main armed groups operating directly under the Syrian Government, the Syrian Armed Forces (SAA) and the National Defense Force (NDF)

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  • Syrian Armed Forces (SAA) – The official military force of the Syrian regime, consists mainly of conscripts and operates as a conventional army. Estimated to have around 250,000 active personnel
    bxddvyl Syrian Arab Air Forces (SyAAF) –  As the name suggests, the SyAAF is the air wing of the Government, conducting bombing and airlifting operations. The Air Forces are considered to be one of the most loyal groups to the regime. The fleet of the SyAAF consists mainly of  Soviet-built aircraft and helicopters. Shortage of spare parts and the overall old age of the planes and helicopters have caused severe problems for SyAAF with their capacity to carry out severely limited. (An example of the deprecation can be seen in this video which shows a nearly 45-year old Soviet MiG-21 taking off and dropping homemade bombs on rebel positions. Take note of the absolutely abysmal state of the plane and the tires.) The SyAAF is also the conductor of the infamous “barrel bombings” in which  metal tubes are stuffed full of explosives and dropped onto civilian areas from helicopters vaguely over a target with no regard for who or what the bombs will hit. (This video shows an example of what barrel bombs look like on impact)
  • National Defense Force (NDF) –  Formed around 2013 as a paramilitary wing of the government, to keep order in the government controlled areas and to act as a local militia. Consists of military-age volunteers who are in reserves or do not wish to join the SAA for various reasons. The NDF is seen as more reliable/trustworthy than the SAA, as the the members have joined voluntarily instead of being forced by conscription. Estimated to have around 100,000 active personnel.
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Female members of the NDF

Salafist rebels

Salafism is an Islamic ideology advocating for return to a puritan society based strictly on Qu’ranic teachings. Basically the goal of Salafism is to return to a way of life as it was during the time of Mohammed. Most groups that are designatated as terrorists are based on Salafi ideology. The most (in)famous example is of such a group is of course the Islamic State.

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ISIS parade in Raqqa, Syria
  • Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Levant (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) –  The most famous organisation in the war, known for its exceptional brutality, extravagant propaganda videos containing gruesome executions and torture. ISIS is the most hardcore form of Salafist ideology, taking the idea of a violent struggle for Islam to the extreme. The group is different than others, by the fact that it does not have any allies and does not co-operate with any other groups, instead presenting joining them as the only option. Although the roots of the group lie with al-Qaida, the Islamic State has since parted ways with al-Qaida. ISIS is fighting with almost every possible enemy: the Assad government, other Sunni Islamists, Kurds, Shia Islamist groups and the Iraqi government. It is very hard to estimate the number of fighters in ISIS, as there is a constant inflow of foreign fighters and information about their strength is a closely kept secret. Western estimates have put the number in between 50,000 and 250,000 fighters.

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    Fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib, Syria
  • Jabhat al-Nusra/al-Nusra Front (JaN) – One of the best-trained and most influential rebel groups, started off as a branch of al-Qaida and was initially allied with ISIS. The two groups officialy spilt in early 2014 over administrative issues and have since become bitter enemies. JaN has tried to keep a somewhat more moderate outwards appearance than ISIS and there are rumors that they are considering distancing themselves from al-Qaida. It should still not be forgotten that JaN is still a very extreme Salafist anti-US/Western organisation that shares almost everything in common with ISIS (Strict Sharia law – stoning of women, beheadings, cutting limbs off as punishment, etc). The main difference is that al-Nusra does not publicize these acts as a form of PR and that they have been focused on Syria, not conducting acts on the soil of Western countries. The group is currently fighting against Assad and ISIS.  As is the case with ISIS, the data on fighters are very hard to know, estimates have put the number of fighters at about 10,000 to 25,000.
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    Flag of the Islamic Front

     

  • Islamic Front – The Islamic Front is also one of the biggest rebel forces in the conflict. Established in late 2013 as a coalition of various Islamist brigades (the biggest of which being Ahrar as-Sham, which provide around 20,000 men to the Front). The group also adheres to Salafi Islam as the ones above, albeit a slightly more moderate version. The group is largely thought to be financed by either Saudi Arabia, Qatar or both. The Islamic Front is currently fighting against both the Assad government and ISIS. As it is a conglomerate of multiple groups it has also quite a big pool of fighters, estimated to be around 50,000 to 70,000 men.

 

In the next part I will cover the various more moderate (friendlier to the West and more secular) factions that participate in the Syrian Civil War. I hope that everything has been clear so far and if you have questions feel free to leave them below in the comments.

Factions of SCW Part I

The Syrian Civil War – explained

The Syrian Civil War is an increasingly complex topic and despite the constant news coverage is still prone to misconceptions and stereotypes. In this project I’ll do my best to give fact-based coverage and analysis to separate the reality from the rumors and speculations. A thing to keep in mind is that everything expressed here are my personal views and that you should never rely on a single to source as everyone has biases, even when they might not acknowledge it.

In the first posts I will try to give a basic guide to the various factions in the Syrian Civil War (hereby referenced as SCW) and bring out some important differences between them.

The Syrian Civil War – explained