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
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)
- 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
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.