Shockingly Almost Everyone Is Involved In This Mess
It has been nearly three years since the conflict in Syria started and the situation does not look good at all. The Syrian National Coalition’s proposition of a transitional government being set up and the Syrian government’s endeavors to fight terrorism have failed to produce any major results to this point, so the fighting continues to produce massive damage on various levels as it brings several parties in the limelight.
However, the alliances formed in response to the jihad movement that lies at the heart of the Syrian civil war are quite difficult to identify. The Islamic militants who initially assisted the Free Syrian Army in toppling Bashar Assad have turned not only against the rebels, but against each other, stirring the central conflict between Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate, and the Islamic State, which has led to barbaric fighting on the ground for the cause of Islamic terrorism. Iraqi jihadists have joined the cause too, among others, thus contributing to the confusion that surrounds the alliances involved in this war being even greater.
You might have thought until now that Assad just had Syrian rebels and ISIS on his mind, but in the Middle East things just got a whole lot more complicated. Here are the 7 armies and groups fighting in Syria right now.
1. The Syrian Army
Prior to the breakout of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian Army, which was formed by the French after World War I, included an estimated 325,000 regular troops and 280,000-300,000 reservists. 220,000 of these troops were mobilized as army ones whereas the remaining 105,000 served the air force, the air defenses and the navy. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the war brought along the defection of over 60,000 soldiers by July 2012, though without affecting the strength of the army, most of these soldiers being Sunnis with no control or command positions and not Alawite officers.
Indeed, the majority of defectors consisted of soldiers and junior officers, but records show that the army also had to face the loss of 40 Brigadier generals out of the 1,200 by August 2012. 7 other generals and 20 colonels along with another 177 people sought refuge in Turkey in June 2013. Overall, defections, desertions and death caused the Syrian Army to lose more than half of its personnel by August 2013, leaving it with a total of 110,000 troops out of the initial 325,000, as indicated by London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Analyst Joseph Holliday pins these losses on the Assad government being ever incapable of mobilizing its army units and ordering brutal attacks on the opposition instead. This situation has led to army units being attached to the Special Forces, the Republican Guard or the 4th Armored Division, a strategy also used by Hafez al-Assad in Hama back in 1982. Thus, brigades of the 3rd Armored Division from Qutayfah have been deployed to Hama, Deraa and Zabadni, while the 11th Armored Division has served to protect the Homs and Hama bases. One of the instances that have revealed the gravity of this situation is the 18th Armored Division’s Major General Wajih Mahmud’s sanction following the attacks he ordered in Homs.
It should be noted that the Syrian Army also has a reserve Armored Division, namely the 17th Armored Division, which operated in eastern Syria and elements of which were sieged to the north of Idlib in October 2013. Overall, the Army is organized as three corps consisting of Armored Divisions and Mechanized Divisions.
2. The Syrian rebels or the Free Syrian Army (FSA)
Some of those who left the Syrian Army over the years switched to the Free Syrian Army, fighting the security forces and Syrian soldiers and thus setting an initial context for the Syrian civil war today. Thus, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was born in July 2011 with the headquarters in Turkey. Claiming to protect the civilian protesters against the violent acts conducted by the state, this organization manages to lure an increasing number of anti-Assad fighters. However, it does not operate under the traditional chain of command, which means the FSA fighters are not executing orders issued by the FSA for it operates as an umbrella organization rather than a commanding one.
The fact that many soldiers operating in the Syrian Army have decided to leave the Armored Divisions and turn against the government to act under the Free Syrian Army instead has led to the latter developing a guerilla-style operation mode in urban areas. However, the FSA is also known to force soldiers in the Syrian Army to switch to the Free Syrian Army by staging attacks on army patrols. Initially targeting the Shabiha militia but now targeting security reinforcement carriers in general, rebels most often capture people in government vehicles, bomb vehicles or conduct hit-and-run attacks. Many of their attacks on Shabiha militia have been justified as attempts to secure the areas dominated by militants of the opposition and, as expected, their large number has favored the occurrence of urban battles between the FSA and the Syrian Army.
The leaders of the FSA have long accused the lack of military skill of its members, which they consider has impaired the unification of rebels across Syria, as well as that of proper weaponry, fuel and financial resources, which is considered to have impaired the development of a national command system. According to them, material support is required for the organization to be able to respond to the state’s violent acts at a large scale. Although claiming that the FSA was not involved with the al-Nusra Front, they admitted to the organization’s involvement with the Ahrar ash-Sham group, among others. However, the discussions about the status of the FSA took a different turn in August 2014, when in eastern Syria, the FSA had been incorporated by the Islamic State, as reported by the commander of the latter.
3. The Islamic State (ISIS)
The statement according to which in eastern Syria the FSA has been incorporated by the Islamic State (ISIS) is made in a context where ISIS is gaining momentum, as is the international alliance against it. Succeeding the Islamic State in Iraq and formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIS is a transnational organization which is constantly recruiting new members, thus compensating for the losses, which are quite heavy. Moreover, unlike the Free Syrian Army, it lacks neither the financial resources nor the weaponry needed to support its cause.
This Sunni extremist group embraces al-Qaeda’s ideology, which emerges from the Muslim Brotherhood ideology the Islamists in Egypt embraced in the late 1920s. Its mission is to institute the Salafist-orientated ideology in Syria, Iraq and other areas of the Levant.
ISIS has already imposed its strict Sharia law in northern Syria, where it dominates the jihad movement, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. In fact, according to various reports, it dominates the Syrian opposition across one third of Syria after taking control over the Deir Ezzor province, gathering a total number of approximately 7,000 followers. Over 6,300 of them joined the Islamic State in July 2014.
Linked to the al-Qaeda group prior to 2014 and coordinated by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS has the reputation of an organization less corrupt than many other groups fighting for the Islamic cause. More importantly though, it has the reputation of an organization with zero tolerance for non-Islamist militia groups, aid workers or journalists as imposed by the ideology it embraces, and has also been constantly accused of human rights abuse. However, some sources claim that ISIS has benefited from special treatment from the Syrian government. Kurdish officials, for instance, claim that the Syrian government only started to take action against the Islamic state in June 2014, fourteen months after it initiated its operation in Syria. Within the opposition, reports of September 2014 indicated that ISIS and the Free Syrian Army had signed a ceasefire agreement. However, as expected, their accuracy became subject for debate immediately after their release.
The involvement of certain groups in the Syrian civil war today proves very clearly where the ideology supported by this movement has its origins. Hezbollah’s involvement in it, for instance, has a pure geographical justification, the group claiming to act in response to Israel’s actions against Lebanon and its occupation of territory belonging to Lebanon. The territory in question is a 26 km2 area Israel took from Syria during the war in 1967 registered as the Shebaa farms. In fact, Hezbollah does not recognize Israel as a legitimate state. Finally, it accuses the Israeli state of capturing three Lebanese prisoners on unjustified grounds.
Hezbollah, also known as the Party of God, has also been linked to the al-Qaeda group by American and Israeli officials on several occasions, but the leaders of the group have dismissed the accusations. So have leaders of al-Qaeda, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Instead, it is known to support the al-Aqsa Intifada group, to support the Hamas group both morally and financially and to be linked to both Iran and the Syrian leadership, more precisely to the former president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, and its current one, Bashar al-Assad. However, Hassan Nasrallah, General Secretary of Hezbollah, dismissed the allegations according to which his group had acted on behalf of the Syrian government, but admitted to it acting to gain control over more than 20 strategically-located Syrian villages inhabited by Lebanese citizens. The former General Secretary of Hezbollah, Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, on the other hand, admitted to the group being an ally of the Syrian Army back in February 2013, only for President Bashar al-Assad to deny Hezbollah’s involvement in the actions of the Syrian Army once again three months later. In May, Hassan Nasrallah announced that his group was fighting against Islamic extremists and that its mission also included preventing Syrian militants from taking control over areas in the proximity of the Lebanese border. Moreover, he confirmed that his group had joined the fights initiated by Assad’s forces in Qusayr.
However, whether Hezbollah has acted alongside or independently of the Syrian Army, one fact remains unchanged and that is that the group has lost over five hundred fighters to the Syrian civil war.
5. The Kurdish forces
Similarly to Hezbollah, the Syrian Kurds’ involvement in today’s war in Syria also finds its justification in the discrimination they have endured over time. Accounting for 10% of the country’s population at the time when the uprisings started, the Kurds joined the war to protest against being deprived of their rights. And the response was immediate. Approximately 200,000 Kurds were granted Syrian citizenship by Assad’s government in an attempt to convince the Kurds to cease their protests. Indeed, this initiative, seconded by the Turks’ support of the opposition and the Kurds being under-represented in the Syrian National Council, led to the Kurds involving in the war in a lesser number than the Sunnis and therefore to the number of violent acts being lesser in the areas inhabited by them. The clash between the Kurds and the Islamist groups, however, was stirred by the Kurds, whose Protection Units expelled Islamists from Ras al-Ain.
These Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) were set up to protect the areas of Syria inhabited by Kurds. Thus, in July 2012, they captured the cities of Kobanê, Amûdê and Efrîn, as well as those of Dêrika Hemko, Serê Kaniyê, Dirbêsî and Girkê Legê by the end of the month, leaving only Hasak and Qamishli under government control.
On a strictly political level, the Kurds have stated their wish to be granted autonomy. To this effect, they founded the Kurdish National Council, which serves as an umbrella institution for representatives of various Kurdish political parties, most of which were integrated in the National Coordination Committee (NCC) prior to October 2011. Today, only the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is represented in the NCC. It should be noted that the PYD is one of the two groups formed by the Kurds to run the cities they gained control over in July 2012 along with the Kurdish Supreme Committee.
Initially, the Kurds fought against both the Assad government and the FSA in an attempt to gain control over the north and north-eastern parts of Syria, but their engagement was limited. However, the situation started to change in February 2013, when they joined forces with the FSA. Today, the Kurds are fighting against ISIS and the al-Nusra Front despite some of their people occupying leading positions within various Islamist groups.
6. The Iranian involvement in the Syrian civil war
The alliances formed in response to the jihad movement the Syrian civil war is based on have changed repeatedly over time. However, some situations have remained unchanged from the very outset of the war. The alliance between Iran and Syria is among them. Deeming Syria crucial to its interests, Iran expressed its support of the Syrian government back in September 2011 through its leader, Ali Khamenei.
The protests that took place here after the 2009-2010 elections opened new doors for Iran, which was then able to support the Syrian government in the war against the jihad movement financially, logistically and technically. Financially, Iran’s investment in the war response has already exceeded the threshold of 15 billion dollars, as stated by Syria’s Minister of Finance and Economy following the peace talks that took place in Geneva in 2014.
As far as the military support is concerned, Iran has delivered equipment and munitions from Russia, provided training opportunities for fighters and even transferred troops to support Bashar al-Assad as President of Syria, reports indicating a number of 10,000 Iranian operatives within the Syrian territory. Thus, Iran joined Hezbollah in the direct combat actions, contributing to Assad’s results in his fight against the opposition. The number of the reports of military support and National Defense Forces (NDF) training being provided increased as the conflicts escalated from the uprisings back in 2011 into the civil war today. The provision of these military resources was partly supported by the leader of the Quds Force, Qasem Suleimani, who handles President Bashar al-Assad’s security, in response to the conflicts that arose between the FSA and ISIS, the fighting being directed as per the instructions provided by the commanders of the Quds Force. Moreover, auxiliary support is provided by Basij volunteers and Iraqi Shi’ites, their number reaching thousands, as reported by Iranian officials and sources within the Syrian opposition. According to another source within the Syrian opposition, the forces coordinated by Iran have recently initiated military operations in Tartuous, Latakia and other coastal areas in collaboration with the Syrian air force intelligence units.
7. The involvement of the US and allied forces in the Syrian civil war
As expected, the response to the jihad movement and its violent manifestations came very shortly, the Arab League, the United Nations, the European Union as well as many of the Western governments immediately invoking the individual’s right to free speech. Despite initially supporting the Syrian President, some governments, especially those in the Middle East, took a more balanced stance as the conflict progressed, accusing both the Syrian government and the protesters of exercising equally unjustified violence. Thus, Syria’s memberships to the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation were suspended, Russia and China threatened to sanction it in the event of continuation, while the United Nations organized peace talks in Geneva in January 2014.
While the Syrian government has been receiving military, political and logistic support from Hezbollah, Iran and even Russia, the main supporters of the opposition have been the United States, Britain and France, seconded by Sunni states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar, which, however, have not mobilized any troops to engage in the war directly. Israel is also reported to be on the list of the opposition’s military support providers, whereas Iraqi Kurdistan features on the list of logistic and training support providers for the Kurdish forces.
According to various reports, the United States is the major training support provider for the Syrian rebels, some of them being trained by the CIA. In fact, the US has mobilized dozens of Special Operations forces for rescue missions, as revealed by the military shortly after photojournalist James Foley’s execution. At that moment in time, he specifically referred to the ground action conducted by the US with the purpose of rescuing the US citizens held prisoners by IS militants, a first action of this kind in Syria and one that proved unsuccessful. US President Barack Obama requested 500 million dollars to fund the training and arming of the Syrian rebels, yet despite being supported by the Congress, there is still ongoing debate on whether he is authorized to act beyond the stipulations of the War Powers Resolution, according to which airstrikes can only be conducted over a period of 60 days.
In September 2014, the United States sought support for its actions against the Islamic State with Turkey, Secretary of State John Kerry stating that negotiations with Iran to this effect would be inappropriate. However, Turkey refused to engage. According to the plans made public in September, these actions also included 153 strikes in Iraq, the airstrikes in this area, which were initiated on August 8, being bound to become more aggressive in the future, as revealed by John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary. In other words, regrettably, this civil war in Syria appears to be quite far from ending.