Skip to main content

Who are the Syrian rebels?

By Barak Barfi, Special to CNN
September 6, 2013 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
HIDE CAPTION
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
147
148
149
150
151
152
153
154
155
156
157
158
159
160
161
162
163
164
165
166
167
168
169
170
171
172
173
174
175
176
177
178
179
180
181
182
183
184
185
186
187
188
189
190
191
192
193
194
195
196
197
198
199
200
201
202
203
204
205
206
207
208
209
210
211
212
213
214
215
216
217
218
219
220
221
222
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Barak Barfi: Syria's civil war has spawned rebel groups across wide spectrum of ideology
  • He says the Free Syrian Army, most aligned with values of West, lacks cohesion
  • He says moderate Islamist grade into stricter groups Salafists, jihadists with severe tactics
  • Barfi: FSA has lost ground; if U.S. strikes regime, jihadists, Salafists will grow stronger

Editor's note: Barak Barfi is a Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, where he specializes in Arab and Islamist affairs.

(CNN) -- The Syrian civil war has birthed rebel groups across a wide ideological and geographic spectrum. Some are nationalists bent on liberating their country from a ruthless regime. Others view the conflict as a springboard to a global jihad. A number are active only in their home province, while others are present throughout the country.

A closer look at Syrian rebel units illustrates the balance of forces on the battlefield. In examining these groups, it is clear that those allied with the United States have become increasingly marginalized by jihadists and Salafists, who are the most powerful players in the revolution.

The Free Syrian Army

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was created by Col. Riyad al-Asad in July 2011 and is supported by Western nations. Today it is led by Gen. Salim Idriss. More a loosely linked umbrella organization than a cohesive fighting force with a hierarchical chain of command, the organization welcomes everyone. In December 2012, donor nations brokered the creation of a Supreme Military Council (SMC), hoping it could unify the disparate ranks, but it has failed to do so.

Syrian-based commanders remain disobedient, illustrating the tenuous influence of exiled FSA leaders. These officers, located in Jordan and Turkey, are nationalists who emphasize respecting the rights of all Syrians. Local leaders inside Syria are far less tolerant. After meeting with Idriss in May, U.S. Sen. John McCain issued a statement: "General Idriss and his fighters share many of our interests and values."

Washington has provided nonlethal aid, but promised weapons have not materialized. The FSA is active in every Syrian province and reportedly has 80,000 men under Idriss' control. Nevertheless, the FSA is plagued by a high level of attrition. Fighters seeking a more cohesive structure and stronger ideology desert to Islamist units. Others leave for better-funded brigades.

Moderate Islamists

Moderate Islamist groups identify with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. These groups aspire to replace the secular canon with Islamic law, curtail individual freedoms, and subordinate minorities. They have coalesced around the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), a 19-faction alliance established in September 2012, whose leader boasted it has more than 40,000 fighters. It comprises some of the largest units in Syria, including the Tawhid Brigade, the most powerful group in the northern province of Aleppo. In Damascus, the coalition's key group is Liwa al-Islam.

Strikes on Syria if Congress votes no?
Syria crisis creates two million refugees
Syria, oil, and your money

It has captured sophisticated surface-to-air missiles. The SILF also includes the Faruq Brigades, a dominant unit in the central province of Homs. One of its members made headlines when a video surfaced of him eating an organ of a regime soldier. Moderate Islamists cooperate with the FSA and participate in joint operations. They communicate with Western governments but receive no aid from them.

Salafists

Salafists are puritanical Muslims who seek to return the Islamic community to the first three generations following its birth. They shun modernism and Western influence, and espouse a literalist and uncompromising reading of canonical texts. They have promoted a vitriolic sectarian discourse depicting the ruling Alawi minority as heretics meriting death, and have targeted Alawi civilians.

Eleven Salafist groups joined forces in December 2012 to create the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). They include Ahrar al-Sham -- one of the most powerful rebel brigades, active in several provinces from Latakia to al-Raqqa; and al-Haqq Brigade in Homs. Members say the organization has more than 30,000 fighters, including some foreigners, but mostly Syrians. The SIF has shunned suicide bombing but uses car bombs to target regime forces.

Though its platform is vague, it constantly references the integral role of Islam in Syria's future, but declares "our course is the centrist and moderate course, far from exceeding the proper bounds of religion." As proof, it offers ambiguous assurances to minorities. The SIF asserts that its conflict is limited to Syria. Salafist brigades cooperate with all other rebel units. They work with Western journalists but eschew their governments.

Jihadists

Though jihadists associated with al-Qaeda were latecomers, they are now the most powerful groups on the battlefield. Jabhat al-Nusra was created in January 2012. The group was composed of Syrians who fought in Iraq while it was under American rule. Jabhat al-Nusra pioneered the use of suicide bombing, targeting both civilian and military targets.

In April, al-Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate created a new organization called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It quickly absorbed many Jabhat al-Nusra units. ISIS has a presence in almost every Syrian province. The Emigrants and Helpers Army, another jihadist group, is led by Abu Umar the Chechnyan. Its members are largely drawn from the Caucasus region.

American intelligence organizations believe there are more than 6,000 foreign jihadists, including Westerners, in Syria. They have killed Alawi civilians, kidnapped Westerners and attacked other brigades. They control key infrastructure, such as dams and oil installations. ISIS wants to use the Syrian conflict as a platform to destabilize neighboring countries. As jihadists grow in strength, they have sidelined other brigades, and captured their bases and weapons. Nevertheless, they cooperate with rebel groups across the ideological spectrum.

FSA criminal outfits

As consolidation occurs within the rebel ranks, Free Syrian Army units that dabble in criminal activity are increasingly being squeezed. In Aleppo, smugglers created the Asifa al-Shamal Brigade. The group earned hefty fees controlling the Bab al-Salama border crossing. But its criminal activities led other units to break up its monopoly. Recently it was forced to relinquish partial control of Bab al-Salama, and ISIS has taken over many of its checkpoints. The Aleppo-based Ghuraba al-Sham, another brigade whose leaders have criminal roots, has seen a similar decline.

As the FSA has lost ground, jihadists and Salafists have gradually become the most important actors in the Syrian revolution. And an American strike against the regime will only make them stronger.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Barak Barfi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT