Keeping in mind the complex and fluid character of the situation in Syria we addressed previously, this article and the next ones will present the current state of play and the various categories of actors fighting in and over Syria, namely the pro-Assad groups, the moderate opposition forces and the Muslim Brotherhood “related” groups, the Islamist groups fighting for an Islamist state in Syria, the groups linked to a global Jihadi Front, and, finally, the Kurds in Syria, without forgetting the external actors. Scenarios for the future will follow from this assessment. The scenarios will then evolve, notably in terms of likelihood, from changes on the battleground and in interactions between all actors.
The regime and government of Bashar al-Assad has lost full domestic legitimacy (or there would not be a civil war) and a large part of international legitimacy, but it remains recognized and backed notably by China and Russia – both with veto power at the UN security council – Iran and Iraq. Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon opposed the Arab League’s “decision to give the opposition the vacant Syrian seat” (The Guardian, 26 March 2013), suspended since November 2011.
Evaluating Pro-Assad regime Forces
The pro-Assad Syrian fighting groups are composed of the regular Army and the Republican Guards, as well as pro-Assad militias (both Alawite and composite – Sunni, Christian, Druze), all backed up by the Security Forces and the Police Force. All Alawites should not be considered as supporting the Assad regime, as shows the conference organised in Cairo on 23 March 2013 by Alawites promoting a “democratic alternative” (Reuters).
The details below are summarized from the excellent report by Joseph Holliday, The Assad Regime: from Counterinsurgency to Civil War (March 2013 for the ISW).
Regular Army and Republican Guards
According to Holliday, Al-Assad has a policy of only “electively deploying [t]his loyal core of military supporters.” As a result “a working estimate of 65,000 to 75,000 loyal, deployable Syrian regime troops emerges” out of “the Syrian Armed Forces, a basis that includes over 300,000 troops (including Air Force and Air defense personnel)” (p.27). From this figure should be removed casualties, estimated by Holliday at 7620 killed and 30500 wounded by end of December 2012 (see table p.28), which represents approximatively half of the regime estimated deployed troops, partially or completely compensated by recruitment (p.29). As underlined by Holliday and the International Crisis Group, those men are however a “hardcore nucleus of regime supporters”(p.29). A decentralization of command and control, allowing for flexibility and initiative by low- and mid-level officers, according to local conditions, was implemented during the Summer 2012 (Ibid).
Security Forces: The Mukhabarat
(For a more detailed and clear explanation, read Holliday, Appendix 3) They are constituted of four intelligence services, whose “primary mission was to ‘monitor and intervene aggressively against potential domestic threats to the regime’ (Campbell, 2009).” (p.54) However, they are now acting more like militias than like intelligence services (p.30). In addition, each operates its own prisons. Each service is present throughout the whole territory with a branch in each province. Using an interview he realized, Holliday writes that “one former regime insider suggested it [The Mukhabarat] could be as large as 200,000 security officers and personnel, but this figure could include administrative personnel and informants and cannot be verified” (p. 55), and, most probably, not all of them are fighters. (p.30).
Militias or paramilitary forces
- The shabiha: A network of “Mafia-like organizations,” “made up of mostly Alawite criminal smuggling networks led by members of the extended Assad family” (p. 16), but also from other communities origins, when in areas without an Alawite population (p.17).
- Popular Committees, or Lijan sha‘biya becoming the National defense Forces, or Quwat ad-Difa‘a al-Watani: “Minority populations who have armed themselves to protect their towns and neighborhoods from anti-government fighters” (p.16). They started being trained and “formalized” as The National defense Forces, or Quwat ad-Difa‘a al-Watani, in early 2013, with Iran’s support (p.31).
- The “People’s Army” or Jaysh al-Sha‘bi: “Institutional militias” have existed in Syria since the early 1980s (then named munazzamat sha‘biya before it became Jaysh al-Sha‘bi in the mid-1980s) (p.16). The “People’s Army” is composed of the best and most trustworthy fighters found in the previous two groups. It has been “trained and supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRCG-QF) and Lebanese Hezbollah” (p. 30). It was estimated to include 100.000 fighters at the end of 2011 (Holliday using van Dam, 2011, and IISS Military balance 2011). However, Holliday also mentions that Iranian Commander Mohammed Ali Jafari referred to “50.000 popular forces” in September 2012 (p. 30).
As underlined by Holliday, fear, reprisals, massacres and atrocities of minorities at the hand of extremists may only increase the number of people joining the various militias.
Iran’s action with the militias would support Smyth‘s point (2013), according to which Iran is also preparing for a post al-Assad situation by creating sub-networks within the Syrian Shia community, as well as by supporting other (Sunni) militiamen. Holliday suggested a similar Iranian role in a post al-Assad Syria (p.32).
To the Syrian forces must be added foreign groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, groups coming from Iraq with Iranian support such the Mahdi Army (Muqtada al-Sadr’s Liwa al-Yom al-Mauwud), Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hizbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force (Ammar Abdulhamid, 2013; Smyth, 2013). See the full report for further details, pp.11-12.
- Update 7 October 2013 see Facing the Fog of War in Syria: Update – The Al-Assad regime groups,
- Update for 24 February 2014, the start of a new phase.
See here for detailed bibliography and list of primary sources.
The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NC) and the Supreme Joint Military Command Council (SJMCC or SMC)
An umbrella group of various opposition and fighting factions, of more or less moderate obedience, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (also translated as National Coalition for the Forces of the Revolution and the Syrian Opposition – Lund, 2013), which absorbed the previous Syrian National Council (Lund, 2013: 12), was formed in November 2012, pushed among others by the U.S. and Qatar. It was initially headed by Ahmed Moadh al-Khatib. It was recognized by many Western nations (see list on Wikipedia), by Turkey, by the Arab States of the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman), as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The Arab League (except for Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon) recognised the Coalition as their “legitimate representative and main interlocutor”. This recognition was reasserted at the recent Arab League summit in Doha on 26 March 2013 (The Guardian).
Then, the united face of the Syrian moderate opposition – as well as its moderation – was questioned, notably by the election of Ghassam Hitto as Prime Minister of the interim opposition government, recommended by Mustafa Sabbagh, Secretary General of the Coalition, and supported by the Muslin Brotherhood and Qatar (see update 8 July 2013 below for the changing face of the “moderate opposition” with the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood following events in Egypt). As a result the president Al-Khatib resigned, confirming he was stepping down on 21 April 2013 (Al Arabyia and AFP), while some leaders in the opposition voiced their disapproval, including in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), refusing to recognize Hitto (e.g. AFP 24 March 2013). See update 8 July 2013 below for the changing face of the “moderate opposition” with the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood following events in Egypt.
The SNC created the Supreme Joint Military Command Council (SJMCC or SMC) with Brigadier General Salim Idriss elected as Chief of Staff. The SMC is meant to integrate and lead the FSA and is organised according to five fronts (Eastern Front: Raqqa-Deir Ezzor and Al Hassakah – Northern Front: Aleppo and Idlib – Central Front: Homs-Rastan – Western Front: Hama-Latakia-Tartus – Southern Front: Damascus-Dar’a-Suwayda).
A detailed report by the Institute for the Study of War’s Syria Analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy on this endeavour may be found here, but must be read in the light of the debate between Debeuf and Lund on the FSA.
How many fighters belong to the SMC? This is a crucial question however a very difficult one. If we use David Ignatius estimates for the Washington Post, we read that “Idriss and his Free Syrian Army command about 50,000 more fighters, rebel sources say” (Ignatius, 3 April 2013). However, Lund (4 April 2013) in his comment on Ignatius’ article for Syria Comment questions this estimates, considering the complexity and fluidity of the situation on the ground. O’Bagy, in her detailed report on the FSA does not seem to include a global estimate. Lund in his article on the FSA (16 March 2013) underlines that “If all the factions which have declared in favor of Idriss were added up, they’d count at least 50,000 men, perhaps many more.” However, as he stresses, those groups include some that belong too to other nexus, such as Suqour el-Sham that is part of the Syria Liberation Front (SLF) also known as the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF). Thus, if we are looking at the number of fighters who are “moderate,” then one should substract from the 50.000 all those men who fight first for other groups, and thus are only very loosely affiliated with the SMC.
The NC and SMC are those who receive “Western” aid, which is, officially, non-lethal, although, as monitored through crowdsourcing and explained in Chivers and Schmitt article for the New York Times (24 March 2013), military aid “from the C.I.A.” (mainly a consultative role) “Arab governments and Turkey” has found its way into Syria since early 2012. Meanwhile military training, on a small scale, “led by the US, but involves[ing] British and French instructors” would be provided in Jordan (Borger and Hopkins, 8 March 2013, The Guardian). It is thus crucial for the NC and the SMC to present a united front to the world, to reassure regarding their capacity to act and harness various groups and to reassert their moderation, because it is only under those conditions that they will continue to receive support or even increase its amount and change its nature. The fear from potential backers is that aid and weapons provided spread throughout groups and not only fuel the Syrian conflict but also favour regional spill-over, while also potentially finding their way back into Western countries, favouring violence in an environment made more volatile by the crisis.
The meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Istanbul on 20 and 21 April 2013 exemplifies those interactions. There, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that a new non-lethal package to the SMC of up to USD 130 million would be added to the 117 million already given (AP, 20 April 2013). France and Great Britain push for changing the EU arm embargo on Syria; Germany is more reserved but announced it would accept it (Spencer, 21 April 2013, The Telegraph, EUbusiness, 22 April 2013), while The Netherlands would be more reserved (AP, 20 April) and Scandinavian countries would oppose it (EUbusiness, 22 April). Both France and the UK have let believe that they could decide to move forward even without a European agreement (Traynor, 14 March 2013, The Guardian). The EU also decided to ease its oil embargo on Syria to support the NC (EUbusiness, 22 April).
Update 28 May 2013
The road to Geneva 2
- The “EU Eases Ban on Arming Syrian Rebels” VOA , 28 May 2013,
- But the NC shows a disappointing inability to unite and include New member – read Matthew Barber for Syria Comments, 27 May 2013: “Brotherhood Figures Block Yaqoubi’s Appointment, Post-Confirmation“
Update 8 July 2013
The Egyptian revolution of 30 June 2013 with the ousting of President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, the refusal by the Muslim Brotherhood to join the new coalition and its call to fight had immediate implications for the SNC in Syria. Indeed the SNC was meeting in Istanbul to elect a new President. After the usual discussions and delays, the Egyptian defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood most probably contributed, along other factors specific to Syria, to see the Saudi backed Ahmad Al Assi Jarba elected, over the Qatar backed Mustafa Sabbagh, knowing that Qatar is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, “the Brotherhood representative, Farouq Tayfour, was elected one of two vice-presidents of the Syrian National Coalition in a sign the group still retains influence in Syrian opposition politics.” (Erika Solomon, Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Reuters, 6 July 2013). Badr Jamous is General Secretary.
Update 16 October 2013
Read next the update for 24 February 2014, the start of a new phase.