Who in Syria’s Civil War


Syria’s civil war has grown ever more complex in the nearly six years since protesters first challenged the government. President Bashar al-Assad aims to reassert control nationwide, while predominantly Sunni Arab opposition forces seek to wrest the state from him. The diverse groups making up the opposition, however, differ on their visions for a post-Assad state, with their ostensible aims ranging from liberal democracy to theocracy.

Unlike Assad and the opposition, the self-proclaimed Islamic State is intent on erasing Syria’s borders to establish a state of its own in territory spanning parts of Iraq and Syria. Kurdish militants, who have fought to establish an autonomous, if not independent, national homeland in the country’s northeast, are the group’s primary foe.

The fight has been further complicated by outside powers who have funded and armed combatants and, in some cases, backed them with air support or manpower. Outgunned by pro-regime forces, many opposition groups have aligned with jihad factions.

By the end of 2016, tens of thousands of combatants were involved in the fighting. As many as half a million Syrians have been killed, a majority by pro-regime forces, and more than half the country’s pre-war population of some twenty-two million has been displaced. The armed groups have been marked above all by flux—in their membership, capabilities, alliances, and, ideologies. Broadly speaking, they each belong to one of four networks.

Pro-Government Forces
Soldier loyal to Assad in AleppoA member of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

Syrian Forces and Pro-Government Militias

Syria’s armed forces and security services (mukhabarat) have long been a vital source of the Assad family’s control of Syria. But after suffering thousands of casualties and desertions, they have come to rely on the support of local irregulars and foreign militiamen, as well as Russian air power, to besiege and bombard opposition-held territory, recapture that territory, and restore their control over the country. With their support, Assad’s forces have turned the tide of the war. Since the fall of east Aleppo in December 2016, they control the country’s five most populous cities.

Alawis, members of Bashar al-Assad’s sect, make up much of the army’s top echelons; other minorities are also disproportionately represented among the officer corps. Sunni Arabs, who may comprise nearly two-thirds of the army, are also represented. Conscription is mandatory for all Syrians, and fighting-age Syrian men have been swept up at government checkpoints.

What are their core interests?

Syria’s armed forces are putatively fighting to fulfill Assad’s pledge to restore the state’s authority across all of Syrian territory. But many analysts believe that the state exists in name only across many of the territories ostensibly under its control. Rather, they say, these territories are ruled as fiefs by local warlords. Pro-regime units are often seeking out more parochial interests, whether to earn black-market profits or defend local communities.

What are their capabilities?

The Syrian Arab Army may have as few as twenty-five thousand troops, down from its pre-war strength of some 220,000 active-duty troops in 2011, through casualties of conflict or defections. It has come to rely on militias of regime loyalists that range from groups of neighborhood thugs known as shabeeha (derived from the word “ghost”) to the more professional National Defense Forces, composed of military reservists.

The air force is perhaps the most potent wing of the military, with more than 260 aircraft plus attack helicopters, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank. The regime has used air power to target not just rebel formations but also populated centers and civilian institutions protected under international law, including hospitals, often with crude barrel bombs.

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