The Syrian Rebels Explained (ish)

The Syrian Rebels

rebels training

Even putting aside how messed up it is, the Syrian conflict is slowly developing into one of the more confusing conflicts going on in the world at the moment, not least of all because of the sheer amount of combatants, the giant mess of allegiances and the fact that the Syrian conflict isn’t just located in Syria (It is also going on in Iraq, the Sinai in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and depending on who you ask, everywhere. Frankly I shouldn’t be calling it the Syrian conflict at all, yet here we are).

Very very loosely and very very simply, the conflict consists of the Syrian Government, led by President Assad and backed by Russia and Iran (kind of) vs the Syrian Rebels, which are actually over 20 different groups, many of whom are fighting each other, some of which are backed by a US led coalition consisting of the UK, Jordan, Turkey, the UAE, France, Saudi Arabia and a bunch of other countries but most of who are backed by no one.

Whilst these two loose groups are fighting each other another player enters the game, ISIL, a group originally from Iraq, once backed by Saudi Arabia (no longer). ISIL begins fighting everyone involved, declaring war on everyone who isn’t them. All the various sides fighting each other agree that ISIL is awful, but they don’t quite agree on what to do about them.

Emerging as a response to ISIL a fourth player enters the game, the Kurds. Now when we say the Kurds we don’t mean all the Kurds. The Kurds are an ethnicity mostly found in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey who have been persecuted for a while. This persecution led the Syrian Kurds to develop their own army which they promptly deployed against ISIL (other groups of Kurds as well but if you want to know about them we’ll need a whole new article). The Syrian Kurds allegedly have began using this fight as a chance to finally begin to carve out land to create their own Kurdish state. Turkey doesn’t really want this and have begun fighting them whilst also fighting ISIL. This has become a little awkward as Turkey is part of the US led coalition who are big fans of the Syrian Kurds.

Complicated? That’s fine, I drew a graph with a comical amount of arrows.

Syria Graph 1

It’s fine if you don’t understand what’s happening, most of the people actually fighting the war don’t either. All that matters for the purpose of the rest of this article, is that when I say “Syrian Rebels” you understand that they’re the ones fighting the Syrian Government, ISIL and each other.

In the media you will often hear the Syrian Rebels referred to as if they are one or two groups. Whilst this is wrong, it is understandable why the media would want to do this, as the conflict is hard enough to describe even radically simplified. Referring to each rebel group individually would make the story even less accessible to the general public than it already is. Unfortunately, that’s what I’m about to try to do. I will try to do this as simply as possible, but what this means is that I’m inevitably going to be stuck on an impossible mission to make the information accessible whilst still trying to present an accurate picture of what’s going on. Also due to the ever changing nature of the conflict I will not be mentioning all of them, just some of the main players and some miscellaneous other groups. So please bear with me as I attempt this balancing act.

Let’s jump right into it. The many groups of Syrian Rebels can loosely be divided into two broad groups. The first is the Syrian Opposition who are mainly fighting to rid the country of President Assad for a list of reasons ranging from wanting Syria to be a democracy to wanting Syria to be a dictatorship but just under a different person. The second broad group are the Jihadists, many of whom are branches of the better known group Al-Qaeda, they mostly want the country to be run by a more religious Islamic government rather than the secular but still awful Assad government. This isn’t to say that there aren’t members of the first group who want the country to be more religious, the main thing that distinguishes this second group is the Al-Qaeda affiliation.

Let’s attempt to describe some of the bigger players:

Free Syrian Army:


When most people think about the resistance, this is the group they are normally thinking of.  Originally started in 2011 by several defected Syrian army officers they defined their enemies as all Syrian Security Forces attacking civilians and their stated their goals as bringing down the Assad Regime. Sounds noble and heroic? It probably was before the original group was destroyed near the beginning of the war. The group now calling itself the Free Syrian Army is actually a coalition of over 10 different groups many of whom have widely different philosophies. This coalition is the most ethnically and religiously diverse entity in the war, featuring 90% Sunni Muslims, but also Shia Muslims, secular forces, Druze, Palestinians, international volunteers and many other assorted groups. How big is it? The answer is we don’t know. As the FSA is a mesh of so many different groups under one loose banner, and as these groups all exist in the confusing Syrian warzone, it is increasingly hard to measure. It is however estimated by many different sources that their strength ranges between 45,000 and 60,000. They are however, along with the YPG (the biggest Kurdish force) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (we’ll talk about them later) the main group supported by the West’s coalition. This doesn’t mean they are the good guys, in fact a large amount of war crimes have been attributed to the FSA. However being the collection of over 10 very different organizations that they are, it is hard to work out which part of them committed these crimes.

As of the moment, their main enemies include Assad’s forces, ISIL, the Al-Nusra front (we’ll talk about them in a bit), and they have a working relationship with the Islamic Front.

The Islamic front:


Formed by seven smaller groups merging in 2013, this group is largely made up of Sunni Islamists and is backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Their website describes their objectives as such. “The Islamic Front aims to completely overthrow the Assad regime in Syria and build an Islamic state who’s only sovereign, reference, ruler, direction and individual, societal and nationwide unifier is Allah Almighty’s Sharia law”. Unlike a lot of the other Islamist groups, these guys are fine with Syria being a democracy, as long as Sharia law is sovereign. They also acknowledge the ethnic and religious minorities that live in Syria and say they are welcome there, as long as they follow Sharia law. Depending on whom you listen to, and who you count as the Islamic Front, their numbers range anywhere between 40,000 and 70,000, although most people tend to guess closer to the 40,000 side.

As of the moment their main enemies are Assad’s forces, ISIL and Shia militias such as Hezbollah. They have a working relationship with both the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra, despite the fact that these two groups are fighting each other.

Al-Nusra Front


The Al –Nusra front can basically be thought of as Al-Qaeda, Syrian department. Not that Al-Qaeda is one organization, or has departments. But that’s not important at the moment. On a face value, they have similar goals to an organization like the Islamic Front. They both want to destroy the secular Assad regime and replace it with Islamist rule, governed by religious Sharia law. There are however some very very very important differences. The first and most obvious one is Al-Nusra’s open affiliation with the international jihadist movement followed by the fact that Al-Nusra’s interpretation of what Sharia law is, is a lot more hard-line than that of the Islamic Front. As well as this, unlike the Islamic Front, Al-Nusra refuses to work with secular groups like the Free Syrian Army. The difference between the two groups is so stark, that until the emergence of ISIL, Al-Nusra was considered to be the most extreme, most radical group involved in the conflict. The big problem comes about in that until recently, they were also the most effective and well trained fighting force out of the Syrian Rebels.

Al-Nusra and ISIL have a tangled history. The leader of Al-Nusra was originally sent over by ISIL leadership to set up Al-Nusra to be ISIL’s proxy. After ISIL split from Al-Qaeda they suggested a merger, going as far as announcing this merger before consulting with Al-Nusra’s leadership. This merger was prompted rejected and after about a month of intense negotiation between the two organizations, ISIL executed some senior officials of some of Al-Nusra’s allies in the region. This lead to open warfare between the two groups. That Al-Nusra decided that ISIL was too extreme for them tells you nothing about Al-Nusra, but everything about ISIL.

Their numbers are probably the hardest to estimate. It is estimated that they have over 11,000 core members, but possibly up to 20,000 troops that come from local Syrians who may not have the Jihadist ideology, but who joined to protect their territory. As of the moment, their enemies include the Free Syrian Army, Assad’s forces, ISIL, Hezbollah and many other smaller groups and their allies include the Islamic Front and other Islamist Forces who are sympathetic to Al-Qadea.

Minor groups

Whilst these three are the biggest groups that make up the Syrian Rebels, there are many other groups operating, each of whom could probably have a book written about them. Just to mention a few.

The Sham legion


Created in 2015 and is an alliance of about 19 different groups to consolidate the strength of moderate Islamists. Estimated around 4,000 fighters

Army of Mujahedeen


Translating to “Army of Conquest”, this group formed in 2014 to almost exclusively fight ISIL whom they accused to disrupting security and stability. They also fight the Syrian Government to the side. They have shrunk radically due to a cut in foreign support. Estimated between 5,000 and 12,000. At least one of these people must be a designer because they currently boast the only flag with a nice, blue gradient.

Jaysh Al-Sham


A group actually existed with this name briefly in 2014, but disbanded shortly afterwards. The new Jaysh Al-Sham was created in October 2015, as an offshoot of Ahrar Ash-Sham who in turn are now a part of the Islamic Front. Simple as that. Not much is known about them besides that their flag seems to be made out of the Arabic version of Microsoft Wordart, estimated to number anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000.

Fatah Al-Islam.


A Sunni Jihadist group that formed in 2006 in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. After fighting the Lebanese army for a while they decided to fight the Syrian Army instead when the war began, but didn’t do very well. Estimated around 200 members left.

Syrian Democratic Forces


Technically not a minor force. This group was created only in October 2015. It consists of break offs from the Free Syrian Army, most of the Kurdish forces in Syria and many Christian militias. It aims to take the focus away from Assad and towards forcing ISIL out of Syria. While it’s too early to call how they will do as a movement, they appear to have had many early successes, possibly due to their huge amount of support from the Western coalition. Their numbers are estimated to be roughly around 40,000, about three quarters of which, come from the Kurdish YPG.


The list goes on and on and on and on. And the truth is new groups are forming and disbanding all the time, each with their own ideologies, manpower, allies and enemies. It is my personal opinion that no single group, including governments, participants and experts, has an accurate picture of what is actually happening on the ground, which makes it a particularly discouraging topic to try and write an informative piece on. A disclaimer, as I’ve been concentrating on the actual rebels, I have left out many layers of complexity, including (but not limited to) the Gulf States, Jordan, more detail about ISIL and the different Kurdish factions. If people are interested, I’m more than happy to write up something about them later.

But just to make things clear, I updated the previous graph and made it a whole lot more accurate

Syria Graph 2

Much better


For my sources and/or a bunch of useful links to find out more, click here