Skip to main content

Who are the Syrian rebels?

By Barak Barfi, Special to CNN
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Fri September 6, 2013
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
updated 5:22 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT