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Syria's rebels: 20 things you need to know

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
updated 5:00 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:
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Syrian rebels consist of disparate groups without a central leader
  • The rebels have also been accused of human rights abuses
  • Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria is among the most effective rebel groups
  • Concerns over extremism among rebels is a key point of debate

Read this article in Spanish

(CNN) -- Big questions loom over the debate on whether the United States should strike Syria: Who are the Syrian rebels? Should the United States and other countries help them?

The first thing to know is that the rebels aren't all playing on the same team. They're arrayed against the Syrian government in a constellation of groups and factions, each with its own agenda. Some are in league with al Qaeda.

Secondly, the opposition has morphed in the last few years. It started with ordinary Syrians angry at police for arresting children who painted anti-government graffiti. Now it attracts fighters from outside Syria.

What else should you know about the rebels in Syria? A lot.

Here are 20 points to get you up to speed, based on CNN's reporting since the Syrian crisis began in 2011.

1. The opposition didn't start out as a military movement.

Peaceful protests against President Bashar al- Assad's government are how it all started in February 2011, after authorities arrested 15 schoolchildren for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school in the city of Daraa.

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Syrian security forces opened fire at one demonstration, killing at least four protesters -- the first casualties, activists say, in Syria's civil war.

2. But it wasn't long before things grew more violent.

As anti-government protests spread across Syria that year, calls for reforms quickly escalated into calls for the removal of the entire al-Assad regime.

In July 2011, seven Syrian military officers appeared in a YouTube video announcing their defection, calling themselves the "Free Syrian Army" and promising to wage guerrilla war against al-Assad.

3. Some rebel groups are closely allied with al Qaeda.

Syria's al Qaeda wing is known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and it's been gaining a greater foothold.

And analysts say al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, is generally the most effective force fighting al-Assad. The group's name means "Victory Front." It was listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in December.

4. That's one reason why many in the West have expressed qualms about helping them.

It's been a key concern expressed in debates on Capitol Hill this week.

The Syria rebels have promised U.S. and European officials that any military weaponry they get won't end up in extremists' hands. But that hasn't quelled criticism from some quarters that helping the rebels is a dangerous risk.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited extremism among the rebels as he slammed decisions by the West to arm the opposition. At an economic forum in June, he cautioned, "Where will those weapons end up?"

5. But not all the rebels are jihadists. Look at the Free Syrian Army, for example.

The Free Syrian Army's ranks swelled with soldiers who said they'd rather defect from the government military than obey orders to fire on protesters. But there also civilians among them.

The group first emerged in July 2011, claiming responsibility for an attack on an air intelligence base.

6. There are also a lot of local militias.

Imagine the Minutemen during the American Revolutionary War, says Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"It's extremely complicated to deal with them because there are so may voices among the opposition," Tabler says.

The rebel militias are composed in large part of defector soldiers. But there are also many civilians, including students, shopkeepers, real-estate agents, and even members of al-Assad's ruling Ba'ath party.

7. There have been efforts to unite the rebels, but still there's no central figure leading them. And if the regime falls, it's anybody's guess what could happen next.

An organization known as the Supreme Military Council, which formed late last year, now unites many rebel groups.

And for now, the rebels are working together to achieve a common goal -- toppling al-Assad's government. Here's how one local al-Nusra front leader put it to CNN in April: "In the period after the regime falls, our main goal is to create an Islamic state that is ruled by the Koran. It can have civilian institutions, but not democracy. We look at the other Free Syrian Army rebels as one of many groups defending religion, so we support them. In the future, we will handle this differently."

8. Religion motivates many of them.

The rebels are largely made up of Sunni Muslims battling against al-Assad's minority Alawite sect, which is associated with Shia Islam. Weapons and funds from Iran's Shia rulers have helped the Syrian regime, while Sunni states like Saudi Arabia have reportedly supported Syrian rebels.

"The conflict has become increasingly sectarian, with the conduct of the parties becoming significantly more radicalized and militarized," the UN said earlier this year.

That doesn't bode well for Syria's future. Studies have said religious civil wars are longer and bloodier than other types of clashes. They're also twice as likely to recur and twice as deadly to noncombatants.

9. They're not all Syrian.

Thousands of foreign fighters are believed to have traveled to Syria to join the rebels since early 2011. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy estimates the total at between 2,000 and 5,500.

That group includes hundreds of Europeans, the institute says. And there have also been reports of several people from the United States fighting with the rebels.

10. They're not just fighting al-Assad's regime -- they're fighting Hezbollah militants.

Early on in the Syrian conflict, reports surfaced that Hezbollah fighters were helping Syrian government forces. In May, the Lebanon-based Shiite militant group's leader confirmed it.

"Syria is the backbone of the resistance (in the region) and its main supporter," Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech. "The resistance will never stand by while its backbone is exposed."

11. It's not all about fighting on the battlefield.

The Syrian National Coalition is an umbrella group representing the Syrian opposition that formed last year.

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They've met repeatedly with regional and Western political leaders and diplomats, pushing for financial and military assistance with al-Assad's ouster.

12. The rebels have gained significant ground in some parts of the country, but militarily, they're outmatched.

While rebels have won territory in key areas, like northern Syria, they've had trouble purging out pockets of regime strongholds. The Syrian military's air power leaves them vulnerable. And the Syrian government's grip on many areas of the country is tight.

13. The rebels get weapons from a variety of sources, including foreign governments.

That's shifted the balance within the rebels and strengthened more moderate groups among them, according to Elizabeth O'Bagy with the Institute for the Study of War.

"Saudi Arabia and a number of allied countries actually began to empower the more moderate forces through a train-and-assist program in which they were providing weapons and providing assistance," O'Bagy told CNN Thursday. "That had a significant impact on empowering these groups and giving them the capacity to marginalize the extremists and assert their own authority."

Sympathetic Sunni groups from other countries have also helped arm the rebels. And rebels have raided regime weapons stockpiles for supplies.

14. There are between 70,000 and 100,000 rebel fighters.

That's the estimate U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave during congressional testimony this week.

15. How many of them are extremists? It depends on who you ask.

Syrian opposition leaders have regularly argued that extremists are a minority within their ranks.

Kerry said this week that 15-25% of the rebels are extremists. "I just don't agree that a majority are al Qaeda and the bad guys," he said. "That's not true."

But Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he didn't buy that figure, arguing that most of the Syrian opposition are radical Islamists. "Who are the rebel forces?" he asked Kerry. "I ask all the time in my briefings, and the answers get worse and worse."

And how strong the extremists are also depends on what part of the country you look at. Islamist militia are widely believed to have dominant control in rebel-held areas in northern and eastern Syria.

16. They've been accused of using chemical weapons, too.

In May, a U.N. official said evidence pointed to the use of the deadly nerve agent sarin by Syrian rebel forces. Carla Del Ponte, the commissioner of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, told an Italian-Swiss TV station that the findings come after interviews with doctors and Syrian victims now in neighboring countries.

But the commission later issued a news release saying it "has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict."

17. Human rights groups warn that Syrian rebels have also committed abuses.

Al-Assad's regime isn't the only one facing criticism from human rights groups over its record. Rebels have also been accused of possibly committing war crimes.

"Armed opposition groups too have committed serious abuses, including summary killing and torturing captured security forces, militia members and suspected informers," Amnesty International said in a March report.

Human Rights Watch called last year for opposition leaders to make it clear that kidnapping, torture and executions are unacceptable. "The Syrian government's brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups," the organization said.

18. Some disturbing videos purporting to show the rebels' brutality have surfaced online.

A video posted online in May purported to show a well-known rebel fighter carving out a government soldier's heart, prompting the U.N.'s human rights chief to call for the "atrocious act" to be investigated as a potential war crime.

On Thursday, concerns over rebels' human rights record surged after The New York Times published a video showing armed rebels getting ready to execute seven captured government soldiers and throwing their bodies into an unmarked mass grave. The newspaper said the video was recorded in the spring of 2012

19. At first, the United States said it would only give the rebels "non-lethal support," like communications equipment, food and medical supplies.

Officials said that was a way to help the rebels in their fight.

It was also an effort to hem in radical Islamist groups vying for influence in Syria after the fall of al-Assad, a senior State Department official told CNN earlier this year.

20. In June, the United States pledged to give the rebels weapons.

The United States said it would send the rebels small arms, ammunition and potentially anti-tank weapons. Rebels have said they never received those weapons.

And some activists worry that whatever the United States may do in Syria, it's too little, too late.

"The international community is so late in reaction...any action cannot be correct right now," Syrian activist Zaidoun told CNN's AC360 this week. "It's too late for anything. I don't know whether we can survive."

CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen and CNN's Nic Robertson, Nick Paton Walsh, Ivan Watson, Daniel Burke, Samira Said, Arwa Damon, Sarah Aarthun and Chris Lawrence contributed to this report.

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