Skip to main content

Who are the Syrian rebels?

By Barak Barfi, Special to CNN
September 6, 2013 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)
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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT