With the continuation of the Syrian war in its fourth year, there are five factions that are currently fighting in the Syrian war and the factions are the Syrian Government, Syrian opposition, al-Qaeda network and Rojava Kurds. How international community and regional powers are dealing with each faction will contribute to the formation of a new geopolitical map of Syria and the region. Here’s a brief guide to the factions in this conflict:
Part 1 – Syrian Government:
Syrian government is a secularist Arab nationalist Baathist government that has been ruled by Assad family since Hafez Assad [Father of Bashar Assad] seized the power in 1970 through a successful coup and declared himself as President, a position that he held until his death in 2000 then later his son Bashar Assad became the president of Syria and stayed in power until today.
The government controls only 35% of Syria and they have lost many natural resources facilities and many military personals since the start of the war. Syrian government is responsible for many massacres across Syria against innocent civilians, also it has been using many destructive weapons like chemical weapons, scud missiles and barrel bombs against civilians and armed revolutionaries.
The Syrian government also relies on support from the minority Alawite community which represents 12% of Syria’s population, many Alawites fear persecution or worse at the hands of majority Sunni Arabs if Assad regime falls. This also explains why key units of the Syrian Army have held together. The well-equipped and well-trained 4th Armoured Division and the Republican Guard is about 80% Alawite.
Syrian government is heavily backed by Russia and Iran, Russia is backing Syrian government because they want to defend their interest in the region against western influence which is more powerful than the Russian influence. Iran is backing Syrian government for sectarian and military reasons, if Assad regime falls Iran will have no supply route to aid its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon so they are supporting Syrian government with Shiite militants and money to survive this war.
Syrian Armed Forces [SAA] – Government’s primary military force. Before the war broke out, the manpower of the Syrian armed forces was estimated to be at 325,000 regular troops which also included navy marines, air force pilots and air defence troops. Since 2011 that number was dropped by half to 175,000 regular troops during the war because of the defections which most reports indicate it to be around 80,000 – 100,000 troops, also the Syrian armed forces suffered heavy casualties during the war which resulted in losing more than 85,000 soldiers. Syrian armed forces gets its arms from Russia, Iran, China, Bulgaria and Cuba.
National Defense Force [NDF] – Government’s counter insurgency force. It was formed in 2012 out of pro-government militias and reserves from the Syrian Armed Forces, it has around 80,000 – 100,000 fighters including 500 women in the women wing. The NDF is a secular force that has many members that are from the Syrian minorities, such as Alawites, Christians, Druze, Armenians and Circassians also the unit is made up of men from all districts of Syria. This force supports the Syrian Armed Forces on the ground and runs counter-insurgency operations in co-ordination with SAA and IRGC, which provides them with logistical and artillery support. NDF fighters are allowed to loot from battlefields, which can then be sold for extra money in locations called as the “Sunni markets”. NDF mostly operate in their local cities and villages, although members can also choose to take part in Syrian army operations.
Syrian allied armed groups:
Ba’ath Brigades – Syrian Ba’athist militia that is made up volunteers from the members of the Syrian Ba’ath Party which is commanded by Mohammed Khaddour, most fighters of this militia are Sunni Muslims who are loyal to the Syrian Government. The militia is being trained and supervised by officers from the elite Republican Guard, as for their ideology is Syrian nationalism and Ba’ath ideology. Formed it in 2012, the main reason for creating this militia is to support the Syrian army in combat and setting up security checkpoints. They participate in many battles alongside the Syrian army against the Opposition forces in Aleppo, the militia has around 7,000 fighters and it’s also active in the coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartus as well.
Syrian Resistance – Syrian Marxist-Leninist militia that was formerly known as Popular Front for the Liberation of the Liwa of Iskandarun, this militia that was formed in 2011 to co-operate with the Syrian army to combat the Syrian opposition. The militia is led by Mihraç Ural who hides under the nom de guerre of Ali Kayali. It operates in many areas across Syria like Latakia Governorate where most of the fighters are located with small appearances in Jisr al-Shughur, Ariha and Homs. Also it is estimated to have around 2,000 fighters most of them are Syrian Alawites and the rest are Turkish Alawites who were recruited from the Turkish province of Hatay. They openly promotes the Syrian Nationalism in addition to leftist Marxist ideology.
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command [PFLP-GC] – Syria-based Palestinian nationalist militia that was founded and led by Ahmed Jibril. This militia is operates in Yarmouk camp a district of Damascus that is home to the biggest community of Palestinian refugees in Syria. During the Syrian war PFLP-GC allied with Syrian Government and participated alongside Syrian army in fighting against the Opposition in Yarmouk camp and its surroundings. This militia has around 1,100 Palestinian fighters.
Syrian Hezbollah – Syrian Shiite militia that was formed in July 2013. This militia consists of Syrian Alawites and Shiites from Aleppo, Idlib, Tartous, Homs and Damascus. This militia was created by Iranian Quds Force which is under the command of General Qassem Soleimani in order to help the Syrian army fight against Opposition forces in Aleppo and Latakia. The number of this militia is estimated to be around 1,800 fighters.
Arab Nationalist Guard – Syrian Pan-Arab and Secularist militia which was formed in April 2013, Arab Nationalist Guard fighters co-operate with the Syrian army and other Pro-Syrian government militias in fight against opposition forces, they operate in a many areas across Syria like Damascus, Daraa, Homs and Aleppo. It has over 1,000 fighters while the number of volunteers is mostly Syrians including volunteers from variety of Arab countries like Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt. This militia openly promotes Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism as their ideology.
Syrian Social Nationalist Party [SSNP] – Lebanese-Syrian Secularist Pan-Syrian Nationalist political party and militia that was founded in 1932. Headed by Ali Haidar in Syria and Assaad Hardan in Lebanon. The Party has a strong presence in Syria and Lebanon, it also promotes Syrian Nationalism and Anti-Zionism. SSNP decided to participate in the Syrian war in 2013 by sending 600 fighters, after Hassan Nasrallah has called his political allies from March 8 Alliance to send their members to help Syrian Army and Hezbollah in fight against Syrian opposition. Most of SSNP militants are Christians, Druze and Sunni Lebanese with Syrians, SSNP has participated in major battles alongside Syrian army throughout the country like in Qusayr, Damascus, Kassab and Idlib.
Gozarto Protection Force [GPF] – Syrian Nationalist Assyrian militia that was formed in May 2015 to fight against Islamic state and to protect the Assyrian towns and villages in area between the Khabour and Euphrates rivers in Hasakah province in northern Syria. GPF Consists of Sutoro militia members, a pro-Syrian government Christian movement, and other Assyrian recruits from Hasakah that joined their ranks. Led by Ahikar Isa who leads around 300 fighters and they are trained by the Syrian Army. They Fights alongside Syrian Army, Kurdish militia YPG and MFS in Hasakah province against Islamic State, they also participated in the defence of Hasakah city.
Jaysh al-Muwahhideen [Army of Unitarians] – Syrian Nationalist Druze militia that was formed in April 2013 to protect the Druze villages and towns from extremist groups and to sustain the interests and rights of the Druze people in Syria as they claim. The group is led by Abu Ibrahim Ismail al-Tamimi who commands hundreds of Druze fighters supported by the Syrian government forces. They participate with the Syrian Army and National Defence force in fight against the Syrian Opposition and Nusra Front. The militia mainly operates in the Suwayda, Deraa and Damascus provinces where the Druze are populated.
Foreign allied armed groups:
Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] – A branch of Iran’s Armed Forces and it’s under command of Major General Qasem Solemani. IRGC participated alongside the Syrian government in the suppression of the Syrian Revolution in 2011 from the start by sending its military commanders and did not delay sending its members to fight alongside the ranks of the Syrian army plus providing training and forming brigades made up of foreign Shiite fighters to help the Syrian Armed Forces fighting the opposition across Syria. There are around 5,000 – 10,000 active Iranian Revolutionary Guard members across all Syria, their primary duty is to gather intelligence and manage the logistics for the Syrian regime and assisting to train local soldiers and managing supply routes of arms and money to neighbouring country Lebanon.
Quds Force – Special forces unit of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, this well trained and equipped Iranian force is led by Major General Qassem Suleimani personally. The responsibility of this force is to ensure the safety of Bashar Assad and his family and it accompanies him wherever he stays and goes, they wear civilian clothes and equipped with small fire arms and they are around 1,200 soldiers of this unit in Syria.
Russian Armed Forces – Russian military activity was present in the Syrian war since its beginning, despite the denial of Russian officials until Russian President Putin conformed it. Russia is supplying the Syrian Army [SAA] with heavy military equipment and regular training with Russian naval infantry soldiers and Special forces, with Russian weapons. Russian officers and troops are operating in Latakia, Homs and Damascus. Their numbers is unknown but some estimate that their number could be around 1,000 – 4,000 soldiers.
Hezbollah – Lebanese Shiite militant group and political party in Lebanon and it was formed when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Now Hezbollah is led by Hassan Nasrallah who sent 10,000 – 15,000 fighters to Syria to defend Assad regime and to combat the opposition forces. Most of Hezbollah fighters are Lebanese Shiites from the south of Lebanon. They are accused of committing many massacres against Syrian civilians throughout Syria, the core strength of Hezbollah lies on its military leaders of this militia and the geographical location where Lebanon is close to Syria which made them support the their fighters in Syria regularly with aids and weapons.
Abu Fadl Al-Abbas Brigade – Iraqi Shiite militant group that was formed in 2012 to protect the shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab which is located in Damascus. It’s one of the first and largest Shiite militant groups in Syria most of its fighters are Shiites Iraqis, Syrians (from Nubul and Zahra) and Lebanese they all joined that brigade under the pretext of defending the shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab which is a holy Shiite site located in Damascus, Its role is largely defensive rather than offensive they engaged in battle by collaborating with Syrian Army. The Brigade is consisting of 10,000 fighters (7,000 Iraqis) is led by the Iraqi Abu Hajer and the Syrian Abu Ajeeb. In 2014 most of the Iraqi fighters were forced to retreat back to Iraq because of the Islamic State’s [ISIS] rapid advance, reducing the members of the brigade to around 3,000 fighters.
Dhu Al Fiqar Brigade – Iraqi Shiite militant group that was formed in 2013 and the reason for its creation was because a split had happened between Abu Fadl Al-Abbas brigade Fighters over finances and leadership which erupted into clashes between each other. So many Iraqi fighters led by the Iraqi Abu Shahed Al Jabouri has left Abu Fadl Al Abbas brigade and formed a new brigade under the name of Dhu Al Fiqar brigade which has involved in many battles in Damascus and in around its suburbs, the brigade has around 1,000 fighters.
Fatemiyoun Brigade – Afghan Shiite militant group that was formed in 2014 by Iranian IRGC to fight against the Syrian Opposition. They have participated in many battles in Daraa, Idlib and Aleppo provinces alongside Syrian army and other pro-Syrian regime militia. Fatemiyoun Brigade have around 3,500 fighters and they are led by Alireza Tavassoli also been observed and commanded by Iranian Officers. The Afghan Shiite fighters are Persian speaking from Iran, it’s the Hazara refugee population which is around half million Hazaras living in poor economic conditions. They were recruited by Iranian IRGC after promising them a salary of $500 monthly and Iranian residency papers.
Kata’ib Hezbollah – Iraqi Shiite militant group that was formed in 2003 during the US invasion on Iraq to combat US forces. Kata’ib Hezbollah follows the Lebanese Hezbollah in terms of ideology, systematically and militarily but it is an Independent militant group. The group was founded by a radical Shiite cleric Watheq Al Battat who he is committed to the Wilayat Al Faqih “Islamic Shia Jurist” and the Marja “Religious following” of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Kata’ib Hezbollah has sent three brigades to Syria which is Al Hamd, Hassan Mujtaba and Ammar Ibn Yasser under the leadership of Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi and his fighters which is estimated to be around 1,500 fighters.
Haidar al-Karar Brigades [Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq] – Iraqi Shiite militant group that is led by Haj Mahdi in Syria, it includes in its ranks the most skilled snipers between all Shiite militant groups in Syria and they are mostly active in Aleppo, also they are estimated to be around 800 fighters.
Saada Brigade – Yemeni Shiite militant group that belong to the Houthis, they are well trained and experienced fighters since they had many battles with the Yamani Army and the Salafi tribes in Yemen. They are active around Damascus and its suburbs with number of 750 fighters. They engage in battle alongside the Syrian Army and Abu Fadl Al-Abbas forces.
Badr Organization – Iraqi Shiite militant group and a political party, its militant group consists of Iraqi and Iranian Shiites that are trained to do Assassinations, Kidnapping and street battles. This militant group is only active in Damascus and its suburbs where they run hospitals so that they can treat other Shiite fighters from different brigades, this group has around 1,500 fighters.
Slavonic Corps – Private military contractor that operated during Syrian war and it was Hong Kong registered company, but it was ended in October 2013 when Russian FSB arrested the owners and the mercenaries when they returned to Russia. Russian mercenaries were first transferred to Damascus and then to a Syrian army base in Latakia. By October the Slavonic Corps had a strength of 267 contractors divided into two companies that were present in Latakia and then later they were transferred to Deir Zour to protect the oil fields. The owners of Slavonic Corps were planning to recruit up to 2,000 Russian contractors to fight alongside Syrian Army and to protect its Energy facilities.
Faylak Wa’ad Al Sadiq [The Truthful Promise Crops] – Iraqi Shiite militant group that consists of Iraqi and Syrian Shiite fighters from Idlib, this militia is operated in Aleppo especially near to the Syrian Intelligence headquarters and Aleppo central prison it supports the Syrian armed forces in the most of its battles their numbers is estimated to be around 1,000 fighters.
Palestinian Liberation Army [PLA] – Lebanon-based Palestinian nationalist militia and it’s the military wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO]. This militia is integrated into the Syrian Army, it’s led by Wajih al-Madani and Mohammad Tareq al-Khadraa. PLA has around 4,500 fighters in Syria and they fight alongside Syrian Army against the Opposition forces in Damascus and Aleppo.
Sarriya Al Talia Al Khurasani [The Vanguard of Khurasani Unit] – Iraqi Shiite militant group that was created by the Iranian Quds force, the objective of this unit is to protect Damascus international airport and this group has around 600 fighters and it’s led by Sayed Ali Al-Yasseri.
Liwa Assadu Allahi Ghaleb [God’s victorious lion brigade] – Iraqi Shiite militia that consists of Iraqi SWAT members, They operate in Damascus, they are also well trained and equipped and they are led by Abu Fatima Al Mousawi and their number is estimated to be around 500 fighters.