With the continuation of the Syrian war in its third 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:
Al-Qaeda network had no presence in Syria until the uprising occurred in 2011 than it established itself publicly in 2012. Al-Qaeda’s direct involvement in Syria has been exaggerated in the media, particularly in the western and pro Assad media. However, a small al-Qaeda affiliated networks are operating in Syria. These networks are providing operational support, including trainers and bomb makers, in order to exploit on the instability in Syria and expand their influence in the region.
President Bashar Assad has used the threat of jihadists within the opposition to build support for the regime among the Syria’s minorities like the Alawite and Christian communities. It has also served to discourage middle and high class Sunnis from joining the Syrian opposition. Externally, Russian and Iranian governments have consistently mentioned the presence of radical Jihadists as a critical justification for their support of the Syrian government.
The Syrian opposition groups [Mostly Islamists] co-operate with Jihadist militant groups that has a great influence in Syria, especially in the north of the country. For the most part, the FSA and the majority of political opposition and activists have constantly denied any jihadist presence within their ranks. They reject jihadist ideology and declare that there is no place for radicalism in the Syria’s future.
Many jihadist militant groups now operating in Syria are already familiar with the environment, having been sponsored by the Assad regime in the past. These jihadist groups turned against their former regime ally in 2012 and are now cooperating with local armed opposition forces. They seek to establish an Islamic State in Syria and then expand to neighbouring countries.
Nusra Front – Syrian Jihadist armed group that was formed on 23 January 2012 to fight against Syrian government forces, it is designated as terrorist organization by United Nations, United States, United Kingdom, Turkey and other countries because it’s affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Nusra Front is one of the most effective and aggressive Jihadist group fighting against the Syrian government forces and Shiite militia in Syria and against the Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has around 15,000 fighters including many foreign fighters that are active in many provinces throughout Syria like in Idlib [Headquarter], Aleppo, Damascus, Qalamoun and in the South of the country. Nusra Front has pursued to build popular support by providing social services and carrying out public works.
In April 2013, the leader of the Islamic state of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio statement announcing that Nusra Front is its branch in Syria, The Emir of Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Golani refused to merge insisting that he will maintain allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda. US led Coalitions has launching airstrikes against Nusra Front claiming there is an elite group called “Khorasan” who were suspected to have been plotting an attack against the US and other Western nations.
Nusra Front fights alongside the Syrian Opposition [FSA and Islamists] in many battles across the country against Syrian government and Islamic State, it also leads many major offensives. Some FSA factions had tensions with Nusra Front in idlib accusing each other of corruption and failure of the 2014 idlib raid. This tensions developed later into heavy clashes which ended in Nusra Front eliminating SFR and Hazzm movement [FSA affiliates] and establishing a stronghold in the northern country decreasing the FSA influence there. The Jihadist group is responsible for dozens of suicide bombings in major city centres, killing many civilians. Including mistreating religious and ethnic minorities like the Druze in Idlib and Christians in Raqqa.
Allied jihadist groups:
Jund al-Aqsa – Syrian Jihadist armed group that was in 2013 by founded by Abu Abdul Aziz al-Qatari, who was a close friend of Sheikh Abdul Azzam, who was known as the father of the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s and close adviser to Osama bin Laden. Jund al-Aqsa’s fighters are rich in military experience since many of its foreign fighters have previously fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. Approximately 70% of the group are Syrian and the rest are foreigners and estimated to be around 1,000 fighters.
It mostly operates in the suburbs of Idlib and also has some appearances in the northern suburbs of Hama. They participated in battle alongside Nusra Front against Syria Revolutionary Front led by Jamal Maarouf in the countryside of Idlib which ended in defeating him and capturing his bases and HQ. The group’s ideology is similar to Nusra Front which is an affiliated to al-Qaeda which promotes jihadisim and implantation of strict Sharia law in Syria after the overthrow of the Syrian government.
The group previously was part of Islamic State and it was located in North-west of Syria before Islamic State was pushed out from Latakia and suburbs of Idlib.
Ansar Deen Front – Jihadist alliance that was announced itself on 25 July 2014. The aim of this alliance is to implement Sharia law, unite forces and to fight and overthrow the Syrian Government. This alliance operates in different areas across Syria like Latakia, Aleppo and Idlib. The groups involved in the coalition have around 1,500 diverse fighters except from Harakat Fajr Sham al-Islamiya which has fighters mostly Syrians from Aleppo.
The alliance consists of two different groups:
Harakat Sham al-Islam – Moroccan Jihadist group that was established in August 2013 by three Moroccan detainees who had been released from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, Ibrahim bin Shakran, Ahmed Mizouz and Mohammed Alami. The group is mostly made up of Moroccan fighters and few Arab fighters which estimated to be around 700 fighters and a large number of them were in prisons in Morocco.
Harakat Fajr Sham al-Islamiya – Syrian Jihadist group that is led by Abu Abdellah al-Shami , The group has around 800 fighters mostly local Syrian fighters from Aleppo and its suburbs. This group has participated in many battles alongside Nusra Front and Islamic Front in major battles like Battle of Aleppo Central Prison and Battle of Al-Kindi Hospital. The Ideology of this group is similar to Nusra Front and Islamic State where they are calling for an establishment of an Islamic State and Implementing Sharia law.
Besides fighting to overthrow the Syrian regime, Ansar al-Deen is also providing security, running administrative and judicial systems in the liberated areas in collaboration with other Opposition groups in Syria. Ansar al-Deen also called on its supporters to join them individually or by groups. It has declared that is not affiliated with any other sides in the Syrian revolution. The alliance has attempted to maintain neutrality in the conflict which broke between Islamic State and other Opposition groups in the January 2014.
Junud Sham –Chechen jihadist group that are numbered around 200 fighters and its based in Latakia, the group is led by Muslim Abu Walid al-Shishani. Junud al-Sham became known when it participated in 2014 Latakia offensive alongside other Opposition armed groups like Islamic Front, Nusra Front and Harakat Sham Islam in a joint operations against the Syrian regime forces and pro regime militia in Latakia, they also participated with Jaysh al-Fatah in capturing Idlib city and Mastouma military base.The group also has a close relationship with Saifullah al-Shishani group which is part of the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front. Junud al-Sham also installed training camps in Latakia to train the new foreign recruits when arriving to Syria.
Ajnad Kavkaz – Caucasian Jihadist group that was previously known as Khilafat Jamaat and it was formed in 2014 to fight against the Syrian government forces. The group is led by Abdul Hakim al-Shishani who is commanding around 150 fighters [100 Chechens, 30 Dagestanis and 20 Syrian Circassians], they are based in Latakia. The group has participated with opposition’s attack on Nubul and Zahra and they have also participated with Jaysh al-Fatah led by Nusra Front attack on Idlib city and Mastouma military base in Idlib suburbs. Ajnad Kavkaz is not affiliated with Caucasus Emirate and they refused to join the opposition’s war on Islamic State remaining neutral in that conflict. Ajnad Kavkaz also includes Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz, which is a small jihadist group comprised of Syrian Circassians and Jordanian Circassians in Latakia and Quneitra provinces. This group has pledged allegiance to Abdul Hakim al Shishani.
Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad – Uzbek Jihadist group that was established in early 2015 to fight against Syrian Army and militiamen. The group is led by Uzbek named Abu Saloh Oshiy they participated in major battles in north-western Syria alongside Syrian opposition groups and Jihadists. It’s based in Latakia and Aleppo, it’s estimated to have around 300 fighters most of them are Uzbeks and rest are Syrians and Tajiks. On September 2015 Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad has pledged allegiance to Nusra Front.
Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar – Arabian Jihadist group. Originally it was a Caucasian Jihadist group that was formally known as Muhajireen Brigade and it was established in summer 2012. It’s led by Mutassim Billah al-Madani. The group has participated in many battles in Aleppo and Latakia alongside other Opposition groups against the Syrian regime troops. The group is made up mostly of Arabs and Syrians including a small number of North Caucasians and Tajiks. The numbers of fighters is estimated to be around 750 fighters. On September 2015 Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar has pledged allegiance to Nusra Front.
Caucasus Emirate in Levant – Chechen Jihadist group that was created in July 2015 to fight against Syrian Army and militiamen. The group is created and led by Salahudin Shishani, this group was created because Salahudin was removed from Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar because Arab leaders took over the leadership of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar which was predominantly North Caucasian. Salahudin and his fighters are loyal to Caucasus Emirate.