The Syrian Civil War or conflicts in Syria has been a complex situation since the 2011 Arab Spring protests and revolutions. Syria is one of the most unstable regions in the world. Five major factions or groups lay claim to part of Syria and at least another five major nations or forces are involved in the volatile country. This article will offer maps and examine the ten (10) major forces, and their allies, enemies and role in the war.
According to various sources, the Total Death Count from wars and conflicts in Syria 2011 to 2018 is more than 500,000 (http://www.iamsyria.org/death-tolls.html). The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reports “a total of 206,923 civilians were killed by the main influential parties in Syria from March 2011 until March 2017… including 24,000 children… 94% of the victims were killed by the Syrian-Iranian-Russian Alliance.
For timeline of events see our Syria: Timeline of War and Genocide
The ten (10) main forces involved in Syria are as follows:
I. Syrian Government (Assad Regime)
II. Syrian Opposition/Rebel Groups (Free Syrian Army and other Anti-Assad)
III. Syrian Democratic Forces (Kurdish YPG)
IV. Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/DAESH)
V. Russian Government
VI. Turkish Government (TAF and Turkey Forces)
VII. United States Government
VIII. Iran Government
X. Al-Qaeda and associated Islamist Terrorists
Control has shifted significant in the last few years as seen by these two maps – 2015 to 2018.
I. Syrian Government (Assad Regime)
President Bashar Assad has been in office seen the death of his father Hafiz in 2000. If he survives this civil war he will likely be brought up before the United Nations pushed out by many forces from 2014 to 2017, the Assad Government regained control of more than half of the nation.
The Assad family is Alawite Muslims which are Arabs under a sect of Shia Islam (under the Twelver). Syria has a majority – approximately 74% – that are Sunni Muslims; then about 13% Alawite and a minority of about 10% Christians – most of which have fled their homes at some point in this war. Most of Assad’s military and political leaders are Alawite.
Supporters: Syrian Arab Army (SAA); Alawite; Russia; Hezbollah; Iran, including their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; and Russian private contractors such as Wagner. Other allies include: Vanguard for the Popular Liberation War (al-Saika) – Palestinian Ba’athist faction of the PLO (Patestine Liberation Organization); the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP); Arab National Guard; Palestine Liberation Army; Jerusalem Brigade (Liwa al-Quds; pro-Muslim state group); Fatah al –Intifada; Saladin Brigade; and various tribe militias. Armament support comes from Russia, Iran, Iraq, China, and North Korea. Most of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization members support the Assad Regime; as does Serbia, Egypt and Algeria.
The Syrian Armed Forces include the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) with the Republican Guard and numerous regiments, brigades (such as al-Abbas), corps and divisions; as well as Special Forces, such as Tiger Forces. Their Military Forces also includes the Syrian Arab Air Force, Syrian Arab Navy and National Defense Forces; in totals between 80,000 and 200,000 troops. In February 2018 alone Assad’s Regime dropped more than 400 barrel bombs on civilians.
Since October 2017, Syria government forces have been on the offensive in Hama and Idlib provinces. They have captured or retaken almost 100 villages from Al-Qaeda and other groups.
II. Syrian Opposition or Rebel Groups
Free Syrian Army: was founded in July 2011 by former SAF officers. Syrian National Army: Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA); they are primarily in Aleppo and Homs area. They are approximately 25,000 Arabs and Turkmen. They include various Legions and Brigades; including the Saladin Brigade. They are aligned with the Turkish military’s Operation Euphrates Shield. They oppose ISIS/ISIL, Syrian Democratic Forces and Syrian Armed Forces.
Syrian Liberation Front: merger of Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki (Sunni Islamists); as well as Revolutionary Council of the Clans. They operate in Northwest Syria and primarily oppose Syrian Armed Forces and Tahrir al-Sham. Main support is from Turkey.
Other groups: the Southern Front, Levant Legion, Martyrs of Islam Brigade, Levant Liberation Army, Army of Free Tribes, Unified Syrian Army, Lions of Golan, the Islamic Union of the Soldiers of Levant, Free Iraqi Army and Army of Islam. They have been supported by the Turkish Army, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United States Forces; and with limited support from the UK, France, Israel, Jordan, Egypt (2013), Libya (2014) and Russia (2017 against ISIS).
III. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF or QSD; Kurdish YPG)
They were established October 2015 in al-Hasakah as an alliance of several Kurdish and Arab groups including the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), Army of Revolutionaries and Al-Sanadid Forces. They have between 50,000 and 80,000 soldiers, mostly YPG. They currently (2018) hold about 1/3 for Syria – most of the land north or northeast of the Euphrates River in NE Syria.
There allies and supporters include: Democratic Union Party, United States, France, UK, Kudistan Worker’s Party, Rojava Police and Civilian Defense Forces, and Russia.
There enemies or opponents are: Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS/ISIL), Turkey-backed rebel groups, Turkey and occasionally the Syrian Army.
IV. Islamic State or ISIS/ISIL
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was established in 2004 as the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It was formed in U.S. Military Prison Camp Bucca of Iraq. In 2015, over 60% of Syria was controlled by the Islamic State jihadists, militants or terrorists. Currently (2018) they only hold a few small pockets of land in east Syria. They are also known as Da’esh.
They are supported by several Islamic Terrorist groups such as the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), Jund al-Aqsa (until 2017), and certain al-Qaeda networks.
There opponents are: Free Syrian Army, Syria, United States, Russia, Israel, Jordan, the UN.
V. Russian Government and Forces
Russia is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s biggest ally, supporting the Syrian Regime in the United Nations and supplying Syrian Army troops with military planes, missile launchers, bombs and other weapons. Russia has backed Assad since the 2011 protest. Since 2015, the Russians have had troops in Syria; and they increased their presence in 2016. Moreover, Russia has supplied Assad with military contractors (mercenaries).
Russia has occasionally joined with the United States and other European troops against ISIS. Yet, they oppose these nations when they supported and as they support Anti-Assad rebels or Kurdish SDF forces.
According to the Kremlin’s own website (February 2018), Russian President Vladimir Putin ‘welcomed to Moscow… the President of the State of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas.’ And both Presidents spoke against certain “US actions.”
Additionally, Russia has provided air support for Iran-trained Shite militias and other such Iran or Iran-backed troops. Russia and Iran are in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization together as well.
In 2015, Turkey opposed Russia, even shooting down a Su-24 jet; however, after Putin and Russia pressured Turkey – including in their available position to the possible coup in 2016 – they joined with Russia and Iran as a triad alliance for ‘peace’ or as ‘peace enforcers.’ But, peace to Russia means death to Free Syrians and Kurdish Christians and Democratic Syrians.
Above: Assad with Russian troops viewing Russian BMPT-72 Terminator
Turkish Government (TAF and Turkey Forces)
In 2011, Turkey stood with western nations and condemned Assad’s use of force against Syrian protestors. Turkish troops trained Syrian Army ‘defectors;’ and aided the establishment of the Free Syrian Army.
Turkey has giving aid to al-Qaeda linked groups; but in 2016 pushed back against ISIS. ISIS and Turkey continued to have strikes and counter-strikes against each other in 2016 and 2017. Late 2015, the Turkish military began attacks against certain Kurdish villages and YPG militia in Syria. Turkey refused the United States’ request to support the Manbij offensive in 2015; and by 2016 the Turks where help back from the presence of U.S. forces with the SDF troops.
In 2017, Turkey joined Russian forces in the northern Idlib Governorate. And in 2018, Turkey continues to fight against the Kurds in the north, such as the YPJ and YPG. Turkish forces have a heavy presence in Afrin, Syria; north of Aleppo bordering Turkey.
VII. United States Forces
The United States position in the Syria is that we are in slightly more than at cool war with Russia (or at least both of our countries have ‘corporations’ profiting off of military sales); and not willing that Assad’s Regime or administration shall continue – but short of the point of assassination or outright invasion.
The U.S. is often at odds with Russia in United Nations’ votes concerning Syria. And currently (April 2018) the U.S. has 2 destroyers (with 1,000 mile to 2,000 kilometer ranged Tomahawk missiles) off the coast ready for action. The U.S. has already fired on Assad’s SAA for their chemical attacks on civilians. And F-22 stealth fighters and B-1 bombers are stationed nearby in Qatar.
It is likely that Britain and France, which has jets stationed in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, would join in an attack on the SAA.
The U.S. directly supports Kurdish opposition forces in the Northeast, namely the SDF and YGP. And the U.S. has given support to the Free Syrian Army since their establishment. Yet, the U.S. is not very efficient early on; spending $500 million to produces less than 100 Free Syria rebel fighters.
The U.S. role in Syria has strained its relationship with Turkey, Russia and Iran; but what is new there – they are no lovers of the United States or of the democracy for with the U.S. and Syrian people are fighting.
Russia, Turkey and Iran’s 2018 Sochi peace talks are only a ploy and last hope to keep Assad in control – and after his actions and desire for dictatorship – that is not an option.
VIII. Iran Forces
Iran has several reasons for being in Syria. Iran favors Russia and opposes the United States, in the United Nations and in the field. They still remember nuclear sanctions and will use their connections at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to further both their economic and military programs. Secondly, about 95% of Iran’s Muslims are Shia, while Syria’s vast majority is Sunni; this in itself has cause at least minor struggles between Iran and several Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia and Syria.
And in 2016, Iran called its relationship with Hezbollah and Assad’s Regime an ‘Axis of Resistance;’ and in 2017 their triad with Russia and Turkey an alliance of ‘peace enforcers.’ However, they only support Assad’s continued genocide against Sunni Muslim and the Kurds.
Following the 1982 Israeli counter-invasion into Lebanon, Hezbollah was created with help from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); and they received military training and support from both the Islamic Republic or Iran and Syria. They both oppose most Western Nations, especially the United States.
Hezbollah has continued to be an ally of the Assad Regime – their family and the Ba’ath government. They have offered the lives of more than 1,500 fighters and thousands of their Muslim militants fight against the Free Syrian Army (‘rebels’).
They often work side by side with the Syrian Army (SAA) and other Ba’athist government forces. In 2015, Hezbollah also fought against al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front. In 2016, they primarily fought in the Aleppo region. Russia has supplied Hezbollah with weapons, including long-range missiles. Hezbollah opposes Israel and the statehood of Israel.
X: Other Nations and Factions
There are many other nations and players involved in Syria. Among them are various al-Qaeda groups or affiliates, Israel, China, France, the UK, and many local tribes or groups. For example in February 2018, Jabhat Tahrir Souriya (Islamic fighters) begin as fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zinki came together. And Al-Qaeda of Syria has had fighters break away and form groups, such as the Nusra Front.
Additionally, more than 70 different ‘members’ or ‘factions’ joined in Coalition in 2014 to fight ISIS; but since that time many of them have turn their sights or each other.
More Information and Comment
For more information see the April 18, 2018 Congressional Research Service (CRS) article, “Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response.” It begins saying, “The Syria conflict, now in its eighth year, remains a significant policy challenge for the United States. U.S. policy toward Syria in the past several years has given highest priority to counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL/ISIS), but also included assistance to opposition-held communities, support for diplomatic efforts to reach a political settlement to the civil war, and the provision of humanitarian assistance in Syria and surrounding countries…”
Council on Foreign Relations: reports April 2018: 5.6 million Syrian refugees; 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria and more updates on current events.
All nations involved in this conflict should well understand – especially since they all have had their own revolutions, civil wars and revolts – that there will be NO POLITICAL SETTLEMENT without Bashar Assad stepping down from the presidency; and or dividing the nation into two states – but Israel and the PLO has shown that not will not stop the conflicts in the region.