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Understanding Syria’s rebel groups – Who’s who?

Azhar Vadi | Cii Analysis 25 October 2013

Originally made up of citizen volunteers who took up arms against their government and called the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the anti-government military formations in Syria have mushroomed into several hundred groupings numbering a few dozen to over 10 000 fighters.

Many of these groups have common ideas and backgrounds while some are diametrically opposed to each other in every respect other than their opposition to the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

At times these groups may carry out joint operations only to attack each other in isolated incidents.

Several broad categories of fighting groups are identifiable and these have within themselves formed further, splits, coalitions and alliances.


Lead by Brigadier General Salim Idris, the SMC has purported itself to be the military representative of the Syrian people and was formed in December 2012 when the various groups flying the flag of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) came together. The FSA was initially formed by military generals who had deserted the ranks of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). The SMC initially had 30 members and seeks to create a new Syria based on mainly western democratic principles. The West has viewed the SMC as a moderate force that they would prefer to take control of the country if Bashar al Assad were to fall. However the SMC has not been able to unite the various groups on the ground in Syria, particularly those with a more Islamic reference. The SMC decision makers and its political leadership have been accused of not bearing the brunt of the violence in Syria as they are based in Turkey and other countries.

Abdul Jabbar Ogaidi – Cii News

Groups aligned to the SMC include the Martyrs of Syria Brigades with approximately 7000 fighters and no particular religious ideology, the Brigade of the Northern Storm who are described as moderate Islamists and the Ahrar Souriya Brigade.

The Northern Storm Brigade, headed by former Syrian colonel, Abdul Jabbar Ogaidi, has recently clashed with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an Al Qaeda offshoot with its own strict interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence.
The Northern Storm Brigade has however in September 2013 expressed support for the formation of Islamic Alliance that has denounced the SMC.


The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) is a loose alliance of various groups that have based their fight on an Islamic platform. They are largely made up of Syrian fighters filling the ranks of some 20 groups. Some of the groups, while being members of SILF, also hold positions on the SMC. They have however grown increasingly weary of Western interference in the SMC and attempts by the Americans to direct their revolt. In September 2013, key member groups of SILF joined a coalition that has publicly renounced the SMC and rejected its representation of the Syrian people.

Farouq Brigades

The Farouq Brigades are amongst the larger groups within the SILF. Originating from Homs, it has also fractured, with some of the leadership taking a more conservative Islamic approach while others have opted for a more moderate outlook. They however remain a powerful force particularly along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Suqour al-Sham and Liwa al Tawhid

Suqour al-Sham (Falcons of Syria) and Liwa al Tawhid have based their struggle squarely on Islamic principles and hold influence in Damascus and Aleppo. Liwa al Tawhid was called in recently to negotiate between the Northern Storm Brigade and ISIS when they clashed in Azaaz, north of Aleppo.

Liwa al Tawhid – BBC

Liwa al-Tawhid (Battalion of Monotheism) was formed in July 2012 to unite many separate fighting groups around Aleppo as the city joined the revolt against the government. Although they were originally part of the SMC, they have now joined the coalition of groups denouncing the SMC as a tool for western interference in Syrian affairs.


Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) was formed by some 50 groups operating in and around Damascus in September 2013. Its most influential constituent is Liwa al Islam headed by Zahran Alloush. Jaysh al Islam seek to unify various groups and has the support of other key groups like the Liwa Fath al-Sham, Liwa Tawhid al-Islam and Liwa al-Ansar.

The united front was seen as a blow to the Western backed SMC.

The Army of Islam is located in the Damascus area, it but also includes brigades in Homs, Latakia, Deir Ezzor and Aleppo.

Liwa al-Islam as an individual group, was founded two years earlier by Zahran Alloush and has around 9000 fighters. It is the leading rebel group in the east of the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus.


At the helm of the Syrian Islamic Front is the Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (Ahrar al Sham). Along with it comes another 10 groups all espousing an Islamic ideology that is not comfortable by most western standards and has rattled the regime in its encounters on the battlefield.

The SIF takes its lead from Hassan Abboud of Ahrar al Sham and is said to have at least 30 000 fighters covering most of Syria. Some of the battalions that contribute to this enormous and disciplined fighting force include the al-Haqq Brigade, the Ansar al Sham Battalions from Idlib, the Jaysh al Tawhid from Deir al-Zour and the Hama based Mujahidi al Sham Brigade. SIF has never agreed to work under the auspices of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) and has a close relationship with the various other Islamic groupings operating in Syria.

At the height of the US threat to attack Syria in the chemical weapons debacle, the group issued a statement on its Facebook page stating that it rejected “Western military intervention in Syria and considered it a new aggression against Muslims”, saying that the intervention would only serve American interests and not the cause of those seeking to topple al-Assad.


Nusra Front – Aljazeera

Jabhat un Nusra or Al-Nusra Front

Lead by Abu Mohammed al-Julani the group is believed to have anywhere between 5000 and 7000 fighters.

It is reported that this group has emerged from the belly of Iraq, staffed by fighters initially part of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq. The fighters are particularly well trained, disciplined and have been responsible or played key roles in some of the major victories against the regime.

The Nusra front was officially classified as a terrorist organisation by the US as of December 2012. They have worked well with other rebel groups including those regarded as moderate Islamists.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Shaam (ISIS)


Lead by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ISIS, broke away from the Nusra Front in April 2013 and although the split has been rejected by Nusra, ISIS has taken part in several joint operations. Their ranks are mainly filled by foreign fighters who espouse their own very strict interpretation of Islam. ISIS has not been afraid to clash with rebel formations including the Northern Storm Brigade in Azaaz.

Abu Umar al Shishani – eaworldview.com

A senior leader of Ahrar al Shaam was also reportedly shot and died as a result of ISIS intercepting a humanitarian convoy said to be from Malaysia September 2013. Their efforts have however earned them respect as daring fighters and they have been key in carrying out human bombings that helped capture two military bases.

ISIS also has the support of the Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar headed by a Chechen, Abu Omar al-Shishani.


On 24 September 2013, 13 groups issued a statement condemning the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) who effectively are the political leadership of the Supreme Military Council (SMC).

The 13 included, Jabhat al-Nusra, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, Suquor al-Sham, Liwa al-Haq, Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Harakat al-Nour al-Islamiyya, Kataib Nour al-Din al-Zinki, Liwa al-Furqan, Liwa al-Ansar, Tajamu Fastaqm Kamr Umrat and Forqat al-Tisaa Ashr

They condemned the SNC as being “unrepresentative” of the Syrian people inside Syria and called explicitly for “an Islamic framework based on sharia (Islamic law).”

The Brigade of the Northern Storm did not sign but expressed support for the new formation.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Shaam (ISIS) did not sign and was not part of the pact.

The move to divorce the SNC from the armed groups effectively crippled the influence of the Syrian Military Council (SMC), the Americans closest ally. It has also weakened Saudi influence as they have been the major backers of the SNC thus far.

The SNC/SMC has been accused of not sharing the reality of the situation on the ground and of being a tool of the US to interfere in the Syrian affair.

The US has thus lost favour and now risks having any supplies it sends to Syria landing in the hands of groups categorically opposed to its ideals.

Three groups whose signatures initially appeared on the Islamic Coalition list have since been removed. Liwa al-Furqan and Liwa al-Haq have given support for the statement but have not signed it and Jabhat al Nusra said that while they condemned the SNC and its foreign-based leadership it was not part of the coalition.


Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades

This alliance of groups has been accused of having links to Western intelligence agencies and Qatar and has clashed with ISIS in the town of Raqqa. Despite comprising of about 40 smaller groups, ISIS managed to kick them out.

Several other independent alliances and groups exists.

The Asala wa al-Tanmiya Front has a particular presence in Aleppo and in the tribal areas of the eastern province of Deir al-Zour.

The Durou al-Thawra Commission is linked to the SMC-linked and was set up in 2012 with the help of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

The Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade operates close to Jordan and the Golan Heights.

Additional reporting: BBC, Syria Deeply, Wikipedia

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