In a war that has produced a pandora’s box of international opinion and conflicting media narratives, there is little consensus in the mainstream public about the fighting parties on the ground in Syria. It would be a mistake to assume that the Syrian war is limited to two opposing parties—the Syrian regime and the Islamic State (IS). The Syrian battlefield consists of a myriad of regime and opposition factions that are internally allied and constantly shifting positions on the map. Picking them apart can be cumbersome, so The Century Foundation (TCF) has prepared a brief overview to help you navigate through our reports, policy briefs, and commentaries on the conflict.

Syria Conflict Map/July 15, 2016. Source: @deSyracuse. Click here to view map in interactive format.
Syria Conflict Map/July 15, 2016. Source: @deSyracuse. Click here to view map in interactive format.

The Regime and Its Allies

Syrian President Bashar Assad inherited the throne from his late father, Hafez, in 2000. Under his leadership, the Syrian army has fought violently against the opposition since the first uprisings began in the spring of 2011. Along with pro-regime militias, the regime holds territory in Damascus and its surrounding suburbs, Lattakia, Tartus, Homs, Palmyra, Hama, half of Deir Ezzor, south Aleppo, and besieged areas around Damascus, including Yarmouk. The regime front is involved in heavy fighting with rebel groups across the country, focusing on strategic rebel-held areas such as Aleppo, Idlib, Damascus province, south Syria, and the east region including Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.

Aside from several domestic pro-regime militias, the regime relies on military support from its foreign allies:

  • The Russian Air Forces entered the war in September 2015 and is now the largest international army on the ground in Syria. Russia has military bases along the coast and in Palmyra, and has been heavily shelling rebel groups in Aleppo and Idlib with daily air strikes, reportedly also using chemical weapons. While actively fighting U.S.-backed rebels, Russia coordinates with U.S. forces in their joint fight against IS in Syria, and is a major player in the United Nations (UN)-facilitated intra-Syrian Geneva peace talks.
  • The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a branch of Iran’s army which has been supporting the Syrian regime actively since 2013. They fight alongside their Afghan shiite affiliate, the Fatemiyoun Brigade, mainly along the coastline and in Aleppo.
  • Hizbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese shiite militia, has a dominant presence in the Golan Heights, along the Syrian-Lebanese border, and in regime-besieged towns around Damascus and Idlib.

The Main Opposition Players

The armed rebel factions can be divided into four main factions: the Jihadi Islamists, the Syrian Islamists, the secular/nationalist rebels, and the Kurds.

The Jihadi Islamists

  • Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the Levantine Conquest Front), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is a major player in Syria. On July 28, 2016, the group officially split with al-Qaeda in a bid to attract other rebel groups to their side. Their headquarters are in Idlib, and they hold considerable ground in Syria’s largest city and main rebel zone, Aleppo. The group also holds the strategically located, tragically embattled Palestinian neighborhood Yarmouk outside of Damascus. Al-Nusra follows a salafi-jihadi ideology, an internationalized, hybrid version of Salafism that forbids all things non-Sunni. Though the group’s fight is limited to Syria, their vision is regional rather than national, and they strongly depend on a constant flow of foreign fighters to sustain the battle. The faction is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the United Nations, Turkey and other countries, but reportedly receives arms and support from both Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
  • Islamic State (IS)—a group of many names and fames—is a Sunni-WahhabiTakfiri extremist group that prescribes to a particular doctrine of Islamic rule and seeks to exterminate everything not contained within that doctrine (including other forms of Sunni Islam). Islamic State has notoriously declared a regional caliphate covering large parts of east Syria and west Iraq, including al-Raqqa and half of Deir Ez-Zor in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Islamic State lost considerable territory in the first half of 2016—most famously the strategic town of Palmyra in the middle of Syria, which the Syrian regime regained with the help of Russian air forces. Meanwhile, IS has been fighting hard battles against other rebel groups, the U.S. coalition, the Syrian regime, and their main rivals—the Kurds—in both northern and southern Syria. This includes Aleppo, the Golan Heights, as well as in the Palestinian Yarmouk camp south of Damascus. Islamic State is believed to receive private funding from donors in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, and sustains itself through revenues from a lucrative smuggling trade of oil, goods, and people.
  • In addition to these two factions, there are many smaller Takfiri-Islamist groups operating in rebel territories, mainly Idlib, Aleppo, and Yarmouk.

The Syrian Islamists

  • Ahrar al Sham is an Islamist-salafi group and one of the largest rebel groups in Syria, mainly operating in the northern cities—Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama. Ahrar aims to establish a Syrian sharia state and is financially backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Ahrar collaborates with al-Nusra and has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iran, and Russia. The United States has not designated Ahrar as a terrorist group, and some analysts including former U.S. diplomat Robert Ford have encouraged engagement with them.
  • Jeish al Islam (Army of Islam) is an Islamist-salafi faction operating mainly in the Damascus suburbs including Douma and East Ghouta, where they pose a major military threat to the regime. After its founding leader Zahran Alloush was killed in an airstrike in December 2015, the group underwent some internal changes and expressed more willingness to cooperate with Western powers. While other Islamist factions in Syria have either boycotted or been excluded from the UN-mandated peace talks, Jeish al Islam has not only supported the talks but also acted as chief negotiator for the main opposition body, the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC), for the first rounds of talks in spring 2016.
  • Al-Sham / Levant Front is an Aleppo-based coalition consisting of both Islamist and secular groups, including the al-Zenki movement, one of the major players in Aleppo which has received some U.S.-backing.

The Nationalist/Secularists

The Kurds

  • YPG (People’s Protection Unit) is the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD. The group is primarily Kurdish but also has Arab and Christian fighters, as well as an all-female branch, the YPJ. The group’s headquarters are in Kobani, where they have succeeded in holding ground and gaining surrounding territory from IS, their main rival. They also hold much of the territory along the border with Turkey, as well as areas in and around Aleppo, including Manbij, Afrin, Sheikh Masoud, and Azaz.
  • The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), another Kurdish-dominated coalition, coordinates closely with YPG. Together they receive air support from the United States, although both groups are actively fighting the United States’ other ally in Syria, the FSA. The coalition is under the banner of the regional Kurdish political faction, the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States, adding to the confusion of the United States’’ relationship to the Kurds. The Kurds are officially not aligned to any other party on the ground, but have reportedly coordinated with the regime and Russia. While the YPG and their political representation, the PYD, have received a lot of support and fame in Western leftist circles for their democratic, grassroots structure and anarchist sympathies, they remain excluded from the UN-mandated peace talks.

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to reflect Jabhat al-Nusra’s name change to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. 


Cover Photo: Kurdish YPG Fighters. Source: Kurdishstruggle, Flickr.