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The New Arab

Who's who in Syria?

The Syrian flag rises amid damaged buildings in Daraa [Getty]

Date of publication: 27 July, 2018

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In-depth: The chaotic situation in Syria has seen the creation of many militias and the militarisation of many political parties. We have compiled a list of the most important actors.
The Syrian conflict began when the Baath regime, in power since 1963 and led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded with military force to peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms during the Arab Spring wave of uprisings, triggering an armed rebellion fuelled by mass defections from the Syrian army.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in the war, mostly by the regime and its powerful allies, and millions have been displaced both inside and outside of Syria. 

The brutal tactics pursued mainly by the regime, which have included the use of chemical weapons, sieges, mass executions and torture against civilians have led to war crimes investigations.

This convoluted and chaotic situation has additionally seen the creation of many small militias and the militarisation of many political parties.

Following the seemingly never-ending changes in who's who is nearly impossible.

The New Arab has compiled the most important minor actors, which side they support, from where their support comes and a brief description of their views and actions.

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PRO-ASSAD



We will start with the groups that to one degree or another support the Assad regime

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party

Ideology: Pan-Syrianism, Social Nationalism.

Support: Heaviest support comes from religious minorities, though it advocates separation for religion and state matters.

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party is a political party and militia that supports the unification of what it describes as "Natural Syria" - Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Cyprus.

Formed long before the civil war began, the SSNP has supported the creation an enlarged Syria for decades and has been organising militias and underground cells to achieve this aim.

The SSNP is a syncretic pseudo-fascist party that believes in a strong unitary state that follows the doctrine of "Social Nationalism" is needed to bring Syria back from its "prelapsarian glory".

The Syrian Resistance

Ideology: Left-Wing Nationalism, Marxist-Leninism.  

Support: Mainly Alawite and secularists.

The Syrian Resistance is a Marxist-Leninist organisation that aims to "defend Syria from imperialism".

The group was founded in 2011 and is mainly supported by Alawites. The group sees the ongoing civil war, and in particular the Syrian opposition, as tools of Western imperialism. They thus see Bashar al-Assad as Syria's best defence against Western imperialism.

Hizballah and Amal

Ideology: Shiaism and Lebanese Nationalism

Support: Shia of Lebanon and Syria

Both Hizballah and Amal are Shia political parties based in Lebanon. Both groups have both fought with and against Assadist Syria in the past - but their support for Assad throughout the civil war has been unwavering.

Much like the Syrian Resistance, they see Assad as the best defence against US and Israeli interests in the region. Additionally, Iran, who fund both Lebanese organisations, uses Syria as a supply route, and without Assad in power these supply lines would be at risk.

Both Hizballah and Amal say they wish to support the Shia and Alawite minorities in Syria, and believe the best way to do so is through the support of the Assad regime.

Liwa Fatemiyoun

Ideology: Shiaism

Support: Shia Afghans

An international group, Liwa Fatemiyoun is a Shia militia supported and armed by Iran. Founded by the Iranians to help support Assad, Liwa Fatemiyoun has become one of the largest militias in Syria, numbering around 15,000. Its main base base of support is from Shia Afghan refugees in Iran.

A coalition of small Palestinian Nationalist Groups also support the Assad regime. These groups as a whole are secularist, Pan-Arabist, and anti-zionist. Most find their support from Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon.

    • The Jerusalem Brigades

    • Galilee Forces

    • Free Palestine Movement

    • Palestinian Liberation Army

    • Fatah Al-Intifada

    • Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General-Command

Arab Nationalist Guards

Ideology: Pan-Arabism, Secularism

Support: Arab Nationalist Volunteers from around the Arab world

The Arab Nationalist Guards is an international volunteer militia with members from across the Arab world. Their goal is to defend what they see as a secular Arab regime under attack from the west and their Islamist allies.

Many with in the Arab Nationalist Guards also nominally support the Syrian regime's Neo-Baathist ideology.

Sootoro

Ideology: Syriac rights, Minority rights.

Support: Syriac Christians

Sootoro was founded soon after the Syrian civil war began after open attacks on small Christian communities across Syria.

Eventually Sootoro would join with Assad's forces due to Damascus' strategy of co-opting minority groups to fight against the, at that point, "growing IS threat".

Army of Monotheists

Ideology: Druze

Support: Druze of Syria

Similar to Sootoro, the Army of Monotheists is a small militia supporting Assad due to Assad's co-opting of minorities.

Mainly made up of Druze, an ethno-religious minority in Syria, the Army of Monotheists acts mainly as an auxiliary force to the Syrian Arab Army.

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ANTI-ASSAD



Next are the groups which make up the Syrian opposition. Due to the opposition's amorphous nature of this group and its lack of a unified leadership, this includes all groups which identify as part of the opposition

Free Idlib Army

Ideology: Islamism, Syrian nationalism

Support: Idlib province

The Free Idlib Army is one of the largest of the remaining armed groups allied to the Syrian opposition.

Based around the city of their name, the Free Idlib Army acts as one of the largest anti-Assad forces in the region, espousing their support for an Islamic and democratic Syria.

Grey Wolves

Ideology: Turkish nationalism

Support: Turkmen of northern Syria

The Grey Wolves are an ultra-nationalist neo-fascist Turkic organisation that supports Turkish and Turkmen interests in Syria.

They originally stuck mainly to defending their own communities and being uninvolved in the larger struggle that affects Syria. However, following the Turkish intervention in northern Syria, the Grey Wolves have become far more active in the wider struggle.

Levant Legion

Ideology: Sunni Islamism, Islamic democracy

Support: Conservatives of Syria

The Levant Legion is an anti-Assad, pro-democracy, Islamist organisation. They have been a part of the Syrian opposition since the opening days of the Syrian civil war. Their goal is to establish a fair, just and Islamic Syria.

Ahrar al-Sham, Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, and Al-Rahman Legion

Ideology: Sunni Islamism, Salafism, Syrian nationalism

Support: Rural communities 

These three militias share similar beliefs of Sunni Islamism and Syrian nationalism.

All of them claim that Bashar al-Assad only represents the minority Alawite population and not the majority Sunni Arab population. They also wish to establish an Islamic democracy in Syria, based on the Salafist interpretation of the Quran.

Southern Front/National Front for the Liberation of Syria

Ideology: Syrian Nationalism, Reformism

Support: Remnants of the Southern Free Syrian Army

The Southern Front comprises the FSA's battalions left fighting Assad in Southern Syria, based mainly around the southern provinces of Syria.

The Southern Front has no overarching ideology to speak of but is rather a loose coalition of groups united in their opposition to the brutal reign of Bashar al-Assad.

National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change

Ideology: Left-wing democratic reform

Support: Syrian intelligentsia and university students

The National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change was originally one of the larger actors in the Syrian uprising.

A broadly left-wing and secular movement, this group attempted to organise the original anti-Assad groups into coherent and democratic organisations.

Since then the group has faded into relative obscurity, falling behind its more powerful Islamist rivals as the war became more brutal.

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THE KURDS

Most Kurdish groups fall under the umbrella of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, but as this alliance is highly decentralised it is important to look at its constituent parts to understand the organisation as a whole

YPG/YPJ

Ideology: Democratic confederalism, Anti-Islamism

Support: Syrian Kurdish community

The YPG - and its women-only equivalent, the YPJ - are the largest militias within the Syrian Democratic Forces.

They support the far-left grassroots movement started in the areas of northern Syria they control, which they dub 'Rojava'. Their ideology is based on the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK - a Kurdish militia which has waged a deadly insurgency against the Turkish state for more than 30 years. They call for the establishment of a decentralised socialist economy.

The YPG/J has been highly effective in its fight against the Islamic State group, pushing them out of northern Syria and even liberating the former IS capital, Raqqa.

However the YPG/J has recently face major setbacks as the Turkish government - wary of a PKK-linked organisation holding much of Turkey's southern border - invaded and occupied the north-western Afrin canton, one of the group's strongholds.

Army of Revolutionaries

Ideology: Pro-democracy, left-leaning, anti-Islamism

Support: Deserters of the Free Syrian Army 

The Army of Revolutionaries is the largest of the groups to break away from the FSA to join the SDF.

The Army of Revolutionaries claims to hold true to the original values and goals of the Syrian revolution - being secular and pro-democracy. They furthermore claim that the rest of the Free Syrian Army has broken with these values and are "no longer worth fighting with".

Assyrian Democratic Party

Ideology: Assyrian Rights, Social Democracy

Support: Assyrians of Syria

The Assyrian Democratic Party is a pro-Assyrian rights group in northern Syria.

Its main goal is the protection of the small and fragile community and as such joined the Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against IS. The Assyrians had been facing a near ethnic cleansing at the hands of IS before the tides shifted.

Jabhat Thuwar Al-Raqqa

Ideology: Pro-democracy, Left-leaning, Anti-Islamism

Support: Deserters from the FSA after the YPG-led liberation of Raqqa

A group of former FSA and Islamist fighters, the Jabhat Thuwar Al-Raqqa is now a pro-SDF secular militia that joined the SDF after the liberation of Raqqa from IS. The group has no overarching ideology but has stated that it is in favour of a democratic and federal Syria.

Northern Democratic Brigades

Ideology: Pro-democracy, Anti-Turkey, Syrian nationalism, Anti-Islamism

Support: Anti-Turkish Arabs, former FSA fighters

The Northern Democratic Brigades were once a part of the Free Syrian Army, but left the organisation following the Turkish intervention in Syria.

Seeing this attack as an invasion and the FSA's response to ally with them as surrender, the Northern Democratic Brigades joined the Syrian Democratic Forces to fight the Turks.

Sinjar Alliance

Ideology: Yazidi rights, Yazidi nationalism, Social democracy

Support: Yazidis of northern Syria

The Sinjar Alliance was founded in the aftermath of the IS ethnic cleansing of the Yazidi peoples.

The YPG intervened and defended the Yazidis and helped them to set up local councils and militias to better defend themselves from the Islamic State group.

Since then the Sinjar Alliance has acted as a defensive militia for the few remaining Yazidi communities in northern Syria. The few that go on the offensive often join the YPG acting as auxiliary forces.

Al-Sanadid Forces

Ideology: Shammar liberation, Anti-Saudi

Support: Shammar Tribes

The Al-Sanadid Forces are a collection of Bedouin tribal militias that oppose the House of Saud and their allies in Syria.

Supporting the independence of Shammar - the Ha'il region of Saudi Arabia - they joined the Syrian Democratic Forces after the IS occupation of their homeland.

International Freedom Battalion

Ideology: Socialism, Anarchism, Anti-Fascism, Anti-Islamism

Support: World-wide leftist community, particularly Turkish and Greek activists

The International Freedom Battalion is an international organisation made up of leftists of all shapes and colours from around the world.

It was created with two goals: to defeat IS and to defend what they see as a progressive and radical movement in Rojava.

The group has connections with anti-fascists and socialists around the world and has sent thousands into Syria to fight for the cause of Rojava.




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