Understanding the Syrian Rebels

Q & A on Syria’s Armed Opposition

Rebel Commander Ahmad Bakran sits on his rebel flag-adorned motorcycle in the village of Mghara, Syria.
Rebel Commander Ahmad Bakran sits on his rebel flag-adorned motorcycle in the village of Mghara, Syria. Freedom House Flickr User

Syrian rebels are the armed wing of the opposition movement that emerged out of the 2011 uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. They do not represent the whole of Syria’s diverse opposition, but they stand on the frontline of Syria’s civil war.

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Where do the Fighters Come From?

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the main coalition of armed groups fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. SyrRevNews.com

The armed rebellion against Assad was first organized by army defectors who in summer 2011 set up the Free Syrian Army. Their ranks soon swell with thousands of volunteers, some wanting to defend their towns from regime’s brutality, others also are driven by ideological opposition to Assad’s secular dictatorship.

Although the political opposition as a whole represents a cross-section of Syria’s religiously diverse society, the armed rebellion is driven mostly by the Sunni Arab majority, particularly in low-income provincial areas. There are also thousands of foreign fighters in Syria, Sunni Muslims from different countries who came to join various Islamist rebel units.

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What Do the Rebels Want?

The uprising has so far failed to produce a comprehensive political program outlining Syria’s future. The rebels share a common goal of bringing down the Assad’s regime, but that about's it. The vast majority of Syria’s political opposition says it wants a democratic Syria, and many rebels agree in principle that the nature of the post-Assad system should be decided in free elections.

But there is a strong current of hardline Sunni Islamists who want to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state (not unlike the Taliban movement in Afghanistan). Other more moderate Islamists are willing to accept political pluralism and religious diversity. At any rate, staunch secularists advocating a strict division of religion and state are a minority in rebel ranks, with most militias sporting a mix of Syrian nationalism and Islamist slogans.

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Who is Their Leader?

The absence of central leadership and clear military hierarchy is one of the key weaknesses of the rebel movement, following the failure of the Free Syrian Army to set up a formal military command. Syria’s largest political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, also has no leverage over the armed groups, adding to the intractability of the conflict.

Around 100 000 rebels are divided into hundreds of independent militias which may coordinate operations on the local level, but retain distinct organization structures, with intense rivalry for the control of territory and resources. Individual militias are slowly coalescing into larger, loose military coalitions – such as the Islamic Liberation Front or the Syrian Islamic Front – but the process is slow.

Ideological divisions such as Islamist vs. secular are often blurred, with fighters flocking to commanders who can offer the best weapons, regardless of their political message. It’s still too early to say who might prevail in the end.

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Are Rebels Linked to Al Qaeda?

US Secretary of State John Kerry said in September 2013 that Islamist extremists make up only 15 to 25% of the rebel forces. But a study by Jane’s Defence published at the same time estimated the number of Al Qaeda-linked “jihadists” at 10 000, with another 30-35 000 “hardline Islamists” who while not formally aligned with Al Qaeda, share a similar ideological outlook (see here).

The main difference between the two groups is that while “jihadists” see the struggle against Assad as part of a wider conflict against the Shiites (and, ultimately, the West), other Islamists are focused only on Syria.

To make matters more complicated, the two rebel units who claim the Al Qaeda banner - Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – are not on friendly terms. And while the more moderate rebel factions enter into alliances with Al Qaeda-linked groups in some parts of the country, in other areas there is growing tension and actual fighting between rival groups.

  • Read more: Al Qaeda in the Middle East
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Who Supports the Rebels?

When it comes to funding and weapons, each rebel group stands on its own. The main supply lines are running from Syrian opposition supporters based in Turkey and Lebanon. The more successful militias that control larger swaths of territory collect “taxes” from local businesses to fund their operations, and are more likely to receive private donations.

But hardline Islamist group can also fall back on international jihadist networks, including wealthy sympathizers in the Arab Gulf countries. This puts secular groups and moderate Islamists at a considerable disadvantage.

The Syrian opposition is backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, but the US has so far put a lid on shipments of weapons to rebels inside Syria, partly out of fear that they would fall into hands of extremist groups. If the US decides to scale up its involvement in the conflict it will have to hand-pick the rebel commanders it can trust, which will doubtless further inflame the confrontation between rival rebel units.

  • Read more: Who is Winning the War in Syria?

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