A Guide to Who’s Who in Syria

December 5, 2014 • Asia, Middle East, Syria, World

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In the second of our 4 part in-depth special on the conflict Syria we try to pinpoint who’s who. With so many brigades and belligerents it can be hard to keep up with who’s who. Check it.

Young members of the Free Syrian Army show off their weapons. ©The Guardian


In the  beginning of the Syrian Civil War there were 2 sides, the pro-government forces and the rebels. But as the conflict wears on and spills over into neigbouring regions, other groups are drawn in attracted by the opportunity to grab land, power and influence in the vacuum that has appeared.
Pro-government forces are largely made up of Shia Alawites, religious minorities and outside help from Iran and Hezbollah. Russia also indirectly aids the Syrian government.
The rebels are made up of several factions who hold a very fragile alliance based on a common enemy rather than an endearing love for each other. The groups range from religiously secular groups to Islamic fundamentalists. There have been clashes within this loose alliance, mostly between secular groups and fundamentalists.
Kurds had stayed fairly neutral till early 2013 and when drawn into conflict took a defensive position. They are largely based in the north of the country. They have had clashes with both pro-Assad forces and rebels, but many have come out in support of the rebels particularly the PYD (Syrian Kurdish Party).
As of 2014 ISIS has become prominent. They have emerged in the vacuum of power of Northern Iraq. Originally allied to Al Qaeda in Syria, they were cut off for being too extremist. They fight everyone.


The rebels are made up of a loose coalition of fighters. The groups differ wildly in their ideologies and as such are not natural allies. It is only Assad as a common enemy that brings them together. 

FSA – The Free Syrian Army is a loose coalition of approx. 30 brigades headed by Abdullah Al-Bashir. The brigades that make up the FSA are a mix of secularists, moderate islamists and some Islamic fundamentalists. Strength 45,000

Al-Nusra Front – One of the most successful brigades, Al Nusra is a hardline fundamentalist group that is Al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria. It has taken a pragmatic approach in the conflict, choosing to ally itself with moderates and secularists in its aim to overthrow Assad. Reportedly backed by Qatar. Strength 5,500

Islamic Front – A merger of 7 rebel groups that has is backed and armed by Saudi Arabia. Seeks to establish an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. Strength 50,000

Army of Mujahedeen – Mostly politically unaligned though largely Islamist. Originally from Aleppo and the surrounding region. In talks to being supplied by US government. Strength 7,000

Asala wa al-Tanmiya FrontStrength 13,000

Syria Revolutionaries Front. Mixture of non ideological and Islamist members. Operate in the Idlib region. Strength 15,000

Pro-Government Forces

The Syrian military has depleted in size since 2011 due to death and defection. From a sizeable strength of 295,000 in 2011 down to almost half that at 178,000, Syria’s security forces are stretched but still seen as strong. Assad has been bouyed by the NDF (National Defence Force) loyalist militias that have sprung up since 2012. He has also benefited from thousands of Hezbollah fighters and a flow of Russian arms.

Syrian Armed Forces – Regular army that includes volunteers and conscripts. Alleged that as many as 20-30 officers were defecting a day in 2012. Strength. 178,000

General Security DirectorateStrength 8,000

National Defence Force – Pro government militias formally under the supervision of the Syrian military. Strength 80,000

Ba’ath  Brigades – Almost entirely Sunni, the Ba’ath Brigades are a volunteer militia that is loyal to the Syrian Government. Strength 7,000

Hezbollah – The armed wing of the Lebanese political party, said to be more powerful than the Lebanese military, has since late 2012 been actively involved in the conflict. Strength 8,000

Al-Abbas brigade – A force that appeared in reaction to the mass desecration of sites of cultural heritage and places of worship by the rebels. Comprised mostly of Iraqis. Strength 10,000

Iranian support – Strength 10,000

ISIS – Isis gets its own category because it is against both the pro and anti government forces. Isis’s goal is to create an Islamic Caliphate and therefore intends to conquer land wherever it can and from whomever it can. Isis has been responsible for one of the most effective military cmapains of modern history when it overran the 2nd largest city in Iraq, Mosul, then took over vast swathes of Northern Iraq and Syria. They have grown notorious not only for their fighting prowess but also the ruthless way in which they treat opponents, including mass shootings, public beheadings and crucifixions. They have a very well tuned social media presence that they use both for recruitment and for advertising their cause. Strength 60,000. 30,00o in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq 

Kurds have largely taken up defensive roles, seeking to repel invading armed forces (pro or anti-government). Kurds, on the whole are moderate Muslims, much like in Turkey.

PYD (Democratic Union Party or Syrian Kurdish Party) – has tried to avoid conflict whilst consolidating territorial gains. There has been occasional fighting with government troops but more frequently with Islamist rebels. The national army of Syrian Kurdistan is known as YPG or Popular Protection Units. Has a large number of women fighters as well as non-Kurdish fighters and defectors. Strength 45,000

Jabhat al-Akrad – Predominantly Kurdish armed faction that operates in ethnically mixed areas outside of the Kurdish enclaves. Operates in Raqqa, Aleppo and Azaz. Strength 7,000


NB The nature of war makes accurate statistic coverage very difficult. Therefore the figures provided are based on averages provided from a different range of sources including Wikipedia, CIA Factbook, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as well as local sources such as the Daily Star of Lebanon. Brigades often disband due to disagreements or differing strategic situations. Further, there are dozens of undocumented smaller brigades, some only a few dozen in strength.

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