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Syria Revolution - Opposition Forces

Syria's opposition fighters are varied, divided among several factions with differing agendas, though all share the goal of ousting the government of Bashar al-Assad. There are substantial variations in the estimated strengths of these various formations.

The Free Syrian Army, a self-declared non-sectarian group, is the largest and most established opposition faction. Numbering about 50,000 people [as of 2012], it was a hybrid of former military and civilian fighters. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces withdrew from Syrian Kurdish regions on Turkey’s border, allowing the the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a Syrian Kurdish group, to take control of much of the area.

The 37,000-strong [as of 2013] Syrian Islamic Liberation Front [aka Syrian Liberation Front] and the Syrian Islamic Front - which included some 13,000 Salafi combatants - are two other militant groups supported by Saudi Arabia. Qatar supports a separate Salafi group known as Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade with around 15,000 combatants. They have fewer fighters than the Free Syrian Army and adhere to an Islamist ideology.

The 6,000-strong [as of 2013] extremist al-Nusra Front [Jabhat al-Nusra = Victory Front] is a jihadist group that has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and to al-Qaida in Iraq. The group has been growing, with thousands of men from the Free Syrian Army reportedly defecting to its side. Al-Nusra includes some of the rebels' most tested and effective fighters. The United States has designated al-Nusra a terrorist group. Western intelligence reports say Islamic extremists in Syria remain by far the fiercest and best organized rebel elements.

Charles Lister of IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center estimated in September 2013 that the jihadists numbered about 10,000 mainly foreign fighters, and that Islamist militias were able to muster 20,000 to 35,000. At that time, Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank stated that "If you take the four big [Free Syrian Army] brigades, you are talking on paper of 100,000 to 120,000 people..."

Jacques Neriah wrote in January 2014 that "groups with concentrations of foreign fighters include the Eagles of Honor (Suqour al-Izz), founded by Saudi fighters, and the Movement of Islamic Levant (Harakat Sham al-Islam), led by Moroccan fighters. Both groups are active in the Latakia area. Outside the northern area, the most notable independent formations are the Green Battalion (Al-Katiba al-Khadraa’), founded by Saudi fighters and based in the Qalamoun area of Damascus province, and the Congregation of the Levant Fighters (Jamaat Jund Ash-Sham), founded by Lebanese fighters in the western Homs governorate." Despite its persistent divisions, the insurgency continued to mature into a fighting force increasingly able to challenge Government control of the country and to strike at strategic targets, such as oil fields and airports. In the northern and central provinces, these groups extended their control over increasing swathes of territory, while struggling in the southern and coastal governorates.

As a bulwark against encroaching violence, local residents in some areas formed ‘Popular Committees’, reportedly to protect their neighbourhoods against anti-Government armed groups and criminal gangs. Some appear to have been trained and armed by the Government. According to defectors, the ranks of Popular Committees mirror the ethnic, religious and class composition of the neighborhoods they protect. There are reports that some Popular Committees have supported Government forces during military operations as an auxiliary militia. Their presence has been documented across Syria, where at times they are alleged to be participating in house-to-house searches, identity checks, mass arrests, looting and acting as informants. Witnesses frequently describe these groups as Shabbiha [ghosts].

On October 31, 2012 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Syrian National Council can no longer be seen as leading the opposition to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The United States had grown increasingly frustrated by the SNC's failure to include more opposition leaders inside Syria, its personality-driven leadership struggles, and its inability to attract a broad cross-section of Syrians, particularly minority Alawite and Kurds. "This can not be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but have, in many instances, not been in Syria for 20, 30, 40 years," said Clinton. "There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom." Washington hoped new rebel leaders would emerge from a November meeting of Assad opponents in Doha.

On 12 November 2012 the opposition movement restructured itself into the National Coalition Of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces to try to present a more united front to its Western and Arab backers. A number of Syrian opposition groups, including the Syrian National Council, created a new coalition that they hope would be recognized as the single representative of the broad anti-Assad movement. The Syrian opposition has been plagued by infighting since the start of the anti-Assad revolt in 2011. The opposition has been very disunited, not presenting a convincing front either to those fighting inside Syria or to the regional or international community which would want to help them.

The Syrian opposition remains marred by internal strife. On 6 July 2013, the Syrian National Coalition voted in a new President, Ahmad Asi Al-Jarba, almost three months after the resignation of Moaz Al-Khateeb. Two days later, Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto resigned, citing the inability to form an interim Government to be entrusted with the administration of areas under opposition control. On the ground, the political vacuum has fed the ongoing fragmentation and disintegration of political authority, as signalled by infighting in Latakia governorate between some anti-government armed groups.

In the north-east, friction over power-sharing emerged within the Kurdish political leadership, formally united under the Kurdish Supreme Council. Despite tensions, recent statements made by representatives of the Kurdish parties indicate that parliamentary elections were being prepared in the areas under Kurdish control. Elections would be preceded by a referendum on an interim constitution currently being drafted.

A group of Syrian rebels supported by US politicians for their “moderate” position, and who received US military equipment, disbanded in March 2015 after heavy losses. Hazm — whose name means “determination” — was the principal, but not the only Syrian opposition group the US was supporting. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is made up of various elements, and one group within it — Fursan al-Haq — was still receiving support from the US. What’s left of Hazm has said it would join the Shamiah Front, defending rebel territory around Aleppo. Within that Front, there are moderate elements — such as the Mujaheedin Army, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood — but there are also more extreme Salafist factions.

In November 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron asserted: “Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.” He said: “Last week I told the House that we believe there are around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters… who do not belong to extremist groups… and with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Daesh”. Intelligence and defence figures immediately poured scorn on Cameron’s claims in November 2015, with some calling the JIC report Mr. Cameron’s “dodgy dossier” – setting out a case for war on a false premise. Julian Lewis, the head of the Defence Select Committee said: “Instead of having dodgy dossiers, we now have bogus battalions of moderate fighters”. Labour MP Louise Haigh said December 2015: “National Security Adviser confirms number of moderates on ground in Syria is 40,000 rest are much more radical Islamists.”

Prime Minister David Cameron, appeared in front of a House of Commons Select Committee 12 Jan 2016 and acknowledged that the UK government’s widely touted estimate of “70,000 moderate” fighters in Syria actually included Islamists and “hardline Islamists”. Speaking to Julian Lewis in the committee, Cameron was pressed on the Joint Intelligence Committee report which he announced as he was making the case for British military intervention in Syria.

He admitted: “…yes, some of the opposition forces are Islamist, some of them are relatively hardline Islamist, and some of them are more what we would describe as more secular democrats. But I would make the point there are groups like Al-Nusra Front… who we wouldn’t work with, who we condemn. If you are arguing there aren’t enough and we need to build them up, yes, I agree. But we’ve got to start somewhere… He added: “All I can say is… We had an [National Security Council] discussion, the JIC, Joint Intelligence Committee, produced the figure. I questioned and probed on the figure, they said they bought 70,000 was the best estimate of non-extremist opposition fighters. The Americans have said that is within their estimates, to be absolutely transparent with you, the Americans said it was towards the top end of their estimates”.

The USforwarded to the Russian side the list of 69 armed opposition groups which confirmed their participation in the Syrian ceasefire, Russia’s Defense Ministry said 27 February 2016. Moscow provided Washington with a similar list. It included over 6,000 fighters from various groups and over 70 towns to be excluded from the US bombardment. The ceasefire in Syria brokered by Russia, US and the UN began at midnight on February 27.

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