Syria crisis: Guide to armed and political opposition

Guide to the Syrian rebels

There are believed to be as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups in Syria, commanding an estimated 100,000 fighters.

Many of the groups are small and operate on a local level, but a number have emerged as powerful forces with affiliates across the country or formed alliances with other groups that share a similar agenda. The BBC News website looks at the most prominent.


Leader: Brig Gen Salim Idris

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed in August 2011 by army deserters based in Turkey, led by Col Riad al-Asaad. Its banner was soon adopted by armed groups that began appearing across the country. Despite this, the FSA's leaders had little or no operational control over what was happening on the ground in Syria. The opposition's Western and Gulf Arab backers sought to encourage a centralised rebel leadership and in December 2012 a number of brigades affiliated themselves to a newly-created Supreme Military Council (SMC). The SMC's chief-of-staff, Gen Idris, wants it to be a more moderate and stronger alternative to the jihadist rebel groups in Syria.

The SMC has 30 members, six representing each of five "fronts" in Syria - Northern (Aleppo and Idlib), Eastern (Raqqa, Deir al-Zour and Hassaka), Western (Hama, Latakia and Tartus), Central (Homs and Rastan) and Southern (Damascus, Deraa and Suwaida). Each front has a civilian-military council and a commander. The opposition National Coalition describes Gen Idris as the commander of the FSA, however observers have said the FSA is simply a loose network of brigades rather than a unified fighting force. Brigades supposedly report through the chain of command to Gen Idris, but he is yet to assert operational control and serves more as a spokesman and conduit for foreign funding and arms shipments. SMC-aligned brigades retain separate identities, agendas and commands. Some work with hardline Islamist groups that alarm the West, such as Ahrar al-Sham, and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists from the Nusra Front.


Martyrs of Syria Brigades
Leader: Jamal Maarouf
Estimated number of fighters:7,000

Originally called the Martyrs of Jabal al-Zawiya Brigade, the group was formed in late 2011 in Idlib province. Although its name was changed in mid-2012 to the Martyrs of Syria Brigades to reflect the growing ambitions of its leader, its operations are still focused in north-western Syria. Unlike Suqour al-Sham (see below), which also hails from Jabal al-Zawiya and wants an Islamic state, the Martyrs of Syria Brigades reportedly ascribe to no particular ideology.

Northern Storm Brigade

The Northern Storm Brigade is an Islamist FSA unit that controls an important border crossing between Syria and Turkey. In September 2013, there were deadly clashes between the Northern Storm Brigade and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) after the jihadist group stormed the town of Azaz.

Ahrar Souriya Brigade

The Ahrar Souriya (Free Men of Syria) Brigade, which operates under the SMC, was set up by Col Qassem Saad al-Din, a former air force pilot from the northern town of Rastan.

Leader: Ahmed Issa (Suqour al-Sham)
Claimed number of fighters: Between 35,000 and 40,000

The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) is a loose alliance formed in September 2012 by about 20 rebel groups, including the Farouq Brigades, the Islamic Farouq Brigades, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Fath, Liwa al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham, and the Deir al-Zour Revolutionaries' Council. Most of the groups, which range from moderate Islamist to ultraconservative Salafist in outlook, recognise the FSA's Supreme Military Council. However, they are sceptical of the Western-backed opposition National Coalition. The SILF is active in Idlib, Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Deir al-Zour provinces. The SILF has described itself as "the largest of the revolutionary coalitions" and it makes up the bulk of the SMC's fighting force.

Farouq Brigades
Leader: Osama Juneidi
Claimed number of fighters: 14,000

The Farouq Brigades first emerged in late-2011, and was involved in a failed rebel effort to repel a government offensive on the Baba Amr district of Homs in February 2012. Since then, it has grown into a powerful force with affiliates across the country. Its northern wing, Farouq al-Shamal, has a strong presence on the Syrian-Turkish border. The group has suffered repeated splits, with several leading figures expelled and offshoots formed, including the more hardline Islamic Farouq Brigades and the Independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade. The Farouq Brigades' leader occupies senior positions in the SILF and SMC.

Suqour al-Sham
Leader: Sheikh Ahmed Issa
Claimed number of fighters: 9,000 to 10,000

Suqour al-Sham (Falcons of Syria), one the more hardline groups in the SILF, was formed in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of the north-western province of Idlib in September 2011. It has since grown in size and influence and expanded its operations into Aleppo and Damascus countryside provinces. Its commander is also the head of the SILF and a member of the SMC.

Liwa al-Tawhid
Leaders: Abdul Qadir al-Saleh and Abdul Aziz Salama
Estimated number of fighters: Between 8,000 and 10,000

Liwa al-Tawhid (Battalion of Monotheism) was formed in July 2012 to unite the many separate fighting groups operating in the northern Aleppo countryside. It took control of part of the city of Aleppo after leading a rebel offensive that month. Liwa al-Tawhid is now one of the main forces operating in the province. It joined the SILF in January 2013. Its military leader is a former businessman known as "Hajji Marea" who is the SMC's assistant deputy chief of staff for the Northern Front. The group's political leader, known as "Hajji Anadan", read out a statement by 11 Islamist brigades in September 2013 declaring that they did not recognise the National Coalition and calling for the opposition to unite under an "Islamic framework".

Liwa al-Fath

Liwa al-Fath (Battalion of Conquest) operates mainly in the city of Aleppo and the surrounding countryside, as well as in Hassaka and Raqqa provinces, to the east. The group seeks to establish a "free Syria". In September 2013, it sent reinforcements to defend a key border crossing with Turkey when another SMC-affiliated group came under attack from jihadists in the northern town of Azaz.

Leader: Zahran Alloush (Liwa al-Islam)

Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) was formed by some 50 Islamist factions operating in and around Damascus in September 2013. Zahran Alloush, whose group Liwa al-Islam is the most prominent and powerful member of the alliance, said it had been formed to "achieve unity among the units of the mujahideen and avoid the effects produced by the divisions within the National Coalition". More than 30 of the brigades in Jaysh al-Islam were already operating under the banner of Liwa al-Islam. The others include Liwa Fath al-Sham, Liwa Tawhid al-Islam and Liwa al-Ansar. Jaysh al-Islam's formation is believed to have been an attempt by Saudi Arabia to counter the expanding presence of al-Qaeda affiliates around the Syrian capital, with Salafist groups being offered arms and money in return for loyalty. Zahran Alloush's father is a religious scholar based in the Gulf Kingdom.

Liwa al-Islam
Leader: Zahran Alloush
Estimated number of fighters: 9,000

Liwa al-Islam (Battalion of Islam) was founded in mid-2011 by Zahran Alloush, a Salafist activist who had been jailed by the authorities two years earlier. The group rose to prominence after claiming it was behind the bombing of the National Security Bureau's headquarters in Damascus in July 2012, which killed several senior security officials including the defence minister and President Assad's brother-in-law. However, some have alleged that the attack was an inside job. Liwa al-Islam is the leading rebel group in the east of the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus and is well-armed.

Leader: Hassan Abboud (Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya)

The Syrian Islamic Front is a coalition of 11 hardline Islamist groups formed in December 2012. At the time, it suggested it had control of nearly 30,000 fighters. It has since become the most powerful rebel force battling the government, and it operates all over the country. The largest and dominant faction in the SIF is Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, whose leader Hassan Abboud, also known as Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, is the SIF's president. He was imprisoned by the Syrian authorities after taking part in the insurgency in neighbouring Iraq but released in early 2011 as part of an amnesty. Other members of the SIF include the Homs-based al-Haqq Brigade, the Ansar al-Sham Battalions from Idlib, the Jaysh al-Tawhid from Deir al-Zour and the Hama-based Mujahidi al-Sham Brigade. The SIF has remained independent and refuses to come under the umbrella of the SMC, but co-operates with SMC affiliates on the battlefield. The SIF also calls for the creation of a Sunni-led Islamic state and co-operates with al-Qaeda affiliates, but does not call for a global jihad.

Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya
Leader: Hassan Abboud
Estimated number of fighters: 10,000 to 20,000

The Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant) is a Salafist group that first emerged in the north-western province of Idlib in late 2011 as Ahrar al-Sham and has since made a major impact on the battlefield. In January 2013, a month after it formed the SIF, the group claimed to operate 83 units across Syria, including the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. It merged with three other SIF groups to form Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya in February 2013. Its fighters are renowned for their discipline and ability. They were some of the first to use improvised explosive devices and to target military bases to capture weapons. In March, it led the rebel assault on the northern town of Raqqa. The group operates a "technical division" that carries out cyber-attacks and a "relief office" that runs social services and carries out public works in Raqqa and Aleppo.


Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades
Leaders: Abu Osama al-Julani, Mohammed al-Ali and Maher al-Nuami
Estimated number of fighters: Between 7,000 and 9,000

The Ahfad al-Rasoul (Grandsons of the Prophet) Brigades are an alliance of more than 40 moderate Islamist groups formed in 2012. They operate across Syria, although their presence is strongest in the northern province of Idlib. The alliance is independent but aligned to the SMC, and has also been linked to Qatar and Western intelligence agencies. In August 2013, its fighters were forced from the northern town of Raqqa by ISIS.

Asala wa al-Tanmiya Front
Claimed manpower: 13,000 fighters and civilian personnel

The Asala wa al-Tanmiya (Authenticity and Growth) Front is a moderate Islamist alliance formed in November 2012. Its fighters are organised across five "fronts" covering most of Syria, but their presence is strongest in Aleppo, where the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Brigades operate, and in the tribal areas of the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, the power base of the Ahl al-Athar Brigade.

Durou al-Thawra Commission

The Durou al-Thawra (Revolution's Shields) Commission is an SMC-linked alliance of a few dozen small armed factions, most of them in Idlib and Hama provinces. It was set up in 2012 with the help of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. It describes itself as a moderate Islamic-democratic alliance. It acknowledges receiving support from the Brotherhood, but denies any direct link to it.

Tajammu Ansar al-Islam

Tajammu Ansar al-Islam (Gathering of the Supporters of Islam) was formed in mid-2012 by seven Damascus-based Islamist groups. However, it has since suffered several splits.

Yarmouk Martyrs' Brigade

The Yarmouk Martyrs' Brigade is a moderate Islamist group linked to the SMC that was formed in the southern province of Deraa in August 2012 through the merger of eight small units. Led by Bashar al-Zoubi, it operates mainly near Syria's borders with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where in March and May 2013 fighters briefly detained UN peacekeepers patrolling the demilitarised area.

National Unity Brigades
Estimated number of fighters: 2,000

The National Unity Brigades (Kataib al-Wihda al-Wataniya) were created in August 2012. It claims to have several units located in almost all of Syria's provinces and top operate "for the sake of a civil, democratic state for all ethnicities and social identities". The NUB operates mainly in the Jisr al-Shughour region of Idlib province and south of Damascus, but also in Jabal al-Zawiya, Deraa and Deir al-Zour. Some fighters are reported to be from the minority Alawite and Ismaili sects.


Al-Nusra Front
Leader: Abu Mohammed al-Julani
Estimated number of fighters: 5,000 to 7,000

The Nusra (Support) Front for the People of the Levant, is a jihadist group believed to have been created in mid-2011 with the help of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a militant umbrella group that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It declared its existence in January 2012 and has since emerged as one of the most effective rebel forces. Its fighters are active in 11 of Syria's 14 provinces, particularly Idlib, Aleppo and Deir al-Zour. Initially, the group was blamed for dozens of suicide bombings in major city centres, killing many civilians. Later, its disciplined and well-armed fighters began to take part in regular rebel operations, then major offensives. Today, they control territory in northern Syria. The US designated al-Nusra a terrorist entity in December 2012, saying it was an "alias" of AQI. In April 2013, the head of the ISI, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the merger of his group and al-Nusra, creating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). However, al-Nusra's leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani - another former insurgent in Iraq released in 2011 by the Syrian government - swiftly rejected the move and asserted his allegiance to al-Qaeda's overall leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Since then, al-Nusra and ISIS have operated as separate entities, with large numbers of foreign fighters joining the latter. Like Ahrar al-Sham, al-Nusra has sought to build popular support by providing social services and carrying out public works.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)
Leader: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Estimated number of fighters: 3,000 to 5,000

The creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in April 2013 was rejected by the al-Nusra Front. ISI's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, known as Abu Dua, nevertheless pressed ahead with expanding its operations into Syria. In August 2013, US intelligence assessed that he was based in Syria and commanded as many 5,000 fighters, many of them foreign jihadists. The group is active mostly in northern and eastern provinces of Syria. It has assumed joint control of municipalities in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa provinces. ISIS has taken part in a number of major rebel operations, including by carrying out suicide bombings that helped capture two military bases. But it has also had tense relationships with other rebel groups, including those considered Islamist. Its fighters reportedly recently killed a prominent member Ahrar al-Sham, and have clashed with those from Ahfad al-Rasoul in Raqqa and the Northern Storm Brigade in Azaz. They have also targeted Shia and Alawite civilians.

Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar

Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar (Army of the Emigrants and Helpers) is a group comprising hundreds of mostly foreign fighters, many of them from the North Caucasus, that was formed in March 2013 by several jihadist units. The group, which seeks to establish an Islamic state in Syria, operates mostly in Aleppo province, but says it is also fighting in Hama and Latakia. It is led by a Chechen jihadist called Abu Omar al-Shishani, who has aligned himself with ISIS.


Popular Protection Units (YPG)
Political leader: Salih Muslim (PYD)
Claimed number of fighters: 10,000 to 15,000

The Popular Protection Units is the armed wing of the Kurdish political party, the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that runs the de facto autonomous Kurdish zone in north-eastern Syria. The YPG emerged as a force in the summer of 2012 when the Syrian army withdrew from Kurdish areas and it sought to provide security. The PYD has tried to keep the Kurds out of the conflict and consolidate its territorial gains. However, there has been occasional fighting with government troops, and since November 2012 also deadly clashes between the YPG and rebel fighters - particularly those from Islamist and jihadist brigades - over control of several border towns and parts of the city of Aleppo. The Syrian rebels and the Turkish government have accused the Kurdish group of acting as an Assad proxy.

Research by Lina Sinjab, David Gritten, James Longman, Faisal Irshaid