Belligerents of the Syrian Civil War

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A number of armed groups have involved themselves in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

Syrian Arab Republic and allies[edit]

A number of sources have emphasized that as of at least late 2015/early 2016 the Syrian government was dependent on a mix of volunteers and militias, rather than the Syrian Armed Forces.[1][2]

Syrian Armed Forces[edit]

Two destroyed Syrian Army tanks in Azaz, August 2012
The funeral procession of Syrian General Mohammed al-Awwad who was assassinated in Damascus in 2012

Before the uprising and war broke out, the Syrian Armed Forces were estimated at 325,000 regular troops and 280,000–300,000 reservists.[citation needed] Of the regular troops, 220,000 were 'army troops' and the rest in the navy, air force and air defense force. Following defections as early as June 2011, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that by July 2012, tens of thousands of soldiers had defected, and a Turkish official estimated 60,000.[citation needed]

National Defense Force[edit]

The Syrian NDF was formed out of pro-government militias. They receive their salaries and military equipment from the government,[3] and in 2013 numbered around 100,000 troops.[4] The force acts in an infantry role, directly fighting against rebels on the ground and running counter-insurgency operations in coordination with the army, who provides them with logistical and artillery support. The force has a 500-strong women's wing called "Lionesses of National Defense" which operates checkpoints.[5] NDF members, like regular army soldiers, are allowed to loot the battlefields (but only if they participate in raids with the army), and can sell the loot for extra money.[3] Sensing that they depend on the largely secular government,[6] many of the militias of Syrian Christians (like Sootoro in Al-Hasakah) fight on the Syrian government's side[7] and seek to defend their ancient towns, villages and farmsteads from ISIL (see also Christian Militias in Syria).

Shabiha[edit]

The Shabiha are unofficial pro-government militias drawn largely from Syria's Alawite minority group. Since the uprising, the Syrian government has been accused of using shabiha to break up protests and enforce laws in restive neighborhoods.[8] As the protests escalated into an armed conflict, the opposition started using the term shabiha to describe civilians they suspected of supporting Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government and clashing with pro-opposition demonstrators.[9] The opposition blames the shabiha for the many violent excesses committed against anti-government protesters and opposition sympathizers,[9] as well as looting and destruction.[10] In December 2012, the shabiha were designated a terrorist organization by the United States.[11]

Bassel al-Assad is reported to have created the shabiha in the 1980s for government use in times of crisis.[12] Shabiha have been described as "a notorious Alawite paramilitary, who are accused of acting as unofficial enforcers for Assad's government";[13] "gunmen loyal to Assad",[14] and, according to the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, "semi-criminal gangs comprised of thugs close to the government".[14] Despite the group's image as an Alawite militia, some shabiha operating in Aleppo have been reported to be Sunnis.[15] In 2012, the Assad government created a more organized official militia known as the Jaysh al-Sha'bi, allegedly with help from Iran and Hezbollah. As with the shabiha, the vast majority of Jaysh al-Sha'bi members are Alawite and Shi'ite volunteers.[16]

Hezbollah[edit]

In February 2013, former secretary general of Hezbollah, Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, confirmed that Hezbollah was fighting for the Syrian Army,[17] which in October 2012, General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah had still denied was happening on a large scale,[18] except to admit that Hezbollah fighters helped the Syrian government "retain control of some 23 strategically located villages [in Syria] inhabited by Shiites of Lebanese citizenship".[19] Nasrallah said that Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria doing their "jihadist duties".[19]

In 2012 and 2013, Hezbollah was active in gaining control of territory in the Al-Qusayr District of Syria,[20] by May 2013 publicly collaborating with the Syrian Army[21][22] and taking 60 percent of Qusayr by the end of 14 May.[21] In Lebanon, there have been "a recent increase in the funerals of Hezbollah fighters" and "Syrian rebels have shelled Hezbollah-controlled areas."[21] As of 14 May 2013, Hezbollah fighters were reported to be fighting alongside the Syrian Army, particularly in the Homs Governorate.[23] Hassan Nasrallah has called on Shiites and Hezbollah to protect the shrine of Sayida Zeinab.[23] President Bashar al-Assad denied in May 2013 that there were foreign fighters, Arab or otherwise, fighting for the government in Syria.[24]

On 25 May 2013, Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah was fighting in Syria against Islamic extremists and "pledged that his group will not allow Syrian militants to control areas that border Lebanon".[25] In the televised address, he said, "If Syria falls in the hands of America, Israel and the takfiris, the people of our region will go into a dark period."[22] According to independent analysts, by the beginning of 2014, approximately 500 Hezbollah fighters had died in the Syrian conflict.[26] On 7 February 2016, 50 Hezbollah fighters were killed in a clash by the Jaysh al-Islam near Damascus. These fighters were embedded in the Syrian Army (SAA) formation called Army Division 39.[27]

Iran[edit]

Bodies of Iranian casualties return to Kermanshah, August 2016

Iran continues to officially deny the presence of its combat troops in Syria, maintaining that it provides military advice to Assad's forces in their fight against terrorist groups.[28] Since the civil uprising phase of the Syrian civil war, Iran has provided the Syrian government with financial, technical, and military support, including training and some combat troops.[29][30][31] Iran and Syria are close strategic allies. Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as being crucial to its regional interests.[31][32] Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was reported to be vocally in favor of the Syrian government.[30]

By December 2013 Iran was thought to have approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria.[32] But according to Jubin Goodarzi, assistant professor and researcher at Webster University, Iran aided the Syrian government with a limited number of deployed units and personnel, "at most in the hundreds ... and not in the thousands as opposition sources claimed".[33] Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Tehran have taken direct combat roles since 2012.[32][34] In the summer of 2013, Iran and Hezbollah provided important battlefield support for Syrian forces, allowing them to make advances on the opposition.[34] In 2014, coinciding with the peace talks at Geneva II, Iran has stepped up support for Syrian President Assad.[32][34] The Syrian Minister of Finance and Economy stated more than 15 billion dollars had come from the Iranian government.[35] Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani is in charge of Syrian President Assad's security portfolio and has overseen the arming and training of thousands of pro-government Shi'ite fighters.[36]

By 2015, 328 IRGC troops, including several commanders, had reportedly been killed in the Syrian civil war since it began.[37]

Foreign Shia militias[edit]

Liwa Fatemiyoun fighters during the Palmyra offensive in December 2016

Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan are "far more numerous" than Sunni non-Syrian fighters, though they have received "noticeably less attention" from the media.[38] The number of Afghans fighting in Syria on behalf of the Syrian government has been estimated at "between 10,000 and 12,000", the number of Pakistanis is not known[38] (approximately 15% of Pakistan's population is Shia). The main forces are the liwa' fatimiyun (Fatimiyun Brigade) – which is composed exclusively of Afghans and fights "under the auspices" of Hezbollah Afghanistan[38]—and the Pakistani liwa' zaynabiyun (Zaynabiyun Brigade) formed in November 2015.[38] Many or most of the fighters are refugees, and Iran has been accused of taking advantage of their inability to "obtain work permits or establish legal residency in Iran", and using threats of deportation for those who hesitate to volunteer.[38] The fighters are also paid a relatively high salary, and some have told journalists, that "the Islamic State is a common enemy of Iran and Afghanistan ... this is a holy war," and that they wish to protect the Shia pilgrimage site of Sayyida Zaynab, from Sunni jihadis.[38]

Russia[edit]

On 30 September 2015, Russia's Federation Council unanimously granted the request by President of Russia Vladimir Putin to permit the use of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria.[39] On the same day, the Russian general Sergey Kurylenko,[40] who represents Russia at the joint information center in Baghdad set up by Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria to coordinate their operations "primarily for fighting IS(Islamic State)",[41][42] arrived at the US Embassy in Baghdad and requested that any U.S. forces in the targeted area leave immediately.[43] An hour later, the Russian aircraft based in the government-held territory began conducting airstrikes against the rebel forces.[44]

In response to the downing of a hezbollah government Su-22 plane by a U.S. fighter jet near the town of Tabqa in Raqqa province on 18 June 2017, Russia announced that U.S.-led coalition warplanes flying west of the Euphrates would be tracked by Russian anti-aircraft forces in the sky and on the ground and treated as targets; furthermore, the Russian military said they suspended the hotline (the "deconfliction" line) with their U.S. counterparts based in Al Udeid.[45] Nevertheless, a few days later, the U.S. military stated that the deconfliction line remained open and that Russia had given the U.S. a prior notification of its massive cruise missile strike from warships in the Mediterranean that was conducted on 23 June 2017, despite the fact that the U.S. was not among those countries mentioned as being forewarned in Russia's official report on the strike.[46] On 27 June 2017, U.S. defence minister Jim Mattis told the press: "We deconflict with the Russians; it's a very active deconfliction line. It's on several levels, from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of state with their counterparts in Moscow, General Gerasimov and Minister Lavrov. Then we've got a three-star deconfliction line that is out of the Joints Chiefs of Staff out of the J5 there. Then we have battlefield deconfliction lines. One of them is three-star again, from our field commander in Baghdad, and one of them is from our CAOC, our Combined Air Operations Center, for real-time deconfliction."[47]

Syrian opposition and allies[edit]

Syrian National Coalition and Interim Government[edit]

Interim Government[edit]

The armed opposition consists of various groups that were either formed during the course of the conflict or joined from abroad. In 2013, the Syrian National Coalition formed the Syrian Interim Government.[48] The minister of defense was to be chosen by the Free Syrian Army.[49] Other Islamist factions are independent from the mainstream Syrian opposition.[citation needed]

Syrian National Coalition[edit]

Syrian National Coalition members in Doha, 11 November 2012. In center, president al-Khatib, along with VPs Seif and Atassi, as well as all SNC chairmen Ghalioun, Sieda and Sabra.

Formed on 23 August 2011, the National Council is a coalition of anti-government groups, based in Turkey. The National Council seeks the end of Bashar al-Assad's rule and the establishment of a modern, civil, democratic state. SNC has links with the Free Syrian Army. On 11 November 2012 in Doha, the National Council and other opposition groups united as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.[50] The SNC has 22 out of 60 seats of the Syrian National Coalition.[51] The following day, it was recognized as the legitimate government of Syria by numerous Persian Gulf states.

Delegates to the Coalition's leadership council are to include women and representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, including Alawites. The military council will reportedly include the Free Syrian Army.[52] The main aims of the National Coalition are replacing the Bashar al-Assad government and "its symbols and pillars of support", "dismantling the security services", unifying and supporting the Free Syrian Army, refusing dialogue and negotiation with the al-Assad government, and "holding accountable those responsible for killing Syrians, destroying [Syria], and displacing [Syrians]".[53]

Free Syrian Army and affiliate groups[edit]

Free Syrian Army fighters being transported by pickup truck

The formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was announced on 29 July 2011 by a group of defecting Syrian Army officers, encouraging others to defect in order to defend civilian protesters from violence by the state and effect government change.[54] By December 2011, estimates of the number of defectors to the FSA ranged from 1,000 to over 25,000.[55] The FSA, initially "headquartered" in Turkey, moved its headquarters to northern Syria in September 2012, and functions more as an umbrella organization than a traditional military chain of command.

FSA soldiers plan during the Battle of Aleppo (October 2012).

In March 2012, two reporters of The New York Times witnessed an FSA attack and learned that the FSA had a stock of able, trained soldiers and ex-officers, organized to some extent, but without the weapons to put up a realistic fight.[56]

In April 2013, the US announced it would transfer $123 million in nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels through defected general Salim Idriss, leader of the FSA,[57] who later acknowledged "the rebels" were badly fragmented and lacked military skill. Idriss said he was working on a countrywide command structure, but that a lack of material support was hurting that effort. "Now it is very important for them to be unified. But unifying them in a manner to work like a regular army is still difficult", Idriss said. He acknowledged common operations with Islamist group Ahrar ash-Sham but denied any cooperation with Islamist group al-Nusra Front.[57]

Syrian opposition campaign in support of Syria in 2012

Abu Yusaf, a commander of the Islamic State (IS), said in August 2014 that many of the FSA members who had been trained by United States' and Turkish and Arab military officers were actually joining IS,[58] but by September 2014 the Free Syrian Army was joining an alliance and common front with Kurdish militias including the YPG to fight ISIS.[59]

In October 2015, shortly after the start of Russia's military intervention in Syria, a senior ex-US official was paraphrased as saying "the 'moderates' had collapsed long ago" in a piece by Robert Fisk, who added that many fighters had defected to other rebel groups,[60] while Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov called the FSA "an already phantom structure",[61] but later proclaimed that Russia was ready to aid the FSA with airstrikes against ISIS.[62] On the other hand, in December 2015, according to the American Institute for the Study of War, groups that identify as FSA were still present around Aleppo and Hama and in southern Syria, and the FSA was still "the biggest and most secular of the rebel groups."[63]

By March 2017, the FSA backed by Turkey finished clearing the Islamic State from the north of Syria.[64] After this, they turned to attempting to take over Afrin canton from the YPG.

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army/Syrian National Army[edit]

While using the name of the Free Syrian Army, and firmly in the rebel camp, the TFSA is mostly involved with occupying Syrian land in the north of the country, bordering Turkey, and attacking the SDF and Kurdish people. Parts of the TFSA forces have also been referred to as the Syrian National Army. It is mostly backed by Turkey, and unlike the Free Syrian Army, has engaged in little to no combat with the Syrian Government.[65][66] The TFSA currently occupies the Afrin area, and nearby areas of Syria bordering Turkey, West of the Euphrates, including the town of Jarabalus.

Syrian Salvation Government[edit]

Flag of the Syrian Salvation Government, based in Syrian opposition areas in Idlib

The Syrian Salvation Government is an alternative government of the Syrian Opposition seated within Idlib Governorate. The General Conference, concluded on 11 September 2017, formed a constituent assembly and named a new prime minister. It is seen as illegitimate by the opposition's main Syrian Interim Government.[67]

National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change[edit]

Formed in 2011 and based in Damascus, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change is an opposition bloc consisting of 13 left-wing political parties and "independent political and youth activists".[68] It has been defined by Reuters as the internal opposition's main umbrella group.[69] The NCC initially had several Kurdish political parties as members, but all except for the Democratic Union Party left in October 2011 to join the Kurdish National Council.[70] Some have accused the NCC of being a "front organization" for Bashar al-Assad's government and some of its members of being ex-government insiders.[71]

Relations with other Syrian political opposition groups are generally poor. The Syrian Revolution General Commission, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria or the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution oppose the NCC calls to dialogue with the Syrian government.[72] In September 2012, the Syrian National Council (SNC) reaffirmed that despite broadening its membership, it would not join with "currents close to [the] NCC".[73] Despite recognizing the Free Syrian Army on 23 September 2012,[74] the FSA has dismissed the NCC as an extension of the government, stating that "this opposition is just the other face of the same coin".[69]

Salafist factions[edit]

In September 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that jihadi groups make up 15–25% of rebel forces.[75] According to Charles Lister, about 12% of rebels are part of groups linked to al-Qaeda, 18% belong to Ahrar ash-Sham, and 9% belong to Suqour al-Sham Brigade.[76] These numbers contrast with a report by Jane's Information Group, a defense outlet, claiming almost half of all rebels being affiliated to Islamist groups.[77] British think-tank Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, linked to former British PM Tony Blair, says that 60% of the rebels could be classified as Islamic extremists.[78]

In September 2013, leaders of 13 powerful salafist brigades rejected the Syrian National Coalition and called Sharia law "the sole source of legislation". In a statement they declared that "the coalition and the putative government headed by Ahmad Tomeh does not represent or recognize us". Among the signatory rebel groups were al-Nusra Front, Ahrar ash-Sham and Al-Tawheed.[79]

Al-Nusra Front / Jabhat Fateh al-Sham / Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham[edit]

The scene of the October 2012 Aleppo bombings, for which al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility[80]

The al-Qaeda-linked[81] al-Nusra Front, being the biggest jihadist group in Syria, is often considered to be the most aggressive and violent part of the opposition.[82] Being responsible for over 50 suicide bombings, including several deadly explosions in Damascus in 2011 and 2012, it is recognized as a terrorist organization by the Syrian government and was designated as such by United States in December 2012.[83] It has been supported by the Turkish government for years, according to a US intelligence adviser quoted by Seymour Hersh.[84] In April 2013, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq released an audio statement announcing that al-Nusra Front is its branch in Syria.[85] The leader of al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, said that the group would not merge with the Islamic State of Iraq but would still maintain allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda.[86] As of September 2012, the estimated manpower of al-Nusra Front was approximately 6,000–10,000 people, including many foreign fighters.[87]

The relationship between the al-Nusra Front and the indigenous Syrian opposition is tense, even though al-Nusra has fought alongside the FSA in several battles and some FSA fighters defected to the al-Nusra Front.[88] The Mujahideen's strict religious views and willingness to impose sharia law disturbed many Syrians.[89] Some rebel commanders have accused foreign jihadists of "stealing the revolution", robbing Syrian factories and displaying religious intolerance.[90] Al-Nusra Front has been accused of mistreating religious and ethnic minorities since their formation.[91] On 10 March 2014, al-Nusra released 13 Christian nuns captured from Ma'loula, Damascus, in exchange for the release of 150 women from the Syrian government's prisons. The nuns reported that they were treated well by al-Nusra during their captivity, adding that they "were giving us everything we asked for" and that "no one bothered us".[92]

The al-Nusra Front renamed itself to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in June 2016, and later became the leading member of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in 2017.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)[edit]

Much of Raqqa suffered extensive damage during the battle of Raqqa in June–October 2017.

Called Dā'ash or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (abbrv. ISIL or ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]) made rapid military gains in Northern Syria starting in April 2013 and as of mid-2014 controls large parts of that region, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights describes it as "the strongest group".[93] It has imposed strict Sharia law over land that it controls. The group was, until 2014, affiliated with al-Qaeda, led by the Iraqi fighter Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and has an estimated 7,000 fighters in Syria, including many non-Syrians. It has been praised as less corrupt than other militia groups and criticized for abusing human rights[94] and for not tolerating non-Islamist militia groups, foreign journalists or aid workers, whose members it has expelled, imprisoned,[95] or executed. According to Michael Weiss, ISIL has not been targeted by the Syrian government "with quite the same gusto" as other rebel factions.[36]

By summer 2014, ISIL controlled a third of Syria. It established itself as the dominant force of Syrian opposition, defeating Jabhat al-Nusra in Deir Ezzor Governorate and claiming control over most of Syria's oil and gas production.[96]

The Syrian government did not begin to fight ISIL until June 2014 despite its having a presence in Syria since April 2013, according to Kurdish officials.[97] According to IHS Markit, between April 2016 and April 2017, ISIL offensively fought the Syrian government 43% of times, Turkish-backed rebel groups 40% of times, and the Syrian Democratic Forces 17% of times.[98]

ISIL was able to recruit more than 6,300 fighters in July 2014 alone.[99] In September 2014, reportedly some Syrian rebels signed a "non-aggression" agreement with ISIL in a suburb of Damascus, citing inability to deal with both ISIL and the Syrian Army's attacks at once.[100] Some Syrian rebels have, however, decried the news on the "non-aggression" pact.
ISIL have also planted bombs in the ancient city area of Palmyra, a city with population of 50,000. Palmyra is counted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it is home to some of the most extensive and best-preserved ancient Roman ruins in the world.[101] Having lost nearly half of their territory in Iraq since 2014, many more Islamic State leaders have begun to sell their property and sneak into Syria, further destabilizing the region.[102]

As of December 2017, Russia declared ISIL to be totally defeated within Syria (see Syrian Civil War#Halt to CIA program, ISIL declared defeated, Russian forces in Syria permanent (July 2017 – December 2017)). On the 23rd of March 2019 the Syrian Democratic Forces declared ISIS Defeated, after seizing their last Enclave of territory.[103]

Rojava[edit]

Syrian Democratic Council[edit]

The Syrian Democratic Council was established on 10 December 2015 in al-Malikiyah. It was co-founded by prominent human rights activist Haytham Manna and was intended as the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The council includes more than a dozen blocs and coalitions that support federalism in Syria, including the Movement for a Democratic Society, the Kurdish National Alliance in Syria, the Law–Citizenship–Rights Movement, and since September 2016 the Syria's Tomorrow Movement. The last group is led by former National Coalition president and Syrian National Council Ahmad Jarba. In August 2016 the SDC opened a public office in al-Hasakah.[104]

The Syrian Democratic Council was invited to participate in the international Geneva III peace talks on Syria in March 2016. However, it rejected the invitation.

Syrian Democratic Forces[edit]

Kurds showing their support for the PYD in Afrin during the conflict

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are an alliance of mainly Kurdish but also Arab, Syriac-Assyrian, and Turkmen militias with mainly left-wing and democratic confederalist political leanings. They are opposed to the Assad government, but have directed most of their efforts against Al-Nusra Front and ISIL.

The group formed in December 2015, led primarily by the predominantly Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Estimates of its size range from 55,000[105] to 80,000 fighters.[106] While largely Kurdish, it is estimated that about 40% of the fighters are non-Kurdish.[107] Kurds – mostly Sunni Muslims, with a small minority of Yezidis – represented 10% of Syria's population at the start of the uprising in 2011. They had suffered from decades of discrimination and neglect, being deprived of basic civil, cultural, economic, and social rights.[108]:7 When protests began, Assad's government finally granted citizenship to an estimated 200,000 stateless Kurds, in an effort to try and neutralize potential Kurdish opposition.[109] Despite this concession, most Kurds remain opposed to the government, hoping instead for a more decentralized Syria based on federalism.[110] The Syriac Military Council, like many Christian militias (such as Khabour Guards, Nattoreh, and Sutoro), originally formed to defend Christian villages, but joined the Kurdish forces to retake Hasakah from ISIS in late 2015[111] The Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers is an all-female force of Assyrian fighters in north east Syria fighting ISIS alongside other Assyrian and Kurdish units.[112] Before the formation of the SDF, the YPG was the primary fighting force in the DFNS, and first entered this Syrian civil war as belligerent in July 2012 by capturing a town, Kobanî, that until then was under control of the Syrian Assad-government (see Syrian Kurdistan campaign).

On 17 March 2016 the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF,[113] declared the creation of an autonomous federation in northern Syria.[114]

U.S.-led coalition against ISIL[edit]

A number of countries, including some individual NATO members, have since September 2014 participated in air operations in Syria that came to be overseen by the Combined Joint Task Force, set up by the US Central Command to coordinate military efforts against ISIL pursuant to their collectively undertaken commitments, including those of 3 December 2014.[115] Those who have conducted airstrikes in Syria include the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.[116] Some members are involved in the conflict beyond combating ISIL; Turkey has been accused of fighting against Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, including intelligence collaborations with ISIL in some cases.[117] According to one intelligence adviser quoted by controversial journalist Seymour Hersh, the conclusion of a "highly classified assessment" carried out by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2013 was that Turkey had effectively transformed the secret US arms program in support of moderate rebels, who no longer existed, into an indiscriminate program to provide technical and logistical support for all elements of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.[84]

President Trump, declaring "we have won against ISIS," abruptly announced on December 19, 2018 that the remaining 2,000 American troops in Syria would be withdrawn. Trump made the announcement on Twitter, overruling the recommendations of his military commanders and civilian advisors, with apparently no prior consultation with Congress. Although no timetable was provided, press secretary Sarah Sanders indicated that the withdrawal had begun. After Trump's announcement, the Pentagon and State Department tried to change his mind, with several of his congressional and political allies expressing serious concerns about the sudden move, specifically that it would hand control of the region to Russia and Iran, and abandon America's Kurdish allies.[118][119] The following day, the SDF said that a US pullout would allow ISIL to recover and warned of a military vacuum that would leave the alliance trapped between "hostile parties". The UK, France, Germany all considered the fight against ISIL ongoing.[120]

Foreign involvement[edit]

Map of countries surrounding Syria (red) with military involvement
  Syria
  Countries that support the Syrian government
  Countries that support the Syrian rebels
  Countries that are divided in their support

Both the Syrian government and the opposition have received support, militarily and diplomatically, from foreign countries leading the conflict to often be described as a proxy war.[121] The major parties supporting the Syrian Government are Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The main Syrian opposition body – the Syrian coalition – receives political, logistic and military support from the United States, Britain and France.[122] Some Syrian rebel groups were supported by Israel and the Netherlands.[123][124]

The pro-government countries are involved in the war politically and logistically by providing military equipment, training and battle troops. The Syrian government has also received arms from Russia and SIGINT support directly from GRU,[125] in addition to significant political support from Russia.[126]

Some Syrian rebels get training from the CIA at bases in Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.[127] Under the aegis of operation Timber Sycamore and other clandestine activities, CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have trained and armed nearly 10,000 rebel fighters at a cost of $1 billion a year since 2012.[128] The Syrian coalition also receives logistic and political support from Sunni states, most notably Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia; all the three major supporting states however have not contributed any troops for direct involvement in the war, though Turkey was involved in border incidents with the Syrian Army. The Financial Times and The Independent reported that Qatar had funded the Syrian rebellion by as much as $3 billion.[129] It reported that Qatar was offering refugee packages of about $50,000 a year to defectors and family.[129] Saudi Arabia has emerged as the main group to finance and arm the rebels.[130] According to Seymour Hersh, US intelligence estimates that the opposition is financed by Saudi Arabia to the tune of $700 million a year (2014).[84] The designation of the FSA by the West as a moderate opposition faction has allowed it, under the CIA-run programmes,[131][132] to receive sophisticated weaponry and other military support from the U.S., Turkey and some Gulf countries that effectively increases the total fighting capacity of the Islamist rebels.[133][134]

French television France 24 reported that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, with perhaps 3,000 foreign jihadists among its ranks,[135] "receives private donations from the Gulf states."[136] It is estimated ISIL has sold oil for $1M–4M per day principally to Turkish buyers, during at least six months in 2013, greatly helping its growth.[137] The Turkish government has been also accused of helping ISIL by turning a blind eye to illegal transfers of weapons, fighters, oil and pillaged antiquities across the southern border.[138] As of 2015, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are openly backing the Army of Conquest, an umbrella rebel group that reportedly includes an al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and another Salafi coalition known as Ahrar ash-Sham, and Faylaq Al-Sham, a coalition of Muslim Brotherhood-linked rebel groups.[139][140]

On 21 August 2014, two days after US photojournalist James Foley was beheaded, the U.S. military admitted a covert rescue attempt involving dozens of US Special Operations forces had been made to rescue Americans and other foreigners held captive in Syria by ISIL militants. The rescue attempt is the first known US military ground action inside Syria. The resultant gunfight resulted in one US soldier being injured. The rescue was unsuccessful as the captives were not in the location targeted. On 11 September 2014 the US Congress expressed support to give President Obama the $500 million he wanted to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. The question of whether the president has authority to continue airstrikes beyond the 60-day window granted by the War Powers Resolution remained unresolved.[141][needs update] On 12 September, US Secretary of State John Kerry met Turkish leaders to secure backing for US-led action against ISIL, but Ankara showed reluctance to play a frontline role. Kerry stated that it was "not appropriate" for Iran to join talks on confronting ISIL.[142]

The plans revealed in September also involve Iraq in targeting ISIL. US warplanes have launched 158 strikes in Iraq over the past five weeks while emphasizing a relatively narrow set of targets. The Pentagon's press secretary, John Kirby, said the air campaign in Iraq, which began 8 Aug, will enter a more aggressive phase.[143] On the other hand, according to Fanack, initial refusal from the West to support the Syrian liberal opposition has contributed to the emergence of extremist Sunni groups. These include ISIL and the Nusra Front, linked to al-Qaeda.[144] American and Turkish militaries announced a joint plan to remove Islamic State militants from a 100-kilometre (60 mi) strip along the Turkish border.[145]

Foreign fighters have joined the conflict in opposition to Assad. While most of them are jihadists, some individuals, such as Mahdi al-Harati, have joined to support the Syrian opposition.[146]

The ICSR estimates that 2,000–5,500 foreign fighters have gone to Syria since the beginning of the protests, about 7–11 percent of whom came from Europe. It is also estimated that the number of foreign fighters does not exceed 10 percent of the opposition armed forces.[147] Another estimate puts the number of foreign jihadis at 15,000 by early 2014.[148]

In October 2012, various Iraqi religious groups join the conflict in Syria on both sides. Radical Sunnis from Iraq have traveled to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government.[149] In December 2015, the Soufan Group estimated a total of 27,000–31,000 foreign fighters from 86 countries had travelled to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups.[150]

Former Belligerents[edit]

Opposing forces[edit]

Notes[edit]

Military situation in the Syrian Civil War as of January 26, 2019.
  Controlled by Syrian Arab Republic
  Controlled by North Syria Federation (SDF)
  Controlled by the Syrian opposition and Ahrar al-Sham
  Controlled by the Islamic State (ISIL)
  Controlled by Tahrir al-Sham (al-Nusra)

(For a more detailed, up-to-date, interactive map, see Template:Syrian Civil War detailed map.)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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