The Middle East Channel

Syria's insurgency beyond Good Guys and Bad Guys

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate on September 4 that "bad guys" and "extremists" make up between 15 and 25 percent of the Syrian insurgency. The reality is far more complicated -- with enormous significance for the prospect of U.S. military action.

First of all, the crucial point: the insurgency simply cannot effectively be divided into two simple, easy to digest, categories of "moderate" and "extremist." While estimates vary considerably, there are currently thought to be as many as 1,000 individual armed groups in Syria, representing approximately 100,000 fighters. A great deal of these groups are small and operate on a particularly localized level, but there are a number of alliances and lines of loose command and control that provide an inkling of clarity (to follow later). 

However, while numbers and force deployment capabilities are clearly very important, they are not the be all and end all. Like it or not, groups on the more extreme end of the spectrum, particularly those affiliated with al Qaeda, have proven remarkably adept at spreading their military resources across large swathes of territory, joining battles at the pivotal moment, and exploiting their superior organizational structures to establish political control and influence over territory. While some moderate groups have also presented tight levels of organization and command and control, jihadist and Salafist insurgent groups have by and large been notably more effective in this regard.

The conflict itself also cannot be presented as a single dynamic or theater of battle. Instead, as the number of involved groups has proliferated and the armed conflict is now well into its third year, countless unique and sometimes interdependent theaters have emerged, each with its own distinctive characteristics and inter-group dynamics. While all micro theaters see distinctly local insurgent groups operate, nearly all of them involve larger single militant organizations or multi-group alliances which have come to operate on a more national basis, hence the countless unique dynamics across the country.

Terminology is also a hugely tricky issue. Technically speaking, a very large portion of rebel fighters in Syria would identify themselves as "Islamists" fighting a "jihad." But contrary to popular Western interpretation, this does not make them "extremists" and certainly not "al Qaeda." As has often been the case in complex and bloody sub-state conflicts, those involved -- both directly (insurgents) and indirectly (civilians) -- often turn to religion as a support mechanism. The rapid proliferation of Islamic names for many of the original Free Syrian Army (FSA) units back in 2011 illustrates this clearly.

However, all of that said, the conflict as a whole -- in terms of what it represents to those involved within it -- has in 2013 become especially fueled by sectarian foundations. While a very large majority of fighters ultimately still aim to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad for the perceived betterment of Syria, the rhetoric now underpinning their fighting has become visibly sectarian. Even the most senior Western-backed Syrian Military Council (SMC) commanders now frequently use vitriolic anti-Shiite and anti-Alawite terms in their statements. The suspected chemical attack outside Damascus early on August 21 appears to have concretely established this sectarian reality across the board.

All of the above highlights, on a basic level, the conceptual elements of complexity sometimes missing or misused in the current increased coverage of Syria. But the most important element is the specific nature and composition of the insurgency itself. When Kerry claimed that "extremists" comprise between 15 and 25 percent of the insurgency he also stated that the total Syrian insurgent force numbers between 70,000 and 100,000. That is somewhere between 10,500 and 25,000 "bad guys" -- no small number. Secondly, while it's clearly not possible to determine exactly what groups purportedly make up this 15 to 25 percent figure, the reality is that the proportion of insurgent groups whose politico-religious objectives particularly counter those of the West is higher.

The most "extreme" portion of the insurgency is represented by the two al Qaeda-affiliated groups: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Combined, these groups command an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 fighters, distributed in at least 11 of Syria's 14 governorates. Both have pledged bay'a (or allegiance) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri and are explicitly hostile to the West. In addition to this figure, there exist at least 10 smaller al Qaeda-like militant groups in the north and east of the country, whose combined strength likely numbers between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters.

The most notable addition to the likely "bad guys" list is Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (HASI) and its Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) coalition. A conservative estimate of SIF's total strength (which is dominated heavily by Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya) is 15,000 to 20,000 fighters, distributed across 11 governorates. While its forces coordinate in operations across the country on a daily basis with Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, its political charter, published in February, explicitly calls for an Islamic state and rejects the concept of democracy due to its man-made nature.

So that's potentially between 24,000 and 33,000 "bad guys," or 33 to 34 percent of the insurgency -- already more than the 15 to 25 percent cited on September 4.

Another potential addition is Suqor al-Sham, which consists of an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 fighters, primarily active in the northern governorates of Idlib and Aleppo. Again, Suqor al-Sham regularly fights alongside HASI, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS; explicitly rejects democracy; and calls for an Islamic state. Now to add to the complexity, Suqor al-Sham is a member of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), a loose alliance of at least 19 Islamist and Salafist groups, whose leader is Suqor al-Sham commander Sheikh Ahmed Abu Issa, but whose ultimate line of command -- at least on paper -- runs to the Western-backed SMC and its leader Salim Idriss. However, ideologically and strategically, Suqor al-Sham has aligned itself a great deal closer to HASI in 2013 and Issa has become visibly more hardline in his statements and rhetoric. He most recently labeled the suggested formation of a Syrian National Army by Syrian National Coalition (SNC) chief Ahmad al-Jarba as a project of the "munafiqeen" (a derogatory term literally meaning hypocrites, or those who disobey Islam).

So that's potentially 32,000 to 42,000 "bad guys," or 42 to 46 percent of the insurgency.

That likely represents the core of what the West should perceive as those armed groups within Syria that contradict sharply with who it might accept as potential future Syrian decision makers.

But again, it is more complicated than that. While much attention has been given in recent weeks to newly delivered weapons supplied to "moderate" groups under the command of Idriss -- such as Chinese HJ-8 anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) -- these appear not to have been delivered to some of the largest groups purportedly under SMC command but rather to smaller units perhaps more tightly under SMC control. These seemingly avoided larger groups are all members of the SILF: Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, and Kataib al-Farouq (in addition to Suqor al-Sham). With a combined estimated force of between 24,000 and 26,000 fighters, these three additional groups represent a significant contribution to the complete Syrian insurgent picture.

While all three groups are certainly less hardline than Suqor al-Sham, HASI or SIF, ISIS, and Jabhat al-Nusra, they have all on separate occasions rejected democracy in the Western-accepted sense as a concept and expressed a desire for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria. While Kataib al-Farouq's popularity and strategic significance has declined over the last 12 months, Liwa al-Islam is a critical player in the battle for Damascus and Liwa al-Tawhid is an essential source of authority in Aleppo. Whether a decision has been made not to direct (as much or any) overtly valuable resources to these three groups is impossible to confirm, but considering their potential strategic impact in their respective theaters, it's a trend that is hard to ignore. After all, adding them to the potential "bad guys" list would result in the total reaching between 56,000 and 68,000 fighters, or 68 to 80 percent of the insurgency. However, there is a noteworthy chance that such groups could in the future be co-opted more closely under SMC command, should certain carrots be waved their way.

This might all appear as an attempt to present Syria's insurgency as a melting pot of extremists -- but it is most certainly not intended as such. Some of the groups mentioned here have adopted pragmatic approaches to stating their political objectives and the exact nature of their desires is a much debated subject. Moreover, I have spoken with members of all groups mentioned in this article and as shocking as it may sound to some, the large majority of them seem, outwardly, to have what they perceive to be Syria's best interests at the forefront of their minds, at least for now. However, the tactics and rhetoric employed by many are clearly unpalatable by most Western standards.

While it is incontrovertibly the case that jihadists (or "extremists") represent a minority of the total insurgent force, true genuine "moderates" -- by Western standards of supporting the establishment of a non-religious, liberal state preferably founded on democratic principals -- also do not represent a majority. The largest portion of insurgent fighters in Syria is in fact represented by "Islamists," some less socially and politically conservative than others. Crucially, this does not preclude them from being potentially valuable leaders of a future Syria or even as future friends of the West, but it is important that this crucial element of the opposition is included within the minds of today's policymakers.

Looking further into the future, these complex dynamics appear to be gradually generating a discernible division between those who support the SNC's vision for Syria's future and those who oppose it and want a notably more Islamic state. Neither of these end points should necessarily be seen as right or wrong and it is by no means impossible that they couldn't be combined. However, debates are raging in Washington D.C., Paris, and elsewhere over the hugely significant question of whether or not to militarily intervene in Syria. Even a limited punitive form of strikes will have very significant consequences in Syria and within the international system. As such, a full and accurate picture of the insurgent landscape is crucial. This article has only provided a basic macro level overview and may nonetheless still present a complex picture -- but delve deeper and this complexity only multiplies.

Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) is a terrorism and insurgency analyst based in London. This article was written solely in a personal capacity and does not represent the views of his employer.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages

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