In response to a brutal government crackdown on peaceful protests in 2011, defectors from Assad’s army and regular civilians took up arms to fight back. Today, there are about a hundred distinct armed factions fighting across the country. Secular groups have been sidelined by increasingly hard-line Islamist factions, and coalitions have come and gone – all while foreign funding and agendas have worked to shape narratives of their own.
In the summer of 2011, those brigades came together as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – a decentralized network of fighting forces across Syria. They took up arms to establish a democratic Syria, free from Assad’s rule, but they lacked a central command and control structure. Critics said they were ineffective due to a lack of organization and coordination; FSA leaders said they lacked the funding and weapons to unite their men, and blamed the West for not backing them with meaningful support. As of December 2012, the FSA commanders created a unified framework known as the Supreme Military Command, headed by General Salim Idris. It improved their performance on the battlefield and made Idris the go-to military leader for Western powers. In February 2014 Idris was replaced by a different rebel commander, Colonel Abdallah al-Bashir. Idris immediately protested the move in a video posted to YouTube, with the backing of a round of rebel officers. From there, the picture gets even more complicated. As the conflict escalated, with the Free Syrian Army struggling to fight back against the regime, a series of rebel brigades with more extremist views began to emerge. In January 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra announced it had joined the fight against Assad. Foreign fighters streamed in to join al-Nusra’s ranks, while the U.S. branded it a designated terrorist group, linked to al-Qaida. Another group, al-Qaida in Iraq, sent fighters to join the battle against Assad and morphed into what is now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are the most extreme of rebel groups, fighting for Islamic rule over Syria and the wider region – they consider secular democracy itself a sin. That ideology puts them at odds with many Syrians, who’ve protested and battled against their presence in the country. Over time, ISIS has become even more hard-line in its practices, terrorizing local populations and imposing ultra-strict interpretations of Islamic law. In February 2014, al-Qaida officially rejected any link with ISIS, saying its form of jihadi fighting and rule was too extreme, even by al-Qaida’s own standards. But al-Nusra and ISIS are also seen as the most effective fighters on the battlefield, the tip of the spear against Assad. They are relatively small in number, but powerful in influence, with the weapons, funding and know-how to wage war – overshadowing the under-resourced Free Syrian Army. There are other Islamist fighting brigades that fall in between the two ends of the spectrum – they’re not Free Syrian Army and they’re not explicitly al-Qaida. Groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Suqoor al-Sham and Liwa al-Islam see the fight in Syria as a jihad, or religious war. But they are considered more moderate than the al-Qaida-linked groups, and do not openly reject a future democratic Syria, meaning they’re theoretically more willing to negotiate or accommodate a political transition. The fragmentation of fighting groups makes it more difficult to end the war in Syria. It complicates efforts to find and enforce a cease-fire deal, as rebel commanders inside the country and out struggle to maintain control of what happens on the battlefield.