The Non-State Militant Landscape in Syria

Aug 27, 2013

The uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in 2011 has always been disorganized, and it has become increasingly reliant on foreign support. It has grown large enough, however, to push regime forces out of vast areas of Syria’s north and east. According to a recent estimate by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, an estimated 1,200 rebel groups are currently fighting against the al-Assad government.[1]

Most of these factions first emerged out of a narrow local context, typically in a rural Sunni Arab village or neighborhood. With the passage of time, however, many have merged into bigger formations and connected across provincial boundaries, creating a web of interlocking alliances. These unity efforts have typically been initiated and sustained by foreign actors, including states, exiled Syrian businessmen and activists, and Islamist aid groups, which thereby gained leverage over their ideological and political agendas. The result is an extraordinarily complex insurgency, trapped in a political dynamic shaped by parochial roots on the one hand and international influences on the other, but seemingly unable to develop effective national actors.

This article identifies and profiles some of the most important non-state actors in Syria. It finds that the opposition remains severely fragmented. Although foreign-backed efforts to realize the long-standing goal of a central “Free Syrian Army” leadership for the mainstream insurgency have achieved some progress recently, the resulting Supreme Military Command has little internal cohesion and is held together almost entirely by outside funding. The Syrian regime has also begun to experience a fragmentation of its security apparatus, caused by its increased reliance on local and foreign militia forces, although these problems are still in their early stages.

Anti-Assad Rebel Groups
The Free Syrian Army
Media reporting has consistently focused on the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but the FSA has always been more of a brand name than an actual organization. The term was first used by the Turkey-based military defector Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who in late July 2011 issued a statement proclaiming himself supreme commander of a rebel army, which he dubbed the FSA.[2] The name quickly became popular among the autonomous armed factions that had begun to spring up across Syria. Their widespread use of the FSA brand gave the impression of a unified movement, but no nationwide FSA structure was ever created to match the name.

The uprising’s international backers—chief among them Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—have since early 2012 repeatedly sought to encourage a centralized rebel leadership by using their control over funding and weapons shipments to coax local commanders into larger alliances. A number of such coalitions were formed during the past two years, many using the FSA name. Yet a multitude of practical difficulties, as well as flare-ups of an old Saudi-Qatari rivalry, long undermined these efforts.

The General Staff of the Military and Revolutionary Forces
The most recent and ambitious attempt to create an “FSA” leadership occurred in December 2012, when the General Staff of the Military and Revolutionary Forces was formed at a conference in Antalya, following concerted pressure from Saudi Arabia and other financiers.[3] This group, which built on earlier unification attempts, is often referred to as the Supreme Military Command (SMC). Today, the SMC and FSA names are often used interchangeably, although the FSA term also remains in use as a catch-all phrase for the insurgency in general.

The SMC is formally led by Brigadier General Salim Idris, but there is no evidence that it functions as a conventional military organization or that Idris enjoys real control over member factions. To the contrary, member groups retain their separate identities and operational autonomy and proclaim loyalty to their own commanders.[4]

The SMC, however, facilitates coordination between these member groups and serves as a joint political platform. Most of all, it is intended to function as a unified distribution channel for military supplies and funds from the uprising’s main state backers. Rebels have been told by these states that they must endorse the SMC and its politics to gain access to future arms shipments.[5] Recently, the United States, the United Kingdom and France have all indicated that they will channel money and possibly weapons via the SMC.[6]

The SMC has provided wildly varying estimates of the total number of fighters in its member groups. In June 2013, Idris claimed to control 80,000 fighters, but days later an SMC representative insisted that the true figure is 320,000.[7] In practice, a meaningful headcount of rebels is almost impossible to make, both due to the scarcity of reliable information and to myriad problems of definition.[8] There is no disputing, however, that most of Syria’s large rebel factions have chosen to publicly align themselves with the SMC, recognizing it as the best way to tap into Gulf, Western and other support.

By providing centralized funding, these states seek to build up Idris and the core SMC command as an effective and sympathetic leadership, able to control the insurgency and negotiate on its behalf. As a quid pro quo for SMC support, members are expected to distance themselves from al-Qa`ida-linked factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra and other forces hostile to the SMC’s backers, and track any arms provided to them. They are also expected to obey orders from Idris and recognize the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a group of exiled politicians supported by these same states. In practice, compliance with these terms seems to vary considerably, and some factions pay only lip service to SMC conditions. Most representatives of SMC-linked rebel groups interviewed by the author have voiced mixed or negative opinions of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and are reluctant to fully recognize it as their political leadership.

At this stage, rebel leaders who have joined the SMC retain control over their own forces, effectively reducing Idris to a figurehead role. Many SMC-linked commanders are simultaneously involved with other foreign-funded alliances and benefit from additional and often more generous sources of support. This helps ensure their continued autonomy from the SMC’s core leadership.

The insurgency’s foreign backers still hope that strong and continuous funding through the central SMC apparatus will increase the rebels’ dependency on its support functions, enabling it to expand its influence and develop into a real military leadership over time.

The Syria Islamic Liberation Front
Some of the SMC’s most powerful commanders are also members of an older coalition called the Syria Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), established in September 2012.[9] It currently consists of around 20 rebel groups, all of which have joined the SMC. A SILF representative claims that they collectively control 35,000-40,000 fighters.[10] Some of the more well-known rebel groups that are part of the SILF include: the Farouq Battalions, a national network with roots in Homs; the Islamic Farouq Battalions, mainly in Homs-Hama; the Tawhid Brigade, mainly in Aleppo; the Fath Brigade, also in Aleppo; the Islam Brigade, mainly in Damascus; the Suqour al-Sham Brigades, mainly in Idlib; and the Deir al-Zour Revolutionaries’ Council, a coalition of eastern groups.

The Farouq Battalions first emerged in Homs Province in late summer 2011, and they gained prominence in the battle of Baba Amr in February 2012.[11] Since then, the group has grown into a sprawling network of militias across Syria, and they now claim to control some 14,000 fighters.[12] Perhaps as a result of their rapid expansion, the Farouq Battalions have suffered repeated splits. Their first leader, First Lieutenant `Abd al-Razzaq  Tlass, was ousted after a sex scandal in October 2012, and he later joined the Asala wa-al-Tanmiya  Front.[13] Two other leading figures, Amjad Bitar and Bilal al-Jurayhi, were expelled in the spring of 2013 after organizing a breakaway faction called the Islamic Farouq Battalions.[14] A smaller 2012 splinter group called the Independent Omar el-Farouq Battalion made headlines early in 2013 after its leader was caught on camera desecrating and pretending to eat the corpse of a pro-Assad fighter.[15]

The Islamist-leaning Tawhid Brigade belatedly joined the SILF in January 2013.[16] It was first created in July 2012 as a merger of militias from the northern Aleppo countryside, and quickly seized a part of Aleppo City. Its formal head is `Abd al-`Aziz Salame (“Hajji Anadan”), but his deputy `Abd al-Qadir Salih (“Hajji Mari`”) runs the military wing and may be the de facto leader. Tawhid was recently reorganized into nearly 30 sub-factions, most of them in the Aleppo region. It claims to control some 11,000 fighters in total.[17]

Ahmad `Isa commands the Suqour al-Sham Brigades and is also the head of the SILF itself. His group claims to have 17 sub-brigades totaling at least 9,000 fighters, although some recently defected to form the independent Dawood Brigade.[18] Suqour al-Sham belongs to the most stringently Islamist wing of the SMC/SILF, along with the Salafist figure Zahran Alloush, who heads the Islam Brigade and is also the SILF’s secretary-general.[19]

The Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades
The pro-SMC Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades, a moderate Islamist alliance that allegedly operates on Qatari money,[20] were created in 2012 and grew in influence through early 2013. They have now co-opted around 50 groups across Syria, including in the southern provinces of Damascus, Deraa and Qunaytira, although they are by far strongest in the Idlib region.[21] An Ahfad al-Rasoul source has informally estimated their numbers to be above 10,000, but this is impossible to verify.[22]

The Asala wa-al-Tanmiya Front
The Asala wa-al-Tanmiya Front, led by `Abd al-Qadir Da`fis, also supports the SMC. It was created in late 2012 and claims to have unified approximately 36 factions comprised of 13,000 fighters and civilian auxiliaries, organized across five “fronts” covering most of Syria. It presents itself as a moderate Salafist movement.[23] Its best known member groups are the Ahl al-Athar Battalions, spread across several provinces but strongest in the tribal areas of eastern Syria, and the Noureddin al-Zengi Battalions, a rebel coalition in the Aleppo region.

Ansar al-Islam Gathering
In August 2012, seven Damascene groups created the Ansar al-Islam Gathering, but it quickly began to crumble, with factions peeling off to join the SILF, the Syrian Islamic Front, and Ahfad al-Rasoul instead.[24] The most recent defector was Mohammed al-Khatib and his Furqan Brigades, active west of Damascus down toward the Golan Heights.[25] Of the remaining factions, the al-Habib al-Mustafa Brigade and the Sahaba Brigades are the most important. The Sahaba Brigades spokesperson, Abu Mu`adh al-Agha, now leads the Ansar al-Islam Gathering.

Durou al-Thawra Commission
Another alliance linked to the SMC is Brigadier General Sami Hamza’s Durou al-Thawra Commission, created in 2012 with assistance from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.[26] The commission, which presents itself as a moderate Islamic-democratic movement, is composed of a few dozen small armed factions, most of them in Idlib or Hama.[27] Many Syrian opposition activists consider the commission a bona fide armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the typically secretive Brotherhood has admitted only to supporting the group and shies away from acknowledging any real organizational ties.[28] A spokesperson for the commission has confirmed that it receives support from the Brotherhood and that it considers their interpretation of Islam to be “the best school of thought” for Syria, but he refused to admit a direct link.[29]

Other Mainstream Rebel Factions
There are hundreds of additional rebel units and coalitions. Many are affiliated with the SMC or some other large alliance, but there are also those that work alone. Most seem to be small groups representing a single village or a few families, but some are far bigger and capable of offensive operations even outside their home region.

For example, the Syria Martyrs’ Brigade is active alongside Suqour al-Sham in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib. Its leader, Jamal Ma`rouf, at one point boasted of 18,000 men, although this must have been an exaggeration.[30] The Ahrar Souriya Brigade from Anadan, which says it has nearly 2,500 fighters, has carved up a fiefdom in the northern suburbs of Aleppo.[31] Another locally influential faction, the Northern Storm Brigade, shares control with the Tawhid Brigade over an important border crossing between Turkey and Syria.[32] In the Deraa region, there are local factions such as the Yarmouk Brigade and the Maghawir Houran Gathering, both created this winter.[33]

The Hardline Islamist Factions
Ahrar al-Sham and the Syrian Islamic Front
The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) was formed by 11 Islamist groups in December 2012.[34] It is strongly dominated by its largest faction, the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement, whose leader Hassan Abboud (also known as Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi) doubles as president of the SIF. By May 2013, most original SIF factions had merged into Ahrar al-Sham, which now operates armed groups all over Syria. Other current SIF members include the Haq Brigade (Homs), the Ansar al-Sham Battalions (Latakia-Idlib), the Tawhid Army (Deir al-Zour), and the Mujahedi al-Sham Brigade (Hama).[35] In late 2012, the SIF informally suggested that it controls nearly 30,000 fighters, but it has since refused to confirm this figure or provide a new one.[36]

Ahrar al-Sham was never a part of the SMC, but it has a record of working well with its affiliates. One SIF faction, the Haq Brigade, has a seat on the SMC’s Homs Command, but the SIF itself has rejected both the SMC and the Syrian National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It is an explicitly Salafist alliance that makes no pretense of supporting democracy, instead demanding an Islamic state.[37] The SIF and Ahrar al-Sham have had an excellent working relationship with al-Qa`ida factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra, and regularly praise their contributions on the battlefield. Yet they have also cautiously marked their differences with the most radical jihadists, and spoken against a “regionalization” of the Syrian war—a tactful reference to al-Qa`ida’s global jihad.[38]

Al-Qa`ida and the Salafi-Jihadi Hardliners
Al-Qa`ida has taken a keen interest in the Syrian war. In mid- to late-2011, its Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), helped create Jabhat al-Nusra,[39] a Syrian spinoff that declared its existence publicly in January 2012. The U.S. government listed it as a terrorist group in December 2012.[40]

In April 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra split.[41] The ISI’s amir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced that he would unite the Syrian and Iraqi factions under his own command, called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[42] Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, however, rejected the decision.[43] Al-Qa`ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri allegedly tried to resolve the dispute through a Solomonic settlement, blaming both groups equally and ordering them to remain in their country of origin.[44] Al-Baghdadi refused the mediation, saying that this would consecrate an illegitimate colonial border.[45] Instead, the ISIL has dismissed the idea of Jabhat al-Nusra as an independent entity and portrays al-Julani as a soldier gone rogue.[46]

By July 2013, both Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIL are separately active in Syria, and the latter also in Iraq.[47] Relations with other rebels vary from location to location, but the ISIL seems to be viewed with more suspicion due to its foreign connections, perceived extremism, and dominant ambitions suggested by its self-designation as a “state.” There are few reports about infighting, however, and in many areas Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIL seem to work together.

Of the other Salafi-jihadi factions in Syria, the most prominent has been Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa-al-Ansar. It consists of hundreds of mostly foreign fighters in the Aleppo area, led by a Chechen jihadist called Abu Omar al-Shishani who has now aligned himself with the ISIL. There are also several smaller independent jihadist groups, such as the Homs-based Jund al-Sham, which draw on militant networks in northern Lebanon.[48] A few small Syro-Lebanese networks that predate the 2011 uprising are still active, such as Fatah al-Islam and the Abdullah Azzam Battalions.[49]

Syrian Kurds and the PKK
The Popular Protection Units
The Popular Protection Units (YPG) is a secular, mixed-gender Kurdish militia led by Sipan Hemo. It has controlled most Kurdish towns in northern Syria since al-Assad’s army withdrew from these areas in the summer of 2012. Formally, the YPG operates on behalf of the Supreme Kurdish Committee, a feckless umbrella organization. In practice, it is an armed wing of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), a Syrian front for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).[50]

The PKK/PYD/YPG have tried to forge a middle path between al-Assad and his opposition, and sought to keep the Kurds out of the war. They have occasionally defended against regime incursions, but more often clashed with Arab rebels, particularly Islamist factions and Turkey-backed groups. The YPG’s ambiguous political stance and its reluctance to confront the regime has provoked anti-Assad Arab groups, some of which refer to the YPG as “Kurdish Shabiha.” Pre-existing Arab-Kurdish tensions have added fuel to the fire.

When left to their own devices, the Syrian PKK affiliates have focused on ensuring party control over all Kurdish areas and repressing or co-opting local rivals. In July 2013, they unveiled plans to set up a mechanism for Kurdish “self-administration” within Syria, with a parliament and constitution.[51]

Syrian and Foreign Pro-Government Militias
The activities of Syrian and foreign pro-government militias have been obscured by the leading role of the official Syrian Arab Army, but there are a number of non-state and foreign-linked actors in Syria that fight for the al-Assad regime.

The war has stirred up a significant Shi`a Islamist mobilization in surrounding countries, encouraged by Iran. Hizb Allah has backed al-Assad with expertise, by organizing Shi`a militias in Syria and monitoring and intimidating anti-Assad activists in Lebanon. In 2013, it stepped up its previously low-key raids into Syria from northern Lebanon. The group played an important role in the regime’s re-conquest of Qusayr, on the Syrian-Lebanese border, in May and June 2013.

Another Twelver Shi`a group, called Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas, has taken up positions around the Sayyida Zaynab shrine area in southern Damascus, recruiting from the local Shi`a immigrant community and sympathetic factions in Iraq. Some other Shi`a militant factions are fighting for al-Assad as well.

The “Shabiha” Phenomenon
The al-Assad regime is also supported by its own militias, often referred to in the media as shabiha. This catch-all term for al-Assad supporters was popularized by the opposition in 2011, but there is no organization by that name.[52] Armed support for the regime has come from many different sources, including clients of the intelligence services, Ba`athist true believers, old paramilitary groups created in the early decades of Ba`ath Party rule, and armed gangs in thrall to individual members of the ruling family.

At the start of the uprising, several families and tribes who had enjoyed government patronage organized vigilante groups. In Aleppo, the Berri mafia—a criminal gang from a politically-connected Sunni clan—helped quash demonstrations until rebels massacred several Berri leaders in July 2012.[53] In multi-religious areas, the regime has recruited with most success among minorities. In Qusayr, for example, members of a Greek Orthodox clan and Alawite villagers helped to repress the mostly Sunni demonstrators in 2011.[54] In Latakia Province, a faction known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Iskanderoun/Syrian Resistance, led by a radical Marxist refugee from Turkey, has emerged as the preeminent Alawite paramilitary force.[55]

Regime-connected businessmen have provided much of the funding for such groups. The most well-known example is the president’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who has used his business fortune to sustain militia activity across the country.[56] In Homs, he is a main sponsor of militias drawn from the local Alawite population.[57]

Official Pro-Assad Militia Formations
From the first months of the uprising, so-called Popular Committees began to form across Syria. They typically function as a lightly armed neighborhood watch, with volunteers manning checkpoints and conducting night patrols in their home areas.

The Popular Army—an old paramilitary wing of al-Assad’s Ba`ath Party—has worked more as a cohesive militia force, and at times participated in offensives alongside the regular army.[58]

There have been growing reports of friction and even minor clashes between the regular Syrian Arab Army and rogue Popular Committees.[59] Perhaps fearing a fragmentation of the security apparatus, the regime has sought to impose a more organized structure on its armed supporters. From mid-2012, hundreds of Popular Committees and other irregulars merged into what eventually became the National Defense Forces.[60] President Bashar al-Assad has described the group as “local citizens fighting alongside the army to defend their communities and regions.”[61] Members draw a government paycheck, and some have reportedly received specialist training in Iran.[62]

Conclusion
Syria’s insurgent movement remains extraordinarily fractured, even after two years of warfare. The December 2012 creation of the SMC seems to have facilitated cooperation among the insurgents and established a framework for more effective unification, but it is still far from a functioning rebel leadership. Complicating matters further, several of the insurgency’s strongest factions—including the SIF, both al-Qa`ida wings, and the Kurdish YPG—actively oppose the SMC. The SMC’s influence is likely to grow only if it receives unified and sustained foreign support, including more advanced weapons, but the success of such a strategy depends on the uncertainties of American, European and Arab politics.

Thus far, major infighting among Syria’s rebel groups has been relatively rare, but time will inevitably chip away at the insurgents’ original unity of purpose. Factional power struggles, economic interests, ethnic or tribal divides, and foreign-instigated proxy rivalries are all likely to trigger rebel-on-rebel fighting. Ideology also plays a part, but the media narrative of a looming war between al-Qa`ida and other rebels has likely overstated the role of doctrinal issues. Western and Gulf pressure on the SMC to confront al-Qa`ida is likely to be a more important cause of such conflict, if it eventually erupts.

Bashar al-Assad’s government is also becoming increasingly dependent on paramilitary groups, including autonomous or foreign-led militias. Their support has improved al-Assad’s staying power in many areas, but it also underlines the regime’s gradual loss of sovereignty and cohesion. The Ba`ath government’s strict messaging discipline and the centrality of Bashar al-Assad himself has delayed and obfuscated this slow unwinding of the state, but not stayed it. If the war drags on long enough, the al-Assad regime is likely to devolve into a decentralized patchwork of sectarian and client militias, only superficially resembling Syria’s pre-2011 dictatorship.

Aron Lund is a Swedish freelance journalist and researcher working on Middle Eastern affairs. He is the author of several books and reports on Syria, including Drömmen om Damaskus (The Dream of Damascus), a political history of Syria and its opposition movements.

[1] Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. Intelligence Official Says Syrian War Could Last for Years,” New York Times, July 20, 2013.

[2] “Announcement of the Creation of the Free Syrian Army. Colonel Riad al-Asaad,” July 29, 2011, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItzI_AIFUWg.

[3] The best current study on the SMC is Elizabeth O’Bagy, “The Free Syrian Army,” Institute for the Study of War, March 24, 2013.

[4] Ibid. Personal interviews, spokespersons of the SMC and several SMC-affiliated armed factions, Skype and e-mail correspondence, spring and summer 2013.

[5] Phil Sands, “Gulf States Put New Conditions on Arms Supplies to Syrian Rebels,” The National, April 7, 2013; “Qatar Tightens Coordination on Syria Arms Flow,” Reuters, May 15, 2013.

[6] O’Bagy; Liz Sly, “Defector Syrian General Will be Conduit for U.S. Military Aid to Rebels,” Washington Post, June 16, 2013. The European Union embargo on Syria has formally been modified, following pressure from France and the United Kingdom, to allow deliveries of arms to the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, but in practice this means the SMC, since the national coalition has no other armed wing.

[7] Sly; personal interview, SMC spokesperson Mohammed al-Mustafa, Skype, June 2013.

[8] The numbers cited in this text are only as credible as their sources.

[9] “Founding Statement for the Syria Liberation Front,” Farouq Battalions website, September 12, 2012. “Syria Liberation Front” was the original name of the group, with “Islamic” added later.

[10] Personal interview, SILF spokesperson, e-mail correspondence, June 2013.

[11] David Enders, “Rare Inside View of Syria’s Rebels Finds a Force Vowing to Fight On,” McClatchy Newspapers, April 23, 2012.

[12] Personal interview, Yezid al-Hassan, spokesperson of the Farouq Battalions, Skype, June 2013.

[13] “Statement Issued by the Political Commission of the Farouq Battalions in Syria,” Farouq Battalions website, October 6, 2012; “Announcement of the Creation of the Asala wa-Tanmiya Front, November 10, 2012 AD,” November 11, 2012, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnUUwZex1H0.

[14] “Farouq Battalions: The military spokesperson Mohammed al-Ruz reads the statement of the executive office about severing all relations between Amjad al-Bitar and Bilal al-Jurayhi (Basem Amer) and the Farouq Battalions,” Farouq Battalions website, April 13, 2013.

[15] Paul Wood, “Face-to-Face with Abu Sakkar, Syria’s ‘Heart-Eating Cannibal,’” BBC, July 5, 2013.

[16] “The Tawhid Brigade Joins the Syria Islamic Liberation Front,” Tawhid Brigade website, January 10, 2013.

[17] Personal interview, Abu Obeida, spokesperson for `Abd al-Qadir Salih, Skype, June 2013; Liqa al-Yawm, al-Jazira, June 15, 2013.

[18] Personal interview, Ahmed Asi, director of the Suqour al-Sham Brigades’ media office, e-mail correspondence, June 2013.

[19] Liqa al-Yawm, al-Jazira, June 19, 2013; personal interview, Mohammed Alloush, SILF executive director, internet correspondence, June 2013.

[20] Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith, “How Qatar Seized Control of the Syrian Revolution,” Financial Times, May 17, 2013.

[21] For details, see the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades website, available at www.ahfadalrasoul.com. Also see personal interview, Ibrahim al-Idlebi, director of the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades’ media office, Skype, June 2013; personal interview, anonymous diplomatic sources, 2013.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Personal interview, Abu Yazin, media spokesperson for the Asala wa-al-Tanmiya Front, Skype, June 2013.

[24] For more on the rise and fall of Ansar al-Islam, see Aron Lund, “Syrian Jihadism,” Swedish Institute of International Affairs, September 17, 2012; Aron Lund, “The Islamist Mess in Damascus,” SyriaComment, February 9, 2013; Aron Lund, “Syria’s Salafi Insurgents: The Rise of the Syrian Islamic Front,” Swedish Institute for International Affairs, March 19, 2013. The author is grateful to the British-Syrian opposition journalist Malik al-Abdeh for some of this information, interviewed via Skype in February 2013.

[25] “Statement about the Withdrawal of the Furqan Divisions from the Ansar al-Islam Gathering,” Furqan Divisions website, April 11, 2013.

[26] For more on this group, see Aron Lund, “Struggling to Adapt: The Muslim Brotherhood in a New Syria,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 7, 2013.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Personal interview, Molham al-Droubi, member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leadership, e-mail correspondence, January 2013; Abdullah al-Ghadawi, “The Hesitation of the West Exacerbated ‘The Extremism’…Syria Will Not Become an Iraq or a Scene for Revenge,” Okaz, January 12, 2013.

[29] Personal interview, Durou’ al-Thawra Commission spokesperson Khaled Suleiman, e-mail correspondence, July 2013.

[30] Muqabala Khassa, al-Arabiya, December 30, 2012.

[31] Muqabala Khassa, al-Arabiya, February 3, 2013.

[32] “Agreement Between the Northern Storm Brigade and the Tawhid Brigade About Joint Control Over the Bab al-Salama Crossing at the Turkish Border,” Aks al-Ser, July 9, 2013; “Why Were the Turks Kidnapped in Lebanon and Who are the Liwaa Asifat al-Shamal who are Holding the Shiites in Syria,” SyriaComment, August 11, 2013.

[33] Videos were released announcing the creation of both groups. See “Announcement of the Creation of the Maghawir Houran Battalions Gathering,” January 28, 2013, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpDJFktin8Q; “Announcement of the Creation of the Yarmouk Battalion – Deraa, December 27, 2012,” December 27, 2012, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=LG_YE2LynAQ. The Yarmouk Brigade should not be confused with the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade, a smaller group active on the Golan Heights cease-fire line, which has been involved in several kidnappings of UN observer troops.

[34] Lund, “Syria’s Salafi Insurgents: The Rise of the Syrian Islamic Front.”

[35] For a fuller description of the SIF groups and their mergers and coalitions, see Lund, “Syria’s Salafi Insurgents: The Rise of the Syrian Islamic Front”; Aron Lund, “New Addition to the Syrian Islamic Front,” SyriaComment, May 3, 2013. The Mujahedi al-Sham Brigade was created recently through a merger of local factions with the Tayybet al-Imam-based Haqq Battalions Gathering. See “Announcement of the Creation of the Mujahedi al-Sham Brigade in Hama,” August 3, 2013, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3nH-Mdrg2U.

[36] “Statement on the Hamza bin Abdelmuttaleb Battalion’s Facebook Site,” December 22, 2012; personal interview, Abu Ezzeddin al-Ansari, member of the SIF Political Office and head of the Liwa al-Haq Political Office, Skype, February, 2013; personal interview, Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, official spokesperson of the SIF and member of the Ahrar al-Sham leadership, internet correspondence, June 2013.

[37] See the SIF charter, available at www.archive.org/download/Mithaq/Mithaq.pdf. For a fuller discussion, see Lund, “Syria’s Salafi Insurgents: The Rise of the Syrian Islamic Front.”

[38] Aron Lund, “Major Salafi Faction Criticizes Jabhat al-Nosra,” SyriaComment, May 4, 2013.

[39] The ISI’s role in helping to establish Jabhat al-Nusra has now been confirmed by both the Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani and the ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in their April 2013 statements, although they differ on the implications of this.

[40] “Treasury Sanctions Al-Nusrah Front Leadership in Syria and Militias Supporting the Asad Regime,” U.S. Treasury Department, December 11, 2012.

[41] For an excellent chronological walkthrough of statements by the actors involved, see “Special Report on the Power Struggle Between al-Qaeda Branches and Leadership,” SITE Institute, July 1, 2013.

[42] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “Islamic State of Iraq: Announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Speech by Emir al-Mouminin Abu Bakr |April 9,” April 9, 2013.

[43] “English Translation: Speech of the General Commander of Jabhat Al-Nusra Abu Mohammed al-Golani about the al-Sham front,” Ansar al-Mujahidin forum, April 18, 2013.

[44] Basma Atassi, “Qaeda Chief Annuls Syrian-Iraqi Jihad Merger,” al-Jazira, June 9, 2013.

[45] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “Remaining in Iraq and the Levant,” June 15, 2013.

[46] “Speech by the Mujahed Sheikh Abu Mohammed al-Adnani entitled: ‘So, leave them and their deceptions,’” Sanam al-Islam forum, June 28, 2013.

[47] There is not enough evidence to determine to which group the majority of fighters went.

[48] Personal interview, Jund al-Sham spokesperson “Abu Hamza,” internet correspondence, July 2013.

[49] Aron Lund, “Holy Warriors,” Foreign Policy, October 15, 2012.

[50] “Official announcement of the Creation of the Popular Protection Units,” Welate Roje, July 19, 2012; “Syria’s Kurds: A Struggle Within a Struggle,” International Crisis Group, January 22, 2013; Eva Savelsberg, “The Kurdish Factor in the Syrian Revolution,” Syrian Studies Association Bulletin 18:1 (2013); Mutlu Civiroglu, “YPG Commander: Kurds Are Bulwark Against Islamic Extremism in Syria,” Rûdaw, July 22, 2013.

[51] Sherzad Sheikhani, “‘Elected’ Parliament and ‘Own’ Constitution in the Syrian Kurdish Areas Within Three Months,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 14, 2013.

[52] That has not prevented the U.S. government from formally sanctioning “The Shabbiha” as if it were an organized militia. See “Treasury Sanctions Al-Nusrah Front Leadership in Syria and Militias Supporting the Asad Regime,” U.S. Treasury Department, December 11, 2012.

[53] Eliot Higgins, “Aleppo – Zaino Berri, Shabiha Leader, Captured And Executed,” Brown Moses blog, July 31, 2012; “Zeino Berri Martyred in Aleppo, People’s Council Member Hassan Shaaban Berri Wounded,” Cham Times, August 1, 2012.

[54] Sam Dagher, “Syrian Conflict Draws In Christians,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2012.

[55] Aron Lund, “Gangs of Latakia: The Militiafication of the Assad Regime,” SyriaComment, July 23, 2013.

[56] Aziz Nakkash, “The Alawite Dilemma in Homs: Survival, Solidarity and the Making of a Community,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, March 2013.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Marah Mashi, “People’s Committees in Syria: Patrolling Local Borders,” al-Akhbar, September 4, 2012.

[59] Lund, “Gangs of Latakia: The Militiafication of the Assad Regime”; “They forced him and his men to kneel…the ‘Shabbiha’ strips a security officer of his arms because of a problem in the bread line in Aleppo!” Aks al-Ser, August 1, 2013.

[60] In some areas at least, the National Defense Forces include female fighters. See “In Assad’s Syria, Women a Small, Symbolic Part of Fighting Force,” Reuters, June 5, 2013.

[61] “President al-Assad Gives Interview to the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Newspaper,” Syrian Arab News Agency, June 18, 2013.

[62] “Insight: Syrian Government Guerrilla Fighters Being Sent to Iran for Training,” Reuters, April 4, 2013; “Insight: Battered by War, Syrian Army Creates its Own Replacement,” Reuters, April 21, 2013.