The main Islamist and jihadist factions on the ground
The al-Nusra Front
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
The Army of Islam
The factions on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights are not Islamists or jihadists. The following information comes from several local sources contacted by FRANCE 24, including the coordinator of the Joint Command of the Golan, Abu Ali Kiari. The Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade (or Grandsons of the Prophet) controls the city of Quneitra, while most of the other factions cooperate under the command of the Maghawir al-Joulan brigade (Commandos of the Golan). These units have more than 600 fighters and are mainly equipped with light and medium weapons: anti-aircraft machine guns, rocket launchers, as well as a few tanks and armored vehicles seized from the Syrian army. The ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and the al-Nusra Front do not operate in the region, but they have good relations with the brigades operating in the Golan since several Nusra and ISIL leaders in the neighbouring Hauran region hail from the Golan.
Factions operating in the city of Deraa and the surrounding areas belong to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or have Islamist leanings. The al-Nusra Front, with 350 fighters, is the only jihadist faction present in the region. The ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) recently tried to get into the city, but the organisation only succeeded in establishing a presence in the village of Bir al-Kassab, further north. The main rebel group in the region is the Katiba al-Muthana al-Islamiyah (Islamic Unity of al-Muthana) west of the city of Deraa. It has heavy weapons seized from the regular army.
The Qalamoun region is dominated by the al-Nusra Front, which oversees all major operations undertaken in the area right up to the gates of Homs. Besides the al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Katiba al-Khadra (Green Brigade), Ahrar al-Sham, the Army of Islam and Ghuraba al-Sham (Foreigners of the Syrian region) operate in the region. Several suicide bombings targeting Syrian army positions around Qalamoun have been claimed by the al-Nusra Front, the ISIL and the Khatiba al-Khadra.
The number of combatants in the region varies from one source to another. Supplies of arms and ammunition are mainly via Homs and to a lesser extent, via neighbouring Lebanon.
Rebel-controlled areas of Damascus and the surrounding areas are mainly under the control of the Army of Islam, an Islamist group. It has fighters in the thousands and its organisation is similar to that of a regular army with brigades and divisions. Arms include tanks, armored personnel carriers, ground-to-ground missiles, as well as short-range and anti-tank rockets. Arms supplies mainly come from ammunition seized from the regular army, but the group also benefits from foreign funding sources, mainly from the Gulf countries. The al-Nusra Front and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) are also present in the Damascus area, mainly in the Ghouta region. An Army of Islam spokesman did not want to provide FRANCE 24 with the exact number of combatants, but various sources in the area say they number in the thousands.
For more than a year, fighting in the Latakia region focused on the mountainous Kurdish and Turkmen areas, which have a Sunni majority. The rebels’ military effort in Latakia is very fragmented, with different factions operating without any real coordination between them. A notable exception was the August 2013 offensive against Alawite villages and neighbouring Syrian army positions led by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), the Nusra Front and the Sham Centre (a group of Chechen fighters). This area is considered one of the main crossing-points for foreign fighters coming in from neighbouring Turkey.
Homs and the surrounding region has been the epicentre of the Syrian rebellion for several months. But since the Syrian army recaptured the neighbourhoods of Baba Amr and Khaldiyeh, fighting has been concentrated in the old city. The al-Haq Brigade, the al-Nusra Front and the Farouq Brigades are the prominent factions in the city and surrounding area. The al-Haq Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham are part of the Syrian Islamic Front, a Salafist umbrella organisation of rebel groups.
Today, there are two factions that conduct most of the offensives against regime forces in the region. Other smaller formations such as Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of the Levant) operate in the Hosn region near the Lebanese border. Attempts to unify the military effort in the region have failed and different groups – each with hundreds of fighters – are now operating independently. Foreign funding existed at the beginning of the conflict, but according to jihadist sources, they are becoming increasingly rare. The region has no major cases of conflict between rebels.
Unlike the city of Aleppo, the Idlib region was among the first to join the rebellion and has hosted the first openly jihadist factions and foreign fighters, mainly Libyans. The ISIL set up operations in Dana, a city close to the Turkish border, which has turned into an ISIL stronghold in the region. Ahrar al-Sham – one of the principal groups of the Salafist umbrella organization, the Syrian Islamic Front – has a military strike force across northern Syria.
In Aleppo city and the areas around Syria’s commercial capital, the Tawhid Brigade was among the first to enter the city. The Tawhid Brigade remains the most significant group in Aleppo and it now plays an intermediary role between jihadist groups and FSA factions. The Tawhid Brigade, for example, has tried to stop the fighting between the ISIL and the FSA around the northwestern city of Azaz as well as the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. Our contacts within these groups tend to exaggerate the number of fighters, but northern Syria is undoubtedly the principal breeding ground for foreign and local jihadist fighters of all persuasions.
Raqqa was the first major city to fall into jihadist control in March 2013. Two major jihadist groups operate here after the more mainstream opposition groups left this northeastern Syrian city, earning it the moniker, “Syria’s Kandahar”.
Fighters from the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham first settled in the city, followed by the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The al-Nusra Front then briefly withdrew from the city and surrounding areas, leaving the field open to the ISIL. But in September 2013, the al-Nusra Front returned and set up a major training camp near the city. By November 2013, Ahrar al-Sham was the leading faction in the city – in arms and men – but the ISIL was gaining importance. It was in Raqqa that the ISIL declared its first Islamic wilaya (province). According to sources close to various factions, competition between them is strong and cooperation is almost nonexistent. The situation is particularly tense with other rebel factions, such as the Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade, being ejected from the region. There have been several murders and disappearances, including the disappearance of a local al-Nusra Front leader and the assassination of an Ahrar al-Sham commander. A religious court with representatives of various factions has been established, but it’s hard to find amicable resolutions to the problems. The region is considered a hotbed for Sunni fighters from Iraq and the Gulf countries. The funding for the various groups’ activities in the Raqqa area comes mainly from private donations – as well as oil sales from wells in the region, which are now controlled by various factions.
The al-Nusra Front
The al-Nusra Front emerged in early 2012, with spectacular operations – including suicide bombings – in the heart of the Syrian capital of Damascus. The Front has no more than 6,000 fighters, most of them Syrians. Senior rebel leader Abu Muhammad al-Joulani heads the group’s jihadist training arm. Joulani is a veteran of the Iraq War, where he fought under al Qaeda in Iraq (or Islamic State of Iraq) banner, under the command of Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As the number of Salafist groups in the Syrian conflict increased, Baghdadi himself extended his group’s operations into Syria, where he renamed his group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In an April 2013 statement announcing the emergence of the ISIL, Baghdadi said the al-Nusra Front had merged with his group. But Joulani denied the merger, claiming he was not consulted. Joulani did however acknowledge that his Nusra Front cooperated with the ISIL and he reiterated his allegiance to overall al Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In October 2013, Syria's national broadcaster reported that Joulani had been killed in the coastal province of Latakia, but the al-Nusra Front denied the report. The al-Nusra Front has been designated a terrorist organisation by the UN and the US and is largely funded by Syrian patrons and donations from the local population.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) emerged relatively recently, in April 2013, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (Islamic State of Iraq), issued an audio statement announcing the merger of his group and the al-Nusra Front under the new ISIL banner. The statement prompted a number of al-Nusra fighters to join the ISIL, including many foreign fighters from across the world. But al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Joulani promptly denied the merger. Like the al-Nusra Front, the ISIL has between 5,000 and 6,000 fighters. The group receives funding via private donations from the Gulf states. In November 2013, al Qaeda chief Ayman al- Zawahiri ordered the dissolution of the ISIL and said it should continue as the earlier Islamic State of Iraq, concentrating on the Iraqi area of operations. The al-Nusra Front, Zawahiri maintained, should have sole responsibilities in Syria. But Baghdadi rejected the order and insisted his group would continue operating in Syria. The ISIL is the only jihadist faction operating on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, which gives it added political and military weight.
The Islamic Movement of Ahrar al-Sham was one of the first Islamist formations to have emerged in Syria. The movement succeeded in bringing together several factions in the Homs region under the al-Haq Brigade banner. Ahrar al-Sham was strengthened with the creation of the Syrian Islamic Front, a Salafist umbrella organisation of rebel groups led by Hassan Aboud, a former Syrian political prisoner. The Syrian Islamic Front has well-defined military and political agendas and it spends considerable resources on humanitarian projects as well as justice initiatives in the areas it controls. It has established its presence across large swathes of Syria, mainly in Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa. The group’s arms and ammunition have been seized from regular Syrian army stocks. Funding comes from sponsors and Islamic institutions in the Gulf states. The fighters are strictly Syrian, according to Abu Mustafa, head of the Syrian Islamic Front’s communications office and Ahrar al-Sham’s external relations wing. Mustafa however refused to divulge the exact number of fighters in the group’s ranks. The movement aims to establish Sharia law in Syria. In November 2013, Ahrar al-Sham, along with six other rebel groups, issued a statement that they were joining forces to form a new Islamic Front.
The Tawhid Brigade was led by Abdelqader Saleh before the rebel chief died in a Turkish hospital in November 2013 from wounds suffered during an air raid on Aleppo. A former Syrian army conscript, Saleh formed the group in the Aleppo region by combining dozens of brigades under the Tawhid banner. The brigade was the first faction to operate in the city of Aleppo, the commercial capital of Syria. In addition to military training, the brigade has established religious institutions that govern daily life in the regions under its control. The brigade, which has about 10,000 fighters, aims to create a moderate Islamic state in Syria. Following Saleh’s death, the Tawhid Brigade and six other groups joined forces to form a new Islamic Front in November 2013.
The Army of Islam
The Army of Islam is a very recent formation, which includes more than 50 rebel formations according to the group’s spokesman, Islam Alloush. Fighters number in the thousands, but the exact figure is impossible to determine. The group’s leader, Zahran Alloush, is the son of Saudi-based Syrian religious scholar, Sheikh Abdullah Alloush and the younger Alloush is known to have ties to Saudi Arabia, where he gets most of his political and financial support. This new formation operates in the Ghouta region around Damascus. It is one of the most militarily organised groups, with a command centre which exercises centralised control over tanks, armour and air defence units. Accused of "treason" by many radical groups who claim the organisation is a puppet of the West, the Army of Islam has recently forged ties with the Tawhid Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham to form a moderate Islamic coalition that opposes the radical al-Nusra Front and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Army of Islam is one of seven rebel groups that joined forces to form a new Islamic Front in November 2013.