By Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande
Read this update online here.
This reference guide provides a baseline for identifying Syrian opposition groups. The guide aims to permit researchers to track how groups realign as the Russians commence operations. It seeks to inform the development of policies that aim to protect Syrian rebels willing to cooperate with the U.S. in order to defeat ISIS and marginalize al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
The chart characterizes each group’s relative strength, its areas of operation, its participation in multi-group operations, and its sources of external financing (derived from other experts’ studies). The document carefully identifies those groups that are separable from Jabhat al-Nusra, drawing a sharp distinction between the al-Qaeda affiliate’s subcomponents and those groups that have a more transactional relationship. Whereas the Russian military actions will likely drive these groups together, diminishing the influence of al-Qaeda actually requires breaking the groups apart. Targeting rebel groups writ large through military strikes is therefore counterproductive and will lead to entrenchment of al-Qaeda in Syria.
Russia's Impact on the Opposition
Russian air operations in Syria impose new pressures on Syrian rebel groups on the ground. Although the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian airstrikes focused on ISIS, local reports and the U.S. official statement indicate that the strikes have primarily targeted Syrian opposition groups in areas far from core ISIS-held terrain. Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated rebel groups that receive support from the U.S. are among those that Russian warplanes have hit.
As Russian airstrikes intensify, Syrian opposition factions will likely seek the protection of a strong partner in the fight against the regime and its allies. The majority of the groups that may seek protection already cooperate militarily with Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra out of necessity, and this trend is likely to increase as rebels come under greater duress. The pressure of a reinvigorated air campaign in support of the Syrian regime may drive these groups closer to Jabhat al-Nusra and potentially hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham in the absence of alternative sources of robust military assistance from countries opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In fact, between October 2 and October 4, two rebel groups merged separately under Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in Hama and Aleppo provinces respectively. This trend damages not only the U.S. anti-ISIS mission, but also the implicit mission to counter al-Qaeda’s influence in Syria. It is therefore vital to observe changes in the behaviors and affiliations of Syrian rebels in response to ground events.
Relationship to Jabhat al-Nusra
This guide also provides an assessment of rebel groups’ relationship to Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Groups that conduct military operations with Jabhat al-Nusra do not necessarily share its vision, end-state, or values. Many rebel groups cooperate out of military necessity, because Jabhat al-Nusra one of the most capable groups on the battlefield. The relationship between each group and Jabhat al-Nusra has been designated through the following definitions:
Component of Jabhat al-Nusra: Groups that have merged under Jabhat al-Nusra, or groups that ISW assesses to be a sub-unit of Jabhat al-Nusra
Allied: Rebel groups that share interim objectives with Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria in the near term; groups that are close ideological allies to Jabhat al-Nusra; and groups that are ideologically opposed to the Western countries’ influence in Syria or to the vision of Western secularism
Separable from Jabhat al-Nusra: Rebel groups that formally coordinate military operations with Jabhat al-Nusra among many other groups through joint military commands, largely out of military necessity. This also includes groups that participate in governance structures that also contain elements of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Independent: These rebel groups currently do not share interim or long term objectives and do not formally coordinate military operations with Jabhat al-Nusra through joint military commands.
Identifying Outside Funding
The following charts also reflect assessments of the sources of outside funding for each group as provided by the Carter Center and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from September 2014 – February 2015. There are three major sources of funding:
Joint Military Operations Command (MOC)
Two covert joint military operations commands (MOC) based in Turkey and Jordan reportedly provide funding and lethal aid to moderate and nationalist Islamist groups in northern and southern Syria. Members of both the Northern and Southern MOCs reportedly provide military assistance including TOW anti-tank missiles to a select set of Syrian rebel groups.
Saudi Arabia provides direct support to Salafist and Islamist groups across all of Western Syria.
Turkey and Qatar
Turkey and Qatar support nationalist Syrian rebel groups, including Salafist and Islamist groups. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, currently based in Turkey, facilitates the provision of money and weapons provided by Turkey and Qatar to Syrian armed opposition groups based in northern Syria.
The following charts indicates assessed powerbrokers in Syria in addition to groups that could become powerbrokers in the near term upon the receipt of sufficient outside support. These groups could provide a counter-weight to Jabhat al-Nusra, although the Russian military operations reduce the likelihood that they will be willing or able to split from the al-Qaeda affiliate.
Powerbroker: a group that disproportionately determines the success of military operations against either the Syrian regime or ISIS; is strategically located; and/or plays a leading role in governance.
Potential Powerbroker: a group that could achieve significant battlefield effects against Jabhat al-Nusra and/or ISIS in western Syria upon receipt of increased outside support, including securing direct military gains and cohering other smaller brigades into new coalitions.
The following charts organize opposition groups by their participation in operations rooms, in order to achieve particular, defined objectives. Operation rooms are joint structures limited to a particular geographical area, but they do not maintain a physical headquarters. Syrian opposition groups join “operations rooms” in order to coordinate their military campaigns jointly in an area without merging, thus preserving their status as separate fighting forces. Each operations room is typically launched with an announcement conveying a specific, stated objective and a list of groups that have joined.