Conflict in Syria is now in its fifth year and has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis after the Second World War.
A European Commission report shows 12.2 million in need of assistance inside the country and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reports of around 7.6 million of internal displaced persons (IDPs). Based on United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) more than 4 million left the country and fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, and North Africa and further into Europe.
The international crisis group report New approach in Southern Syria emphasized status quo approaches is disastrous with hundreds of Syrians continue to be killed each week in addition to more than 200.000 already dead in the conflict. The civil war has a capacity of overspill into a greater neighborhood with increasing radicalism and extreme groups gaining support.
As the International Crisis Group wrote about the Syrian opposition being highly fluid and the membership, alliances and the ideology are prone to shift which makes categorizing the groups tricky for outside analysts, policymakers and even rebels themselves. A distinction can be made between thawari (revolutionary) and Salafi-jihadi groups. Thawri groups define their political agenda within Syria’s border and seek international support and identify explicitly with the “Syrian revolution”. Their platforms range from non-ideological to Salafi Islamist. Estimation of number of rebels fighting in Syria against Assad’s regime is between 75.000 and 115.000. Lack of financing, organizing and chronic failure of mainstream rebel forces to fight effectively and work together has led many foreign fighters on the side of fighting for radical and more extremist groups. Recruiting is enabled because of bad organization which gains no international support. There is much confusion to describe numerous different groups fighting in Syria because of similar or different agendas, shifting support and coalitions. Some groups have realized the lack of cooperation since we have seen the consolidation of a thawari coalition where more than 49 factions joined to form the Southern Front.
The Salafi-jihad groups reject borders of Syria and they mention Levantine jihad. The groups embrace an international agenda and aim to overthrow the Assad’s and entire nation-state regime. They do not cooperate with Western and regional states as thawri groups. The Salafi-jihad category includes the Islamic State (IS), Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda . IS is based on Syrian activists composed mainly of foreign fighters. To make things worse, those mentioned group sometimes cooperate in specific actions, but they and others have also fought each other. Civil war has seen many Islamists and more moderate rebel group attacking IS across the country. Free Syrian Army, Jabahat al-Nusra and Islamic state are names of the groups that most of the foreign fighters have joined so far. Richard Barre and the Soufan group have in essay Foreign fighters in Syria from 2014 wrote that over 12.000 foreign fighters have gone to Syria only in three years and they come from 81 different countries in the world. In his opinion the Syrian war is likely to be an incubator for a new generation of terrorist and it may once pose a significant global threat.
Map of active groups in Syria from September 2015
Source: Institute for United Conflict Analysts
The regime has seen great setbacks in the south and lost significant ground during the first half of 2015 to a coalition of thawri and Salafi-jihadi rebels and to IS in central Syria. Governmental forces are faced with the steady erosion of combat capacity. The regime dependence upon Teheran is growing and different priorities can be seen from Syrian government and Iran. The combat role of Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) personnel and pro-Iran Shiite militias is expanding. Israelis fear about Iran and Hezbollah setting up a front against them in Syria is growing. Assad and its military exploit their greater advantage – air power. On the government side National Defence Force consists of Syria’s minority communities, gunmen of a Lebanese Shiite militant group of Hezbollah which underlines the sectarian aspect of the conflict. Many international actors are involved in the conflict direct, indirect or as proxy actors. Iran backed Shiites, which are fighting Sunnis that are supported by Gulf Arabs.
Important international actor involved in the conflict is also Russia, which significantly increased its military support for President Assad’s government with equipment and air strikes. Official stance has been they are fighting against the Islamic State but many critics have been heard, they are attacking vital interest points only to help Assad’s regime regain loss of the territory and control. On the other side, we have a United States and its support for rebel forces that are fighting against Bashar al-Assad, ISIS and other terrorist groups. Turkey is on the USA side with the support of Western European countries and Saudi Arabia backing.
Many reasons make, it is impossible to draw a strict line among many various groups and factions fighting in Syria. The number of groups is vast and many are decentralized and fighting only on concrete territory. With international community being involved in the Syrian civil war, many international agendas, goals and interest are being present on the ground that has been bleeding for about five years and that has left behind destruction and many lost lives. It is obvious the longer the war ranges the greater will be the consequences.