Syrian Opposition Guide

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.