CRF Blog

Who’s Who in Syria’s Civil War

by Bill Hayes

Backgrounders from the Council on Foreign Relations are primers on pressing world issues. They usually include histories, summaries, images, graphs, video, and links to additional resources.

A recent Backgrounder was on Who’s Who in Syria’s Civil War.

Pro-Government Forces and their backers: Syrian forces and pro-government militias, Hezbollah, foreign Shia militias, Iran, Russia

Opposition Forces and their backers: Free Syrian Army, nationalist jihadis, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, United States, Turkey, Arab Gulf states

Islamic State

Kurdish People’s Protection Units

Syria’s civil war has grown ever more complex in the six years since protesters first challenged the government. President Bashar al-Assad aims to reassert control nationwide, while predominantly Sunni Arab opposition forces seek to wrest the state from him. The diverse groups making up the opposition, however, differ on their visions for a post-Assad state, with their ostensible aims ranging from liberal democracy to theocracy.

Unlike Assad and the opposition, the self-proclaimed Islamic State is intent on erasing Syria’s borders to establish a state of its own in territory spanning parts of Iraq and Syria. Kurdish militants, who have fought to establish an autonomous, if not independent, national homeland in the country’s northeast, are the group’s primary foe.

The fight has been further complicated by outside powers who have funded and armed combatants and, in some cases, backed them with air support or manpower. Outgunned by pro-regime forces, many opposition groups have aligned with jihad factions.

By 2017, tens of thousands of combatants were involved in the fighting. Up to half a million Syrians have been killed, most by pro-regime forces, and more than half the country’s prewar population of some twenty-two million has been displaced. The armed groups have been marked above all by flux — in their membership, capabilities, alliances, and ideologies. Broadly speaking, they each belong to one of four networks. [more]