The Key Players in the Syrian Conflict and Civil War


Several years ago while explaining the history of Syria in a podcast episode I described the environment and the history to be similar to untying a knot. In Syria it was not as simple as finding point A and point B. One has to work through a myriad of twists and turns in the story to understand who is doing what and why they are doing it. That was before the Syrian Civil War. Since 2011 the situation has become even more complex. Following is a brief list of the players in the Syrian Civil War along with a short description of what role they play. Also included is a listing of who’s backing who in Syria among the international actors. [This page will be updated regularly.]


Who’s Who in Syria’s Conflict: Pro-Regime

Assad – Bashar al Assad is the leader of Syria. He inherited this role from his father Hafiz who took control of Syria in a 1970 coup. The Assad family has maintained a ruthless authoritarian rule over Syria since that time.
who's who in syria conflict Alawites – The Alawites are the minority Shiite sect from which the Assad family comes from. The Alawites became the elite and corrupt ruling class of Syria in the 1970s to the present.
key players in the syrian conflict Hezbollah – As a Lebanese Shiite fighting group they have provided thousands of fighters to the conflict toward the cause of supporting Assad. Hezbollah is backed and financed by Iran.
who's backing who in syria Shia Muslim Militias – These are Shia Muslims recruited from throughout the Middle East and Central Asia by Iran to fight in the Syrian conflict. In many ways this is similar to what the Sunnis did in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
key players in the Syrian conflict National Defense Forces – The official Syrian army once stood at 220,000 fighting soldiers. Many believe this has been reduced to approximately 25,000 Syrian soldiers. The National Defense Forces are local militias often based around neighborhoods who fight in support of Assad.

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International Actors and Who’s Backing Who in Syria


The scope of international actors in Syria has grown year by year. Understanding who’s backing who in Syria’s conflict is as important to understanding who the key players in the Syrian conflict are. Syria’s transition from civil war to regional conflict will likely transpire through these actors.

who’s backing who in Syria Russia – Russia has been an ally of Syria since the days of the Cold War when Russia was part of the former Soviet Union. To understand the major pieces of this relationship, click here. Russia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War has been a key cause for Bashar al Assad’s survival.
who’s backing who in Syria Iran – Iran has been a historical ally to Syria since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Ties that link them together include their Shiite sectarianism and opposition to the state of Israel. To understand the major pieces of this relationship, click here. Iran’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War has also been a key cause for Bashar al Assad’s survival.
who’s backing who in Syria Turkey – Turkey sits to Syria’s north. Turkey originally came out against Assad in the civil war. After it was proven that Assad would survive Turkey has worked to be a more negotiable party. Turkey has absorbed many of the Syrian refugees in the course of the war. They have also seen a rise of terrorism filtering across their borders as a result of the war. Turkey sees the Kurds as the greatest threat to their own sovereignty and many of their decisions in negotiations with Syria and other international actors involved in the Syrian conflict are designed to specifically limit the ambitions of the Kurds.
who’s backing who in Syria United States – The US strategy and involvement in Syria has been vague and inconsistent. The US has frequently involved itself in air strikes against ISIS in Syria. They have also bombed some pro-regime targets following the demonstration of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime on its own people. US air strikes against ISIS have increased since Donald Trump came to the presidency. The US, under President Obama, was originally a vocal supporter of the removal of Assad from power in the early days of the conflict. No action was contributed toward this objective. President Trump has stated this is not a priority.
who's backing who in syria Israel – Israel has been almost completely uninvolved in the Syrian Civil War. They have been concerned about the growing strength of Hezbollah there. Israel is also concerned about the growing Iranian presence on its shared borders with Syria. There have been a number of direct military encounters and strikes between Israel and Iranian and Syrian forces throughout 2018.


Who’s Who in the Syrian Conflict: Resistance and Terrorist Groups


Understand who’s who in Syria is particularly difficult when it comes to identifying the resistance and/or terrorist organizations fighting against the Assad regime. These groups move back and forth on a scale of extremism. The term “terrorism” is frequently used against them merely as a political justification for severe bombings from Assad. In other instances the activity of many of these groups frequently fully adheres to any classic definitions of terrorist activity.

key players in the Syrian conflict Free Syrian Army – The FSA was formed by a mounting collection of defecting officers and elites from the Syrian army. This became one of the primary resistance organizations to Assad in the early days of the conflict. They have been largely unsuccessful in organizing the FSA forces throughout the country. In many instances the FSA itself was overwhelmed by terrorist groups and fighters.
key players in the Syrian conflict Jaish al Islam – Their name means the Army of Islam. Jaish al Islam broke off from the Free Syrian Army. Their goals were more centered toward Islamic values and less toward the proclaimed democratic goals of the FSA. Jaish al Islam does not have the wider international objectives of many of the more extremist Islamic terrorist groups like al Qaeda or ISIS. Many fighters of the FSA began moving toward groups like Jaish al Islam beginning in 2012.
key players in the Syrian conflict Ahrar al Sham – This is another Islamist group that broke off from the FSA around 2012. Their goals and objectives for Syria were more religiously oriented rather than democratically oriented. Both Ahrar al Sham and Jaish al Islam became the preeminent resistance forces by the end of 2012, eclipsing the Free Syrian Army. Much of the financial backing of the gulf region’s oil states to the Syrian resistance has been poured into these organizations.
key players in the Syrian conflict ISIS – The group needs little introduction. They surged to the forefront of the Syrian conflict in 2014. In the early days Assad and his allies did little to stop or confront ISIS, allowing the organization’s fighters to advance at the expense of the resistance forces they encountered. The bombing campaigns by the west and Russia have greatly reduced the ISIS influence and presence. Many are concerned that while ISIS has lost a lot of territory they are still a significant threat within Syria that will reemerge in the near future.
key players in the Syrian conflict Hayat Tahrir al Sham – They are also known as HTS and al Qaeda in Syria. At the beginning of the Syrian conflict they were known as the al Nusra Front. Assad and his allies frequently still refer to them by this original name. Many organizations and countries classify HTS as a terrorist group. In 2016 they split with al Qaeda. Today they are one of the largest resistance forces in Idlib province.

[If you find this overview who’s who in the Syrian conflict helpful you might enjoy my Complete Guide to the Syrian Civil War.]

Additional Key Players in the Conflict

Kurds – They have claimed to support neither the Assad regime nor the rebels. The Kurds have tried to leverage the Syrian Civil War to pursue their long held claim for an independent Kurdish state. In 2014 they became a significant force fighting ISIS in the north along the Turkish border. Their successes against ISIS garnered favor and backing from the US. The Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) are the military arm of the Kurds in Syria. The Kurds are a threat to Turkey in the north and have faced air strikes from Turkey even while they have battled against ISIS forces in Syria.
who's backing who in syria Arab Gulf States – The growing presence and strength of Iran throughout the Middle East has been seen as a threat to the wider region, specifically among the Sunni states. To that end Syria has been seen as a place where Iran could be fought and stopped in a proxy war. Significant arms and financial backing have been funneled from these states to the resistance fighters in the Syrian conflict. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the largest sponsors to the resistance.


Additional Although Possibly Dated Links for Better Understanding Who’s Who in the Syrian Civil War and Who’s Backing Who in Syria:



JB Shreve and the End of History

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