A guide to Syria's key factions

  • Date May 19 2014
  • Publication Middle East Eye

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the main secular armed opposition group in Syria. The FSA wants to overthrow the regime and replace it with a secular, democratic government. Membership is composed of various factions, each with their own command structure and internal politics. Some of the more moderate FSA factions receive support - money, training and weapons - from Western and Gulf states. The FSA is composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel and volunteers.

The Syrian Military Council (SMC) is the military arm of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which is the main political representative of the Syrian opposition. The SMC is led by Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, and is based in Turkey.

Jabhat al-Nusra is a jihadist opposition group that wants to overthrow the regime and replace it with an Islamic state. Nusra is al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria and Lebanon, and fighters claim allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda. As the US has designated it a terrorist organisation, Nusra receives no Western backing, but it is allegedly supported by some Gulf actors. Nusra is known to have a significant membership of foreign fighters, from Chechnya, Afghanistan, North Africa, Europe and beyond.

The Islamic Front is a coalition of opposition Islamist fighting groups that differ from Nusra on account of being less extremist. The Islamic Front recently declared its goal was to bring about a revolution that was religious, but not fundamentalist or radical. The Islamic Front’s ideology includes Salafism. It relies heavily on Saudi Arabian funding.

The Syrian government is headed by President Bashar al-Assad. The regime’s military might is provided by the Syrian Arab Army and the Syrian Air Force. The regime has declared those fighting its rule to be armed terrorists, and it relies heavily on backing from its allies Russia (weapons, money) and Iran (weapons, Hezbollah fighters), as well as Shiite fighters from Iraq.