A Guide to the Many Groups Fighting in Iraq and Syria

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Al-Nusra Front fighters parade at the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp to denounce Israels military offensive on the Gaza Strip on July 28, 2014. Photo: Rami Al-Sayed/Getty Images

Many of us, when we hear the term civil war, tend to picture a two-sided affair: the rebels and loyalists. Through most of history — whether in Rome under Julius Caesar, the U.S. in the 19th century, or Cuba in the ‘50s — that’s how these things have played out. But Syria has a far messier, more confusing conflict. Depending how you count them, there are a dozen or more players, and among them an ever-shifting pattern of alliances and hostilities. 

Martha Crenshaw, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, has been collecting information on militant groups from around the world for the Mapping Militant Organizations project. She says keeping track of the various groups is one of the unique challenges of understanding what’s happening in Syria. “What you’re seeing is not only independent groups changing their positions … but also a lot of spinning and merging, and you’re seeing groups disintegrate from within to a certain extent,” she says.

For example, in Kobani, a city on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, the bloodiest fighting is between two independent separatist groups: the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, a branch of an organization that has spent decades fighting for Kurdish autonomy, and ISIS — the international terror group that wants to re-create the caliphate. But groups previously allied with the Islamic State, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, are refocusing their energies on the central government in Damascus and also fighting against the Islamic State in other parts of the country.

Even trickier: trying to figure out who to back in this kind of war. “I’d be surprised if our intelligence was really good enough to identify the positions of all these groups,” Crenshaw says of U.S. efforts to arm moderate rebels. Even if a group is aligned with American interests today, it is difficult to predict where it may shift in the near future, based on pressure from other groups.

Here’s a rundown of the major players you need to know to understand the conflict in Syria, and where they stand — for now, at least.

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ISIS fighters celebrate in Mosul on June 23, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Corbis

GROUPS THAT OPPOSE SYRIAN PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

WHAT: A brutally violent theocratic group that grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, merging with several smaller groups to form the Islamic State of Iraq. It was originally affiliated with al-Nusra Front, but infighting broke out when leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared that the Syrian organization was “merely an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and a part of it.” Al Qaeda’s global leader said the groups should remain separate and formally denounced ISIS after al-Baghdadi refused (plus, the group’s revolting tactics were considered bad for the Al Qaeda brand).

ISIS claims to have established a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and is now fighting with most other rebel groups as well as the Assad regime.

NUMBERS: More than 12,000; some estimates say as many as 100,000.

U.S. STANCE: At the request of the Iraqi government, the U.S. began conducting airstrikes against ISIS in August, after the militants captured large swaths of the country and stepped up their persecution of ethnic and religious minorities.

ISIS is mainly terrorizing people in Iraq and Syria right now, but in a speech last month, President Obama noted that “while we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.” ISIS draws many foreign fighters from Europe and North America and has beheaded two American journalists and a British aid worker.

Since mid-September the U.S. and its allies have been hitting ISIS targets in both Iraq and Syria.

NOTABLE AFFILIATIONS: Formerly allied with Jabhat al-Nusra.

Jabhat al-Nusra (or the al-Nusra Front)

WHAT: Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, which, like ISIS, wants to establish a religious state. Al-Nusra is one of the most effective groups fighting the Assad regime. It is said to have good relations with other rebel groups, both religiously based and secular, though it has also hurt the opposition by making other nations hesitant to come to the rebels’ aid.

NUMBERS: 5,000 to 6,000

U.S. STANCE: Though al-Nusra has expressed interest in fighting an explicitly Syrian civil war (which is one of the reasons for its break with ISIS), the U.S. has designated it as a terrorist organization. American officials also believe that factions of al-Nusra Front may pose an immediate threat to Western nations. The U.S. has targeted al-Nusra in recent airstrikes, killing its leader, Abu Yousef al-Turki, and dozens of fighters

NOTABLE AFFILIATIONS: Khorasan Group

Khorasan Group

WHAT: A subgroup of Jabhat al-Nusra that is believed to be planning attacks on America and other Western targets. It is made up of veteran Al Qaeda members and may be under the control of Al Qaeda’s central leadership. U.S. officials only acknowledged its existence a few weeks ago, and little is known about the group. (Some conservatives claim it doesn’t exist.) It may be known as al-Nusra’s “Wolf Unit,” but the name “Khorasan” doesn’t make sense in Arabic, and it’s unclear if that’s how the group refers to itself.

NUMBERS: Small; only several dozen.

U.S. STANCE: The U.S. began striking Khorasan hideouts in Syria in September 2014, saying that the group posed an imminent threat to America.

NOTABLE AFFILIATIONS: Jabhat al-Nusra

Islamic Front

WHAT: An umbrella organization for many Islamist factions fighting in Syria. It was created last November and is considered one of the stronger rebel organizations. Groups largely function on their own, but often coordinate on announcements and may cooperate on attacks. The groups fighting on the Islamic Front banner cover a wide scope of different ideologies, with one big group, Ahrar al-Sham, having some connections to Al Qaeda. Generally, they want to supplant Assad with a religiously based government.

NUMBERS: Over 50,000

U.S. STANCE: The U.S. doesn’t have a working relationship with the Islamic Front, although they have common goals in the war.

NOTABLE AFFILIATIONS: Subgroups include Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, Tawhid Brigade, Haq Brigade, Ansar al-Sham, Islamic Army, and the Kurdish Islamic Front

Free Syrian Army

WHAT: A loose collective of fairly secular opposition groups fighting the Assad regime. The FSA has been falling behind throughout the conflict and losing ground to Islamist groups. However, the FSA has also been known to coordinate with more moderate Islamist factions.

NUMBERS: Estimates vary; perhaps thousands.

U.S. STANCE: The U.S. is planning on arming “moderate rebels” fighting ISIS, including those fighting with the Free Syrian Army.

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Syrian troops celebrate as they take control of the village of Haydariyah on May 13, 2013. Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

GROUPS THAT SUPPORT THE ASSAD REGIME

Syrian Armed Forces

WHAT: The army of the Assad regime. Theoretically, it can draw on all Syrian males for its ranks.

NUMBERS: Roughly 200,000, though estimates vary.

U.S. STANCE: The U.S. has long condemned the Assad regime for the leader’s crimes against Syrians, including suspected chemical-weapons attacks. However, the U.S. is not fighting the regime directly and may be coordinating with it to bomb ISIS and Nusra targets in Syria.

Hezbollah

WHAT: A Lebanese militant group and political party. The Shiite group entered the Syrian civil war on behalf of the Assad regime to save its ally from falling to Sunni jihadists. Its involvement is symptomatic of the sectarian tensions in Iraq and Syria, and its leaders have publicly expressed fears about ISIS advances.

NUMBERS: No estimates.

U.S. STANCE: The U.S. classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist affiliation, but it doesn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. through its involvement in Syria.

NOTABLE AFFILIATIONS: Hezbollah in Lebanon

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Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters rest as they patrol the front line in the Makhmur area, near Mosul, on August 24, 2014.Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

KURDISH GROUPS

Peshmerga

WHAT: Kurdish forces, particularly from semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. They have been instrumental in fighting off ISIS militants from their strongholds and also in rescuing Yazidis targeted by ISIS. (Ethnic Kurds, however, can be found fighting in many group across the political spectrum.)

NUMBERS: Roughly 200,000.

U.S. STANCE: The U.S. and its allies have committed to training and arming Peshmerga forces, who are mainly interested in keeping ISIS at bay and establishing autonomy for the ethnic group.

People’s Protection Units (YPG)

WHAT: Kurdish militias affiliated with the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as the Democratic Union Party in Syria. The YPG is known for having many female fighters and has fought for Kurdish autonomy.

NUMBERS: Estimates vary; several thousand.

U.S. STANCE: The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department, but the U.S. and the YPG are fighting common enemies in Syria. The YPG do not pose a threat to the U.S.

NOTABLE AFFILIATIONS: Allied with Free Syrian Army.