- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
Who the Syrian rebels are depends on whom you ask. Experts on the civil war — not just politicians like Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin — disagree vehemently over whether the rebellion has been subsumed by jihadi elements. No one is entirely sure of how many rebels are fighting within Syria’s borders, and few are willing to even venture an estimate. Then there’s the convoluted alphabet soup of overlapping rebel groups to sort through.
A brief guide of all the relevant information is useful. So here are the things we know — or think we know — about the Syrian rebels.
The majority of Syria’s rebels are under the nominal control of the Supreme Military Council (SMC), which was established in December 2012 and was an outgrowth of a regional military council formed in the country a year before. The SMC is led by Gen. Salim Idriss and is the primary intermediary between the rebellion’s on-the-ground leadership and its exiled government-in-waiting, the Syrian National Council (SNC). David Ignatius reported on Tuesday that the commander of the SMC’s southern division, Gen. Ziad Fahd, had told him he had 30,000 Free Syrian Army troops ready to march to Damascus in the event of U.S. missile strikes.
"That’s probably a slight exaggeration," Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and political director at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, told Foreign Policy by phone. "There are a lot of fighters there, but it’s not clear that they’re coordinated enough to conduct an operation like that."
That’s partially because of the multitude of smaller rebel groups, both within and outside the SMC’s authority. The largest organization under the SMC banner is the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF). "The [SILF] is the much more moderate alliance in Syria,"O’Bagy explains. "They have had to sign a code of conduct" and answer to the SMC’s leadership.
Or at least they do most of the time. On Aug. 22, four of the five commanders of the SMC’s regional commands threatened to resign if they did not receive additional weapons and were not given greater license to work with more radical Islamist groups outside the SMC umbrella, something that has been practiced informally already.
Some of those groups comprise the Syrian Islamist Front. (That’s the SIF, not to be confused with the SILF; you can see why the satirists at the Pan-Arabia Enquirer were reminded of the People’s Front of Judea from Life of Brian.) The SIF is a more radical coalition that "has not formally joined the SMC," O’Bagy told FP. But, she noted, "there are a few battalions that associate with both. They’ll say their part of both the SMC and the SIF."
Then there are the al Qaeda-affiliated groups Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS, formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq). They have sparred at the leadership level but tactically have what Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, characterizes as a "friendly rivalry." These groups don’t answer to the SMC, the SILF, or the SIF; they have alternately fought alongside other rebel forces — Kirk Sowell, principal of Uticensis Risk Services, noted in his recent piece for FP that, when delivering remarks after storming Menagh airbase a month ago, the SMC commander spoke briefly before passing the microphone to a local ISIS commander — and against them, as in the city of Raqqa.
The number of Syrian rebels is contested, but many experts agree their strength is their numbers. Or as Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, wrote last month, "One way to understand the military dynamics of the Syrian civil war is to think of Jim Morrison and The Doors: ‘They got the guns, but we got the numbers.’" O’Bagy says that, although the "identities [of rebel groups] are very fluid," she estimates there are approximately 80,000 to 100,000 rebels participating in offensive operations and protecting neighborhoods and towns, and that "the majority of those forces align with the SMC directly."
Approximately 10,000 to 15,000 rebels place themselves in the SIF camp. Estimates of the size of the al Qaeda-affiliated groups are also vague: Aaron Zelin, Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, estimates that 5,000 to 10,000 foreign jihadists have arrived in Syria, not to mention domestic recruits, while O’Bagy estimates that Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS supporters probably number in the 5,000 to 7,000 range.
Two weeks ago, on Aug. 25, Reuters reported a plan by the SNC to create a "national army" with more centralized control than the coalitions of convenience and momentary shared interests that have typified the rebellion. Saudi Arabia pledged $100 million to support a vanguard force of 6,000 to 10,000 troops in the new organization. The plan was rejected immediately by Islamist militias who saw it as a way to push them to the sidelines of the rebellion, and has been sharply criticized by commanders within the SMC. It does not appear to be moving forward, O’Bagy told FP, largely because the rebels don’t feel they can risk alienating one another. As Zelin explained to Syria Deeply, "It’s one of the biggest ironies: even though the opposition has been so fractured, they’re interconnected on the battlefield because there’s not one faction that’s strong enough to strong-arm another faction. They need each other."