Empowering the democratic resistance in Syria – by Bassma Kodmani & Félix Legrand

Article  •  Publié sur Souria Houria le 12 septembre 2013

About the Arab Reform Initiative

The Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) is a consortium of regional policy analysis institutes that strives to

mobilize research capacity to advance knowledge and nurture home-grown and responsive programs

for democratic reform in the Arab World. ARI seeks to generate, facilitate, and disseminate

knowledge by and for Arab societies. It engages political actors and social movements on democratic

transformation. In the quest to build free, just and democratic societies, ARI focuses on the current

revolutionary processes in the Arab world, the new patterns of interaction between political forces,

governments and societies, political, socio-economic and cultural transformations, and social justice.

It opens a space for diverse voices and brings in the key actors in the transformation processes at

play: intellectuals and activists, women and representatives of civil society, human rights groups,

social movements and political parties, the private sector, the media, etc. As an Arab organization

with partner institutes across the region, ARI is an interlocutor and partner for governments and think

tanks in other regions of the world.

ARI produces research and policy analysis, supports networks and young scholars, provides neutral

space for debate between diverse political groups, convenes policy dialogues and organizes regional

platforms on critical issues relted tot the transition processes.

About the Authors 

BASSMA KODMANI is the director of the Arab Reform Initiative and a founding member of the Paris

based NGO Initiative for a New Syria. She was a founding member of the Syrian opposition Syrian 

National Council until her resignation in August 2012. 

FELIX LEGRAND is a research fellow for the Arab Reform Initative and a founding member of the Paris

based NGO Initiative for a New Syria.


The authors of the report would like to thank all the Syrians inside and abroad who have put a lot of

efforts into helping us collect and check information, as well as those who have taken the time and

the risk of hosting and escorting us during our visits in Northern Syria. The authors also thank Nafissa

El-Souri, Jean-Pierre Filiu, Sally Hamarneh, Salam Kawakibi,  Ben Lydon and Gerald Stang for their help

in reviewing, editing and formatting this report.

Cover picture by AMMAR ABD RABBO , FSA fighters in Aleppo. 


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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY ……………………………………………………………………………………….. 4 

I. INTRODUCTION …………………………………………………………………… 6



MANUFACTURING RADICALISM ………………………………………………………………………….. 9 

‘ONLY GOD IS WITH US’ …………………………………………………………………………………. 10 

THE CURSE OF GEOPOLITICS ……………………………………………………………………………… 10 

THE ROLE OF THE POLITICAL OPPOSITION ………………………………………………………………. 11 

IS THE TIDE TURNING? …………………………………………………………………………………… 12 

IV. THE FORCES ON THE GROUND …………………………………………….. 14


PRODEMOCARCY FIGHTERS…………………………………………………………………………….. 15 

KATAEB AL-WEHDA AL-WATANIYA (KWW) …………………………………………………………………………. 16


SENIOR MILITARY FIGURES ……………………………………………………………………………………………… 19

COMMUNITY BASED GROUPS …………………………………………………………………………………………… 19

Tribes ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 19

Dooma ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 20

Deraa-Suweida’ …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 21

Al-Raqqa ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 21

Talbiseh ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 22

FORMATION OF MILITARY DIVISIONS ………………………………………………………………………………….. 22

V. FLUIDITY ………………………………………………………………………….. 23

VI. ATOMIZED BUT COOPERATING ……………………………………………. 25


TENSIONS IN AL-JABAL AL-WASTANI …………………………………………………………………… 26 

CLASHES IN AL-DANA ……………………………………………………………………………………. 27 


THE FIGHT FOR THE PROVINCE OF AL-RAQQA …………………………………………………………. 28 


List of Acronyms ………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 33

Glossary of Arabic military terms ………………………………………………………………………………. 33

APPENDIX 1   Table of Armed Groups Identified as Pro-Democracy ………………………………. 34

APPENDIX 2   Map of units ………………………………………………………………………………………… 40


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A peaceful uprising in Syria started in spring 2011 turned into an armed resistance after a few months

in the face of savage repression by the Assad regime. Since then, the activists who picked up arms

became dependent on support in money and arms to be able to continue. Few other than the Assad

regime question this narrative. Yet the consequences of this dependence are often overlooked. The

sources of funding for the rebels and the strings attached to them have since shaped the landscape of

the armed rebellion, not the other way round. What we have in Syria is not an Islamist revolution but

a popular uprising that received funding primarily from Islamist sources. Acknowledging this is

essential and has far-reaching implications for defining an effective policy in the Syrian conflict.

As the United States, France and regional powers of the Middle East prepare for what appears to be

an inevitable military strike on the Syrian regime of Bashar el Assad, questions are posed more

urgently than ever: how to work with the armed opposition? who are the reliable forces? what are

their capabilities? which groups can be part of the plan to replace Assad and how can the extremists

be contained?

This paper examines the circumstances and conditions that shaped the Syrian armed opposition and

surveys the groups that remain committed to a democratic political system and a pluralistic society in


It describes the extreme fluidity within the armed resistance which reflects primarily the diverse but

most often unstable, and therefore, unreliable sources of funding for the rebels. It suggests ways to

empower the pro-democracy groups as the best means to reach the dual objective of ending the

dictatorship of Assad and achieving a democratic outcome in Syria and argues that the former

objective has no chance of succeeding if the latter is not pursued simultaneously.

A self-reinforcing and largely self-defeating spiral has been at play over the last two years.  Reluctance

to provide the right kind of support at the right time has not resulted in lower levels of money and

arm reaching the rebels but rather has allowed the wrong sources to become the main providers.

With every increase in the support provided in exchange of loyalty to some Islamist agenda, fears

have heightened among a growing number of Syrians regarding the outcome of the conflict and Iran

has deepened its involvement on the side of the Assad regime to counter what it sees as a Saudi

grand design of installing Sunni domination of the Wahhabi brand over the entire region.

Unity of ranks in face of the regime remained for a long time the overriding rule for the armed

resistance. But as extremist groups sought to dominate in certain areas, efforts by mainstream Syrian

groups to re-gain control of the resistance and re-instate its original objectives are leading to a de 

facto triangular struggle involving the regime, radical Jihadi groups and the democratic opposition.

These dynamics on the ground have major implications for policy:

It is high time that Western governments make clear to their regional allies that support for certain

groups with a non-democratic agenda is frightening to many Syrians and delaying the fall of Assad.

If money and arms are defining the direction of the conflict, the fluidity of the armed groups should

be used as an opportunity to shape the situation on the ground.  Western and regional powers should

select and empower leaders of democratic groups to redress this balance in their favor within the FSA

itself. If properly equipped, pro-democracy groups have the potential to spearhead a movement to

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alter the balance of power in the battlefield to their advantage and reassure a large portion of Syrians

sitting on the fence.

Basic relief for the fighters is just as important as the procurement of weapons. An effective strategy

to allow pro-democracy groups to regain the initiative should combine civil and military support,

bringing stable and reliable support as the only way for leaders of pro-democracy groups to retain the

loyalty of their fighters and ensure effective command. Only at this condition is it possible to identify

the groups that can be trusted and supplied with sophisticated weapons.

The Supreme Military Command cannot be expected to alter on its own the balance of forces on the

ground in favor of democratic groups. Donors have continued to select their own favorite groups even

after the creation of the SMC. The SMC is a reliable channel but donors should designate the

beneficiaries of the support in coordination with it.

The Supreme Military Council should be assisted in its effort to chart an operational security plan for

the protection of all vital sites and areas across the country.  Its chairman would be in a position then

to seek the commitment of regional and local commanders to implement the plan thus allowing the

SMC to vet groups in the process.


Small multi-sectarian groups are fighting the regime in areas where it still enjoys support usually at

hight risk for their security. Providing limited military support to such groups would go a long way in

weakening the Assad family; it would pose a serious challenge to the regime which will hesitate to

respond with massive bombings in the same way as it does in areas where the resistance is dominant;

it would pre-empt the emergence of a demarcation line as a prelude to partition; lastly, it would

mend relations between the various communities of the country after the regime worked to stir them

up against each other.

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I. Introduction 

One of the most challenging exercises in the Syrian conflict today is to identify all the groups

fighting on the ground who call themselves revolutionary forces. In peaceful contexts, the process of

identifying the groups which should be included in a political process usually involves scrutiny of their

commitment to abide by democratic rules defined in a constitutional framework.

Criteria differ, however, in the context of an armed conflict such as the one in Syria. As the regime

is determined to destroy the social fabric of the country and is threatening the integrity of the Syrian

state, the objective of ending Assad family rule becomes inseparable from the objective of rescuing

both the state and society. It requires an approach that pursues both objectives at the same time. If

the WHAT (Assad’s ouster) is unanimously shared by the armed groups and activists of the uprising,

then the HOW becomes the real question. If the prominence of radical Islamist groups is frightening to

many Syrians and to many countries (on both sides of the fence), then it is clearly a mistake to allow

the domination of Islamist groups in the struggle to achieve the primary objective of removing Assad.

For too long now, struggles over the HOW have been delaying the realization of the desired outcome.


Over the last 18 months, dozens of investigative studies, reports and articles have been produced

by intelligence and military officers, human rights organizations, scholars and journalists focusing

almost exclusively on Islamist groups (Muslim Brothers, Salafis and Jihadists of various brands and

origins). While the growth of such groups is indeed alarming and merits serious analysis, the volume

of writing about them leaves observers with the impression that all the fighters on the ground are

Islamist, that democratic groups are non-existent and that Assad’s removal will inevitably lead to

control of Syria by Islamist forces.


The Assad regime itself invests heavily in media networks to demonize his opponents. Its target

audiences are first and foremost the political elites and public opinion of Western countries. It has

engaged in smear campaigns against political figures and, since the confrontation evolved into

primarily a military one, the regime has resorted to a multi-faceted strategy of infiltrating and

manipulating certain groups while describing them all as Jihadists.


This report provides an alternative and more accurate narrative. Based on a thorough field

investigation inside Syria, it maps groups that have remained committed to the original demands of

the uprising for a free, democratic and pluralistic Syria. It describes the factors that have shaped the

movement on the ground, the conditions in which armed groups operate and the resilience of those

national democratic groups that have, against all odds, maintained their commitment to a liberal

Syria. It calls for a different approach by acknowledging where the pressure points lie and by working

from two different ends: from the providers, who procure money and arms, and from the receivers,

those political and military figures on the ground who inspire and provide guidance to resistance



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An active and intrusive approach appears necessary if support for the revolution is to succeed in producing

the best outcome for a pluralistic Syria.


This is not to say that democratic groups are isolated and need to

be hand-picked from the midst of an ocean of Islamist Syrians. The

Syrian revolution has not turned Islamist but is funded mostly by

sources with an Islamist leaning, leaving revolutionary groups with a

democratic bent struggling to survive as orphans in terms of sources

of support.


The terms ‘democratic’ or ‘pro-democracy’, as used here to

describe different groups, are not based on ideological

considerations but on the consideration of what is required for

maintaining a pluralist and unified Syria, as will be explained below.


If pro-democracy groups are provided with the right kind of support, this will catalyze and reveal the

support that they enjoy within Syrian society, enabling them to grow rapidly. They can then reconnect the

armed struggle with Syria’s diverse social environment and prompt a re-Syrianization of the uprising. The

purpose of this report is to provide an operational map of reliable groups who have the potential to become

launching pads for an active strategy. Our efforts to identify pro-democracy groups in this report are primarily

aimed at extricating the struggle from the multiple agendas that have spilled into Syria over the last two years.


The report does not advocate splitting the ranks of the resistance, particularly as the enemy remains whole:

the Assad regime. The report does, however, call for applying highly selective criteria in vetting groups on the

ground with a view to empowering them and shifting the balance among anti-regime forces in their favor. The

groups described in this report and listed in the annex are ones that have shown consistent commitment to

democratic principles throughout the last two years, even under dire circumstances. Some groups are certainly

missing from the list and still need to be identified. The report should therefore be considered a work in

progress and will be updated on a regular basis.


We do not dispute the need to strengthen the formal bodies representing the political and the military

opposition, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (or National Coalition of the

Opposition) and the Supreme Military Council. These bodies are very much needed and the revolution has

suffered long enough from the weaknesses and divisions within the opposition. Both should be supported and

encouraged to develop institutional and executive capacity. But it is unrealistic to expect these new bodies to

develop ties with groups on the ground or establish an organizational system overnight. This challenge is often



The first section of the report clarifies the criteria used for selecting democratic groups. The next two

sections describe the context that shaped the opposition movement on the ground over the last two years and

outline the roles and activities of outside supporters and members of the opposition.


The following two sections analyze the objectives and structures of various groups that work to uphold the

unity of Syria and a pluralistic political system. The analysis is based on a thorough investigation undertaken

inside Syria over the last two years, including lengthy discussions with political and military leaders of the

opposition. A table of identified groups and their key attributes is included in the annex. Names of units and

numbers of fighters fluctuate, reflecting the extreme fluidity of the military situation. The report analyses the

constraints that cause this fluidity, provides a concrete account of patterns of cooperation in the battlefield and

analyzes the causes of tension between groups.



An active and intrusive 

approach appears 

necessary if support for 

the revolution is to 

succeed in producing the 

best outcome for a 

pluralistic Syria 


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The final section suggests directions for an effective strategy to limit the proxy aspect of the war, work

towards re-Syrianizing the revolution and reassure the hesitant, terrified Syrians who fear both the regime and

the instability.


A note should be added on the choice of words in this report. Terms such as ‘revolution’, ‘conflict’, ‘rebel’,

‘resistance fighter’, ‘democratic’, ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ are highly charged. For Syrians, the narrative of the

conflict is extremely important as the regime continues to invest much effort and funds into negating the

crimes and horrors that its forces are committing. Our objective is not to engage in this controversy but to

bring clarity for decision-makers who seek to build a strategy for achieving a democratic outcome.

II. Who are the pro-democracy groups?

The groups identified in this report were not selected on ideological grounds but rather based on one

practical consideration: are they dedicated to preserving the integrity of Syria as a nation-state in which all

citizens can feel they want to belong. In selecting the groups listed in the annex of this report, we strictly

limited the selection to groups who showed clear commitment to the original liberal non-sectarian values

which animated the popular peaceful uprising of spring 2011.


By ‘pro-democracy’, we mean those groups who fight for

establishing a Syrian state for all its current citizens, those who

espouse a national agenda of pluralism, equal citizenship, and

advocate the rule of one civil law for all. In addition to their

commitment to principles, we also monitored considerations related

to their actions since the start of the uprising in the civilian sphere,

including the delivery of assistance to the population on a non-

discriminatory basis and the management of civil affairs (local

councils, education curriculum, civil courts) in ways that preserve the

civil nature of public institutions and diversity within society. The

organization of the armed resistance on non-sectarian grounds and

the treatment of detainees are also major criteria.


Lastly, and most importantly, is the willingness of groups to abide by the decisions of a civil political

authority and to be part of a comprehensive security plan for stabilizing the country, as the Supreme Military

Council is seeking to do. Groups with these traits are those most likely to build a Syria which can govern itself,

defend itself, and sustain itself. They do not have the capacity to do so without some outside assitance but they

would be most amenable to cooperation with the governments of neighboring countries and international

powers to bring security back to the region. These groups are the voice of a large section (arguably the

majority) of the silent Syrians who are sitting on the fence.


It would have been justified to include other groups described as moderate or mainstream Islamists, who

should be clearly distinguished from the extremist and Jihadi groups. They reflect the moderate Islam, which

Syrians like to call social Islam traditionally prevalent among the Sunni community in Syria and therefore are

part of the social fabric of the country. Some are known to be close to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The

political leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is committed to a democratic and pluralistic agenda for post-

Assad Syria. This is clearly stated in the political platform of the Muslim Brotherhood published in 2004 and re-

confirmed in a document published in 2012. Several conservative religious leaders have also indicated their

commitment to a political system that protects the rights of all minorities. Syrians from all communities and

ideological backgrounds do not question the right of these figures to be part of the political transition and to

play a role in the future political system.


Groups identified here are 

the ones most likely to 

build a Syria which can 

govern itself, defend 

itself, and sustain itself 



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We have chosen, however, to exclude them from our report for two main reasons. First, they have received

(and continue to receive) massive support in arms and money from sources that have denied non-Islamist

groups the same kind of support. This has had the effect (even if unintended) of frightening more Syrians than

of gaining supporters for the revolution. Second, the Assad regime’s strategy has sought to tear apart the social

fabric and to call on its regional allies to transform the popular uprising into a sectarian conflict pitting Shias

against Sunnis – including the formation of a purely sectarian militia of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shias. In this

context, providing further support to the Sunni Islamist groups is objectively playing into the hands of the

regime. An effective strategy to counter these plans entails a targeted effort to empower the groups that are

clearly committed to a unified, democratic Syria.

Extremist Jihadi groups pose a problem of a different kind. Most Syrians see them as alien to the social

and political fabric of the country. They run wild and shut down civilian life, calling for establishing an Islamic

theocracy more often than they mention the fall of Assad. High ranking military officers of the Free Syrian Army

and Muslim religious leaders have called on them on many occasions to leave the country.


Maintaining unity in the ranks of the opposition has been unanimously seen as a requirement for success,

mostly for valid reasons which remain relevant. Yet the moto of unity at any cost has often served as a cover

for extremist Jihadi groups to work their way into Syria and promote their agendas without meeting significant

resistance from other opposition members. As is shown below, combating extremist Jihadi groups should not

be seen as a sign of further division but as an attempt to purge the ranks of the resistance from elements that

bring it discredit. 

III. The context that shaped the movement on the ground  


The situation on the ground in Syria has been largely shaped, on one hand, by the extreme brutality of the

Assad regime and, on the other hand, by the paralysis of the international community (as illustrated by the

absence of a UN Security Council resolution condemning the repression).

Manufacturing radicalism 

The regime resorted to disproportionate use of force from the

first days of the uprising as part of what it believed had been a

successful deterrence strategy over the four preceding decades. The

motto of Assad’s father had been “terrorize and rule”.


His son and family had no better recipe to maintain their control

over the country and protect their rule. The ideal enemy (who quickly

becomes the best objective ally) in this strategy is extremism. The

moderate and secular figures of the opposition become the most

dangerous. They have been targeted in effect one after the other by

the shabiha, the pro-Assad militias.

Victims include a surgeon assassinated in his medical clinic, a prominent economist and planner of local

councils tortured to death in prison, Christian human rights lawyers defending prisoners and a prominent

Alawi political leader among numerous others.




Moderate and secular 

figures of the opposition 

are seen as the most 

dangerous for the regime 

and are targeted one after 

the other 


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The activists who started the peaceful uprising

in 2011 were left with two options: either stop the

uprising altogether (as peaceful protest became

impossible) or take up arms. The appetite for taking

up arms was unequal among the different groups.

Many were torn and desperately sought new tactics

to keep the movement peaceful. But as activists

witnessed the killings of brothers, children or

neighbors, or were tortured in prison, the incentive

to fight became irresistible. The process of

radicalization was set in motion. Periodic massacres

(such as in al-Hoola in May 2012, al-Heffa in June

2012, Daraya in August 2012, etc.), some of which

were committed while the UN supervision mission

(UNSMIS) was still on the ground in Syria, sent new

young men to join the fight.

Eventually every group, even those most averse to the militarization of the struggle, became directly or

indirectly implicated in the military resistance.


‘Only God is with us’ 

A combination of factors created what the activists on the ground call a “godly climate”. When the regime

moved to use the most extreme forms of violence, – including the use of chemical weapons at a smaller scale

than the attack on the Damscus Ghouta in August 2013 – upholding the struggle was not anymore a question of

“who is ready to fight” but increasingly “who is willing to die”. Jihad became the most effective rallying cry.


The lack of sophisticated weapons was decisive in giving the Jihadi groups a prominent role in the military

confrontation with the regime. In the absence of effective weapons to face the advances of the regime’s

artillery and air force, bombings and suicide attacks against strategic targets such as security buildings and

military bases, became the only way to hurt the enemy and achieve some successes in an asymmetrical war.

Jihadis excel at this type of tactics and can become a weapon in their own right. Jihadi groups were determined

to use this battlefield edge to win the space to impose their rules on areas they came to control.


The inadequate international response and the fact that no force stepped in to protect the civilian

population from slaughter have had devastating consequences. Not only was a Libya-like intervention (which

many Syrians had hoped for) out of the question, but it was not even possible to achieve minimal agreement

among members of the UN Security Council to condemn the crimes of the regime or to secure the channeling

of humanitarian relief to the civilian population. More than two years into the conflict, regional and

international inhibitions, strategic interests and rivalries allow criminal behavior to continue with impunity,

leaving Syria’s people with a bitter feeling of having been abandoned.

The curse of geopolitics 

Syria emerged as the most sensitive pivot of the complex regional equation. The regime’s efforts focused on

making the sectarian issue a key element of its strategy. The approach seemed to be “If you can’t divide and 

rule, divide to prevent anyone else from ruling, and trigger spill-over and spill-in, exporting risks and importing 

new dangers.”

Loyalist slogan written on the wall of a 

village in Idlib; “al-Assad or we burn the 



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These factors combined to create the conditions for a proxy war. Every group engaged in the fight became

dependent on external financial and military support, and hence vulnerable to manipulation. The regime

increasingly relied on the support of its allies and on the opposition side, money and arms were made available

to those who agreed to swear loyalty to a patron, and patrons multiplied rapidly.


In the Middle East, funding is overwhelmingly from Islamic sources and brings with it a conservative agenda.

Money circulates through complex channels, some of which are controlled by governments but many of which

are managed through private business and religious networks. These networks were first established in the late

1970s and early 1980s to support the Islamic resistance in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation, and have

been re-activated during conflicts in the Balkans, Algeria, Yemen and Iraq over the last three decades. While

some of the funds are channeled with the blessing of the governments of Gulf countries, thus making them

directly responsible for the Islamization of the resistance, these networks are often richly endowed with

private resources and are in some cases too powerful for governments to confront, even if they chose to.


Syrian fighters have become recipients of this aid and leaders of military groups drew influence and power

over their fighters thanks to their ability to secure funds and arms. The regime thus created the incentive

(bringing along its own patrons to fight on its side); conservative religious networks provided the means and

tools to the resistance; and with those came multiple political agendas.

The role of the political opposition 

While the multiple sources of funding and agendas are largely responsible for the fractionalization of the

armed opposition, the political opposition also carries part of the responsibility for the broader lack of

cooperation among anti-regime groups. The lack of any experience in working and planning jointly, and let

alone leading a military confrontation, the lack of trust, partisan competition, personal ambitions and, last but

not least, the readiness of figures in key positions to serve the interests of influential regional actors, all

combined to make consistent coordination between the political leadership of the opposition and the armed

groups on the ground a wish that never materialized. Neither the Syrian

National Council established in November 2011 nor the National Coalition of

the Opposition created a year later succeeded in serving as a national

political umbrella for the armed opposition. Instead, different political

factions developed their own ties with different groups on the ground. Here

again, many among the liberal democratic camp within the opposition

remained reluctant for some time to acknowledge that the armed struggle

was inevitable, while the Islamist forces were quick to start organizing the

flow of arms and, when the first officers defected from the Syrian army, to

seek to control them through funding. Fighters, both civilians and military

officers, who were averse to the Islamization process of the revolution

longed for political guidance and support from political figures who failed to

engage with them.


Since the resistance became armed, sources of funding and the strings attached to them have been shaping

the landscape, not the other way round. The Syrian revolution has not become Islamist but is desperately in

need of support and has largely received funds and arms from Islamist sources, some controlled by identifiable

sources and others controlled by shadowy networks that connect the most improbable bedfellows. Tracing

them is complex and is tied to the internal politics of the Gulf states and to the multiple games that Iran, Iraq

and the Syrian regime have played in recent decades. This important issue merits a thorough investigation

which falls outside the scope of this report. Its implications for Syria, however, are at the heart of our subject.


Since the resistance 

became armed, sources of 

funding and the strings 

attached to them have 

been shaping the 

landscape, not the other 

way round 


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Once a group of activists has picked up arms, it must secure ammunition at any price and its leader is

required to at least feed its fighters. As petty as this may sound, it is at the heart of the problem. During the

early days of the armed uprising, opposition figures joked that “The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is for sale”. Armed

groups choose names for their brigades that are likely to please the funders. It has often been reported how

some governments and private networks suggest that a group change its name in order to receive financial and

military support in exchange. Many groups spontaneously choose Islamic names, resort to religious vocabulary

and strive to project an image of religiosity through their media statements and Facebook pages.


When a leader cannot provide for the minimum vital needs of his fighters who face the risk of death every

day and when he cannot secure the arms and ammunitions that allow the fighters to take an effective role in

battles while they watch well equipped Islamist brigades with frustration, they end up abandoning their leader

and the group to join better endowed units, which to date have invariably been more radical. If anything, this is

indicative of the determination of the fighters not to give up the fight rather than of any fundamentalist

inclinations. Exceptions such as Kataeb Wehda Wataniya (KWW) described below provide a model not only

because they are secular and multi-sectarian but because they received steady funding from non-islamist

sources and kept their identity and cohesion even though they did not find the means to grow.


Once the well-supported groups gain military control over areas, the continued flow of money provides

them with the means to control the distribution of vital commodities, medical care, the management of

hospitals and the production of oil. More alarming for their long term implications are the opening of religious

courts and the enforcement of Islamic Sharia law and the control of education through the imposition of a

fundamentalist curriculum of the Wahhabi brand in schools.


The Islamist armed groups have been particularly focused on the imposition of Islamic law. Professional

lawyers and judges with connections to Syrian civil law are denounced either as “secular” (which amounts to

atheism in their vocabulary) or as agents of the Baath regime. Civil courts in the rebel-held areas are often

threatened and some are forced to close. In Dooma for example, a rebel-held town in the suburbs of

Damascus, all attempts at opening a functioning civil court have failed. Local liberal leaders and the few lawyers

who remain in the city (only 5 out of 200 lawyers have not fled) say that only when the FSA (by which they

mean the non-Jihadi moderate groups supported by the Supreme Military Council) gains control will it be safe

to enforce civil law. In the north, a few successes exist such as in the town of Salqin where the legal body (hay’a 

shariya) which applies religious law abandoned it to Jabhat al-Nosra which in turn abandoned it, allowing civil

lawyers to take over. In Aleppo, non-Islamic professional lawyers and judges are seeking to reach a common

understanding with the Supreme Military Council and the newly created local police force to gradually restore

civil law into the city.

Is the tide turning? 

Recent developments, have encouraged a change of attitude among liberals and among non-politicized

armed groups which are generally averse to the Islamists’ political agenda. In liberated areas such as al-Raqqa,

al-Tabqa, Douma, the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib province, there has been a steadily growing trend over

the last year of increasing resentment among those who want a liberal democratic Syria. In the name of

protecting a sacred unity in face of the regime, liberal democratic armed groups have remained discreet about

their resentment and largely powerless lacking the basic means to challenge the radical groups. Many of their

leaders believed that the showdown with the extremists was inevitable but considered that the time had not

come for opening this second front. They thought that this could only benefit Assad and that it should be

postponed until after the fall of the regime. Instead, they sought dialogue and sought a modus vivendi with

Islamist groups.

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The change of attitude has been induced by several factors. First, the extremists of Jabhat al-Nosra and the

Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (both offshoots of al-Qaeda) began to impose strict rules and provocative

measures which alienated large segments of the Syrian population thus showing what many saw as their “true

(ugly) face”. Second, the earlier successes of the Jihadis have not been consolidated and have failed to tip the

balance in favor of the anti-Assad resistance. Third, the opposition, both political and military, has come to

believe that the motto of unity has become counterproductive, that it has been used by the Islamist forces and

their patrons as a cover to dominate the political opposition and the resistance, and that it has frightened a

large portion of the hesitant Syrians sitting on the fence, thus damaging the image of the revolution altogether.

Lastly, the debates in the United States Congress, the British Parliament and the European Union on the

dangers related to the delivery of sophisticated weapons to the opposition for fear that the arms might end in

the hands of extremists has undoubtedly emboldened some groups to come out and state clearly where they

want to belong. But their message is invariably the same: if the means are made available, we will be in a

position to reverse the trend on the ground.


Liberated areas offer stark examples of the unwillingness of resistance groups and of the civilian population

to provide cover for the abuses of the extremists. Section IV below provides examples from the field of the

clashes that are multiplying between mainstream resistance groups and radical Jihadis. These cannot be

equated with infighting within an already fractious armed opposition. Rather, they are attempts to rid the

resistance of alien elements who worked their way into Syria and stand as an obstacle to unifying the ranks of

the FSA. These efforts contribute to the goal of re-syrianizing the movement. FSA leaders (and hopefully their

foreign patrons) now understand the damage caused by the willingness of some FSA units to work with Jabhat 

al-Nosra and realize that this cooperation made the West reluctant to provide military aid and gave Mr. Assad

an opportunity to depict the entire opposition as driven by foreign-backed extremists.

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IV. The forces on the ground 

The Role of the Supreme Military Council 

It is rarely noted that most defected military officers from the Syrian army are steeped in the dominant

political culture of post-independence Syria which is nationalist and secular. Their language, vision, priorities

and reactions to events indicate clearly a nationalist, albeit a pan-Arabist bent. They often see that the Assad

regime has led astray the true nationalist doctrine of the Syrian army and used it as a cover to build its

sectarian special forces to dominate and control the armed forces. Hence when we use the word ‘nationalist’

we refer to this political culture which permeates very widely the army and is also a strong feature within large

sectors of society.


The November 2012 creation of the Supreme Military Council

(SMC) with General Salim Idriss at its head is a significant

achievement in the process of organizing a large part of the armed

resistance on the ground that operated under the franchise of the

Free Syrian Army but did not have any command structure of sort.1

The actual integration and unification of command can only start to

happen if regional and international supporters of the resistance

develop serious coordination among themselves. Salim Idriss’s

elevation to the head of the SMC is a reflection of such a

consensus. He is respected among Syrian military defectors and fighters for his personal qualifications and

integrity. So far, however, he has been a mere coordinator for the channelling of military supplies and admits

that he has little authority over troops on the ground. Many testimonies from the ground indicate that donors

most often dictate their conditions to him by designating specific armed groups as beneficiaries of their aid.

Idriss has therefore been treading the path drawn for him and has not been in a position to decide on priorities

as he sees them. This complicates his relationship with the 30 military leaders who form the unified High

Command of the SMC and expect to have a say in the distribution of money and arms channelled through


Idriss is first and foremost a professional military officer with no

apparent political leanings. He clearly favours military officers when

dealing with armed groups and is pushing for the creation of military

divisions led by professional army officers. In June 2013, when the

National Coalition of the Oppposition, the formal representative

body of the opposition was expanding, it decided to include

representatives of the SMC in an effort to enhance coordination

between the political and military opposition. General Idriss was

asked to designate 15 military figures. These commanders have all

come out in support of the non-Islamist camp within the coalition,

thus reducing the influence of the Islamist groups.

In brief, the creation of the SMC does not resolve the problem of determining which groups to support

within Syria. Donors have continued to select their own favored groups after the creation of the SMC by

earmarking funds to certain groups even when channeling through the SMC.


On the formation and structure of the SMC, see ELIZABETH O’BAGY, The Free Syrian Army, Middle East Security Report 9, Institute for the

Study of War, March 2013


Donors have continued to 

select their own favored 

groups after the creation 

of the SMC by earmarking 

funds to certain groups 

even when channeling 

funds through the SMC 


Salim Idriss, leader of the SMC

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Idriss will need to be a key pillar in any comprehensive plan for the armed opposition that may be

developed with the active collaboration of regional actors (notably the Gulf monarchies and Turkey), the

United States and European countries. However, he cannot be expected to alter on his own the balance of

forces on the ground in favour of democratic groups.

Pro-democarcy Fighters 

Detailed research has been published on the various Islamist groups and coalitions of the rebellion,

overshadowing the non-Islamist groups. These groups do not have sufficient resources to develop national

franchises in the same way as Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nosra (JAN), the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) or the

Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF).

Despite the apparent pervasiveness of Islamic coalitions, many armed groups who operate under the

franchise of the Free Syrian Army have maintained their political identity against all odds, refusing to become

the implementing arms of foreign donor agendas. We have chosen to call these groups “pro-democracy

fighters” as their agenda is limited to the original democratic objectives of the uprising. They can be organized

into three categories.

The first category includes groups initiated by senior military

defectors. These groups usually resent the politicization of their

actions and consider that the army should stay out of politics. They

sought to coordinate their actions with the primary body of the

political opposition, first the Syrian National Council and later the

National Coalition of the Opposition, but they refused to swear

loyalty to any particular group and have been consistently

marginalized in favor of more ideologically flexible civilian-led


The second category includes groups anchored in a political

movement. These are mostly revolutionary activists who find

guidance from political parties or figures with socialist, communist,

nationalist or liberal affiliations.

These affiliations include the Socialist Union party, the People’s party, the Nasserite party, the Democratic

Baath party and a constellation of newer movements which are a mix of civil society organizations and political

movements such as Muwatana, Nabd, Maan, the Democratic Pole, Kuluna Sooriyoon and a host of others.

These groups have also been unable to grow due to a lack of access to resources.

The third category includes locally rooted groups whose names usually contain a reference to their village

or neighborhood and who largely have minimal or mixed political leanings and rely on local resources and

personal networks for support.

We describe only a few groups from each category as examples but there are innumerable groups spread

across the country. Abu Ali, the richest man in a small town in the north who sold all his property to fund a

brigade continues to drain his family’s resources to secure food and ammunition for the fighters. HT, a wealthy

secular businessman in his thirties from a bourgeois family created with his friends a brigade in Damascus and

bought light arms from their own finances. They yearn for support and look to integrate with some organized

group. Abu Rakan, a retired officer from the army but with a family fortune, sold all of the household’s cars,

family jewels and valuables to buy arms and secure ammunition for his fighters. Countless leaders of small

brigades from all social classes have done the same. Once they had exhausted their resources, they waited for

months for support from governments who had declared Assad illegitimate and his repression of the uprising

unacceptable. Some ended up turning to Islamist sources to secure support, often explaining with


Many armed groups who 

operate under the 

franchise of the Free 

Syrian Army have 

maintained their political 

identity against all odds, 

refusing to become the 

implementing arms of 

foreign donor agendas 


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embarrassment and regret that they were left with no other choice.

Despite all the incentives offered by well-endowed Islamist groups, the pro-democracy brigades continue to

exist. The recent resentment among local inhabitants of Islamist groups seeking to impose their rules has

encouraged pro-democracy groups to work towards unifying their ranks. All of the pro-democracy groups

described in the following section recognize the authority of the SMC.


Kataeb al-Wehda al-Wataniya (KWW) 


The Kataeb al-Wehda al-Wataniya (KWW)2 is a coalition of battalions and brigades with a clear secular and

anti-sectarian leaning.3  

The coalition was created in August 2012 along with its

political branch, first called the Tayyar al-Wehda al-

Wataniya (National Unity Movement).4 Activists and

intellectuals close to this movement gathered in spring

2013 under the name of Kuluna Sooriyoon (We are all

Syrians).5 The movement was initiated by opposition

figures from the Alawite community and brought in

prominent liberal democratic figures from all sectarian


The political movement is based on democratic principles with a strong emphasis on the proection of

diversity and has a strong operational approach focusing on social reconciliation on the ground including the

negotiation of truces between villages from different sectarian communities, the liberation of prisoners from

both sides, assistance to defecting army soldiers as well as relief work in mixed areas.

The number of armed fighters in the KWW is estimated at 2000. Their main strongholds are in Reef Jisr al-

Shughoor (Western Idlib) and the southern neighborhoods of Damascus. They also have a significant presence

in Jabal al-Zawiya (Idlib province) and smaller units in Deraa and Deir Ezzor.

The KWW brigades are often multi-sectarian, including in certain

sensitive areas such as Reef Latakia and two brigades operate in Salamiya

(Reef Hama) containing Ismaili fighters. 

Despite regular demands from independent brigades and

individuals to join the group, the KWW often turn down newcomers

due to a lack of resources. We were able to verify that hundreds of

fighters have been told that they can only join the KWW if it manages

to secure more funding.

In January 2013, the authors met the leader of a group of 200 fighters

in Jabal al-Zawiya, who asked to join the KWW. His group was a member

of Ahfad al-Rasool, a mainstream Islamist coalition inside the FSA. The

leader claimed that they had joined this Islamist coalition in order to

receive support but now decided to leave as they could no longer bear the


National Unity Brigades.


Information about this group was collected through regular contacts with political and military leaders and several visits in the province of

Idlib between January and June 2013.





National Unity Brigades 


Despite regular 

demands from 

independent brigades and 

individuals to pro-

democracy groups to join 

them, these have been 

turning down these 

requests due to a lack of 



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Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria 





ideological discourse of the group. In June 2013, an independent FSA group of 1000 fighters of northern Idlib

asked to join the KWW coalition. In both cases the KWW decided that they could not accept them into the

coalition as they were not able provide them with ammunition.

The KWW rely on donations from Syrian expatriates, including members of the exiled Alawite community. A

committee was formed abroad and is in charge both of vetting individuals and groups who want to join the

KWW, and of the distribution of money, ammunition and weapons. This support has allowed the KWW to

survive but is not significant enough to allow them to grow.

In al-Jabal al-Wastani and Sahl al-Rouj (Western Idlib), the KWW are the strongest force on the ground,

despite the presence of some radical elements in nearby fronts. They actively participated in the liberation of

the region and are now on the front line of the battle for the town of Jisr al-Shughoor. This region is mostly

Sunni but there are isolated Alawite, Shiite, and Christians villages. Many civilians from these minority

populated villages have fled but the KWW have put great efforts into convincing minorities to stay and have

prevented the occupation of empty Alawite houses by radical armed groups who tend to consider Alawite

property as spoils of war. Contacts have been made between leaders of Katibat Ahrar Bdama and Liwa’ 

Shuhada’ al-Jabal al-Wastani (both part of the KWW) and community leaders who have demanded security

guarantees for the return of populations to their villages. The KWW does not have the sufficient resources, for

the moment, to ensure protection for the return of these populations.

In Western Idlib and in Northern Latakia, the KWW are now cooperating with defected judges to open civil

courts implementing Syrian civil and criminal law, despite pressure and threats from the now widespread

sharia courts. At least two courts have started operating since  uly     .

The KWW recognizes the authority of the Supreme Military Council despite the fact that they have not

received any support from it. Thus the KWW operate autonomously from the SMC, as do most opposition

groups in Syria. More recently, the KWW have participated in the formation of the Jabhat Ahrar Sooriya (JAS),6

a secular oriented coalition under the umbrella of the SMC, led by Colonel Qassem Saad Eddin. As the future of

the JAS depends on the financial and military support it hopes to receive, at the time of the publication of the

report the KWW continues to exist as an autonomous coalition within the JAS (described below).


Jabhat Ahrar Sooriya (Front of the Freemen Syrians)7 


The leader of the Jabhat Ahrar Sooriya (JAS), Colonel Qassem

Saad Eddin, is an air force pilot by training and a leading

FSA colonel from the town of Rastan who defected from

the air force in February 20128 along with hundreds of

officers and initiated the first military councils in spring

2012. Al-Rastan, a small town North of Homs is known to

be a stronghold of the Syrian military and has provided

thousands of officers to the Syrian regular army. Former

Minister of Defense Mustapha Tlass, who served for

decades under Hafez al-Assad, is from al-Rastan and was

the artisan of the massive enrollment of young men from

his hometown into the army. His son Manaf was the


Front of the Freemen of Syria


The authors conducted several trips to Syria and Turkey to meet with leaders of the JAS. The last trip to Northern Syria was end June



Jabhat Ahrar Sooriya 

Front of the Freemen of Syria 

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Colonel Qassem Saad Eddin, 

 Leader of the JAS 

commander of the Republican Guard until his defection in

July 2012.

Colonel Saad Eddin established the first military council in Homs and later in other provinces with the goal

of building a military organization for the rebellion. Though a practicing Muslim, he is known for his liberal

opinions and rejection of an Islamist agenda based on the principle that an army has no business in taking any

ideological position. He, along with other high and middle rank defectors, were sidelined by regional donors

who preferred to support groups willing to espouse their agenda. He has managed to maintain significant

popularity as he is one of the figures of the FSA leadership who remained inside Syria. He is now one of the 30

members of the unified High Command of the SMC and its spokesperson inside Syria.

In May 2013, Colonel Saad Eddin, announced the creation of JAS, the Front of the Freemen of Syria, under

the direct authority of the SMC.9 This group brings together secular, nationalist and moderate forces that had

mostly been left out of existing networks of resource distribution. The Front grew rapidly in the north and

central regions of the country and numbered over 20 000 fighters within a few weeks.

Until July 2013, the JAS was composed of battalions and brigades that kept their names and leaders

unchanged. Six weeks after its formation however, the leadership of the Front decided to reorganize by

forming divisions, brigades and battalions holding numbers instead of names on the model of the Syrian Army.

It was decided that each group should be either led or assisted by a defected officer. In July 2013, the nascent

structure of the JAS included a military command, political advisors and fifteen specialized branches. Along with

the military branches, all led by senior officers (colonel and above), the JAS has set up a judicial office, led by

the defected military judge Lieutenant Adnan Kawkab, a member of the High Command of the SMC. This office

is also composed of lawyers10 in charge of ensuring the respect for international conventions. A political

committee was formed by intellectuals and politicians in the liberated areas to assist and advise the military

leaders of the JAS.

The creation of the Front aims at establishing a balance of power with other organized fronts such as the

Jabhat al-Nosra (the radical Jihadi group linked to al-Qaeda and completely independent from the SMC) and

the Syrian Islamic Front and Syrian Islamic Liberation Front which are partly under the SMC’s authority. These

Islamist fronts have been able to create national franchises thanks to their ability to access important resources

in the early stages of the armed struggle. Colonel Saad Eddin’s Front, the JAS is the largest non-Islamist

organized coalition at a national level and probably the largest group under the direct authority of the SMC.

The most active and integrated brigades of the Front are located in northern Syria (Aleppo, Idlib and Hama),11

but the group is currently growing in Homs, and has smaller units in the other provinces.


Colonel Saad Eddin and Colonel Zyad Haj Obeid, both

members of the SMC leadership, created the “brigade for the

protection of civilians and of public and private property” in April

2013.12 This brigade operates in Aleppo city and countryside and

has several units in charge of protecting factories and public

buildings as well as a special unit in charge of investigating cases

of looting.




Most of the lawyers are members of the Tajamuu al-Muhameen al-Ahrar, the Free Lawyers Association based in Antakya who promote

the application of the Syrian civil and criminal law in the liberated areas.


Authors were present at a gathering of leaders of brigades of the JAS on June 23rd in Northern Syria and conducted series of interviews.



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General Ahmad al-Faj 

General Abdel-Nasser Farzat 



Senior Military Figures 

High ranking officers of the Free Syrian Army have been able to build a strong reputation, leading efficient

brigades while maintaining a strict military and nationalist identity. Despite their experience, local support and

military successes, they have received far less support than other groups who had accepted to abide to

islamists agendas.

General Ahmed Al-Faj leads the Tajamuu Alwyat al-Muutasim 

billah in Atareb, Aleppo. This group is known for having led the

long siege and battle of Military Base 46 from September to

November 2012, one of the most crucial battles for the

liberation13 of the province of Aleppo.14 General Ahmad al-Faj

holds great resentment against radical groups such as Fajr al-

Islam and Jabhat al-Nosra who he accuses of having only

participated in the final assault of the base to get hold of war

spoils. His group includes 1500-2000 fighters and some heavy

weapons and tanks, for which they manufacture their own shells

and ammunitions.15


General Abdel-Nasser Farzat leads Jabhat Ahrar Halab,16 a

coalition of brigades fighting in Aleppo Province. Like General Ahmed

al-Faj and Colonel Qassem Saad Eddin, he has never left Syria since

the the beginning of the uprising. He proudly claims to have refused

funding from Islamic networks and insists that despite pressures, he

refused to change the name of his unit for a religious or politically

connotated name. He emphasizes the need for the FSA to keep a

strict military discipline and identity. He even claims that he has

never defected from the Syrian Army, but simply joined the FSA.


Community based groups 


The tribes of Syria are a key force among the anti-Assad armed resistance. They are present mainly in the

Hama, Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa provinces as well as in the Horan region in the south. Tribal groups are

well organized and armed thanks to their strong connections across the border with tribes in Iraq as well as

with the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula in all the Arab Gulf monarchies. While some tribes have struck alliance

at the local level with Islamists and Jihadi groups, many FSA brigades composed and led by tribal figures oppose

and sometimes clash with extremist forces. For security reasons, they did not accept that we disclose

information about them.


Apart from the western part of Aleppo City and several surrounded positions, the province of Aleppo is under opposition control.


Syrian Rebels set-up camp on hilltop Base 46, al-Arabiya News November 21 2012.


Several interviews were conducted with General Ahmad al-Faj in June 2013 in Atareb.


The Front of the Freemen of Aleppo

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Liwa’ Shuhada’ Dooma 


The suburban city of Dooma is in many ways a microcosm of the Syrian resistance. It provides a perfect

illustration of the efforts by democratic political forces to resist the rise and growing domination of Islamist

forces. Dooma was one of the first towns to be entirely liberated from regime forces in the Damascus area and

probably the largest town controlled by the resistance outside the liberated north. A large portion of the

inhabitants have been displaced and the remaining population is approximately 200 000. Dooma is located in

the northern part of the Eastern Ghoota in the suburbs of Damascus. It has been under opposition control since

the end of the summer 2012, and has since been under an intense military siege. It has been dubbed the

Stalingrad of Syria due to the massive destructions. Dooma is historically a stronghold of the opposition to the

regime. It is home to some of the most prominent figures of the leftist and nationalist opposition figures and

has always been watched with distrust by the Assad regime. Understandably, the army has avoided recruiting

any officers from Dooma.

The armed rebellion in Dooma is almost entirely organized

and led by civilians17 and influential political activists while

traditional respected figures and community leaders provide

guidance to the armed groups.

In spring 2013, eight military units of diverse political

orientation operating in Dooma came together on the basis of

their rejection of rigid and extremist Islamists and formed a

coalition with the hope of regaining control over the city from the

Salafists. Its member groups are all led by Arab nationalist,

moderate Islamist, Nasserite or socialist local figures. Liwa’ 

Shuhada’ Dooma and Liwa’ Usood al-Ghoota18. They are the two

main groups who challenge the powerful Salafi group Liwa’ al-


Liwa’ al-Islam, led by Zahran Alloosh, (the son of a Wahhabi sheikh) is the best-endowed armed group with

some 16 000 fighters operating in Dooma and the surrounding area. The Salafi Liwa’ has been able to take

control of strategic institutions such as the prison of al-Touba and the tribunal. It has monopolized the

distribution of wheat and taken control of buildings for the delivery of various social services. Liwa’ al-Islam

enjoys consistent outside support, mostly from unidentified sources and is the only group in Dooma that pays

its fighters a regular monthly salary. Liwa’ al-Islam’s hegemonic and authoritarian practices, as well as recent

misbehavior,20 have caused resentment among the inhabitants of Dooma. The Liwa’ is also held responsible for

poor military planning in waging the battle of al-Keemia’ which lasted over 8 months and caused the loss of

more than 1200 fighters. It was accused of having deliberately stopped short of launching the assault on al-

Keemia’ after receiving orders from outside political forces linked to the agenda of its foreign donors and

sacrificed lives unnecessarily. While it is difficult to verify the accuracy of this story, it is clear that massive

defections from the Liwa’s ranks have occurred after the battle and that its popularity has been severely

affected. This has given new momentum to the other political and military forces which emerge as competing

forces but continue to suffer from the lack of resources to gain the upper hand.

As long as the battle to break the siege of the town by regime forces is ongoing, all forces – Islamist or

secular – fight together in the battlefield.21 However, they do not share arms, ammunition or financial


Liwa’ al-Bara’, led by the Captain Abu al-Nasr from Rastan, assisted by two local activists.


Other brigades are listed at the end of the report


Shabab al-Huda battalion, a mainstream Islamist group close to the Muslim Brotherhood is part of the Coalition. It is generously funded

by the Muslim Brothers but does not share its resources with other brigades and battalions in the coalition.


Liwa’ al-Islam is accused of looting and occupying public buildings, and committing assassinations.


In May 2013 all of the FSA units in Dooma gathered and formed the Majles al-Mujahidi, to coordinate the battle against the regime, and

to try to break the siege of the Ghoota.

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Colonel Marwan al-Hamal (right) 

 leader of the Revolutionary military 

council of Sweida 

resources and when it comes to the control and management of the town, armed groups and political figures

from the two groups operate in a context of strong competition.



While extremist Jihadi groups have not been able to consolidate their presence in the south as they have in

the north, Islamist groups have been able to control networks of resource distribution and have strongly

influenced the political orientation of the armed groups on the ground. In Deraa, several FSA units are led by

defected officers or civilians with a clear democratic and liberal orientation. The authors of the report are in

contact with them, but were not authorized to disclose the names of their units and of their leaders as they

fear to be publically identified as “non-Islamists” and thus boycotted by donors. Members of non-Islamist units

complain of discrimination such as unequal distribution of relief and of care in Islamic funded hospitals, mainly

in Jordan. We have identified one such division in Deraa (composed of four brigades), along with two

independent brigades.

The regime still enjoys total control over the Druze populated province of Suweida’ and support from a

significant part of its population. For a variety of reasons, the opposition in Suweida’ has been reluctant to take

up arms: out of commitment to the peaceful struggle of the first months of the revolution, but also to avoid

being caught in the civil strife and risk exposing the whole Druze community (approximately 3% of the

population) to danger and out of fear of a violent response by the regime.


The armed Druze opposition therefore had to set their base in

neighboring Deraa province. The Revolutionary Military Council of

Suweida led by Colonel Marwan al-Hamad includes 6 battalions

(around 500 fighters, most of them Druze), operating in Deraa

and conducting underground operations in Suweida. It closely

cooperates with small units led by Druze officers operating in the

province of Aleppo (Katibat al-Shahid Kamal Joomblat)22 and in

the Eastern-suburbs of Damascus (Katibat Fida’yi Bani 





In Al-Raqqa, Liwa’ Thuwwar al-Raqqa, commanded by Abu Eesa is a representative example of locally

rooted brigades. It is composed of civilian activists from the city who decided to carry arms and organize as a

unit to defend their city in face of Jabhat al-Nosra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). 24 They are

strongly supported by the population which sees them as a bulwark against the extremists of al-Qaeda and are

close to the democratic movement Muwatana. In the city of Tabqa in the province of al-Raqqa, tribes have a

strong role. Tribal groups were the first to prepare for the military fight against the regime which they tought

early on was inevitable.





The Jihadi group Jabhat al-Nosra split in April 2013 when part of the group merged with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s al-Qaeda branch in Iraq

and became the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). Part of Jabhat al-Nosra refused the merger and confirmed its direct allegiance to al-

Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

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Liwa’ Thuwwar al-Raqqa 

Among them the Nasser tribe who consider themselves to be the

original inhabitants of the province and the bedrock of the

revolution in the region including of the armed resistance. Their

military arm is the Liwa’ Aws al-Qurani led by Abdel Fattah al-

Sheikh Mooss (Abu Mohamad) composed of 1000 fighters. It

includes Saraya al-Furat-Katibat al-Shura (led by Mohamad Ben

Abdallah) which expanded recently to include three additional

battalions. These groups were the first armed groups in the al-

Raqqa province. They played an active role in the liberation of al-

Raqqa and in the current siege on the Tabqa military airport.

The Liwa’ held some 110 prisoners from regime forces, half of whom were liberated (mostly Sunni prisoners)

while the other half were kept in detention in the hope that the Liwa’ could serve to negotiate the liberation of

some of their own fighters. The prisoners seem to be held in decent conditions. Turkish journalists and

representatives of Human Rights Watch were allowed to visit them.



In Talbiseh, a large group of defected army officers from the Talbiseh area near Homs created a division and

called it the 6th division composed of several brigades and commanded by Muqadam Yusef Hadid.


Formation of Military Divisions  


In June 2013, General Idriss attempted to reorganize the isolated local FSA brigades and merge them into

military divisions (firqa). The goal is to bring together isolated FSA brigades and battalions, organize them into a

professional army based on the structure of the regular Syrian Arab Army and exclude armed groups that claim

to fight under the name of the FSA without following its values.

In June 2013 rumors spread that the United States and the SMC will only distribute aid to groups organized

into unified “divisions” composed of several brigades. A figure of     000 $US was circulating as being

promised for each firqa as an incentive for groups to coalesce.

Since this date, several divisions have been spontaneously announced and have sought to register with the

leadership of the SMC. Division, brigade and battalion names have been replaced with numbers and military

defectors have been given leading positions. The political orientation of each unit depends on the brigades

involved in its initial formation. Although some divisions have clearly taken position in favor of an Islamic state,

such as the 3rd Division in Deir Ezzor,25 most tend to put forward a strict military and politically neutral identity.

As these formations were only recently created and as leadership positions have been redistributed, it is too

early to describe the political orientation of many of these divisions. Some groups such as the 10th division of

Damascus and the 33rd division of Idlib are entirely composed of and led by secular nationalist elements that

have continually refused Islamist funding.

In late June 2013, in the liberated areas of the province of Idlib, local FSA units came together to form the

33rd division led by defected Lieutenant Colonel Ammar Dayoub.


This division brings together around 1700 fighters deployed across Idlib. They announced its formation and



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its composition on YouTube, first in a video shot in Jabal Zawiya on June 22nd, and then in a new video shot a

few days later after they decided to replace all the civilian brigade leaders with defected officers.26 In the video,

Lt. Col. Dayoub announces that the division is under the authority of the Northern Front of the SMC (led by

Colonel Abdel-Basset al-Tawil).

The division is formed of different brigades and battalions,

whose inclination can be clearly identified as nationalist or

secular. Founding members of the division include the former

brigades of the Tajamuu Humat al-Thawra,27 which has a clear

secular and anti-sectarian leaning. The spokesman of the 33rd

division is Lieutenant Muhanad al-Ayssama, a defected officer

from the Druze community and former leader of the 333rd brigade

of the 33rd division.


In Damascus, secular brigades operating in the southern

neighborhoods and in the Eastern Ghoota gathered in early July

to form the 10th Division. The group is currently composed of

1200 fighters in two brigades, Liwa’ al-Adala and Liwa’ Seif al-

Dimashqi, and is led by Yassin al-Maydani (civilian leader) and

Captain Rami Tlass (military leader). At the time of publication,

they were expecting another brigade to join to be able to be

recognized officially as a division by the SMC.

In Talbiseh as mentioned above, the 6th division was created.

Lastly and most importantly, the Jabhat Ahrar Sooriya (JAS) restructured the Front by operating a new

vetting process of its fighters, this time individually (rather than whole battalions and brigades as it initially did)

and formed three divisions. The current number of armed men had reached 7000 in August 2013. The three

divisions are firqa 25, 35, and 45. They comprise five brigades each, briging the total number of brigades to 15.

The future success and unity of these and other divisions recently

formed across Syria will only be sustainable if they receive support

from the SMC. If such assistance does not materialize, these groups

will remain isolated, rely on their own personal networks of solidarity

and remain vulnerable to defections. For example, the 33rd Division

had not received any support from the SMC at the time of finishing

the report. The leaders of the newly formed divisions have expressed

their concern as they face difficulties in convincing their troops to

stay united and wait for ammunition

V. Fluidity  

Observers of the Syrian military scene are often perplexed by the complexity and the fluidity of the

situation on the ground. They are most often left with the impression that no group can be trusted to remain

away from Jihadi groups. “Where are the democrats? If only they existed, we would support them!” is the

refrain of leaders in the West – including among those sympathetic to the Syrian resistance.





Protection of the Revolution Union

Tajamuu Humat al-Thawra 

  Founders of the 33rd Division 


10th Division Forces of the Capital 



The future success and 

unity of the recently 

formed divisions across 

Syria will only be 

sustainable if they receive 

consistent support from 

the SMC 


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The names of battalions and brigades can often be misleading and should not be taken as indicative of a

political or ideological affiliation. The majority of groups names are determined by the search for funding. Non-

Islamist groups choose names that they think will attract a rich Islamist source from the Gulf to fund them.

Sometimes a government or a private donor offers to provide support to a brigade if it agrees to change its

name to one with a religious overtone; many battalions carry several different names and join more than one

coalition in order to multiply opportunities of receiving support. Conversely, extremist groups do not always

carry names with an Islamic reference. The names of the units therefore cannot be taken as indicating the

groups’ political or religious leaning.


With every new coalition or front formed, groups disappear under one name and re-emerge with a new one

under a different umbrella. Since June 2013 when the Chief of Staff of the SMC, General Salim Idriss, called for

the formation of divisions as in a regular army, and reportedly promised to support each division with 200 000

$US, many battalions and brigades gave up their names and rushed to merge into a division (firqa), hence the

emergence of firqas, listed above.

A battalion such as Kataeb al-Jabal al-Wastani is at the same time part of the KWW national group, joined

the JAS and is now ready to join a firqa. The reason why they don’t dissolve the original battalion is because

they continue to receive some funding as part of the KWW, but the money and the arms were insufficient and

prompted them to first join the JAS and now to seek a new division in the hope that they will be decently

equipped to fight.

Almost all fighters, either individually or with their entire battalions have been part of at least three or four

different groups. Some leave to join a brigade for a week or so and come back to their original unit. Units often

keep their name but fighters move in and out of their ranks. As explained in more detail below, some of these

movements are dictated by the need to cooperate among groups when facing an immediate threat by regime


But the fluidity primarily reflects the diverse but unstable, and

therefore unreliable, sources of funding. It is impossible under such

conditions for any leader of a group to guarantee support to his

fighters over several months and be in a position to retain them, nor

can a leader refuse support offered by a source (usually with an

Islamist agenda) without being blamed by his fighters and risk losing

them. This has happened time and again and many leaders who have

refused to swear loyalty to an Islamist donor have found themselves

marginalized. Groups funded by Islamic sources with a conservative

agenda invariably enjoy more stable funding and do not face similar

problems. The fluidity among their troops is much more limited as a



The evolution of Kataeb al-Farooq offers a good example of the loose and fluid allegiances that prevail in

the rebellion. Kataeb al-Farooq was created in Homs by early defectors and civilian activists in summer 2011.

Led by Abdel Razzaq Tlass, the first Syrian officer to publicly defect, Kataeb al-Farooq quickly gained popularity

by taking a leading role in the battle of Homs in winter 2011-2012. Generous outside support, mostly from

Qatar, allowed al-Farooq to grow and expand with branches in different parts of Syria. A year later, its northern

branch, al-Farouq al-Shamali, took control of the border crossings of Bab-al Hawa and Tal Abyad on the Turkish

border. Al-Farooq became one of the largest « national franchises », with many groups joining in the hope of

receiving aid. In September 2012, Kataeb al-Farooq participated in the creation of the Syrian Islamic Liberation

Front. However, the drying-up of funding in addition to some personal disputes led the coalition to split into

different groups (al-Faylak al-Awal, Kataeb al-Farooq al-Islamia, Kataeb al-Farooq, Farouq al-Umma and

others). Today the original group of Kataeb al-Farouq led by Ossama Junaydi is losing its influence and many


The fluidity primarily 

reflects the diverse but 

unstable and therefore 

unreliable sources of 



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battalions are leaving as they are not receiving any more support. Many brigades, however, remain nominally

part of al-Farooq to benefit from the brand name of the coalition. Being part of a national coalition gives local

groups weight when dealing with rival armed groups. But these operate autonomously and have become very

diverse. Al-Farooq has basically ceased to exist in its original structure.

VI. Atomized but cooperating 

Despite the fluidity and the atomization of the rebel forces, independent brigades of the FSA cooperate

effectively in the battlefield. The absence of unity and of a top-down chain of command does not imply a lack

of cooperation. However, tensions have recently emerged between radical Islamist and secular argroups.

The general staff of the Supreme Military Council has attempted

to unify independent local groups through provincial military

councils. These councils were set up to distribute weapons,

ammunition and salaries and set up the early stage of an organized

army with a centralized chain of command and supply distribution.

However, the expected results were not reached, as a lack of

resources did not enable the new local military councils to become

the main sources of support to FSA armed groups. A minority of

brigades became directly linked to the military councils but most

remained independent and rely on informal networks of support.

Examples of cooperation abound. Operation rooms (Ghurfat 

amaliyat), for example, are set up for each battle, bringing together

all the commanders of the brigades participating in the battle

irrespective of their ideological affiliation.

They agree on their respective roles and on the distribution of the war spoils. Very often, a brigade in a

quiet area will send a group of fighters to fight for a few days on another front under the command of another

brigade. Many stories are reported where an armed group has a certain type of weapon, but needs to « borrow »

a fighter from another brigade because he alone masters the use of the said weapon. Fighters often shift from

one brigade to another; this is especially the case when brigades do not provide salaries, to the point that many

soldiers regularly change brigades depending on the developments in the battlefield and on the supply of

weapons and ammunition to a certain group. Surprisingly, the fact that a fighter quits a brigade for another one

is rarely seen as a problem by brigade leaders. A unit leader is the “owner” of his stock of weapons but not of

his men, meaning that a fighter can quit a unit for another one as long as he leaves his weapon with his former


Local rebel groups have also created security committees bringing together members of different brigades

to take charge of securing roads and communicating any suspicious movements of regime forces. When a

particular area is under attack, local brigades or the security committees quickly circulate information to all

groups in the area. An alert system has been set up to disseminate information about the movement of aircraft

and helicopters. When a fighter-jet or a helicopter takes-off from a military airport, information about its

movement is immediately passed through walkie-talkie allowing potential targets to find cover.


Despite the fluidity and 

the atomization of the 

rebel forces, independent 

brigades of the FSA 

cooperate effectively in 

the battlefield 


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However, in the battlefield and in rebel-controlled territories, groups

often don’t cooperate on equal terms. Moderate groups lacking resources

often find themselves dependent on the logistics of Islamist-funded

brigades and end-up “assisting” them rather than participating in the

battle on an equal footing. For example, fighters of Katibat Shuhada’ Al-

Hurriya in Jabal Al-Zawiya complained of having only one car for 150

fighters and were therefore dependent on other groups for the

transportation of the fighters to the battlefield and for the evacuation of

the wounded. The role assigned to each brigade is decided in an ad hoc

operation room, in which the most well equipped group takes the leading

role. Poorly equipped brigades often do not have sufficient ammunition to

stay in the front line for a long period of time and are often given the role

of securing the surrounding roads while better-equipped armed groups

take part in the assault. During the battle for the airport of Taftanaz28, the

radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nosra together with the Salafi movement Ahrar al-Sham, took the lead while

small and poorly equipped local groups, such as Liwa’ Shuhada’ Saraqeb, were only given an auxiliary role.


VII. Rising tensions with radical Jihadi groups  

Increasing tensions between FSA fighters and radical Islamist groups have been reported in the last few

months. A description of some of the recent clashes between mainstream groups and the radical Islamist/Jihadi

groups provide insight into what is becoming in some cases a three way confrontation. A line has clearly been

crossed after the clashes in al-Raqqa and Aleppo. Pro-democracy leaders of the FSA, local activists, lawyers and

community leaders complain about the acts of intimidation on the part of radical groups such as Jabhat al-

Nosra, Ahrar al-Sham and groups of foreign fighters. In July 2013, several people were killed in clashes between

radical Islamist groups and brigades from the FSA. Earlier in the spring, tensions existed but isolated clashes

were kept under control and cases of Jihadi aggression against the FSA or against activists were publicly

attributed to the regime so as to contain further tensions.


Tensions in Al-Jabal al-Wastani  

A mountainous region in the western province of Idlib, Al-Jabal al-Wastani is one of the main strongholds of

the secular rebel group, the Kataeb al-Wehda al-Watania. Tensions there had been rising for some time

between local rebels and Jabhat al-Nosra. Islamists frequently accused KWW fighters of being apostates

because they oppose the establishment of an Islamic state. On June 19 2013, elements of Jabhat al-Nosra

entered the village of al-Hamama and assassinated two civilians who they accused of having owned a bar in

Damascus. Following the incident, a group of fifty Jabhat al-Nosra fighters tried to enter the village of al-

Amoudia located west of the town of Darkoush on the road to the city of Idlib, this time to arrest someone they

suspected of collaborating with the regime. Elements of the Shuhada’ al-Jabal al-Wastani brigade, part of the

KWW, stopped the group at a checkpoint and denied them entry into the village saying that it was the local

court’s jurisdiction to investigate such cases. As tension between the two groups rose, the KWW gathered

seven of its battalions present in the region and forced Jabhat al-Nosra to leave the area. The following day, a

number of brigade leaders of northern Idlib gathered and formed an alliance against Jabhat al-Nosra. This


Province of Idlib, January 2013


Moderate groups 

lacking resources often 

find themselves 

dependent on the logistics 

of Islamist-funded 

brigades and end-up 

“assisting” them rather 

than participating in the 

battle on an equal footing 


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alliance included 10 brigades:

  Liwa’ Shuhada’ al-Jabal al-Wastani, led by Lieutenant Colonel Safi Abdel Karim

Liwa’ al-Reef al-Shamali, led by Ghayth Bakour;

Liwa’ Ahrar al-Jabal al-Wastani, led by Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed al-Ali;

Liwa’ al-Ghufran, led by Riyad Taha;

Liwa’ Majd al-Islam, led by Abdel Munim Ghanoum;

Liwa’ Ahbab al-Rassoul;

Liwa’ Sayd al-Shuhada’, led by the Colonel dr. Samih al-Ayssa;

Liwa’ Ahrar al-Zawiya, led by Abu Sayd               ;

Katibat al-Hurr, led by Ahmed Jumaa;

 The Military Council of Jisr al-Shughour, represented by Fayez al-Jasem.


On July 2nd, elements of Jabhat al-Nosra tried to seize the checkpoint located at the entrance of the village

of Maghat al-Jamous, held by the KWW. Members of Jabhat al-Nosra were arrested and finally released after

negotiations with their leader. Clashes were avoided and the situation in al-Jabal al-Wastani remained under

the full control of the KWW at the time of this report.

Clashes in al-Dana  

While the KWW and their local allies have been able to keep Jabhat al-Nosra away from their stronghold,

other secular brigades have had more serious issues with extremist groups. Elements of the 33rd Division in

Idlib violently clashed with extremists after a long period of mounting tensions. In June 2013, the 33rd Division

was created in the province of Idlib, gathering mainly secular and nationalist brigades from across the province.

The main component of this new grouping is the Tajamuu Humat al-Thawra, a secular group with minorities

within its ranks (as described in Section IV above). In mid-June, Ahrar al-Sham declared their refusal to fight

alongside secular groups and expelled the Tajamuu Humat al-Thawra from the battle for the control of the

Latakia-Aleppo highway in Idlib. After pressure from local FSA groups including Tajamuu Humat al-Thawra,

Ahrar al-Sham finally agreed to allow them to take part in the assault.29

The 33rd Division of the FSA has brigades in the town of al-Dana in the northeastern part of Idlib province.

This area is known for being a stronghold of militant Islamist groups coming from abroad. The al-Qaeda

affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), has been gradually taking control of the town.

On 5 July 2013, an anti-ISIS demonstration broke out and Islamist militants reportedly opened fire on the

protestors. Elements of the 33rd Division intervened to protect the demonstrators and clashed with ISIS. Major

clashes broke out later that day when members of the 33rd Division and civilians who had taken part in the

demonstration, went to the Islamic court to try to file a complaint against members of the ISIS. The 33rd

Division was ambushed by elements of the ISIS as they arrived at the Islamic court. Dozens were killed on both

sides including the leader of one brigade from the 33rd Division, Ahmed al-Qash, who was beheaded. The local

ISIS group, led by a Tunisian Jihadi, Abu Oussama al-Tunisi, has since taken total control of the town.30


The authors interviewed fighters in Syria as they came back from the battle after being excluded by Ahrar al-Sham. 


The Presence of Al-Qaeda raises tensions in Syria, Al-Jazeera English, July 9 2013

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Attack on the FSA leadership breaks the ‘Sacred Union’  

Kamal al-Hamami (alias Abu Basel al-Ladkani) was killed by members of ISIS on 11 July 2013, marking a

turning point in the relationship between Jihadi groups and the FSA. Kamal al-Hamami was a senior FSA leader,

a member of the Supreme Military Council and led the Kataeb al-Izz Ben Abdel-Salam in northern Latakia.31

Similar provocative steps were recently taken by the Jihadi group, ISIS, in openly targeting FSA leaders,

civilian activists and political figures in an attempt to take control of the rebel-held areas. ISIS has hardly taken

part in any recent battles against the regime and clearly concentrates on imposing its rule on the northern

areas. The province of al-Raqqa and several towns in northern Aleppo32 are now largely under ISIS control.

The FSA’s reaction is for the moment uncertain. While some leaders confess in private that the only way for

the FSA to retake control over the northern territories is by directly confronting ISIS, many fear that opening a

new front will only benefit the regime.

The Fight over the Province of al-Raqqa 

Tensions have been particularly high in the province of al-Raqqa. Jabhat al-Nosra and Ahrar al-Sham arrived

in the region in January 2013. The leader of Kataeb al-Farooq33 for the province of al-Raqqa, Mohamed Daher,

allegedly killed a Jihadi leader named Fares al-Absi at the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey in September 2012.

Since then, tensions have risen between al-Farooq on one side and Jabhat al-Nosra and ISIS on the other.

Mohamed Daher survived several assassination attempts while a number of local FSA and tribal figures have

been killed. Jihadis were rarely accused in public and after such incidents; tribal mechanisms of reconciliation

were usually activated to prevent an all-out confrontation between the groups.

Tensions intensified, however, in June 2013 after a series of

events. In early June, elements of ISIS stormed the headquarters of

Kataeb al-Farooq in the city of al-Raqqa, arresting 25 people and

evicting Kataeb al-Farooq from the city. This allowed the Jihadi

groups, mainly the ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham to exert total control over

al-Raqqa. A day after expelling al-Farooq, ISIS expelled local tribal

brigades affiliated with al-Farooq from the border post of Tal

Abyad.34 Al-Farooq’s leader in the province of al-Raqqa, Mohamed

Daher, had to flee to Turkey following clashes with elements of the

ISIS. On 11 July 2013, ISIS arrested members of the local council of Tal

Abyad and took control of the wheat silos of northern al-Raqqa.


In reaction to the hegemonic control of radical Islamist groups on the region, the local population has held

several demonstrations and sit-ins against ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham. A group of civilians created the brigade liwa’ 

thuwwar al-raqqa (described above) and the FSA is starting to reorganize in an attempt to bring the province

back under its control. In a video statement on 17 July 2013, several FSA brigades announced the creation of

the 11th Division.35 In this statement, the FSA declared that it will not allow the existence of any armed groups

in al-Raqqa outside of the control of the 11th Division of the FSA and declared Jihadi groups an illegitimate

component of the rebellion.




In July 2013, ISIS had complete control over the town of al-Dana, and partial control of the border town of Jarablous and the surrounding



Kataeb al-Farooq is coalition of FSA brigades originating from Homs but now widespread across Syria (see Section 3 above). It is part of

the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front.


In July, the border post was handed over by ISIS to Ahrar al-Sham.


The break-up of the union 

of anti-Assad forces 

implies a painful 

recognition that the 

conflict has become a 

triangular struggle 

involving the regime, 

radical Jihadis and the 

democratic opposition 


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The consensus among groups had so far been to protect the unity of arms, and numerous examples exist of

tensions resolved through peaceful means. However, the level of resentment against Jihadi groups by the

civilian population and part of the FSA has grown to the point where it became clear to many that radical

Jihadis had become a serious threat to the revolution. The Sacred Union that had prevented infighting within

the armed opposition is not upheld at any price anymore. It should not be seen as further division within the

uprising but rather as an attempt at re-gaining control of the resistance and its original objectives. Yet it does

imply a painful recognition that the conflict has become a triangular struggle involving the regime, radical

Jihadis and the democratic opposition.

VIII. Acting to secure a democratic outcome 

Short of a political settlement, Syria’s transition will be strongly influenced by the military configuration in

the battlefield. As long as the prospects of such a political solution are remote, and no direct intervention to

protect the Syrian population happens, all parties will continue to give priority to the military balance on the

ground. Intervening to shape the situation on the ground is the best way to increase the chances of achieving

the desired outcome of a pluralist democratic Syria.


Some countries in the West are now tempted to look at Syria as the

new arena in the global war on terror. Maintaining this perspective risks

leading to an absurd fight against ghosts of the kind that US President

George Bush waged during his presidency, in which downing one terrorist

led to the emergence of dozens of new ones. In this type of fight, the

criminal Assad regime might start to be seen as an ally.


There is a consistency problem in complaining that the strong and well

endowed groups are controlled from outside (mostly by countries with an

Islamist agenda) while dismissing the ones who are not controlled from

outside as too weak to make a difference. This seems to have been for a

good part of the last two years the self-defeating rationale. What this

report shows is the current state of the forces on the ground. This reality

was different six months ago. The number of Jihadis was much smaller and

there was no talk of the democratic revolution being ‘kidnapped’ as many

believe today. Looking ahead six months from now, there are good reasons to expect that if no decisive action

is undertaken, supporters of a democratic outcome in Syria will have lost more ground to the groups they

depict as dangerous and moderate military and political figures will further lose their relevance.



Some key implications and directions for action emerge from this analysis: 


Making of the ‘proxy war’ an opportunity. Those who depict the Syrian conflict as a proxy war stop short of

drawing the right implications. If money and arms are defining the direction of the conflict, the fluidity

described above should be used as an opportunity to shape the situation and influence the outcome. The pro-

democracy groups are sure to attract new fighters to their fold and to grow rapidly if provided with the right

kind of support. They have the potential to spearhead a movement to alter the balance of power in the

battlefield and reassure a large portion of Syrians sitting on the fence.


There is a consistency 

problem in complaining 

that the strong and well 

endowed groups are 

controlled from outside 

(mostly by countries with 

an Islamist agenda) while 

dismissing the ones who 

are not controlled from 

outside as too weak to 

make a difference 


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Engaging in the battle of narratives. The regime continues to devote a huge budget for its media strategy in

spite of its financial strain in order to keep control on the narrative of the conflict. In parallel, Arab satellite

television networks have mostly contributed to promoting the Sunni Jihadi groups by broadcasting images of

fighters holding the black flag and wearing black hair bands celebrating military successes and taking exclusive

credit for them. Pro-democracy groups have the weakest presence in the Arab and international media and

need to become more visible.


Engaging the governments of the region who are providing support.

Western countries who denounced Assad’s crimes have largely relied

on regional actors to provide financial and military support for what

was understood to be a common objective of ending the Assad


They have often ignored the real agenda of these governments and

failed to see how they select the recipients of the support. It is high

time that Western governments make clear to their regional allies

that the identity of the aid recipients on the ground must be

compatible with the desired outcome of a democratic, pluralistic,

united Syria and that support for certain groups with a non-

democratic agenda is frightening to many Syrians and delaying the

fall of Assad.


Selecting effective leaders as interlocutors. Working with outside

patrons of Syrian armed groups is a necessity, for reasons already mentioned, but this is likely to perpetuate

the proxy aspect of the conflict. In order to re-Syrianize the resistance, the safest way to operate in such a fluid

environment is to engage the leading figures connected with the armed groups of the three categories we have

identified: professional military officers who defected from the army and remained on the ground inside Syria;

political opposition figures with a clear democratic affiliation, or community leaders at the local level. These are

the effective leaders who provide guidance to armed groups and have been securing minimal funds for them to

survive. They are the most reliable partners in building constituencies for a democratic outcome. 

Only a comprehensive strategy that combines civil and military support can allow pro-democracy groups to 

regain ground. The supply of basic assistance, essentially food and medical care for the fighters of pro-

democracy groups is just as important as the procurement of weapons. In addition, the best way to allow the

pro-democracy groups to gain cohesion is to guarantee a minimal monthly allowance for fighters over a

reasonable period of time (e.g. one year). Many governments who do not wish to be involved in military

support could still contribute to empowering pro-democracy groups by providing for the basic needs of the

fighters’ families. One example is that of the KWW described above. With very modest but stable funding and

clear political guidance, KWW fighters have remained faithful to their units. They lack arms and ammunition

but very few, if any, have left their brigades.


Working towards a credible chain of command for the SMC. There is every reason to believe that General

Salim Idriss is genuinely working to build a military structure and a credible chain of command for the Supreme

Military Council. It remains, however, a structure in the making and can at best coordinate between different

fronts, ideally on a regional basis, but in reality it has had to integrate some existing blocks which had gained

their strength thanks to support from sources with an Islamist agenda such as the Syrian Islamic Front or the

Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria. Any future success at building cohesion among pro-democracy groups

will make them an effective bloc within the SMC. A coalition such as the Jabhat Ahrar Sooriya (JAS) has in effect

replicated the model of the Islamist fronts which first pooled units together in a united front and are now

major blocs within the SMC.



Western governments 

must make clear to their 

regional allies that 

support for groups with a 

non-democratic agenda is 

frightening too many 

Syrians and delaying the 

fall of Assad 


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Advanced weapons come as a result. Stable and reliable support of the kind we mentioned is the only way for

leaders of pro-democracy groups to retain the loyalty of their fighters and ensure effective command. Only

then will the discussion about which groups should be supplied with sophisticated weapons find an adequate



Empowering pro-democracy groups while respecting unity of ranks. Mainstream Islamists groups who are

part of the Free Syrian Army and are represented within the Supreme Military Council continue to be massively

funded and are currently the dominant force on the ground. A strategy aimed solely at unifying the ranks of the

FSA as it currently stands carries the risk of acknowledging and confirming the hegemonic position of Islamist

groups. An effective strategy to alter this balance is to support and empower leaders of democratic groups to

redress this balance in their favor within the FSA itself. General Idriss can be considered a non-biased channel

for transferring arms and aid to groups on the ground but even then, governments often earmark funds and

arms to specific groups and the General is not always free to deliver them to groups of his choice. It is therefore 

possible to work through the SMC while designating the beneficiaries of the support.

Helping the FSA face attacks from extremists.  Nearly all groups within the Free Syrian Army know that the

showdown with the extremists will happen sooner or later. They differ only over the right timing of it. A

majority would prefer to conduct the fight themselves as opposed to witnessing drone strikes by foreign

powers. Here again, many groups identified in this report believe the extremists should be confronted now

without delay and are hoping for the right equipments to do so.

Empowering the pro-democracy groups is the starting point for an effective strategy of developing projects 

of a civil nature. Civil institutions such as civil administration, education and, most importantly, legal

institutions are in dire need of support. The latter is the strongest case in point. Notwithstanding a few

exceptions, it has been very difficult and in many cases impossible, to operate a court applying Syrian civil law

in areas where Islamic funded groups have control over security. Civil tribunals cannot enforce a sentence

without the assistance of a police force or some local armed group. Support for civilian institutions is therefore

vital to allow civil resistance to continue while military support is needed to correct the balance in favor of pro-

democracy groups. But doing the former without the latter can onely lead to prolonging the situation, rather

than accelerating an end to the conflict.


Targeting areas where the regime is still in full control. In the coastal region or in Suweida, for example, both

areas where minorities (Alawites and Druzes) are either a majority or strongly present, small groups with a

clear democratic agenda are working quietly against the regime. They are willing to take significant risks and

are yearning for support. Providing limited quantities of small arms to such groups would pose a serious

challenge to the regime as these are the areas where it believes it enjoys support and will hesitate to respond

with massive bombings in the same way that it does in areas where the support for the resistance is massive.


The intent is not to divide the resistance. For now, the pro-democracy groups remain at the mercy of the

Islamist funded groups in most of the significant battles. If properly equipped, they would be in a position to

cooperate on equal footing with moderate Islamist groups and would be able to register some visible military

achievements to make a psychological shift inside and outside Syria.


Pre-empting the emergence of a demarcation line. Cities and areas targeted by the regime over the last six

months such as Homs, al-Hoola and Qusair are confirming suspicions about its intent to define a strategic

corridor linking the Mediterranean coast to Damascus, thus accelerating the fragmentation of the country

along sectarian lines. Whether Assad will be supported in his folly by his allies in Moscow or Tehran is difficult

to predict. In any case, it is critical in this context to support groups which can maintain enclaves of resistance

Arab Reform Initiative

Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria 





along the projected corridor in order to prevent the creation of a line that could emerge as the demarcation

line in a partition plan.

The entire armed resistance, from all backgrounds, agrees that the fight against the regime has to continue

and this is likely to remain the case as long as no alternative option appears within reach. But the Syrian

resistance has been facing a deadly conundrum over the past year. Every increase in aid provided by Sunni

Islamist sources in return for loyalty to some Islamist agenda has heightened fears among more Syrians

concerning the outcome of the conflict and has led Russia and Iran to intensify and deepen their involvement

on the side of the Assad regime.

It is vital for the future of Syria, but also for the survival of the ethnic and sectarian mosaic of the Middle

East, to regain the ground controlled by the Jihadis. A democratic system that provides the space for effective

local governance in areas where certain communities are concentrated is the only viable option. Either Syria

becomes a democracy or it will cease to exist as a unified state within its current borders.

Arab Reform Initiative

Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria 





List of Acronyms  


FSA                  Free Syrian Army

ISIS                  Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham)

JAN   Jabhat al-Nosra (Jabhat al-Nosra Li-Ahl al-Sham)

JAS                   Jabhat Ahrar Sooriya (Front of the Freemen of Syria)

KWW     Kataeb al-Wehda al-Wataniya (National Unity Brigades)

SIF   Syrian Islamic Front (al-Jabha al-Islamiya al-Sooriya) 

SILF                  Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (al-Jabha al-Islamiya li-Tahrir Sooria) 

SMC                Supreme Military Council

SNC              Syrian National Coalition (National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces)

UNSMIS         United Nation Supervision Mission in Syria




Glossary of Arabic military terms  



Katibat / Kataeb          Battalion(s)


Liwa’/  Alwiya              Brigade(s)


Firqa / Firq                                             Division(s)


Jabhat                                                     Front


Tajamuu                   Grouping


al-Majless (al-thawri) al-Askari        (Revolutionary) Military Council















Arab Reform Initiative

Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria 





Appendix 1 

Table of FSA groups identified as pro-democracy 








Jabhat Ahrar Sooriya announced on July 19th 2013 that it will re-organize its forces into military divisions (firqa).


Some names cannot be disclosed for security reasons.


Most units have lists with names of registered fighters. We only mentioned armed fighters. Units usually have registered fighters

without weapons. We did not include those. Many civilians wish to join the fight if arms were available and register waiting to receive



Units marked with * constitute the Kataeb al-Wehda al-Watania (see description page 16)


Name of the 

Groupings / 


Name of the 


Province Operating area Estimated 

number of armed 


Tajamuu Kata’eb 

al-Wehda al-


Led by a 


  2 000 

Liwa’ Shuhada’ al-

Jabal al-



Ahmad Khdairu

Idlib Al-Jabal al-

Wastani/Sahl al-


7 brigades

Liwa’ al-Khalifa 

(Katibat Shuhada’ 



Abdallah (Abu


Idlib Kafr Nobol-Heesh-

Khan Shaikhoon


Katibat Shuhada’ 


Hader Sheikh


Idlib Janoodia-North of

Jisr al-Shughoor


Katibat al-Maham 


Yusef Haj Yusef Idlib Janoodia-North of

Jisr al-Shughoor


Katibat Ahrar 


Ali Haj Hasan Idlib-Latakia Bdama //

Liwa’ Kuluna 


Captain Mohamad


Latakia Jabal al-Akrad Includes

4 brigades

Liwa’ Shuhahda’ 


Abu Mohamad al-


Damascus Yarmook,

Tadamun, Qadam

(South Damascus)


Liwa’ Shuhada’ 

Madinat al-


// Hama Salamiya //

Katibat al-Shahid 

Ahmad Muraiwed*  



Deraa Sahl Horan //

Arab Reform Initiative

Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria 






Tajamuu al-Kifah 


Musaab Abu al-


Idlib Khan Shaykhoon 1 290

Tajamuu Ahrar 

Deir Ezzor 

Colonel Ziad Obeid Deir Ezzor Deir Ezzor City and


2 500

Al-Tajamuu al-

Askary al-Thawri fi 

Halab al-Janoobi 

Brigadier General

Mohamad Khaluf


Aleppo South Aleppo



Liwa’ Himayat al-

Madanyin wal-


Colonel Zyad Haj


Aleppo Aleppo city and



Liwa’ Majd al-


// Idlib Idlib-Southern



Liwa’ al-Habib al-


Habib Abu Ghuraib Idlib Idlib-Southern



Liwa’ al-Aadala Ibrahim Dukhan Idlib Idlib-Southern



Liwa’ Shuhada’ al-


Colonel Moosa al


Idlib Idlib-Southern



Liwa’ al-Nasr Colonel Moosa al-


Idlib Idlib-Southern




Liwa’ Noor al-Haq Colonel Abdallah


Idlib Idlib-Southern



Liwa’ Qasem 


Aawad Abu Ali Idlib Sajra 165

Liwa’ Ahfad 


// Homs Al-Hoola al-Aaqrab 410

Katibat Abdallah 

Ben Masood 

// Homs Homs-Old city //

Katibat Fursan al-


Abu Jamil Homs Northern

countryside of



Katibat Abu Baker 


Mohamad Ahmad


Homs Homs-Northern



Katibat al-Saddiq Mohamad Ahmad


Homs Homs-Northern



Liwa’ Suqoor al-


Mahdi Mohamad Hama Jabal Shahshabo 700

Liwa’ Seif al-Islam Colonel Ibrahim al-


Hama Hama-Western




The Brigade of the protection of civilians and infrastructures is in charge of the protection of dozens of factories, public and private


Arab Reform Initiative

Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria 






Liwa’ al-Muutaz 


Abu Fatah al-


Hama Hama Countryside 550

Katibat Ahrar 

Taybet al-Imam 

Mohamad Khaled


Hama Hama-Northern



Liwa’ Shuhada’ 

Taybet al-Imam 

Dr Hazem Khattab Hama Hama-Northern



Katibat al-Qaddis 


Amjad al-Haddad Hama Jabal Shahshabo

(from al Sqaylbiya)


Liwa’ Ansar al-



Fawwaz al-Ali

Hama Eastern

countryside of



Liwa’ Khat al-Nar Mohamad Jasem Hama Western

countryside of



Liwa’ al-Muutasem Sheikh Abu


Hama Hama city and



Liwa’ al-Shahid al-

Naqeeb Ali al-


Captain Iyad al-


Hama Kafr Zita //

Liwa’ Rijal al-Haq Lieutenant Hassan

Abud Hasaka Al-Shadidi //

Liwa’ Shaalan // Hasaka Al-Shadidi //



Arab Reform Initiative

Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria 








Name of the 

Groupings / 


Name of the 



Province Operating area Estimated 

number of armed 


Jabhat Ahrar 


General Abdel-

Nasser Farzat 

Aleppo Aleppo Province // 

Liwa’ Shararat al-


Abu al-Tayeb Aleppo Azaz 200

Kataeb al-


Hasan Mohamad Aleppo Azaz 105

Liwa’ Jabhat al-


Zyad Abu Zaid Aleppo Aasan (South

Aleppo province)


Liwa’ Suqoor al-


General Abdel-

Nasser Farzat

Aleppo South Aleppo



Liwa’ al-Adel** General Abdel-

Nasser Farzat

Aleppo South Aleppo



Katibat al-Shahid 

Muhanad Farzat** 

Ahmad Farzat Aleppo South Aleppo



Liwa’ Ansar al-


Abu al-Tayeb Aleppo South Aleppo



Tajamuu Alwyat 

al-Muutasim billah 

General Ahmad al-


Aleppo Atareb 1 500 – 2 000 

Liwa’ Shuhada’ 


Nizar Barakat Aleppo Atareb 270

Liwa’ Ain Jaloot*** General Ahmad  al-


Aleppo Atareb //

Liwa’ Saqr al-


Amar Batabihi Aleppo Atareb //

Liwa’ Tareq Ben 


Captain Abdallah

Ibrahim (Abu


Aleppo Atareb //

Liwa’ Majd al-


// Aleppo Atareb 700


Some names cannot be disclosed for security reasons.


Most units have lists with names of registered fighters. We only mentioned armed fighters. Units usually have registered fighters

without weapons. We did not include those. Many civilians wish to join the fight if arms were available and register waiting to receive



Units marked with ** constitute the Jabhat Ahrar Halab (see description page 19)



Units marked with *** constitute the Tajamuu Alwyat al-Muutasim billah  (see description page 19)


Arab Reform Initiative

Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria 






Quwat al-


// Damascus-Deraa Eastern Ghoota –

South Damascus


Firqa 10 Abu Yaseen al-

Maydani/ Captain

Rami Tlass


South Damascus/

Eastern Ghoota

1 200

Liwa’ al-Ghuraba’ Defected Major


Damascus Qalamoon, al-Tal 400

Liwa’ Ababeel 


Abu Tawfiq al-Soori Damascus-Deraa South Damascus-

Deraa province


Katibat Usood al-


Abu Khaled al-Ajwa Damascus Dooma/Ghoota


1 300

Katibat Usood 


Ammar Saab Damascus Dooma/Ghoota



Liwa’ Tawheed al-


Abu Maaroof al-


Damascus Dooma/Ghoota



Liwa’ al-Bara’ Abu Nasser Shamir Damascus Dooma/Ghoota



Liwa’ Shuhada’ 


Ahmad Taha Damascus Dooma/Ghoota


1 200

Katibat Thuwwar 


Abu Said Rajab Damascus Dooma/Ghoota



Maghawir Sooriya Abu Mohamad al


Damascus Dooma/Ghoota



Liwa’ Shuhada’ al-


Captain Abu Jamal Damascus Daraya 6 battalions

Al-Majless al-

Thawri al-Askari fi 


Colonel Marwan al-


Suweida’-Deraa Suweida’-Deraa-



Liwa’ Dera al-


Captain Fares  al-


Deir Ezzor Deir Ezzor City 140

Liwa’ al-Basha’er // Hama Hama city 160

Liwa’ Shabab 


Abu Mahmood Hama Hama countryside 350

Liwa’ Ahrar 


Aaziz al-Mir Asaad Hama Salamiya 350

Liwa’ Ahrar al-


Colonel Walid

Mohamad Aaffar

Homs Tadmor 333

Katibat al-Shahid 


Marwan Qassem 

Bader Aabad al-


Homs North of Tadmor 88

Katibat Ashbal Iza Sofian al-Naimi Homs Tadmor 58


Revolutionary Military council of Suweida’

Arab Reform Initiative

Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria 






Katibat Shuhada’ 


Mohamad Fayz al-


Homs Eastern Ghoota of



Liwa’ Ahrar 


Lieutenant Iz Eddin


Homs Tadmor 213

Katibat Hussein 


Issa Qassem al-


Homs South of Tadmor 88

Katibat Fursan al-


Captain Khaled al-


Homs Tadmor 68

Katibat Shuhada’ 


// Idlib Saraqeb //

Liwa’ Yoosef al-


Anas al-Zeer Idlib South of Salqeen 700

Firqa 33 Aammar Dayoob Idlib Idlib province 1 654

Liwa’ Suqoor Jabal 


Captain Hasan al-


Idlib-Homs-Latakia Homs and Idlib

countryside- Jabal

Akrad in Latakia


Katibat al-Hojra Captain Mohamad


Latakia Jabal al-Akrad 1 500

Liwa’ thuwwar al-


Abu Eissa Raqqa Raqqa city //


Arab Reform Initiative

Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria 



source : http://www.arab-reform.net/sites/default/files/Empowering%20the%20Democratic%20Resistance%20in%20Syria%20.pdf

date : September 2013