The Syrian State of Play

Here is a link to a well organized and concise description of the different actors present in the ongoing Syrian conflict, from War on the Rocks. If you would like a good primer, it is worth your time to read. Keeping up with the news reports and ever-changing developments is difficult.

Here is the general outline, with a brief excerpt from each section:

International Players:


Russia happily incurs international opprobrium for backing Assad so that it can preserve access to its last remote naval base in Tartus, which remains a symbol of Russia’s global reach; discourage external interference in a country’s internal affairs; and, most importantly, remain a counterweight to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.

United States:

With chemical weapons off the table, Assad’s external opposition in disarray, Islamists dominating the insurgency, and an American public unhappy with foreign wars, the Obama administration feels it has few options other than taking steps to prevent the civil war from destabilizing Syria’s neighbors and harming U.S. security.

Regional Players:

Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia:

Assad’s three greatest regional foes—Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—are divided according to their taste in proxies. Saudi Arabia favors more nationalist-minded groups, perhaps because members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s and the jihadis in the 2000s challenged the royal family’s rule.

Qatar and Turkey have worked together to bolster the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s sway over the external opposition, which has waned despite the two countries’ best efforts. On the battlefield, Turkey appears to have turned a blind eye to Sunni jihadis gaining access to northern Syria while Qatar is widely alleged to have supported conservative Salafi Islamist militias united under the Islamic Front.


Iran has demonstrated the seriousness of its commitment to sustaining the Assad regime by helping provide cut-price fuel and weapons and deploying members of its armed forces, including the special Quds Force, to train Syrian paramilitaries and coordinate military operations against the rebels.

Syrian Players

Assad Government:

The Syrian government is militarily and politically stronger than its opponents. The U.S. reversal in September 2013 of its threat of punitive strikes in favor of the signing of an agreement to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles awarded President Assad diplomatic leverage to play for time and stymie a peace accord. Unless the balance of power changes, Assad will continue to be defended on the international stage by Russia and draw military and financial sustenance from Iran. With such an advantageous position, the regime’s delegation at Geneva played it slow to ensure the opposition got little of any benefit from attending.

Pro-government Militias:

An assessment of the Syrian military’s performance in 2012 revealed that the Syrian Arab Army lacked the numerical and command capacity to sustain effective operations in multiple domestic theaters. Beginning in mid-to-late 2012, the SAA—with apparent training and coordinating assistance from the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps—began merging existing “popular committee” local protection militias into an organized, trained, and salaried paramilitary force, the National Defense Force (NDF). Since then, the NDF has become a critical part of the Syrian military structure, usually used to hold seized ground and to bolster coordinated offensives.

External opposition:

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is the main body representing various factions of the Syrian opposition outside Syria. Internal infighting between rival groups has structurally weakened the organization. The infighting came to a head on 18 January 2014 when a third of its members boycotted a vote to attend the Geneva II talks. One of the SNC’s main components, the Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council, withdrew from the coalition as a consequence. The infighting is a result of conflicts among the factions’ regional backers or irreconcilable differences over the future of Syria.

Free Syrian Army / Supreme Military Council

The FSA has not represented a distinct military organization for a long time now. Today, the FSA name represents more of a brand or umbrella with which primarily nationalist and often secular groups associate themselves. The SMC, meanwhile, presents itself as a coherent structure with organized local, provincial, and national components led externally by Selim Idriss. The command structure, however, has not proven itself nationally and Idriss has been more of a distributor of military aid than a commander.

Islamic Front:

The Islamic Front represents the singly most powerful opposition military organization in Syria, with an estimated 50,000-60,000 fighters operating in 13 of Syria’s 14 governorates. The IF’s political charter calls for an Islamic state in Syria governed by sharia law, but is vague regarding the specifics of what this would actually entail. While all seven constituent groups within the IF are certainly Islamist, they in fact represent a relatively broad spectrum.

Jabhat al-Nusra:

Despite its admitted links to Al-Qaeda, JN has since mid-to-late 2012 demonstrated a remarkable level of pragmatism in religious, political, and military matters. Its military forces consistently demonstrate levels of professionalism and effective command and control superior to that of comparatively moderate groups. While JN represents a numerically smaller organization than most members of the IF, its fighters often represent something more akin to special forces, taking a key frontline role in offensive operations. Because the group fights effectively and does not seek to dominate the opposition, it has healthy relations with all Syrian rebel groups from moderate to Salafist. JN’s widespread provision of social services to the civilian population through its Qism al-Aghatha (or Department of Relief) and avoidance of incurring civilian casualties in areas hostile to Assad has meant the group enjoys a surprising level of popular support.

Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS):

Since its emergence as an active armed entity in Syria in late April/early May 2013, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham focused on acquiring and consolidating territorial control in eastern and northern Syria, particularly in regions bordering Iraq and Turkey. As this proceeded, ISIS began establishing outposts further into Syria’s interior in Hama, Homs, and areas of the Damascus countryside, most notably in the Qalamoun and in Eastern Ghouta. As its influence expanded and confidence rose, ISIS began imposing its harsh behavioral codes and kidnapped, imprisoned, and sometimes executed its opponents. Public beheadings became common, as most importantly, did incidents of ISIS violence against other rebel groups.

The only two major players the article does not describe are Israel, as a state, and Christians, as an element of the population. This is likely because the article focuses on those actively participating in the struggle. Israel, apparently, is taking a wait and see approach. Christians, meanwhile, are understood to be pro-Assad historically, are sometimes besieged by Islamist elements, but are generally keeping quiet, careful not to be seen taking sides.

Of course, those following the conflict closely will likely take offense at some of the descriptions above. For those generally bewildered, however, I trust this summary is helpful.


Syrian Rebel Bribes Way Out of Prison, Runs Revolutionary Cairo Tent

Amin Kazkaz

A few days ago I posted an update about Syria, adding a few reflections. A few days after that, I met a Syrian.

Amin Kazkaz is a lawyer from the city of Hama, one of the flashpoints of the uprising. He had been working in the United Arab Emirates but returned to participate in Syria’s revolution.

Participation for Kazkaz meant armed revolt. On the eve of Ramadan 2011, one year ago, he was arrested in his city – with weapons. This information was volunteered and there was no hesitation in his voice.

Hama, reminded Kazkaz, was not the lead city in the revolution. Residents remembered the crackdown by Syrian authorities in 1982 during an insurrection led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet when other cities such as Deraa began meeting resistance for their peaceful protest the people of Hama felt compelled to join in as well.

Kazkaz spent twenty-five days in jail before his wealthy grandfather was able to intercede. A landowner, he bribed prison officials with 1.5 million Syrian pounds ($23,000 US) to free his grandson and erase his name from the national database. The warden opened Kazkaz’s cell and told him he had six hours to leave the country or risk re-arrest.

Immediately, with only the clothes on his back and items confiscated by the prison, he hired a taxi to take him to Damascus. From there he hired another taxi to cross the border into Amman, Jordan. Once settled, he arranged for his family to send him his private belongings.

In Jordan Kazkaz sought medical treatment for injuries suffered during combat and imprisonment, but then returned to the United Arab Emirates where he maintained residency. By this time, however, the UAE was rejecting Syrians within its borders and his residency was denied.

On a formal level the UAE and several nations of the Gulf condemned the Syrian regime for its crackdown and broke off all relations. This included agreements allowing freedom of movement between its citizens. On an informal level, however, Kazkaz stated that a major pro-regime Syrian businessman was active in the UAE and worked behind the scenes to keep Syrian dissidents out as well.

Kazkaz was forced to return to Jordan, but finding it too expensive he transferred to Egypt. This was five months ago; Egypt continues its policy of easy entry for Arab nationals. No visa is required but his passport is stamped with three month validity.

Egyptian policemen, he notes, are very sympathetic to the Syrian cause. At times he, like other Syrians, is questioned now that his residency has expired. Police look at the passport, note the nationality, hear the story, wish him well, and send him on his way.

For the last two months in Egypt Kazkaz has assumed responsibility to oversee the ‘Syrian tent’. The tent was erected at the Qasr al-Nile entrance to Tahrir Square during the ongoing revolutionary activity following the resignation of Mubarak. It serves as a point of awareness and support for cross-pollination in the Arab Spring. Syrians in Egypt visit regularly.

So do Egyptians; though I wondered for what purpose. A day or two earlier Syrian television announced the death of two Egyptians in a suburb of Damascus, where fighting had been intense. What were they doing there?

That evening the family of the Blind Sheikh was hosting a press conference at their open sit-in outside the US Embassy. My article on this event is here. In previous visits to his family I witnessed their fierce prayers against the Assad regime of Syria. Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya – the Blind Sheikh’s organization – has forsworn violence as a tool of Egyptian political change. Yet I wondered if they would encourage, or at least be aware of, Egyptians to go to Syria to join the jihad.

‘Of course there are’, said Mohamed Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh’s son. ‘But al-Gama’a has nothing to do with them, though it supports the Syrian cause morally. They are individual Muslims – Islamists – only.’

As the sit-in location is only five minutes from the Syrian tent I paid them a short visit first, meeting Kazkaz and hearing his story above. Upon mentioning the names of the two Egyptians, which he didn’t know, his response was quick.

‘I have met 200-300 Egyptians at this tent who have inquired how to join our fight in Syria,’ he said. ‘But we do not allow any foreign fighters in our revolution.’

Kazkaz explained the Syrian revolution was a Syrian cause, but furthermore, involving foreigners would be counterproductive. Not only would it damage their legitimacy but also foreigners do not know the lay of the land. They would be killed in their ignorance and perhaps take Syrians with them.

The only foreigners he has seen are five Iranian snipers he helped capture in Hama.

Yet Kazkaz’s final words, though not at all contradictory, suggest there may be ways for foreign fighters to infiltrate. There are for foreign media.

He offered me personal escort across the border to take a first-hand look at the fighting and to meet the leaders of the Free Syrian Army. All I would have to do is get a visa to Turkey, and he would coordinate everything. He plans to return to Syria within a few weeks.

The time with Kazkaz was insufficient to ask him the following questions:

  • How did you obtain your weapon? How long was peaceful protest underway before you started to use it?
  • To what degree is sectarianism a part of the Syrian revolution? What do you think should become of the Alawite community?
  • To what degree are Christians participating actively on either side?
  • What role do you wish for Islam in a free Syria if you are successful?
  • Are foreign powers equipping you with weapons and support?
  • Do you desire intervention from NATO or an Arab transnational force?
  • What did you do with the Iranians you captured?

As I have mentioned before, it is too difficult to understand Syria through the media alone. Kazkaz’s experience is partisan and that of only one man, but it is first-hand. As such, it is the first I have received.

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