Since the conflict started in 2011, armed groups have come and gone, alliances have formed and dissolved. An overview of the main factions on the ground today.

Syria’s war, now in its sixth year, is is three conflicts in one. It is a regional proxy war, an international counter-terrorism operation, and a popular uprising against a dictator. Developments on the ground are murky, with a plethora of armed groups involved in the fighting.

Since the start of the conflict in 2011, groups have come and gone, alliances have formed and dissolved, complicating facts on-the-ground even further. Most recently, after the fall of east Aleppo and the launch of peace talks in Astana and Geneva in January, rebel factions in northern Syria have formed significant coalitions.  

The list below gives an overview of the most prominent current groups, and of their ideological outlook. It is not exhaustive, but covers the full range of opposition factions, from Kurds to Islamist extremists. 

Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)

Tahrir al-Sham Logo

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

A coalition of factions in northern Syria. HTS seen as a new version of the coalition formerly known as Jaish al-Fatah, mostly comprising the following groups:

  • Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS)
  • Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki
  • Liwa al-Haqq
  • Jabhat Ansar al-Din
  • Jaish al-Sunna

Leader: Abu Jaber Hashem al-Sheikh

Date of Establishment: 28 January 2017

Number of Fighters: Approximately 14,000

Funding/Support: Allegedly individuals from the Gulf; ransom payments from the merged factions; seizures from rival factions.

Ideology: Nationalist Salafi

  • Additional ideologies: As a coalition, its factions have varying ideologies, ranging from Salafi-Jihadi to Internationalist Islamist.

Objectives:

  • To depose Assad
  • To establish an Islamic state or emirate in Syria

Location: North and north-east Syria

Key Facts:

  • HTS claims to be a Syrian nationalist project. However, the coalition is formed largely on religious lines. Its political approach is based on opposing Russia and rejecting externally negotiated peace agreements.
  • The coalition's leader, Abu Jaber Hashem al-Sheikh, formerly led a dissident faction of Ahrar al-Sham.
  • Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is the main faction in HTS.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS)

Member of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham logo

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham

Leader: Abu Mohammad al-Jolani

Date of Establishment: 23 January 2012

Number of Fighters: Approximately 5-7,000

Funding/Support: Allegedly individuals from Gulf states; seizures from rival factions; ransoms from hostages.

Ideology: Salafi-Jihadi (Internationalist)

  • Additional Ideologies: Factions within the group believe that it should pursue a Nationalist Salafi agenda.

Objectives: 

  • To depose Assad
  • To establish an Islamic state/emirate in Syria

Location: Damascus, Latakia, Aleppo and Idlib provinces

Former Name: Jabhat al-Nusra

Key Facts:

  • JFS was affiliated with al-Qaeda until it came to an amicable split with the group in 2016. It initially faced hostility from some rebels, but developed a strong reputation that led to a number of groups, including from the Free Syrian Army coalition (FSA), protesting the decision by the US to label JFS a terrorist organisation in December 2012.
  • At the core of JFS' organisational structure is a Sharia council. It believes in the establishment of a Salafi vision of Sharia law within an Islamic emirate, the protection of Muslims against their perceived enemies, and the strengthening of "God's religion on earth."

 

Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki

Member of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)

Leader: Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin

Date of Establishment: Late 2011

Number of Fighters: Approximately 3,000

Funding/Support: The group has an 'economic office' to collect donations from inside and outside Syria

Ideology: Nationalist Salafi

Objectives:

  • To depose Assad.
  • To establish an Islamic state/emirate in Syria

Location: Idlib and Aleppo provinces

Key Facts:

  • This group was US-vetted, however, Washington cut support ties with it in early 2015 in light of atrocities committed by its members, including the beheading of a captive child in Aleppo.
  • Until recently, this group was part of the Military Operation Command (MOC) funded by the US, Turkey, and other Gulf states.

Liwa al-Haqq

Member of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)

Liwa al-Haqq

Leader: Abu Abdullah Taftanaz

Date of Establishment: Late 2011

Number of Fighters: Approximately 1,000

Funding/Support: Allegedly individuals from Gulf states

Ideology: Nationalist Salafi

  • Additional Ideologies: Nationalist Islamist. The group contains individuals that believe in building a new Syria based on Sharia law, locally applied and inspired

Objectives:

  • To depose Assad
  • To establish an Islamic state/emirate in Syria

Location: Idlib provinces

Key Facts:

  • Three leaders were killed in a Russian raid in Taftanaz, Idlib, in 2015. The leader of the group called the Russians "infidel Russians," and threatened to "slaughter" them "like pigs."

Jabhat Ansar al-Din

Member of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)

Jabhat Ansar al-Din

Leader: Abu Abdullah al-Shami

Date of Establishment: 25 July 2014

Number of Fighters: Unknown

Funding/Support: Allegedly individuals from Gulf states

Ideology: Salafi-Jihadi (Internationalist)

Objectives:

  • To depose Assad
  • To establish an Islamic state/emirate in Syria

Location: Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Homs, and Latakia provinces

Former Name: Originally a coalition of four groups: Harakat Sham al-Islam, Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Green Battalion

Key Facts:

  • Harakat Sham al-Islam, one of the faction's components, was created by a Moroccan former Guantanamo Bay detainee called Ibrahim bin Shukran. He was killed in Latakia in 2014. The Green Battalion comprises Saudi fighters. Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya is considered to be Syrian.
  • In August 2013, Ansar al-Din's manifesto stated that it was "independent" and aimed to establish an Islamic state. This illustrated a broader trend of jihadi groups seizing their own territory in Syria.

Ahrar al-Sham

Ahrar al-Sham

Ahrar al-Sham

A northern Syrian rebel faction with a Nationalist Salafi ideology. Since 2014, it has absorbed various Islamist armed groups. From January 2017, it brought several groups that had been attacked by JFS under its protection. These groups include:

  • Suqour al-Sham
  • Thawar al-Sham Brigades
  • Jaish al-Mujahideen
  • Fastaqim Kama Umirta
  • Jaish al-Islam (Idlib wing)
  • Levant Front (West Aleppo wing)

Leader: Ali al-Omar

Date of Establishment: Late 2011

Number of Fighters: Approximately 20,000

Funding/Support: Allegedly the intelligence agencies of Turkey and Gulf states through the Military Operations Command (MOC)

Ideology: Nationalist Salafi

Objectives:

  • To depose Assad
  • To establish an Islamic state/emirate in Syria

Location: Idlib and Aleppo provinces

Key Facts:

  • Early in 2017, it was reported that six armed groups pledged allegiance to Ahrar al-Sham after JFS attacked them over their participation at talks in Astana. Most of the factions that joined Ahrar al-Sham are Islamists, albeit of slightly different stripes, but most of them seem to have evolved from fairly secular nationalist FSA factions. Those factions came out of the villages and towns of the Aleppo hinterland
  • The new HTS leader, Abu Jaber al-Sheikh, was a leader of a dissident faction of Ahrar al-Sham called Jaish al-Ahrar denounced by Ahrar al-Sham's leader Ali al-Omar. This reflects the divisions between various ideological wings inside Ahrar al-Sham, which has always focused on maintaining consensual leadership through its Shura council and other religious institutions
  • Although Ahrar al-Sham has opposed UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva, it eventually succeeded in negotiating its first ceasefire with the Syrian army and Hizbullah on August 12 2015, suspending hostilities for 48 hours in Zabadani, Foua, and Kefraya

Suqour al-Sham Brigade

Member of Ahrar al-Sham

Leader: Ahmad Issa al-Sheikh

Date of Establishment: Late 2013

Number of Fighters: Approximately 1,800

Funding/Support: Previously Saudi Arabia, but now believed to be Turkey and Qatar

Ideology: Nationalist Salafi

  • Additional Ideology: Nationalist Islamist

Objectives:

  • To depose Assad
  • To establish an Islamic state/emirate in Syria

Location: Idlib province

Key Facts:

  • In 2016, Suqour al-Sham's leader had an exchange on Twitter with the Jordanian al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, over the fighting of various Islamist groups against the ISIS-linked faction Jund al-Aqsa. Maqdisi opposed the fighting, on the basis that it was not targeted against "apostates"

 

Jaish al-Islam (Idlib Wing)

Ahrar al-Sham

Jaish al-Islam (Idlib Wing)

Jaish al-Islam (Idlib Wing)

Leader: Mohammad Alloush

Date of Establishment: 29 September 2013

Number of Fighters: Approximately 15-20,000

Funding/Support: Mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar

Ideology: Nationalist Salafi

  • Additional Ideology: Jaish al-Islam is a coalition of 45 to 50 groups, including Islamic and Secular Nationalist factions

Objectives:

  • To depose Assad
  • To establish an Islamic state/emirate in Syria

Location: East Ghouta (Damascus suburbs), Aleppo, and Idlib provinces

Former Name: Liwa al-Islam

Key Facts:

  • Liwa al-Islam is considered to be one of the main components of Jaish al-Islam. It was responsible for the assassination in July 2012 of the former Syrian defence minister and Assad's brother-in-law in Damascus
  • Jaish al-Islam's leader has denounced democracy and called for an Islamic state to succeed Assad. But in a May 2015 interview with McClatchy journalists, Alloush said that Syrians should decide what sort of state they wanted to live under and that Alawis were "part of the Syrian people"
  • The group was part of the Islamic Front, a dissolved umbrella group of 40,000-70,000 fighters

Jaish al-Mujahideen

Member of Ahrar al-Sham

Jaish al-Mujahideen

Jaish al-Mujahideen

Leader: Captain Mohammad Shakerdi

Date of Establishment: 2 January 2014

Number of Fighters: Approximately 10,000

Funding/Support: Member of the Military Operations Command (MOC)

Ideology: Nationalist Salafi

  • Additional Ideology: National Islamist

Objectives:

  • To fight ISIS
  • To depose Assad
  • To establish an Islamic state/emirate in Syria

Location: East Ghouta (Damascus suburbs), Aleppo, and Idlib provinces

Key Facts:

  • Jaish al-Mujahideen attended the first round of Russian-Turkish sponsored talks in Astana. In response, it was attacked by JFS, as a result of which it allied itself with Ahrar al-Sham for protection

Levant Front (West Aleppo wing)

Member of Ahrar al-Sham

Levant Front (West Aleppo wing)

Levant Front (West Aleppo wing)

Leader: Engineer Husam Yasin

Date of Establishment: 25 December 2014

Number of Fighters: Approximately 3,000

Funding/Support: Member of the Military Operations Command (MOC)

Ideology: Nationalist Salafi

  • Additional Ideology: The member factions of the Levant Front range from Nationalist Islamist to FSA-linked Secular Nationalist

Objectives:

  • To fight ISIS
  • To depose Assad

Location: Aleppo province

Key Facts:

  • The Levant Front was created as an attempt to unite groups in the north. This failed because of a lack of cohesion between the factions ideological matters

Thuwar al-Sham Battalions

Member of Ahrar al-Sham

Thuwar al-Sham Battalions

Thuwar al-Sham Battalions

Leader: Captain Naji al-Mustafa

Date of Establishment: April 2015

Number of Fighters: Approximately 2,000

Funding/Support: Allegedly individuals from the Gulf

Ideology: Islamic Nationalist

Objectives:

  • To fight ISIS
  • To depose Assad

Location: Aleppo province

Key Facts:

  • Thuwar al-Sham Battalions includes dozens of officers who defected from Assad regime
  • Formerly a member of the Levant Front

Fastaqim Kama Umirta

Member of Ahrar al-Sham

Fastaqim Kama Umirta

Leader: Mustafa Barro (also known as Saker Abu Qutaiba)

Date of Establishment: December 2012

Number of Fighters: Approximately 3,000

Funding/Support: Member of the Military Operations Command (MOC)

Ideology: Nationalist Islamist

Objectives:

  • To fight ISIS
  • To depose Assad

Location: Aleppo province

Key Facts:

  • Previously a member of the Levant Front
  • In 2014, the faction arrested a Christian anti-Assad activist in Aleppo for not wearing a veil, but after criticism from other opposition groups, its political office issued an apology saying the arrest was a mistake by a local commander
  • In 2016, the group clashed with Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki on ideological grounds

Failaq al-Sham

Failaq al-Sham

Failaq al-Sham

Leader: Mondher Saras and Haitham Rahmeh

Date of Establishment: 4 March 2014

Number of Fighters: 7,000-10,000

Ideology: Nationalist Salafi

Objectives:

  • To fight ISIS
  • To depose Assad

Location: Homs, Hama, and Idlib provinces

Key Facts:

  • The faction, through its political office, has good relations with Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, and the UK

The Southern Front

The Southern Front

The Southern Front

Leader: Bashar al-Zoubi

Date of Establishment: 23 January 2012

Number of Fighters: Approximately 40,000

Funding/Support: Member of the Military Operations Command (MOC)

Ideology: Secular Nationalist

Objectives:

  • To fight ISIS
  • To depose Assad

Location: Deraa, Quneitra, and Suweida provinces

Key Facts:

  • The Southern Front was formed from dozens of rebel groups in southern Syria, including; Hamza Division (Deraa), The First Brigade, Sword of al-Sham Brigades, The First Legion, Jaish al-Ummah, Al-Furqan Brigades, Amoud Horan Brigade, Ahrar Nawa Division, Jabhat al-Sham Muwahidda, Martyrs of Islam Brigade, Syrian Revolutionary Front, Dawn of Islam Division (Forqat Fajr al-Islam), Quneitra Military Council, Yarmouk Army, First Division, Lions of Sunna Brigade.

Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS)

Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS)

Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS)

Leader: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Date of Establishment: October 2006

Number of Fighters: 15-20,000 in Syria and Iraq (as of 2016)

Funding/Support:

  • Oil smuggling
  • Tax collection and extortion
  • Donations

Ideology: Salafi-Jihadi (Internationalist)

Objectives:

  • Establish a caliphate
  • Establish a Salafi vision of Islamic law

Location: Syria and Iraq (with affiliates in other countries)

Key Facts:

  • ISIS was a member of al-Qaeda until its expulsion in 2014.
  • Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was initially dispatched by ISIS in Iraq to fight in the Syrian civil war, but refused to submit when ISIS itself expanded into Syria in 2013.

People's Defence Units (YPG)

YPG flag

People's Protection Units (YPG)

Leader: Salih Muslim

Date of Establishment: Late 2012

Number of Fighters: 45-65,000

Funding/Support:

  • Taxation in areas of control
  • Funding from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)
  • Individuals in the Kurdish diaspora

Ideology: Ethnic protection

Objectives:

  • To fight ISIS
  • To depose Assad
  • Protection of Kurdish interests

Location: North and north-east Syria

Key Facts:

  • The YPG is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Turkish terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party
  • The YPG includes an all-female brigade called the Women's Protection Units (YPJ), which fights ISIS. They operate in both Syria and Iraq.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)

Associated with the YPG

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)

Leader: Sipan Hemo

Date of Establishment: October 2015

Estimated Number of Fighters: 30-40,000 (of which three quarters are from the YPG)

Funding/Support: Financial and logistical support from the US

Ideology: Secular Nationalist

  • Sub-ideologies: Ethnic Protection

Objectives:

  • To depose Assad
  • To fight ISIS
  • To establish a secular, democratic state

Location: Hassakah, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zour provinces

Key Facts:

  • SDF is a coalition of Arab and Kurdish factions, dominated by the YPG. The Arab factions are drawn from various tribal groups. The leaders of SDF units are usually Kurds.
  • There is a leadership council that includes former PKK commanders Shahin Jailo and Fahman Hussein.
  • The YPG fighters within the SDF are not included in the estimated number of fighters for the YPG.