Syria's Civil War: Who is Supporting the Government?

Global Challenges Conflict

Syria's Civil War: Who is Supporting the Government?

Commentary
Posted on: 15th May 2017
Ruwan Rujouleh
Analyst

    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. After the fall of east Aleppo last year 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 actors supporting the Assad regime, and of their ideological outlook. It is not exhaustive, but it covers a full range from Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps to Hizbullah to Iran-backed Shia militias.

    The Quds Force, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps

    The Quds Force, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps

    Leader: Major-General Qassem Suleimani

    Date of Establishment: 5 May 1979

    Number of Fighters: 15,000

    Funding: Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)

    Ideology: Internationalist Shia (Wilayat al-Faqih)

    Objectives:

    • To support Assad
    • To expand Iranian influence
    • To promote Shia interests

    Location: Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and some Gulf States

    Country of Origin: Iran

    Key Facts:

    • The Quds Force is an elite special forces unit within the Iranian military, which is called Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. Only devoted Shia Muslims are considered eligible for the Quds Force, with mosques and holy sites playing a key role in the recruitment process. Fighters are recruited from outside Iran as well, including in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Lebanon.

    Hizbullah

    Hizbullah

    Leader: Hassan Nasrallah

    Date of Establishment: 9 April 1983

    Number of Fighters: around 25,000, with 6,000- 8,000 in Syria

    Funding: Iran and Syria. Hizbullah also has fundraising networks across the globe, including in the Arabian Peninsula, Europe, the Middle East, and the US. Much of its money comes from private donations and profits businesses. Groups and individuals from abroad support Hizbullah through illicit activities, such as the blood diamond trade in Sierra Leone and credit card fraud in the US.

    Ideology: Internationalist Shia (Wilayat al-Faqih)

    Objectives:

    • To support Assad
    • To expand Iranian influence
    • To promote Shia interests
    • To expel Western influences from Lebanon and the wider Middle East
    • To destroy Israel

    Location: Syria and Lebanon

    Country of Origin: Lebanon

    Key Facts:

    • Some members of Hizbullah were part of the Amal Movement, a Lebanese political party associated with the Shia community in the 1980s before it emerged as an independent organisation.
    • In 1983, Hizbullah carried out an attack on a US embassy marine base in Beirut that killed 63 people.

    Kataib Hizbullah

    Kataib Hizbullah

    Leader: Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis

    Date of Establishment: 2007

    Number of Fighters: around 7,000 

    Funding: IRGC

    Ideology: Internationalist Shia (Wilayat al-Faqih)

    Objectives:

    • To support Assad
    • To expand Iranian influence
    • To promote Shia interests
    • To expel Western influences from Lebanon and the wider Middle East
    • To fight ISIS

    Location: Iraq and Syria

    Country of Origin: Iraq

    Key Facts:

    • In December 2009, the group reportedly conducted a sophisticated cyber-attack, hacking into US drone feeds in Iraq to monitor and evade military operations. This led to speculatation that the group has a relatively sophisticated cyber unit or specialist working under its command.

    Asaib Ahl al-Haq

    Asaib Ahl al-Haq

    Leader: Laith al-Khazali (brother of former leader Qais al-Khazali)

    Date of Establishment: 2006

    Number of Fighters: around 5,000

    Funding: Iran

    Ideology: Internationalist Shia (Wilayat al-Faqih)

    Objectives:

    • To support Assad
    • To expand Iranian influence
    • To promote Shia interests
    • To expel Western influences from Lebanon and the wider Middle East
    • To fight ISIS

    Location: Syria and Iraq

    Country of Origin: Iraq

    Part of: Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) in Iraq, which was formed on the basis of a fatwa by Iraqi Shia cleric Ali Sistani. The PMU was integrated into Iraq's armed forces last year.

    Key Facts:

    • The group is involved in Iraqi politics through a party named Sadiqoon, however it has not surrendered its weapons to the government.

    Harakat Hizbullah al-Nujaba

    Harakat Hizbullah al-Nujaba

    Leader: Akram al-Kaabi

    Date of Establishment: 2013

    Number of Fighters: around 7,000

    Funding/Support: Iran

    Ideology: Internationalist Shia (Wilayat al-Faqih)

    Objectives:

    • To support Assad
    • To expand Iranian influence
    • To promote Shia interests
    • To expel Western influences from Lebanon and the wider Middle East
    • To fight ISIS

    Location: Syria and Iraq

    Country of Origin: Iraq

    Part of: Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) in Iraq.

    Key Facts:

    • The group has three brigades (Liwa Ib Yasi, Liwa al-Hamad, and Liwa al-Imam al-Hasan al Mujtaba) that are actively operating in Syria's Aleppo, Homs, and Idlib provinces, as well as Damascus, in support of President Assad.

    Badr Organisation

    Badr Organisation

    Leader: Hadi al-Amiri

    Date of Establishment: 1983

    Number of Fighters: around 10,000 - 50,000

    Funding/Support: Iran

    Ideology: Internationalist Shia (Wilayat al-Faqih)

    Objectives:

    • To support Assad
    • To expand Iranian influence
    • To promote Shia interests
    • To expel Western influences from Lebanon and the wider Middle East
    • To fight ISIS

    Location: Syria

    Country of Origin: Iraq

    Part of: Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) in Iraq

    Key Facts:

    • The Badr organisation is a political party with a military wing. In 1980, it fought alongside the IRGC in the Iran-Iraq War. It led attacks against Iraqi government officials in the south of the country. 

    Zulfiqar Brigade

    Zulfiqar Brigade

    Leader: Abu Shahd al-Jabouri

    Date of Establishment: mid 2013

    Funding/Support: Iran

    Ideology: Internationalist Shia (Wilayat al-Faqih)

    Objectives:

    • To support Assad
    • To protect religious shrines, in particular the Sayyida Zaynab shrine.

    Location: South Damascus

    Country of Origin: Afghanistan, the Hazara minority

    Key Facts:

    • Syrian opposition groups have accused the brigade of committing a massacre in al-Nabk city in 2013. The Brigade's leader was shown executing a man in public surrounded by dead children.

    Fatimiyun Brigade

    Fatimiyun Brigade

    Leader: Current leadership unknown. The former leader Ali Reza Tavassoli was killed in Syria in 2015.

    Date of Establishment: 2014

    Number of Fighters: around 20,000

    Funding/Support: Iran

    Ideology: Internationalist Shia (Wilayat al-Faqih)

    Objectives:

    • To support Assad
    • To protect religious shrines

    Location: Deraa province

    Country of Origin: Afghanistan, the Hazara minority

    Key Facts:

    • The Fatimiyun Brigade is one of the group's that has been bolstered by IRGC's recruitment of Afghan Shia refugees. IRGC reportedly pays the recruits 500 US dollars a month to be "martyrs" in Syria.

    Zaynabiyun Brigade

    Zaynabiyun Brigade

    Date of Establishment: 2015

    Number of Fighters: between 2,000 - 5,000

    Funding/Support: Iran

    Ideology: Internationalist Shia (Wilayat al-Faqih)

    Objectives:

    • To support Assad
    • To protect religious shrines
    • To fight ISIS

    Location: Aleppo province, including Damascus.

    Country of Origin: Pakistan

    Key Facts:

    • The brigade is comprised of Shia Pakistani fighters recruited by the IRGC under a religious rhetoric to fight the Sunni extremism of groups like ISIS by "protecting shrines." The members mostly come from the west Pakistani Tori and Panjish tribes. The Iranian government has promised Iranian citizenship for Afghani and Pakistani Shia fighters who "serve for Iran's interest."
    • According to Zahnabiyun Brigade's Facebook page, volunteers are offered around 1,200 US dollars as a monthly salary with 15 days of holidays after three months.

    National Defence Militia (NDF)

    National Defence Militia (NDF)

    Leader: Ghassan Nassour and Fadi Saqr

    Date of Establishment: 2013

    Number of Fighters: around 100,000

    Funding/Support: Iran

    Ideology: Secular Nationalist

    Objectives:

    • To support Assad

    Location: Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo provinces.

    Country of Origin: Syria

    Former Name: "Shabiha," a reference to President Bashar al-Assad's Alawi supporters.

    Key Facts:

    • NDF militants are heavily armed and equipped, but reportedly receive little military training.

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