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Who Is Russia Bombing in Syria? the Militant Groups Determined to Fight to the Death
Few moderates remain in the war-torn country and those that do exist lack military strength
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The controversy over who exactly the Russians are bombing in Syria is the consequence of a genuinely confusing situation on the ground combined with a heavy dose of propaganda.

A big distinction is made between Isis and the other leading rebel organisations such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham – the main three Islamist groups which dominate the armed opposition to President Assad’s regime.

Syria Map isis groups FOR web.jpg
Map showing which groups control which areas in Syria

But from the point of view of the Syrian Army, the Syrian Kurds, members of the Syrian government and minorities such as the Alawites, Christians or Druze, there is not much difference between these groups. They would expect each of the three to kill them.

It is not that the differences between these and other Sunni extreme rebel groups are fake, or that their rivalries and hatreds are not sincere.

They may be similar ideologically and in their plans for the future of Syria, but this does not mean that they are not trying to kill each other and are incapable of cooperation. There are also important distinctions stemming from the identity of their foreign backers and financiers.

By far the most important movement is Isis (also known as Islamic State, Isil and Daesh) which controls a third of Iraq and half of Syria.

It works as a genuine state able to tax, and conscript and control the five or six million people who live within its frontiers.

Despite being targeted by some 7,000 air strikes, Isis holds about the same ground as it did last year and captured Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq this May.

It never willingly shares power with anybody and has in the past acted in alliance with other jihadis only for as long as it has to. This year it has lost ground to the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, but has won victories against the Syrian and Iraqi armies.

Jabhat al-Nusra was created by Isis in 2012 as its Syrian branch drawing on Isis’s resources of men, arms and money. It rapidly grew in strength until 2013, when Isis leader Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi tried to curb its independence and bring it firmly back under his authority.

The result was a savage intra-rebel civil war which at first Isis seemed to lose as it withdrew to eastern Syria, but was then able to rally its forces for successful counter-attacks.

More recently, Turkey, Qatar and other Sunni states have been trying to rebrand al-Nusra as more moderate than Isis and therefore internationally acceptable as an ally against President Bashar al-Assad. It led a coalition of other groups to capture Idlib City and other important positions in March and May.

Ahrar al-Sham also sought to benefit from re-labelling, but these changes were directed primarily at foreign powers rather than a domestic audience within Syria.


The sad truth is that after four years of war in Syria there are few moderates left and those that do exist lack military strength. The Free Syrian Army was always a mosaic of factions and is now largely ineffectual. But it is important to take on board that Syria is in the midst of a genuine civil with a core of people on all sides who believe they must fight to the death.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Russia, Syria 
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  1. The Lion says:

    As far as Russia and Syria is concerned if you are not fighting directly under their control you are a terrorist! Just because the US trained you or supplied you, doesn’t give you special rights! Time for the US to remember exactly what they said after 9/11 and realise the shoe is on the other foot this isn’t the United States and they the United States are trying with Terrorists to overthrow a country, because that is exactly how they described these types of groups when they were fighting them and the United States of America is doing exactly what it accuses other states of doing PROVIDING MATERIAL SUPPORT FOR TERRORISTS!

  2. There are a great many non-sectarian Sunnis in Syria. They are not all jihadi crazies. Syria was the center of a commercial trading zone for centuries.

    Assad himself married across that line. Ignoring that line was normal in Syria, until the Saudi thinking crazies tore the place apart as they have.

    Those Sunnis who lived like normal Syrians for so many years have as much to fear from the crazies as do the Alawites, Kurds, and other minorities. It is ugly to see what happened to them where the crazies took over, and the crazies have no yet gotten to the areas where the normal Syrians mostly lived and did business.

  3. Bianca says:

    It is really hard in this media noise to get the key point across: there is NO civil war, and there is no sectarian divide in Syria and among Syrians. Today, still the majority of soldiers in Syria army are Sunni soldiers. I believe some key generals are Sunnis as well. Same in government, education, health care. In business, I believe that Sunnis are even more represented. All the key religious leaders in Syria support their Army, and nobody is preaching to support the “opposition”. Saudi Arabia — what is new — supported the rise of Wahhabi-sponsored Salafism among poor Iraqi refugees that fled into Syria following the fall of Saddam Hussein. These were the Sunnis that feared the majority of Shia governance in Bagdad, and they had a good reason for it. Army was disbanded, civil service disbanded, and US occupier was hunting them and humiliating in Abu Graib. Not to mention the horrors of Fallujah, and other atrocities. The Shia government was US picked one, and encouraged all types of abuse of Sunni population. Then, two things happen. One, General Petraeus started to organize thoroughly demoralized and rejected Sunni populace into a movement called “Awakening”, presumably to fight Al-Qaeda. It was a bogus issue — but it gave these Sunnis weapons and salary. The second thing that happened is Saudi Arabia’s induced radicalization of Sunni religious leaders, and using these leaders started the program of distribution of food (rice, flour, oil, sugar) and hygiene products. It started giving scholarships for promising youth to study religion in Saudi Arabia, or in Fetullah Gulen’s “educational” programs in Turkey. Keep in mind, he operates from US. The combination of the abject poverty of Iraqi refugees in Syria (about two million), the arming of Sunni vigilante, and Saudi funding and radicalizing population against Shia, did the rest. Among those that are fighting with these groups are — in the greatest numbers — just such Iraqi refugees, the victims of US Iraqi adventures. Syria was GOOD then, while it was flooded with refugees. It will be really important before any voting in Syria takes place to insure that the people who fled Iraq, bought into Saudi hate of Shia, have a say in how Syria should be governed. After all, each country has the right to regulate its immigration, and US invasion made it impossible for Syria to take care of them, or to repatriate them.

    So, it will be necessary to destroy ISIS and other Salafi groups in Iraq, so that some semblance of peace will return, and people can come home. But I am afraid, that for the radicalized populace, there is no coming home in peace. Saudi Arabia is guilty of creating a cult of death, a cult that will have hard time reintegrating within normal Sunni society, be that in Iraq or Syria. They are already burden to Turkey, that is not at all looking forward becoming another Syria, with their own Sufi brand of Islam being under attack from Saudi cult. Until the funding is stopped, Salafi internationalists are the danger all over the world. They are causing strife from Sri Lanka, through Central Asia, from Egypt and Libya, to Bosnia, Kosovo and beyond.

    Who will deal with this, is the real question.

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