In the last few months the Syrian rebels have gone through some serious changes. Back in November there was a major reorganization within the FSA (Free Syrian Army)/SMC (Supreme Military Command), the original coalition and largely moderate, democratic, most numerous and least effective in combat organization falling apart. Most of those lost went off to form the Islamic Front.
The FSA has evolved into the SMC in an attempt to become more relevant. Based outside Syria the SMC does not control any fighting forces in the traditional sense. It is more a conduit for a lot of foreign aid, including some weapons. Efforts by the FSA and SMC to get all, or even most of the rebels to coordinate their efforts have failed. Many active rebel groups inside Syria pledge allegiance to SMC just for the supplies. A lot of rebel groups will actually listen to the SMC military experts (who are generally professionals who know what they are talking about) but will not dependably follow-through. Thus SMC still has the attention (not control of) about 30,000 rebels. Most of these are opposed to Islamic terrorists, especially the Iraqi Islamic terrorists (ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS). SMC provides supplies to more than 30,000 fighters, including some who will take SMC supplies at gunpoint and not consider that a hostile act, just a necessary one. Last November a lot of SMC groups left to join more Islamic groups. Despite these defections (mostly to the Islamic Front) many of the remaining SMC affiliated groups are Islamic conservatives, but more inclined to make deals with democrats as long as the new government is partial to Islam and Islamic law. This also defines the newly formed Islamic Front, which has about 40,000 armed men, all of whom are religious and most of whom are all for some kind of “Islamic State”. Some want democracy with that, some don’t. Everyone is following God’s Will but not everyone got the same orders.
There are four smaller Islamic coalitions. There’s the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (with about 5,000 fighters), Al Nusra (about 7,000), the Mujahideen Army (about 5,000) and ISIL (with about 8,000). The Kurds are 15 percent of the population, moderate and democratic Moslems, concentrated in the northeast and want autonomy. They oppose the Assads and the ISIL with up to 10,000 armed men.
The ISIL has been particularly hostile to the Kurds and have been skirmishing with them for over a year. The Syrian Kurds have help from the Iraqi Kurds who have had autonomy in northern Iraq for two decades now. Christians in the northeast have allied themselves with the Kurds, who are generally more tolerant of non-Moslems than other Moslems in the region. Not all Kurds are Moslem buy most in Syria are. The Kurds seem content to defend their own areas in the northeast from the Assads and ISIL, cooperate with the other rebels but not otherwise be involved. ISIL and the Kurds have something else in common, both have armed and occasionally active allies in Iraq. Northern Iraq has, since the 1991s, been controlled by the five million Kurds living there. Those Kurds have their own army and control their borders. Many Syrian Kurds have taken refuge in northern Iraq to escape fighting in northeast Syria. ISIL was formed by Iraqi Sunni Arabs and receives much support from the largely Sunni Arab population of western Iraq (Anbar province.)
ISIL is run by Iraqi Islamic terrorists and contains a lot of foreigners. ISIL wants a religious dictatorship for post-Assad Syria and eventual merging of a Sunni dominated Syria and Iraq. Merging Syria and Iraq has been a goal for many in the region for centuries. It doesn’t happen because the Sunni factions cannot agree on who gets what in the unified state. Most Syrians are opposed to the ISIL goals and see ISIL as a bunch of foreigners invading the country. But ISIL has the largest proportion of fanatics in its ranks and despite being at war with the other coalitions and the Assads is not inclined to surrender, leave Syria or negotiate. All the other rebels went to war with ISIL on January 1st and that conflict will have to be decided before the full weight of the rebels forces can be directed at the Assads.
Al Qaeda has factions in both ISIL and the moderate Islamic radical coalition and for over a year has been trying to get ISIL to play nice. But as al Qaeda discovered during the 2003-8 terrorism campaign in Iraq, the Iraqi Islamic terrorists don’t always cooperate with and al Qaeda believes that is why ISIL lost big during the 2003-8 effort. But a diminished ISIL is still fighting and growing in Iraq because Sunni and Shia politicians cannot agree on who gets what. Many Iraqi Sunnis still miss the decades of Sunni Arab domination in Iraq. This minority rule ended when Americans and British troops overthrew Saddam in 2003. The Sunni minority (about 20 percent of all Iraqis) have dominated the more numerous Shia for most of the past thousand years and miss the power and money. Many Sunni men are still willing to be fanatic terrorists in order to get it all back. In Syria ISIL took the lead in recruiting foreign Islamic terrorists to come and fight the Assads. This caused a lot of friction with Syrian Islamic radicals, including the local al Qaeda franchise (al Nusra) and al Qaeda senior leaders sided with al Nusra and ordered ISIL to disband last November. ISIL ignored this and now is at war with the Assads and most of the rebels. But recent defeats in northern and eastern Syria, as well as in western Iraq, are putting ISIL on the ropes.
Using all those foreigners gave ISIL another advantage; they were not bound to stay in one place to protect their families and neighborhoods. Many of the rebels are in it largely for self-defense and cannot easily be persuaded to go fight someplace else in Syria.