AMMAN, Jordan — What started out 2½ years ago in Syria as a series of peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring, has morphed into a bloody sectarian civil war pitting government forces against a number of disparate rebel groups and seemingly inexorably drawing in neighboring countries and other foreign powers.
More than 100,000 people have died since early 2011, when a series of small-scale civil protests calling for reform of the 40-year-old Baathist regime were brutally suppressed by the security forces. Gradually, armed groups — consisting mainly of Sunni army defectors — began to emerge to challenge the regime dominated by President Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite religious group, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Today, the opposition remains fractured both politically and militarily, despite Western efforts to impose unity and a central high command. And in a development that has caused deep concerns for the United States and its European allies, the insurgency is increasingly dominated by radical Islamic forces, which account for about one-third of its approximately 100,000 fighters and are now considered the spearhead of the anti-Assad rebellion, analysts say.
The armed rebellion “started off as a very broad and moderate movement, but then al-Qaida-related groups became increasingly identified with the insurgents,” said Omar Lamrani, a military analyst with Stratfor, a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm.
The increasing prominence of the jihadist forces has turned what began as a pro-democracy movement into a sectarian conflict between Syria’s Sunni majority and its Alawite, Christian, Druze, Kurdish and other minorities.
The presence of the religious radicals also has hampered efforts by the United States, Britain, France and other Western nations to arm the moderate opposition units grouped under the Free Syrian Army, whose leadership is based in southern Turkey. This lack of weaponry has become a major problem in recent months as Assad’s forces, assisted by contingents of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, have scored a number of significant battlefield victories pushing the rebels from strategically important areas of the country, analysts said.
As a consequence, the rebels’ main military hope nowadays is that possible airstrikes by the United States and its allies against government forces in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons near Damascus last week, could help shift the momentum of the war in their favor, said a senior Jordanian politician who asked not to be identified.
The Free Syrian Army, commanded by Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, remains the main umbrella organization for the opposition forces, which comprise dozens of semi-independent units, including a number of battalion-size “brigades.” Its approximately 70,000 fighters are mainly armed with light weapons and armored vehicles seized from army checkpoints or brought with them by defecting soldiers, but also with weapons brought in through neighboring Turkey and Jordan, both of which are wary of trans-national jihadist groups gaining the upper hand.
The Free Syrian Army, which claims to be secular and non-political, has been accused by international human rights groups of committing war crimes ranging from the execution of prisoners to using child soldiers in its front-line units. Syria’s Christian minority has accused the FSA of helping jihadist elements in their campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the 2-million-strong community.
The two other main insurgent groups are the Jabhat el-Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, created in Iraq to fight the U.S.-led occupation. Although both have been designated terrorist organizations, the Western-backed Free Syrian Army has continued to collaborate closely with them on the battlefield.
“Undeniable that they do carry out operations together,” Lamrani said. “Unity is a very important factor if they want to win, but at the same time, there have also been cases where they turned their guns against each other.”
“The [jihadists] are the most determined of the opposition fighters, and many fought in Iraq against the Americans where they earned tremendous combat experience that proved invaluable in the Syrian war,” he said.
The Islamists include foreign volunteers from a number of regional and even Western nations, according to the United Nations and foreign governments. About 10,000 are believed to be fighting in units such as the Jaish al-Mujahideen al-Ansar, a contingent comprised mainly of Chechen and Libyan fighters, analysts say.
The Islamic militants also have been willing to sacrifice themselves in attacks against government positions, something the Free Syrian Army has shied away from doing. As a result, their participation has been crucial in the few successes that the insurgents have scored in recent months.
Syria’s Kurdish minority, located mainly in the northeastern corner of the nation, has its own militia force loyal to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which is seeking to achieve autonomous status within Syria. The militia, estimated at up to 10,000 members, has repeatedly clashed with the Free Syrian Army and the jihadists, and earlier this month about 30,000 Kurdish civilians fled into Iraq to escape the violence.
On the government side, the once-powerful Syrian armed forces — which numbered about 170,000 troops at the start of the revolt — have shrunk to about 70,000, mainly members of the Alawite, Christian, Druze and other minorities. Some units, like the air force, remain largely intact despite attrition over the past two years of war. Syria’s ground forces and their militia allies have suffered about 40,000 deaths so far, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Still, elite units such as the country’s air defense network, remain fully operational and would likely vigorously resist any bombing campaign by the United States and Western allies.
In recent months, the army has been reinforced by about 3,000-5,000 fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah armed militia. They fought well against the rebels, inflicting repeated defeats around the strategically important town of Qusair and the central city of Homs.
Analysts say the proliferation of armed groups on both sides, armed and financed by regional rivals Iran — which backs Assad’s regime — and Saudi Arabia and Turkey — which support the opposition — means the bloodshed will continue for a long time to come.
“Even if the [Assad] regime should somehow collapse, the war isn’t going to end by any means,” Lamrani said. “We’ll have all these factions vying for power, along with the minorities, and outside countries would also still be trying to influence events in their favor.”