The Islamic State in the Levant and the Conflicts in Syria and Iraq: a Factual Guide – Part 2

The Islamic State in the Levant and the Conflicts in Syria and Iraq: a Factual Guide

Part 2:  What are the other groups involved in the syrian and Iraqi conflicts?

Bennett Kelley-Bell

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) meteoric rise in 2014 took many observers by surprise. ISIL is just one factor in the incredibly complex conflict in Syria and Iraq. Iran and the US, who have been enemies for decades, are both supporting the Iraqi government while supporting opposing forces in Syria. Turkey has sent troops to support Kurdish forces in Iraq, yet is bombing the Kurdish militias in Syria. One cannot look at the conflict in either country or against any one group independently, it is all part of a whole.

The first section offered a history of ISIL and a biography of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Below is the second part, which examines the various groups and countries that are active in the conflict, to educate the reader as towards who is fighting and why they are fighting. The third part will examine ISIL’s impact in the world while keeping a focus on West Africa and The Sahel. It is wise to educate ourselves about a war that directly affects the lives of millions of people around the world and has already spread well beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria.

Governmental Actors

Forces Loyal to Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad is still nominally the head of state of Syria, although many have called for his removal. Bashar al-Assad is the son of former president Hafez al-Assad, an Air Force officer who took power in a coup and served as the President of Syria until his death in 2000. The al-Assad family are members of a Shiite sect branch known as the Alawites. For some within the Muslim community, the Alawites are considered to be out of the mainstream. The Alawites make up around 12% of the population of Syria.

The Syrian Armed Forces most active in the Civil War are the Syrian Arab Army and the Syrian Air Force. The Syrian Air Force has been blamed for causing massive deaths and terror among the population due to their indiscriminate aerial bombardments. The weapon most associated with Syrian airstrikes is the barrel bomb. Barrel bombs are crude devices, they are 55-gallon oil drums that have been filled with explosives and are pushed out of the back of transport helicopters. These weapons have been used to terrorize the population of rebel held areas.

Prior to the Civil War, most soldiers in the Syrian Armed Forces were Sunni (who make up around 60% of the population). Many Sunni soldiers have defected to form the Free Syrian Army, while many Sunni officers have stayed. The exact amount of defections is unknown, as all sides in the conflict have claimed different numbers for propaganda purposes. The Syrian Armed Forces also have a higher percentage of Druze and Maronite Christians, two other religious minorities in Syria, as compared to the general population.

The Syrian Armed Forces were equipped with mostly Soviet manufactured weapons and used Soviet doctrine and organizational structure. Since 2011 the Syrian Arab Army has created several militia and National Guard type units composed of ethnic and religious minorities who are fighting close to home. Since they believe they are fighting to defend their houses and families, they are thought be superior fighters than the conscription based Syrian Arab Army. The Syrian Arab Army has long relied on conscription to fill its ranks, this has given it a steady supply of young men with previous military training. Nevertheless, the high death toll and defections have caused the army to hollow out, forcing the Assad government to turn to foreign assistance.

The interior of Syria is fairly uninhabitable desert. Regime forces control the Northern Province of Latakia (the Alawite heartland) and Eastern Syria. They are still fighting rebel forces for control of Damascus and Syria’s second largest city Aleppo.

Iraq

Iraq is a parliamentary democracy headed by the Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. Prior to being a democracy, Iraq was led by a Ba’athist government under Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was an autocrat who killed his own people using chemical weapons and invaded several neighbors, leading to disastrous wars. Haider al-Abadi replaced the previous Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2014. Nouri al-Maliki led a Shiite political party and while in office was accused of governing in a blatantly sectarian manner, disenfranchising the Sunni population.

When ISIL began to expand into Iraq from their base in Syria, many Iraqi Sunni tribes and leaders, who had previously worked with the government, supported ISIL. As a pre-condition of US airstrikes, Nouri al-Maliki was required to leave office. Iraq wishes to regain territory lost to ISIL and to bring the Sunni minority back into the political fold. Failure to do so threatens the continued existence of the Iraqi state as we know it.

Iran and Shiite militias

Iran has been supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad with the deployment of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps- Quds Force (IRGC-QF). The IRGC-QF is the special forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and is tasked with extraterritorial operations. The Iranian military is divided into the regular military, who protect the state of Iran, and the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps who protect the 1979 Iranian revolution. As such the IRGC-QF are better equipped and more fanatical. IRGC-QF senior leaders fought and earned renown in the Iran-Iraq war. It has provided training, funding, and weapons to Lebanese Hezbollah.

The IRGC-QF has sent fighters to support Bashar al-Assad, and the head of the IRGC-QF Major General Qassem Soleimani is thought to have personally intervened in several battles. The IRGC-QF has lost around 200 fighters, including Hossein Hamadani a senior general in the organization. The IRGC has also been active in Iraq since the Iran-Iraq war which lasted from 1980-1989. This activity increased dramatically following the US invasion of Iraq. Currently they are actively funding and advising the Iraqi Shiite militias who are fighting on behalf of the Iraqi government. IRGC-QF personnel are actively advising on the front lines of both conflicts.

Russia

The only Russian port in the Mediterranean is the Syrian port of Tartus. This port is deemed to be vitally important to Russian strategic interests. Russia has supported the Assad regime by sending arms to include the advanced surface to air missile (SAM) defense system, the S-300. Russia has sent some ground forces to act in an advisory role and some suspect that they have become frontline combatants. In the fall of 2015 Russia stepped up its involvement by launching air strikes in support of Bashar al-Assad. Russia has placed fighters in Syria, launched naval cruise missiles attacks, and sent bombers based in Russia on bombing runs in Syria.

A Russian bomber plane was shot down in late November 2015 by the Turkish Air Force after it was accused of violating Turkish airspace. Both sides dispute the chain of events, with Russia claiming the Sukhoi S-24 never entered Turkish airspace. Turkey claimed that the plane was repeatedly told to turn back and that this incursion was one of several into Turkish airspace over the last several weeks. This downing and the death of the pilot has negatively impacted relations between both of the countries.

Turkey

Turkey is a NATO country that shares a border with Syria and Iraq. Turkey has disenfranchised its Kurdish minority and fought a long standing armed conflict with Kurdish rebel groups within Turkey. The main Kurdish rebel group in Turkey is called the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Its leader Abdullah Öcalan has been jailed, and the group has been labeled a terrorist organization. The PKK has bases in Iraq which the Turkish government has occasionally bombed. One of Turkey’s great geo-strategic fears is the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Many of their actions with regards to Syria and Iraq have been with the intent of preventing an independent Kurdish state from forming.

Turkey has called for the imposition of a no-fly zone in northern Syria and for the establishment of “safe zones”. The exact plans of the “safe zones” have changed, but under a current agreement with the US, there will be a strip of land guarded by Moderate Syrian Rebels combined with a no-fly zone to keep Syrian refugees safe. After a wave of terrorist attacks over the summer of 2015, Turkey launched a bombing campaign in Syria. Prior to the campaign Turkey had been accused of turning a blind eye to ISIL and many of their early bombing targets were thought to be Syrian Kurdish rebel positions instead of ISIL fighters. Turkey has several army units in northern Iraq who help train Iraqi Kurdish rebels. In December of 2015, Turkey deployed additional forces to Iraq, but withdrew them under pressure from the Iraqi government.

United States

The United States has three ultimate goals with regards to Syria and Iraq. The first is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power and for a democratic government that respects the rights of all Syrians to replace him. The second is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL. And the third is to support the government of Iraq allowing for Iraq to remain a multi-party democracy within its previously defined borders. Often the goals and the tactics used to reach these strategic end states are at odds with each other. For example one of the reasons that the recruitment and training of anti-ISIL militias ended in such a failure was because of the purported stipulation that the recruited fighters were only supposed to fight against ISIL and to ignore the fight against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The United States is using a multi-pronged approach to reach these goals. The first is to lead an international coalition which includes Arab and non-Arab states in the fight against ISIL. This fight involves launching airstrikes against ISIL fighters, command and control centers, and equipment. The US has also launched some airstrikes against Jabhat al-Nusra. These airstrikes proved pivotal in the battles for Sinjar Mountain and Kobane.

The United States is involved in the planning and coordination of operations with the Kurdish militias and the Iraqi army. The US is also training members of the Kurdish militias and the Iraqi Army. It has dispatched around 3,500 soldiers to support Iraqi security forces which do not include the 50 Special Forces soldiers who are advising and assisting Kurdish militias in Iraq. In response to the Paris attacks in November, the US has sent 50 Special Forces soldiers to advise and assist the Syrian militias as well, marking the first time US Soldiers are in Syria.

The United States and its partner nations are also involved in arming the rebel militias. One weapon that has gained prominence on the battle field is the BGM-71 TOW missile. This is an anti-tank missile that the US and partner nations have used for decades. Per US trade agreements, any nation who purchased the TOW missile and wants to resell it, must receive approval from the US government to do so. The presence of TOW missiles in the hands of Syrian rebels can only mean that it was supplied with the acquiescence of the US and any unit that uses the TOW can be assumed to have other US supplied weapons and training.

Currently there is a lively debate within the United States as towards which approach to adopt with regards to the fight against ISIL. Some politicians are calling for the increased presence of US soldiers in both Iraq and Syria. The presidential election in 2016 will have an impact on the strategy and the tactics that the US adopts in Syria and Iraq. As of now, the United States is leading an international coalition to fight ISIL while trying to find political reconciliation in both Iraq and Syria.

Non-Governmental Actors

Jabhat al-Nusra

Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) was formed in 2011 in the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. AL-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor organization to ISIL, sensed that there was an opening in Syria and dispatched top lieutenant Abu Mohammad al-Golani. Jabhat al-Nusra became very successful on the battlefield and started to earn independent renown. In 2012 there was a struggle between Jabhat al-Nusra and AQI with Jabhat al-Nusra wanting to be viewed as an independent organization and AQI wanting to keep ownership of Jabhat al-Nusra. Ultimately al-Qaeda sided with Jabhat al-Nusra, allowing them to become an independent organization in charge of operations in Syria and keeping AQI in charge of Iraq. AQI vehemently disagreed and formally broke from al-Qaeda.

Jabhat al-Nusra espouses the same Salafist viewpoint as al-Qaeda and uses the same methods. It is only due to the brutality of ISIL that some Arab states and Western countries have suggested supporting the group. Jabhat al-Nusra was at the height of its power in 2012 and 2013 when it was thought to be the most effective fighting force. Since then its territorial reach has decreased substantially. As of December 2015, JN only controls territory in Idlib province (northwestern Syria) that is surrounded by other rebel and regime held territory.

Hezbollah

Hezbollah (The Party of God), is a Lebanese Shia political party and armed militia that was founded in 1985 as a response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. While Hezbollah holds seats in the Lebanese parliament, it has been labeled as a terrorist organization by the US, the EU, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) due to its various international terrorist activities. When Hezbollah was founded it received assistance from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps- Quds Force (IRGC-QF).

Since 2012 it has been fighting on the same side as Bashar al-Assad, a fellow Shiite. Hezbollah has been fighting primarily in a light infantry role and operates mostly in territory close to the Lebanese border. Hezbollah has fully committed to backing Bashar al-Assad and has lost over 1200 fighters since it joined the conflict.

Moderate Syrian Rebels

Any anti-Assad group who is not part of ISIL or JN falls under the catchall term, Moderate Syrian Rebel. This term is not the most appropriate since some of these rebels are just as hardline with their Islamism as JN and some have even fought alongside JN. Others in this group support a Syria that is free, pluralistic, and democratic. Much like their ideology, the alliances between these groups are constantly shifting. Often these groups are formed and dissolved very quickly.

The Syrian Arab Coalition (SAA) was formed in 2015 as the umbrella organization for all of the various Arab anti-regime militias who are also not ISIL and JN. When the Kurdish groups are included the alliance calls itself the Democratic Forces of Syria. Due to the shifting nature of alliances within these groups and the often changing nature of these groups, it is hard to say exactly who is a member of what alliance and how strong they are. Open source researchers will sift through the videos that groups place on YouTube to try to estimate the level of activity and military sophistication of each group. One of the more talked about groups in the SAA, is the Free Syrian Army (FSA). It is composed of mostly Sunni officers and soldiers who defected from the Syrian Army.

The Moderate Syrian Rebels are supported by US forces through coalition airstrikes, and material support in the form of weapons and ammunition. The US had a training program to train Moderate Syrian Rebels to fight ISIL. This program ended in failure after only training 80 fighters who were killed, captured, or fled soon after entering Syria. The US is currently re-evaluating the training program. The main issue with the US training program was that the US required trainees to only fight ISIL, and to not fight the forces of Bashar al-Assad. The Moderate Syrian Rebels hold territory in southern Syria, along the border with Israel and in the northwest as well. Moderate Syrian Rebels are currently engaged in the battles for the cities of Homs and Aleppo.

Iraqi Shiite Militias

During the Iran-Iraq war the IRGC-QF founded the Badr Organization which became the largest anti-Saddam militia and was the armed wing of a dissident political party, The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The Badr Organization was composed of Iraqi Shia defectors and prisoners of war. The organization remained active after the end of the Iran-Iraq war and became an important political player following the US invasion of Iraq.

During the US occupation of Iraq, the IRGC-QF provided arms and training to many Shiite militias to include the Badr Organization, Asai’b Ahl al-Haq (The League of the Righteous), Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the Jaysh al-Mahdi of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. These groups all had differing political goals, but the one thing that united them was that they were often rabidly anti-Sunni and against the US occupation. After the US withdrawal in 2011 most of these groups put down their weapons and joined the political process.

Following the Fall of Mosul in 2014, the Iraqi Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa for Shiite militias to take up arms and fight ISIL. These groups fall under the label Hash al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units). Members of these militias have been actively involved in the fight against ISIL and have been accused of abusing the Sunni population in areas that they have taken back. There has been disagreement between the Iraqi government and the US government over the use and employment of these militias. The US has attempted to marginalize the militias in the fight against ISIL due of worries of the sectarian nature of the militias. Nevertheless they remain active combatants in the fight against ISIL and are supported by the Iraqi and Iranian governments.

Kurdish Forces 

People’s Protection Units

The People’s Protection Units (YPG) is the Kurdish militia who are fighting in Syria. The Kurdish people are the largest ethnic group in the world without a designated homeland. Kurds live in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Soon after the start of the Syrian Civil War, local Kurdish groups formed into local self-defense forces and expelled the Syrian military from Kurdish held territory. The full extent of the YPG’s collaboration with the outlawed PKK (the PKK is a Kurdish separatist organization who has been deemed a terrorist organization) is unknown but the Turkish government uses their alleged collaborations as a basis for bombing YPG units.

The YPG has received extensive US support in the form of air strikes, especially against ISIL in the battle for the strategic border town of Kobane. The YPG controls almost all of the Kurdish territory in Syria which is most of the northern border between Syria and Turkey. This gives them control of the lucrative border trade and smuggling networks.

Iraqi Peshmerga

The Peshmerga (Kurdish for- those who face death) are groups of militias which emerged in the 1920’s. There are two main Peshmerga groups in Iraqi Kurdistan, those loyal to the Democratic Party of Kurdistan and those loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who happened to be the two main Kurdish political parties. The militias fought a war against each other after Saddam’s reprisals against the Kurds in the early 90’s. This intra-Kurdish ended with an agreement that while the militias are loyal to each political party, they both pledge allegiance to the Kurdistan Regional Government. By law, the Peshmerga are responsible for safety and security within Kurdistan, as such there are no Iraqi army units within the region.

One of the main goals of the Kurds is for there to be an independent Kurdish country serving as the homeland of all of the Kurds. This goal is opposed by Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran who have all fought various separatist Kurdish militias over the years. The Peshmerga are one of the more battle hardened groups in the region, filled with veterans who have been fighting various wars their entire life.

The Peshmerga are supposed to be supplied by the Iraqi government, but they are often neglected due to fears of them becoming too powerful. There are calls from some within the US (who supplies the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga) to arm the Peshmerga directly instead of routing the weapons through Baghdad. The Peshmerga control all of the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan. They have been actively involved in the fight against ISIL including the battle for Sinjar Mountain. Due to internal concerns and fears coming from the Iraqi government, they are reluctant to expand their presence outside of Iraqi Kurdistan.


Bennett Kelley-Bell

Bennett Kelley-Bell is an M.S. student in International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is also an Officer in the United States Army Reserve. He is an intern at WATHI. The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent those of the United States Army or of the Department of Defense or WATHI.

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