A number of anti-government armed groups operate in Syria. The most significant groups, in particular those active in the north of the country, are listed in this section.
The Syrian National Army (SNA) is a Turkey-backed armed umbrella group based in northern Aleppo governorate. By the end of 2017, Turkey had incorporated various armed groups that fought alongside them in the ‘Euphrates Shield’ operation into the SNA, under the formal supervision of the so-called Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Defence. The most prominent factions of the SNA included:
The factions with the closest relationship with Turkey are named after Ottoman sultans, such as the Sultan Suleyman Shah Brigade and the Sultan Murad Division, and were responsible for the protection of areas of Afrin that border Turkey. In the region of Afrin, the SNA has reportedly consolidated its armed presence and established a formal security framework, with operation and coordination centres. It was reported that more than 50 armed groups were present in northern Aleppo governorate, mostly in Afrin and Azaz districts. These groups included ‘Ahrar al-Sham, Amshad brigade, Faylaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Nukhba, Jaish alSharqiya, Jabhat al-Shamiya, Nour al-Din al-Zinki and Sumina Shah brigade, among others’. Although united under the SNA banner, the constituent groups are in practice unaccountable to other actors except Turkey, they compete with each other and are often unpopular with the local population. The UN has reported clashes between armed groups that operate under the SNA umbrella, as well as splitting of the region into areas of influence between different factions.
The SNA, together with Turkish armed forces, was reported to be in control of the so called ‘safe zone’ established between Tall Abyad (Raqqa governorate) and Ras al Ain (Hasaka governorate) following the Turkish-led incursion into northeast Syria in October 2019. As of March 2020, in northern Aleppo governorate, SNA factions backed by Turkey controlled an area between the cities of Afrin, Azaz, Al-Bab and Jarabulus.
At the beginning of October 2019, as Turkey was preparing to launch an offensive against Kurdish-controlled areas in north-eastern Syria, the SNA incorporated the National Liberation Front (NLF) into its ranks.
The NLF is also a Turkish-backed alliance of opposition-armed groups, formed and active in the Idlib area in 2018. The group uses the brand of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - the umbrella armed group formed by the anti-government opposition in 2011. It is made up of moderate but also Islamist factions. The main factions include:
NLF lost control over territory in Idlib after clashes with HTS and subsequently, following an agreement between the groups, ceded the civil administration and surrounding areas in Idlib to HTS. Following the clashes, some NLF fighters evacuated the Idlib area towards the Turkish-backed rebel-controlled Afrin in Aleppo governorate. Since the agreement, the two groups have fought together against the GoS offensive into the Idlib area.
The union of SNA and NLF brought together more than 40 armed opposition groups which are reported to be under the ‘near-total control of Turkey’s Ministry of Defence and National Intelligence Organisation (MIT)’. Estimations of the total strength of the combined forces vary between around 35 000 fighters and 80 000 fighters.
There were documented kidnappings, abductions, torture, extortion and assassinations of civilians by armed groups operating under the SNA. Looting, theft and expropriation of Kurdish properties by SNA factions in the aftermath of the capture of Afrin was also reported. Turkish forces and the affiliated SNA were reportedly responsible for indiscriminate attacks on residential areas, summary killings and unlawful attacks that killed and injured civilians, among others. The SNA-branded group Ahrar al-Sharqiya has been most frequently named as the perpetrator of summary killings and human rights abuses during the October 2019 offensive [Actors, 5.2]. In addition, SNA-affiliated groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki, are reported to conduct child recruitment [Targeting, 12.1].
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or Organisation for the Liberation of the Levant (HTS) is described as the most important and powerful actor in the Idlib area, the armed opposition’s main stronghold.
HTS was formed in 2017 as a coalition of Islamist Sunni anti-government armed groups, through the merger of Jabhat al-Nusra with other smaller factions, including Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki, Liwa al-Haqq and Jaysh al-Sunna. Its primary objective is to establish Islamic rule in Syria through overthrowing the Assad government and ousting Iranian militias. HTS’s precursor organisation - Jabhat al-Nusra, was formed in Syria in 2011 as an Al Qaeda affiliate within the armed opposition to the GoS. The US, UN, EU and Turkey have designated HTS as a terrorist organisation, affiliated with Al Qaeda. HTS’s strength is evaluated to be between 12 000 and 20 000 fighters, among them 3 000 to 4 000 foreigners.
HTS controlled over 90 % of Idlib governorate, alongside adjacent parts of northern Hama and western Aleppo governorates. During 2019, the GoS forces increased their military offensive against the armed opposition groups in the Idlib area. This offensive eroded the military and political control of HTS.
HTS has created several civilian bodies in the territory under their control, including a governance body responsible for civilian functions - the Syrian Salvation Government, a court system that applies Sharia law, and an extensive prison system.
It was reported that HTS frequently commit serious human rights abuses, including harassment, assassinations, kidnapping, and torture, as well as unlawful detention of civilians. Civilians have also been extorted and kidnapped for ransom. The group has conducted formal military campaigns, assassinations, hostage takings, and ‘lone wolf’ operations, including suicide bombings. Members of religious minorities have been forced to convert to Islam and adopt Sunni customs. The UN reported the recruitment and use of 187 children by HTS in the period from January to December 2018.
Apart from HTS, other armed groups operate in the Idlib area. They are predominantly Islamist groups, relate differently to Turkey, and are said to ‘have an ambiguous or symbiotic relationship’ with HTS. These Islamist groups include Hurras al-Din (HAD), an Al Qaeda-linked group that split from HTS in 2018; the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), a Uighur-Chinese-dominated jihadist militant faction; and smaller Islamist groups, including Ansar al-Tawhid, a splinter of Jabhat al-Nusra [Actors, 4.2; Security 2020, 1.4.5].
! For further information on human rights violations committed by various anti-government armed groups and their relevance as potential exclusion grounds, see Exclusion.