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Middle East

Key military players in Syria’s civil war

Al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra waving their brigade flag as they step on the top of a Syrian air force helicopter, at Taftanaz air base that was captured by the rebels, in Idlib province, northern Syria. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN, File)

- SYRIAN REGIME: Despite major defections and the loss of significant territory and military bases to rebels, the Syrian military remains a potent force against a poorly armed opposition.

President Bashar Assad’s inner circle has largely remained cohesive and united, so far avoiding high-level defections that sapped the strength of other regimes, such as Moammar Gadhafi’s in Libya, during Arab Spring uprisings. Assad’s closest advisers include his younger brother, Maher, who commands forces protecting the capital, as well as the heads of four intelligence agencies that are playing key roles in the embattled government’s fight against the rebels.

- PRO-REGIME MILITIAMEN: Shadowy fighters, known as shabbiha, recruited from the ruling elite’s Alawite sect operate as hired muscle for the Syrian regime. They are believed to be carrying out some of the most brutal attacks of the conflict, allowing Assad’s government to deny direct responsibility for them.

- SUPREME MILITARY COUNCIL: Syria’s main rebel units, known together as the Free Syrian Army, regrouped in December under a unified command called the Supreme Military Council, following promises of more military assistance once a central council was in place. The Western-backed council is headed by Gen. Salim Idriss, who defected from the army, and a 30-member group of senior officers. Idriss spent 35 years in the Syrian military and is seen as a secular-minded moderate. The nonlethal aid the United States pledged Thursday in Rome will be directed to the military council.

- LOCAL BRIGADES AND MILITARY COUNCILS: Local units made up of tens of thousands of autonomous rebel fighters have very little, if any, central organization or command structure. Many of the fighters defected from the army, while others are citizens who took up arms against the regime.

- NUSRA FRONT: An Islamist extremist group that has been behind some of the rebels’ most significant battlefield successes. The U.S. has designated the Nusra Front a terrorist organization, saying it is affiliated with Al-Qaeda network. The Nusra Front has claimed responsibility for most of the deadliest suicide bombings targeting regime and military facilities. The presence of Islamic extremists among the rebels is one reason the West has not equipped the Syrian opposition with sophisticated weapons, such as anti-aircraft missiles. The Nusra Front has gained popularity among some rebels for its effectiveness while alienating other, more secular-minded fighters.

- FOREIGN FIGHTERS: Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters and jihadists who also flocked to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. No credible count of them exists, but anecdotal evidence suggests fighters from Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, the Netherlands and Britain are fighting against Assad’s regime. Rebel commanders downplay the presence of foreign fighters, saying the conflict is purely a Syrian uprising.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 01, 2013, on page 8.

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