Not easy to tell who is fighting whom on Syria’s shifting front lines
DAMASCUS - Syria is now dotted with more than 200 hotspots where forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, backed by the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah, are pitted against rebels or armed groups battling each other.
Conflict zones constantly shift, with some fading away and others flaring up.
Fighting in the old city of Homs and adjacent Qusair, Qara, Nubuk, Deir Atiya and Rankous in the Qalamoun area, which raged early in the war, have receded. Other battlefields developed, such as the front in Daraya, on the southern outskirts of Damascus.
With such complexities, military analysts disagree over the number of fighting groups and armed militias. Some say there are as many as 1,000; others put the number at 100. Many of the groups are small and function in local areas but a few have emerged as powerful with affiliates across Syria or alliances with groups that share similar agendas.
Here’s a review of the main front lines, where the most prominent armed groups are operating.
— Daraya proved to be among the most resilient and complex front lines, where fighters are entrenched in a maze of tunnels, making it impossible for opposing forces to capture the city. The front line is manned by an estimated 1,500 fighters from Ajnad al-Sham and a small number of jihadists loyal to al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.
“Daraya is still inhabited by a small number of civilians who are banned from leaving by the fighters. Attempts to besiege the city failed because of the network of tunnels that links it to the adjacent town of Moadamiya,” explained a Syrian military source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
— Ghouta Sharqiya (eastern Ghouta), home to more than 15,000 rebels controlling an area of 400 square kilometres, is a direct threat to Damascus. At least 50 armed groups in the area operate under the umbrella of Jaysh al-Islam led by Zahran Alloush, a former Salafi prisoner whose Liwa al-Islam group is the most powerful.
Smaller groups, including Fajr al- Islam Brigade, al-Nusra Front and Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, made up of 100-400 fighters, are present in Ghouta Sharqiya.
“The danger of this front, to the east of the capital, is because there is a large number of fighters possessing sophisticated weapons and are deployed in a large area with strategic depth into the Syrian desert and to the border with Iraq and Jordan,” Islamic affairs expert Abdallah Ali said.
— Khan esh Sheikh, 25 kilometres west of Damascus, is the site of fierce battles that the Syrian Army sees as part of the bigger front of al-Quneitra. According to the Syrian military source, fighters in Khan esh Sheikh are estimated at 700. They belong to Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, a Palestinian rebel group allied with the Muslim Brotherhood and the militant Palestinian Hamas.
“The number of fighters in Khan esh Sheikh is not big but they are using civilians as human shields and receive support mostly from Israel, through Mount Hermon,” the military source said.
— In the adjacent Quneitra, clashes have been erupting in more than ten spots. Rebel groups allied to al-Nusra Front control 90% of the province, while government forces command the towns of al-Baath, Khan Arnaba and Hadar, which are within firing range. Ali estimated the number of rebel fighters exceeds 4,000, belonging to 11 different groups.
— In Homs, Syria’s third largest city, front lines diminished, except in the southern neighbourhood of al-Waar, where several attempts to reach a ceasefire proved futile. An estimated 1,000 fighters from several groups are entrenched in the area under the umbrella of Jaysh al- Tawhid.
— In Palmyra, the rural Homs area is regarded as one of the fiercest and relentless battlefronts pitting regime forces against the diehard jihadists of the Islamic State (ISIS). Between May and August, the regime suffered a series of painful defeats at the hands of the militants, losing control of the city and the adjacent towns of Sakha and Qaryatain. The Syrian military source played down the threat that ISIS could pose on Homs after seizing Palmyra. He said: “ISIS’s expansion towards the city has become almost impossible after the Syrian Army, backed by the National Defence Forces, erected a robust resistance line in Tayfur airport some 60 kilometres east of Homs.”
— Another major hotspot is Sahel al-Ghab, where the fronts of Idlib and rural Hama linked up when Jaysh al-Fateh, with 30,000 fighters, captured Idlib last March.
— The battles for Sahel al-Ghab and in Latakia are crucial because they are expected to lead to radical changes on the ground, the Syrian military source said, adding that the Syrian Army is concentrating its efforts on these two fronts located in a particularly difficult terrain.
— In the north-east, the military front in Aleppo is different from other spots. Battles have been raging between government forces and rebel groups on the one side and ISIS and units of the moderate opposition on the other.
“The escalation between ISIS and opposition groups is definitely helping the Syrian Army and the allied forces to resist, or at least maintain their positions without incurring losses or losing territory,” Ali said. He noted, however, that the creation of al-Jabha al-Shamiya, a coalition of mostly Sunni Islamist rebels in Aleppo, bolstered the rebels with support from Turkey.
— The military fronts of Sweida, in the south, and Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor in the north and north-east, bear a common feature, notably the poor presence of army forces fighting against ISIS. “The task of fighting the jihadists is largely shouldered by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Hasakah, Jaysh al-Ashaer, a coalition of local tribes, in Deir ez-Zor, and the (Druze) National Defence units in Sweida,” Ali noted.
— The southern province of Deraa, cradle of the first anti-regime demonstrations that evolved into full-fledged war, is another major front where fighting groups have joined forces under the banner of Jaysh al-Yarmouk. “More than 50 smaller armed militias united within the framework of Jaysh al- Yarmouk, with support from an operation room based inside Jordan territory. The largest number of fighters come from local tribes, including al-Zobi, al-Moqdad and al-Sharif,” Ali pointed out.
— The coastal province of Latakia, home base of the Syrian president’s clan and a strategic manpower reserve for the regime forces, is a key target for the armed opposition. An estimated 900 opposition fighters belonging to al-Nusra Front and Liwa Ahrar al-Sahel are deployed in 15 towns and villages bordering Turkey, and are regularly targeted by Syrian air strikes, according to Ali.