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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Are There Any Moderate Rebels in Syria?

Filed under: Hizbullah, Syria, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 15, No. 35             November 22, 2015

Map of Syria
  • Since the beginning of its bombings in August 2014 the U.S.-led coalition in Syria hits targets that are "only" Islamic State’s and avoids the Syrian regime and other "moderate opposition" targets. The Russians do not face this dilemma: Indeed, since the beginning of the Russian military intervention in October 2015, the targets are very clear: all those who are against the Syrian Assad regime and its allies.
  • The CIA assisted those it considered "moderate rebels." It appears that the choice fell on the Syrian Free Army. The Free Syrian Army has worked with hard-line, anti-Western Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in the fighting against Assad’s forces and their allies, despite the non-jihadi inclinations of part of the FSA.
  • We see an unfolding of a process in the Syrian civil war in which the Free Syrian Army has gradually vacated its leading role in some regions in the battle against the Alawite regime, replaced by the followers of the jihadist forces.
  • Many of the different Islamist coalitions present on the ground today can hardly be defined as being "a moderate opposition."
  • The United States stands at a crucial policy juncture that could lead in the long run either to a repeat of the Taliban experience in Afghanistan after the Soviet retreat or to the chaotic state created in Iraq in the aftermath of the American withdrawal and the replacement of its minority Sunni ruling class by a Shiite regime which has since partitioned Iraq.


The U.S. and NATO have accused Russia of targeting moderate rebels in Syria instead of targeting the Islamic State. Those moderate rebels, pampered, armed and financed by the United States, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are portrayed as being the fighting opposition to the Assad regime and its moderate alternative. The New York Times reported that the Russians carried out "a bombing attack against Syrian opposition fighters."1 According to the Times, quoting a senior United States official, at least one and possibly more Syrian opposition groups, secretly armed and trained by the CIA, were among the rebel groups targeted by the Russian airstrikes and had suffered casualties and damages.

The U.S.-led coalition has had a difficult task in choosing its targets in Syria. Since the beginning of its bombings in August 2014, the United States had to choose carefully between targets that are "only" Islamic State’s and avoid (out of political considerations) Syrian regime targets. The Russians do not face this dilemma: Indeed, since the beginning of the Russian military intervention in Syria in October 2015, the targets are very clear: all those who are against the Syrian regime and its allies.

But who is this "moderate opposition"?

BBC estimated almost two years ago that “there are believed to be as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups in Syria, commanding an estimated 100,000 fighters. Many of the groups are small and operate on a local level,” BBC continued, “but some have become major players with affiliates across the country or formed alliances with other groups that share a similar agenda.”2

Two Different U.S. Training Programs

While the Pentagon recently suffered a total collapse of its training program for rebels outside of Syria, the CIA has been involved since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in training, arming and financing rebel groups within Syria in line with the directive set by President Obama. Since 2013 the CIA trained thousands of rebels to fight Assad's forces. Those groups have made significant progress against strongholds of the Alawites, Assad's sect, but are now under Russian bombardment.3

At the time, the covert CIA program was the only way the United States was willing to take on Assad militarily. The CIA concentrated on assisting those it considered "moderate rebels," and it appears that the choice fell on the Syrian Free Army, mainly because of what looked to be a more tolerant attitude towards non-Muslim entities, ignoring the fact that Free Syrian Army-aligned brigades retained separate identities, agendas and commands. Some even worked with hard-line, anti-Western Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists,4 in the interest of defeating Assad’s forces first.

Hence, while the Pentagon’s $500 million program to train and equip Syrian fighters has largely failed — at one point only four or five American-trained combatants were in the fight in Syria — the CIA’s covert program to train other fighters has weathered some setbacks to produce 3,000 to 5,000 fighters in the nearly two years it has been operating.5

The current situation was addressed by the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Hadi el Buhayri, who declared in December 2014 that the Free Syrian Army units were fighting extremist groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat Al Nusra in order to keep positions they captured from the Syrian regime. According to el Buhayri, the training program led by the United States was supposed to begin in February-March 20156 — much too late and much too little.

After the United States admitted it had accidentally delivered weapons to the Islamic State by airdrop, it appeared that the vast majority of the CIA trainees evaporated on their way back to the battlefield. Some trainees surrendered their weapons to the Al-Qaeda Syrian franchise, Jabhat Al Nusra, in return for safe passage, while other recruits joined the ranks of the jihadists themselves. Such was the case with the Al-Hazm movement, a small militia which after being attacked by Jabhat Al Nusra decided to disband and join larger jihadi insurgent groups. U.S.-trained fighters of Division 30, so-called "moderate rebels," also surrendered to Jabhat Al Nusra together with all their weapons and equipment. The Army of Mujahedeen, an Islamist group in the surroundings of Aleppo, established itself with the mission of fighting the Islamic State. In September 2014, 50 fighters from that group were trained in Qatar in a covert CIA program7 and supplied with American weapons, including TOW anti-tank missiles. On May 6, 2015, along with other Aleppo groups, the Mujahedeen joined the Islamist Fath Aleppo operations room (see document below), thus joining hands with many more radical groups such as the Ahrar el Sham jihadist organization, a long time sympathizer of al-Qaeda.

Document establishing a joint Islamist operations room
Document establishing a joint Islamist operations room

It is noteworthy to stress that Omar el Wawi, secretary of the Free Syrian Army, expressed harsh criticism of the U.S. plan to create in Syria an opposition force to the Islamic State. El Wawi accused the United States of not protecting his forces while under attack by Jabhat Al Nusra fighters (August 2015). El Wawi claimed that barely 54 fighters had been trained by the United States. He complained of the slowness of the U.S. program, saying that if it took six months to train 54 fighters, the goal of reaching 15,000 fighters would take several decades!8 His complaints reflect the deep dissonance between the American expectation that the opposition they support will focus on fighting the ultra-radical anti-Western organizations and the intent of the opposition to focus in the first stage on fighting the Assad regime.

The case of the CIA-trained "Brigade of the Mountain Hawks" (as well as other Free Syrian Army-affiliated units) is also very illustrative of this bizarre reality in Syria. Even though the Brigade denies having been trained in Turkey (a member of NATO),9 its weapons are mainly American-made (M-16 rifles and TOW anti-tank missiles). The Brigade fought in the area of Idlib in northern Syria, first against the troops of Bashar Assad and then against the Islamic State, and then found itself coordinated with the jihadist Fath Aleppo operations room which encompasses more than 31 jihadist factions of which "the Mountain Hawks" are a part (the "Hawks" are number 29 on the list of organizations published by the joint operations room of Fath Aleppo – see below). In fact and for all practical purposes, the Hawks are coordinated with this joint operations room headed by the most senior jihadist faction: Ahrar el Sham.

Members of the Fath Aleppo Joint Operations Room
Members of the Fath Aleppo Joint Operations Room

Another group targeted by the Russians was the "Faylaq 13" (Division 13) deployed in the Idlib area which is basically part of the Free Syrian Army and receiving U.S. training and weapons.10 However, this group, as in the case of the Mountain Hawks, is part of the jihadist coalition in the operations room of "Fath Aleppo" headed by Ahrar el Sham.11 "Liwa el Haqq" (Brigade of Justice), deployed in the Damascus area, affiliated with the FSA, and targeted by the Russians, has a jihadist website on Facebook which shows this unit’s very extreme Islamic color.12 The same assessment applies to the Al'Iz Brigade, also part of the FSA, which according to its website is now under the wings of Ahrar el Sham.13

On the ground in northern Syria, unlike the southern part of the country, the Free Syrian Army has no independent territorial foothold. Its presence is "tolerated" only in the framework of cooperation and joint efforts with the jihadists. Even if their colors show the Syrian national flag, the logo around it is purely Islamic and similar to the other jihadist factions. The fact is that the Free Syrian Army was crushed in northern Syria by the Al-Qaeda franchise, Jabhat Al Nusra, in February 2015 when the leadership of the FSA found refuge in Turkey, while the remnants of the FSA joined Jabhat Al Nusra or simply went home.14 Following the Russian bombings, more than 40 Syrian insurgent factions led by Ahrar el Sham have called on regional states (perhaps Turkey, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia) to forge an alliance against Russia and Iran in Syria. The Free Syrian Army units were mentioned as part of these 40 insurgent groups.15  

Adding insult to injury, Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov declared in a press conference that "nobody has told us until now where the Free Syrian Army is deployed and how other units described as moderate opposition are active."  Lavrov went as far as proposing to establish contact with the Free Syrian Army "if such an organization exists on the ground."16

A Major Consolidation of Jihadi Organizations

It is important to state that the fading influence and presence of the Free Syrian Army from the scene coincides with the parallel strengthening of some jihadist organizations which have been undergoing organizational consolidations in the past two years. These rebels came to the conclusion that by uniting their forces they would stand a better chance to defeat Assad's fighting coalition. As a result, new ad-hoc structures were created by the different factions:

  • The first coalition to be established was in September 2013, when 50 rebel factions around Damascus decide to merge into a new organization called Jaysh el Islam (Army of Islam) headed by the son of a Saudi cleric, Zahran Alloush, who at the time was heading the Liwa el Islam organization. Representing the biggest group, Zahran was chosen to head the coalition. Two months later, 60 groups had merged into the Jaysh el Islam and more than 175 groups had expressed their desire to join.
  • Beginning in 2015, in the Idlib-Lattaquiah-Jisr el Shughur area, Jaysh el Fath (”Army of Conquest”) was created. Its founding members include the most virulent jihadist anti-Islamic State organizations, some of them Al-Qaeda franchises and some sympathizers: Ahrar el Sham, Jabhat Al Nusra, Jund el Aqsa, Jaysh el Sunna, Faylaq el Sham, Liwa el Haqq and Ajnad el Sham. Four days after their establishment, on March 28, 2015, the coalition succeeded in capturing Idlib and afterwards the whole governorate of Idlib in northern Syria.17
  • Based on this model, 31 jihadist groups headed by Ahrar el Sham decided to establish the Fath Halab (“Conquest of Aleppo”) joint operations room in preparation for the assault against Assad's troops in the city. Jaysh el Islam also decided to join the operation room.18 In parallel, Jabhat Al Nusra and allied groups have formed a new coalition for the battle of Aleppo, called Ansar el Shari'ah, a name already used in the Middle East and North Africa by other Al-Qaeda groups. Interestingly enough, Ahrar el Sham is part of the groups that have joined Jabhat Al Nusra.19
  • These new coalitions were enough to create an atmosphere of contagion. Jaysh el Fath formed a new branch in the western Qalamoun region (Jaysh el Fath el Qalamoun) in May 2015. This entity, defeated by Assad's troops, was replaced in October by an independent faction called Saraya Ahl el Sham. Earlier, in June, another branch was created in the eastern Qalamoun.
  • Also in July 2015, Jaysh el Fath was created in the southern region, including eight groups in Quneitra and Daraa, and dominated by Jabhat Al Nusra.20

The obvious conclusion from these observations is the unfolding of a process in the Syrian civil war in which the Free Syrian Army has gradually vacated its leading role in the battle against the Alawite regime, to be replaced by the followers of the jihadists. The different Islamist coalitions present on the ground today can hardly be defined as being "a moderate opposition."

Jihadist Military Advances

The area of the Governorate of Idlib, as well as parts of Aleppo, Homs and Hama, have been captured by the jihadists in the course of the past two years, and specifically since March 2015, thus threatening Assad's Alawite stronghold in the vicinity of Latakia.

The targets chosen by the Russians go well beyond the Islamic State's targets or jihadi opposition targets and extend to the CIA-aided groups in Syria and Iraq.

Russian warplanes and warships bombarded targets, Reuters reported last month, “across Syria in a campaign Moscow says is targeting ISIS fighters, who control large parts of eastern Syria and of neighboring Iraq. But the campaign appears to have mainly struck other rebel groups, some of which had been battling to stop the ISIS advance across Aleppo province.”21

In the first wave of Russian air strikes, the brigade of the "Mountain Hawks" was among the first targets to be hit by the Russian jets which took off from the Hamimim air base near Latakia, since it is part and parcel of the broader "Conquest of Aleppo" coalition led by the jihadists and Al-Qaeda franchisees. The "Mountain Hawks" were the third Free Syrian Army target to be hit by the Russians.22 In fact, the Russians planners have targets identified with the Army of Conquest (Jaysh el Fath),23  the Islamic State and other Islamic coalition factions such as those grouped under the operations room of "Fath Aleppo" and not only areas adjacent to Latakia (the heartland of the Alawite regime). Idlib and Jishr el Shugur in the northern part of the country, almost bordering with Turkey, have also been hit.24 The Russian plan was meant to regain in a first stage significant strategic outposts lost by the Syrian regime to the jihadists at the beginning of 2015. The Russian expeditionary air force jets also targeted for the first time the capital of the Islamic State (Raqqa), Palmyra (lost to the jihadists in May) and the Qalamoun areas near Damascus, areas in which the Syrian regime had been engaged in battle together with Hizbullah fighters and Iranian proxies for a long time. According to the Russians and some Arab media, the immediate effect of the strikes caused hundreds of Islamic State fighters to abandon their positions and run for their lives.25

Days after the beginning of the Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hizbullah campaign, the situation on the ground is still foggy. The ground clashes between the Assad coalition and the Islamists saw the massive use of TOW anti-tank weapons supplied by the West to their clients. The question remains as to whether the American administration will adopt the same pattern of behavior as it did in Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded the country, i.e., massive supply of offensive weapons to the so-called moderate opposition (almost totally jihadist) in order to disrupt the Russian war effort. The policy of arming the Taliban and assisting them in their fight against the Soviets was disastrous in its results. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan under duress brought the Taliban to power with all its regional and global implications. Will the United States be tempted to implement the same policy in Syria and risk a confrontation with the Russians in Syria or elsewhere?

This issue is of paramount importance since Washington seems to have decided on a change of course: While striving to minimize the possibilities of collision between U.S.-led airpower with the Russian expeditionary air force,26 the United States will largely abandon its doomed efforts to build and train "moderate" Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State, taking advantage of the fact that the majority of Syrians are relatively moderate and that in many locations the local authorities are run by moderate elements, and instead provide arms and equipment which would not include "higher end" arms such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The weapons would be delivered directly to vetted rebel leaders and their units on the battlefield. U.S. support would now focus on small weapons, communications gear and ammunition. A first sign of this new policy apparently began when the United States parachuted 50 tons of ammunition to the Syrian Arab Coalition that has for months been fighting the Islamic State north of Raqqa.27 U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said the new U.S. effort would seek to enable Syrian rebels in much the way the United States had helped Kurdish forces to successfully battle the Islamic State in Syria.28 It seems that this is a very problematic recipe, very difficult to implement and with an open-ended direction: meaning that this could lead in the long run either to a repeat of the Taliban experience in Afghanistan after the Soviet retreat or to the chaotic state created in Iraq in the aftermath of the American withdrawal and the replacement of its minority Sunni ruling class by a Shiite regime which has since partitioned Iraq.

* * *




3 Tony Cartalucci, U.S. complains as Russia bombs its terrorists, New Eastern Outlook, 01.10.2015,


5 New York Times, sup.cit.ibid.

6  البحرة اشهر تفصل امريكا عن تدريب معارضين

7 Dan Lamothe, U.S. accidentally delivered weapons to the Islamic State by airdrop, militants say,

Tom Perry, Facing Islamic State in Syria, U.S.-trained rebels await more help Tue Dec 2, 2014,;

US-trained Division 30 rebels 'betray US and hand weapons over to al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria',

8 (Arabic)

9 أمين "الجيش السوري الحر" ينتقد خطة أمريكا لتدريب المعارضة BBC

10 طائرات روسية تقصف قاعدة لمقاتلين دربتهم أمريكا




14 Gordon Duff, the Strange case of the Syrian opposition, New eastern outlook, 04.10.2015,



17 جيش الفتح



20 Will Syrian rebels announce emirate in Daraa?


22 روسيا تقصف فصائل سورية بعضها دربته أميركا

23 قصف روسي للادقية والنظام يستهدف حلب

24 تجدد الغارات الروسية على مواقع للمعارضة بسوريا


26 Phil Stewart, New U.S.-Russia military talks seen on Syria air safety,

27 US-led coalition drops 50 tons of ammunition to anti-Isil Syrian rebels,

28 Phil Stewart and Kate Holton,U.S. pulls plug on Syria rebel training effort; will focus weapons supply,