Syria’s conflict landscape has changed dramatically since the Russian military intervened in 2015, with most major territory controlled by armed groups falling under the control of regime-aligned forces. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) has been severely depleted, while the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have assumed control of more territory, increasing the possibility of Kurdish autonomy.
Meanwhile, the Astana process has imposed new realities on Syria’s armed opposition, as the tripartite talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran produced an agreement on de-escalation zones.
Below is a brief profile of the three main conglomerations of armed groups in Syria today and how they fit into the ongoing conflict.
Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)
HTS is Jabhat al-Nusra’s successor and comprises some of the more powerful armed groups operating in Idlib province.
After 2015, agreements between regime and opposition forces led to the forced displacement of fighters and many civilians from conflict zones, pushing them into Idlib. The situation has created intense competition and infighting, along with a dizzying number of alliances and counter-alliances among the various armed groups.
HTS emerged out of this competition as one of the stronger groups in Idlib. In early October, a Turkish-led military campaign began against HTS in Idlib in order to establish a de-escalation zone. The campaign involved Turkish aerial bombardment to support Free Syrian Army (FSA) advances against HTS.
This has been a common pattern in recent years in Syria: A ground force relies on external intervention to support its territorial advances. American support allowed the SDF to advance on ISIL; Russian support was provided to regime-aligned forces in recapturing Homs, Hama, Aleppo and other areas; and now Turkish support is being provided to the FSA.
It is unlikely that HTS will survive in its current form in the aftermath of the campaign, but as in previous years, it will likely splinter and reappear in various forms.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA)
The Free Syrian Army is the army that never was one.
Since the outset of the conflict, the FSA has been a conglomeration of armed brigades fighting under a loose umbrella in which central coordination and military planning never existed. FSA brigades have shifted alliances to other armed opposition groups, as well as re-defecting to the Syrian army.
There is thus virtually no ideological, political or military coherence, but the FSA persists as a loose organisational mechanism for armed groups.
In 2016, the FSA was mobilised against SDF forces to prevent the contiguity of Kurdish territory along Turkey’s southern border in Operation Euphrates Shield. Then, as now, the FSA was supported by the Turkish military through logistics, aerial support and intelligence.
Without this military support, the FSA is simply incapable of overtaking groups such as HTS or the SDF.
The Unified National Army (UNA)
The Unified National Army was created in mid-2017 with the aim of bringing together armed groups of various ideological and political backgrounds. Many of these groups are dispersed throughout Syrian territory in areas where there is still active fighting, such as the south, Ghouta and northern areas around Aleppo and Idlib.
The UNA is the latest in a long line of attempts to unify the Syrian armed opposition and it is unlikely that its fate will be any different from the others.
The main group within the UNA is Ahrar al-Sham, one of the few Islamist brigades to have persisted under this banner throughout the long course of the conflict. Brigades associated with the UNA have clashed regularly with the SDF, ISIL and HTS over territory, and have mostly been in military retreat since the Russian intervention.
While some of the southern factions retain control over some territory, their increasing abandonment by Jordanian authorities has limited their capacity and access to resources. Thus, despite having the appearance of a national character with brigades from all over the country pledging support for the project, the UNA has not solved the problems of coordination and material resources that have plagued previous attempts at unifying Syria’s armed groups.
The Russian-led designs for Syria imagined through the Astana process are slowly being realised, and these new realities are imposing restraints and possibilities on the armed groups that will determine their futures.
As long as de-escalation zones are the military goals of the tripartite powers, there will be a need and a relevance for armed groups. These groups will morph accordingly, but they will remain weak and incapable of autonomous action outside of the designs and umbrella created by the Astana process.