You are here: The facts: what's actually happening in Syria?

UNA-UK lets facts and figures speak for themselves.

Who's fighting who?

The conflict in Syria is complicated. But it helps to simplify matters if we think about the war as having four sides and a number of external backers. Inevitably such a simplification will miss some of the nuance of the situation: combatants do not fit neatly into categories and there are shades of grey and overlap between many of the groups detailed below.

Rebel groups

This is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of different organisations. The largest groups and coalitions are listed here, but there are many smaller groups besides. There is frequently overlap and sometimes conflict between the groups, but most are united in their opposition to President Assad.

  • Jabhat Fateh al-Sham: formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front, this is a Sunni paramilitary group and a UN-designated terrorist organisation with links to al-Qaeda.
  • The Southern Front: a coalition of around 60 different rebel groups in southern Syria. These groups have varied politics ranging from the secular to the Islamist.
  • Ahrar al-Sham: a coalition of Sunni groups fighting for an Islamic state in Syria. They and the then-Al-Nusra Front previously formed a joint coalition known as the ‘Islamic Front’ until a rift earlier this year.
  • Jaysh al-Islam: a Sunni group fighting for an Islamic state in Syria. They sit on the spectrum between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham and have close ties with both.
  • Free Syrian Army: an umbrella organisation that grew out of defecting army units and other, largely secular, anti-Assad forces. Once far more powerful, it is now significantly weakened and may even have disappeared.

The Government

These are forces loyal to the Government of Syria  and President Assad.

  • Syrian Armed Forces: members of the pre-war Syrian armed forces who have survived the civil war and retained their loyalty to President Assad’s Government.
  • Hezbollah: A Shia paramilitary group active in Syria. They have historic links to Iran and support President Assad.

Kurdish Groups

Groups fighting for an independent Kurdish state in the north and east of Syria.

Rojava is the de facto autonomous area of Kurdish Syria. It has recently attempted to include other ethnic groups in its work. It has organised militias such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syriac Military Council (MFS).

ISIL (Daesh)

A terrorist group which commands a significant amount of territory in Iraq and Syria.

ISIL or Daesh have becomeglobally notorious for their extreme cruelty. They successfully took over much of western Syria and northern Iraq in 2014. Since then they have been in retreat, but still control significant territory in the east.

Who backs who?

Below we outline the many regional and global powers whose interventions in the conflict add to its complexity.

Russia has deployed 4,000 troops to Syria to support the Government, as well as undertaking over 5,000 airstrikes on ISIL and rebel targets. Evidence suggests that these systematically target civilians. Russia provided the Syrian Government with US$33m in humanitarian aid, and Russian firms have sold the Government nearly a billion dollars in arms since 2011.

Iran has deployed a disputed number of troops in support of the Government. It has also provided the Government with US$3.6bn in financial aid and US$1bn in credit. Iranian firms have sold the Government around US$126m worth of arms since the conflict began. Iran is a historical supporter of the paramilitary group Hezbollah.

Gulf States. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (joined by Jordan) have undertaken a small number of airstrikes against ISIL. Qatar has supplied rebel groups with between US$1–3bn in financing and weapons. The quantity of Saudi support to rebels is disputed, but is thought to be level with Qatar and to include highly desirable anti-tank weapons.

Turkey. Around 4,000 Turkish soldiers are fighting in Syria, against both ISIL and some of the Kurdish rebel groups. Airstrikes have also been made to support these efforts. Relations between the Syrian and Turkish governments are tense, and there have been occasional skirmishes. Turkey supports some Syrian rebel groups with aid and training, but officially denies supplying weapons.

US and Western Allies. The US leads a coalition consisting of France, UK, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Australia and Canada, who have launched around 7,000 airstrikes against ISIL.The coalition has given at least1,000 tons of weaponry, $500m in aid, and deployed 75 British trainers to Kurdish forces and rebel groups. The coalition has attempted to steer aid towards ‘moderate’ groups.

Other sources. China has given the Government military advice and is one of the main suppliers of arms to both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Libya and eight Eastern European states collectively sold over US$1.2bn in weapons that may have ended up with rebel groups. Venezuela has sent the Government around $50m in oil.