Who are the current players in Northern Syria? The factions explained

The Kurds

Kurds are the second or third (depending on source/ definition) largest ethnic group in Syria and seek autonomy.
The People’s Protection Units (acronymed as YPG) is the predominant Kurdish armed group in the country. Its stated goal is to protect the Kurds living in the mountainous north, an area they call ‘Rojava.’ This Rojava region has enjoyed a great degree of autonomy in recent years.

YPG is part of a larger armed coalition, the Syrian democratic forces (SDF) that is comprised of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian/Syriac militias, as well as some smaller Armenian, Turkmen and Chechen units.

Turkey and the Syrian rebels

Turkey’s Sunni government lead by President Reccip Erdogan has 2 concerns – Kurds and Shia Arabs. Their involvement is mostly sectarian driven.

One of Turkey’s objectives in deploying its military, is to prevent the Syrian Kurds from creating an autonomous state and securing territory. Turkish leaders view the YPG as a terrorist organisation. They claim that it is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been pushing for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey.

Turkey, being Sunni has animosity toward the Assad regime, which is dominated by Alawites, a syncretic Shia Muslim sect. There are many Alawites in Turkey, along the border and they are hostile towards Sunni Arab refugees who come into Turkey. This brings about concerns that this could spillover into Turkey.

All Turkish men regardless of race and religion are conscripted in the military, including Shia and Kurdish citizens, probably another reason for Turkey’s involvement.

Many ethnic Turks live in Northern Syria and they have collaborated with the Turkish army, although in terms of absolute numbers, the pro-Turkish militias are mostly Arab.
These are the ‘Turkish backed Syrian rebels’.

While there are many factions among the Syrian rebels per se, the ones backed by Turkey number an estimated 35 000 after a recent merger. The largest militia is the Turkish backed Free Syrian army (FSA) which views itself as the true government of Syria. The FSA in its current incarnation is lead by fighters who were in the past helped by the US and other NATO allies. Early this year, some 300 fighters were been deployed in Libya to fight alongside Turkey’s allies, the Government of National Accord (GNA).

U.S. Forces
There are about 900 U.S. troops in northern Syria. Since Syria is officially an ‘enemy state’, they gain access to the North via the Iraqi border.
About fifty troops in northern Syria were withdrawn under orders by President Donald Trump – an act which faced mixed response. A small contingent remains though in Deir Ez Zor.
This withdrawal paved the way for NATO member Turkey to gain more ground in Syrian territory.

The US sees the Kurds and the SDF as an ally. They see ISIS and the Assad regime as enemies.
As for Turkey, it is a fellow NATO member so the two won’t engage in direct confrontation.

ISIS
The ISIS ‘caliphate’ crumbled in 2019, but pockets persist. A week after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late 2019, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was elected by a shura council as the new caliph of ISIS. The group does not have as much territory within Syria, but still remains a threat and many analysts believe that the ideology is active within refugee camps.

Syrian army

The Syrian army, under President Bashar Al Assad stands strong: It’s biggest strength is that it controls most of Syria’s coastline and has the backing of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – who are consistent allies and whose leadership is not prone to change like the West which has backed the FSA and Kurds.

In other words, an alliance with Putin/ Ayatollah will probably endure longer because they are more likely to stay long-term unlike say President Trump or Macron who are bound by term limits/ could get voted out.

Despite suffering many casualties due to deaths, defections and many men of age fleeing as refugees, the Assad government controls more territory now than it does 5 years ago.

Nevertheless, the state entity Turkey has replaced ISIS as its biggest territorial threat.

There is a Cold-War era Russian naval base in Tartus currently.
Like US presence aiding the Kurds, as long as the Russians stay present on the coast, the Turks are also deterred from the coastline and this ensures the regime’s survival.

The ethnic alchemy of civilians

Ethnically speaking, the main groups are Arabs (Sunni), ethnic Turks (Sunni), some of who have who have ‘Arabized’, Assyrians (Christian), Armenians (Christian), Kurds (Sunni with some Shia and Yazidis).

The main languages spoken are Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, Assyrian and Armenian.

Also of note : every faction mentioned above is known to have had foreign fighters within their ranks, either motivated by religious or political ideology while others are paid mercenaries.

About the Author
Avi Kumar grew up in Sri Lanka. As a member of the Tamil minority, he has a unique perspective when it comes to growing up in a war zone. From an early age in order to survive, he learned to remain silent about controversial issues when it wasn't safe to speak about them. Avi has lived in five different countries and speaks ten different languages. Fortunately, one of his ten languages is English, you wouldn't have had the slightest idea what you are reading. Avi loves wildlife photography and writing about religious and political issues with his unique perspective.
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