To those who always wonder about ‘who are the people fighting in Syria’, I think this is as comprehensive a list as you would get in one page. The 4 sides defined are the Syrian government, Syrian rebels, Kurdish rebels and ISIS.
1) Mainstream rebels (FSA and ex-FSA, such as IF, JM, etc.) remain biggest fighting force in opposition to Assad – Exceed 100,000 in numbers (up to 130,000 -150,000; potentially 180,000) – Split mainly between FSA and Islamic Front:
– ‘Conservative mainstream’ (e.g. Conservative Islamists, Salafists) and more liberal mainstream (e.g. Liberal/democratic Islamists, religious nationalists/secularists, etc.) are fairly evenly matched.*
– Nusra Front (categorised as non-mainstream) estimated to have around 5,000 – 6,000 fighters. **
2) ISIS (categorised as a separate side in the civil war) estimated number of fighters vary wildly – estimates generally fall between 20,000-30,000 (CIA), 50,000 in Syria only / 50,000 overall, and 70,000 (Russian Intelligence) – although claims go up to 100,000 and a Kurdish official has stated 200,000 (although this has not been repeated elsewhere).
Note: Unless specified numbers refer to total number of fighters in both Syria and Iraq. Large foreign contingent
3) YPG (categorised as a seperate side) estimated to have 50,000 fighters.
Note: Ideological definitions are imprecise and difficult to convey in this context and often do not always fit simple boxes/labels.
* Thus for example, the use of the term ‘secularists’ in this context differs from ‘secularists’ in a Western setting, and does not necessarily connote being ‘irreligious’ or advocating a ‘complete separation of religion’ from the public sphere. As a shorthand term ‘secularists’ are referred to as such since they do not believe that Sharia should be a primary source/focus of governance, and/or that governance should by-and-large be based on religion. Thus ‘secularism’ in this context can still often in effect encompass a role for religion, albeit a restricted one (mixed with civil law, etc.).
Rather the use of the term ‘secularist’ is often used interchangeably – and perhaps conflatedly – to refer to what is generally meant as a tolerant attitude, or rather pluralism – translated in the Syrian context as an acceptance of multi-confessionalism and non-sectarianism. Thus in general media coverage the Free Syrian Army has often been referred to simplistically as ‘secular’ when this is an imprecise generalisation, since a brief look at its constituent groups shows a clear religious character. What is meant when the FSA is referred to as such is ‘pluralist’, holding a reconciliatory attitude towards religious minorities and non-hostility towards them. Indeed the FSA is not merely composed of nationalists (who might incidentally not refer to themselves as secularists or Islamists) or secularists, but also includes large segments of Islamists.
However for many ‘pluralists’ this does not therefore mean that they necessarily reject Islamic governance or Sharia (although they might disagree with other Islamists on the way of implementing it and the form it would take), for they would argue that there is no contradiction between Sharia and religious pluralism, that this is a misconception; arguing that Sharia allows for freedom of conscience in allowing non-Muslims to have their own sets of laws and excluding them from its own alien jurisdiction (they would note for example that the Sharia does not actually apply to non-Muslims, although that is clearly not the message of the majority of the mainstream press). Thus according to this reading of ‘secularism’, the theoretical principles of pluralism espoused within the founding charter and revolutionary covenant of the Islamic Front (a coalition of Islamist groups) would also theoretically be referred to as ‘secularist’ principles, although the Islamic Front is clearly non-secular.
* The term ‘Islamists’ too is a broad one, and is generally a term coined to label those who believe in an Islamic political (& by extension social, legal & economic) system (many ‘Islamists’ reject this term and prefer to be simply referred to as ‘Muslims’). While the common ground for Islamists is the centrality of the role of Sharia (or Islamic law), there are different trends and understandings of how implementation of Sharia should look like. Thus within Islamism exists a spectrum, this can entail disagreement over ethical code (for example social liberalism vs. social conservatism), disagreements over the mechanisms used to implement Sharia in the first place (e.g. viability of ballot box democracy vs non-viability), etc.. You can find a spectrum even within conservative strands of Islamism, such as ‘Salafism’ ((again this term is used as a shorthand since its actual meaning/use has changed over time, for its original/literal meaning is as followers of the early Muslims or successors of the Prophet, i.e. the ‘salaf’, and thus all Sunnis who revere these successors and seek to live by their example are in effect ‘salafis’. However the term has been evolved to refer to a particular conservative strand of Muslims)). You can find ‘Salafis’ who believe in Western-style electoral democracy and can reconcile it with Sharia, Salafis who don’t and believe in a system of ‘Shura‘ or consultation, as well as Salafis who believe in top-down authoritarian imposition. Likewise you can also find liberal Islamists who believe in electoral democracy and those who do not (although it is more likely that liberal strands will correlate with more pro-electoral democracy).
* The short-hand use of the term ‘democratic’ does not entail by necessity a belief in the lack of consent for those who do not subscribe to the label, and many Islamists who do not believe in ‘democracy’ (that is generally ‘electoral/ballot box representative democracy’) can believe in *consent of the ruled* (based on ‘Shura’ or consultation, and consent/consensus of the governed). Others can be more authoritarian. Thus care must be taken with terms.
** Although the Nusra Front is for purposes of simplicity defined as ‘non-mainstream’ in terms of ideological beliefs held, since Al-Qaeda ideology has generally been seen as extreme and alien to Syrian society (although the brutality of the situation has made it less and less so), it has a significant degree of popular support and does not operate as a ‘typical’ Qaeda affiliate/cell.