Who Are the Syrian Rebels?

JURIST Guest Columnist Paul Juzdan, Seton Hall University School of Law Class of 2014, is the author of a series commenting on the Syrian civil war. In the first part, Juzdan explains and explores the character of the opposition groups in Syria...
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On September 5, 2013, the New York Times ran an article entitled "Brutality of Syrian Rebels Posing Dilemma in West". The Times exhibited a picture above the article, showing a group of Syrian rebels with firearms standing above shirtless prisoners. In a video posted on the New York Times website, the rebels are heard reciting what the article refers to as "a bitter revolutionary verse." Finally all seven Syrian army soldiers are shot and buried in unmarked graves. This article hauntingly raises the question that has plagued the West since the uprisings began in March of 2011, when a group of young boys from Daraa were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti on a school wall: who are the rebels? The US government has had difficulty identifying pro-democracy rebels versus al-Qaeda affiliated extremist groups. Numerous reports, issued by a wide range of news outlets, have suggested that al-Qaeda has been playing a strong role in the ongoing strife. For example, The Wall Street Journal issued a report on March 21, 2013, indicating that a terrorist act, which targeted a renowned Syrian scholar and top Sunni preacher, "was probably the work of Islamist groups within the opposition." CNN, in early 2013, echoed a similar concern.

In its primary stages the Syrian protests seemed to fall squarely within the broader Arab Spring paradigm. According to James J. Gelvin, author of The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, the opposition consisted of five main components:


  1. spontaneous, mostly peaceful crowds;
  2. pro-democracy, pro-human rights and social media groups such as the Facebook Syrian Revolution 2011, Sham News Network, Insan and Sawasiah and Syrian Observatory for Human Rights;
  3. "Local Coordination Committees;"
  4. the "traditional opposition," which included a number of Kurdish and tribal leaders, dissident politicians and the Muslim Brotherhood; and
  5. army deserters.

The groups Gelvin describes formed a reasonable, pro-democracy force that, through the eyes of western democracies, would seem worthy of support — worthy enough to prompt meetings between leaders of the Syrian National Coalition and officials from nations in the Arab world and the West. The Syrian National Council, the Coalition's predecessor, was formed in August of 2011, insisting that the opposition could flourish without violence. This hope was short-lived; in October of 2011, members of the council feared that the Syrian opposition would develop into a Libya-type military operation. The council's spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani, stated in an interview with a Turkish news outlet, that "in Syria, the majority is concerned that the price of violent opposition is very high; the majority know that there are long-term consequences. Nobody wants a war; nobody in the opposition wants to see a bombed Damascus." Unfortunately, the council's fears have come true.

On the ground in Syria the destruction is heavy and the logistics unclear. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) claims to be the "main opposition army group in Syria, composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces." The organization further claims that it rose up against Assad because its members found it impossible to stay silent while the regime continued to kill its own people. Despite its quest for justice, the FSA has been accused by the UN of committing war crimes. These accusations were accompanied by claims that the FSA has expelled Christians from cities such as Homs. These actions have prompted many Christians to fear a post-Assad Syria.

To further complicate the nature of the opposition, other opposition forces have taken control of a number of cities in Syria. The al-Nusra Front, recently declared a terrorist organization by the US State Department, is also an active agent within Syria. The relationship between al-Nusra Front and the FSA is murky, but recently it seems the FSA has attempted to separate itself from this radical Islamist group. These attempts, however, do not alleviate concerns that al-Nusra will take control of swaths of Syrian territory. The concerns surrounding the power struggle between Assad and these extremist groups are shared by many.

Of course, there are "bad" Syrian rebels and "good" ones. However, the real issue is whether the US can adequately differentiate between the two and avoid arming the "bad" ones. In cities such as Aleppo, al-Nusra Front "is widely identified as the leading force behind the Hayaa al-Sharia, which loosely translates as the Sharia Authority." The organization has implemented Sharia law and has begun to punish individuals for violating it. One such incident occurred in Aleppo when Wael Ibrahim, a veteran activist, had tossed aside a banner inscribed with the Muslim declaration of faith. Ibrahim stated in an interview with an independent senior editor at a Syrian news agency that "Nusra arrested me on the charge of insulting Islam." It is unclear how many "Ibrahims" there are across Syria's rebel controlled territories or how many more there will be, as long as organizations such as al-Nusra retain control. Stories like Ibrahim's give credence to the US's initial reluctance to arm the rebels; not only is it difficult to determine who the rebels are, it is almost impossible to understand the impact they will have on a post-Assad Syria. Although Ibrahim's story may not seem striking in the face of some of Assad's brutal tactics, it remains part of a broader complex issue, an issue that troubles minority groups throughout Syria: what will happen to us if the rebels take over Syria? Senator Rand Paul is familiar with this concern, when, in an interview with NBC's Meet the Press on September 1, 2013, he stated that the best result from the Syrian civil war would be Bashar al-Assad's government without Assad. He stated that "the Islamic rebels winning is a bad idea for the Christians."

A New York Times article published on October 14, 2012 indicates that most of the arms shipped to the Syrian rebels are falling into the hands of hardline Islamic jihadists. The article quotes an American official who states that "the opposition groups that are receiving most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don't want to have it." It is fair to say that the US does not have a clear understanding of the opposition; the recognition of the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people does not conform to the realities on the ground. This murky relationship between the opposition forces in and outside of Syria prompted the US to refrain from sending lethal aid to the rebels, but the events of the past couple months have forced the Obama administration to alter that stance. Pressure from pro-revolutionary governments across Europe and the Middle East has prompted nations, such as the US, to supply the rebels with weapons. Furthermore, the recent use of chemical weapons has triggered an entirely new conversation that focuses on immediate military intervention.

Whether or not a US strike on Syrian soil is justifiable will depend on:


  1. whether the international community is prepared to invoke the emerging theory of R2P as it did in Libya;
  2. whether there is clear evidence that it was in fact the Assad regime that carried out the attack; and
  3. whether a clear alternative to the Assad regime exists.

It is important to note, however, that the use of chemical weapons does not negate the opposition's frighteningly extremist nature, a point the Obama administration should take into consideration before it looks to regime change as the answer. In other words, let's hope we find out who the rebels are now and not the day after they take up residence in the Presidential Palace.

Paul Juzdan received his BS from the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Juzdan was the 2013 winner of the Eugene Gressman Moot Court Competition.

Suggested citation: Paul Juzdan, Who Are the Syrian Rebels?, JURIST - Dateline, Sep. 16, 2013, http://jurist.org/dateline/2013/09/paul-juzdan-syria-rebels.php.


This article was prepared for publication by Elizabeth Hand, a senior editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at studentcommentary@jurist.org

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