BEIRUT — President Barack Obama is seeking $500 million from Congress to train and arm select members of the Syrian opposition. U.S. administration officials say the U.S. has grown increasingly confident in recent months about its ability to distinguish the moderate rebels from the more extremist elements that include the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which captured much of northern and western Iraq and a stretch of northern and eastern Syria.
While there are almost no secular, liberal rebels fighting in Syria, some rebel groups are considered mainstream, nationalist forces who would support a pluralistic, if not Western-style democratic Syria.
Here’s a look at the various parts of the rebellion and who is likely to receive U.S. support.
SUPREME MILITARY COUNCIL: Syria’s more moderate rebel units, known together as the Free Syrian Army, and the primary object of American aid. They regrouped more than a year ago under a unified rebel command called the Supreme Military Council, but their leadership is prone to feuding. They have been eclipsed by groups like the Islamic Front and extremist factions, in part because of the lack of stronger support and weapons from its Western and Arab allies. The FSA was most recently thrown into disarray in February when its commander, Gen. Salim Idris, was ousted and a new chief installed — Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir. Opposition chief Ahmad al-Jarba, who met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday, said al-Bashir “is ready to cooperate with the U.S. side.”
BREAKAWAY FACTIONS: These include several fighting groups with a mix of religious and nationalist ideologies that are highly localized, some of whom broke away from the FSA but still work with them. They include the Syrian Revolutionaries Front led by Jamal Maarouf, also known as Abu Khaled, the Islamic Army headed by Zahran Alloush and Harakat Hazm, reported earlier this year to have received U.S made advanced weapons including TOW missiles.
ISLAMIC FRONT: An alliance of seven powerful conservative and ultraconservative rebel groups that merged in late November. The Islamic Front wants to bring rule by Shariah law in Syria and rejects the Syrian National Coalition, but cooperates with some of their fighters on the ground. They are the strongest force battling the Islamic State, and U.S. aid could go to some of its factions, but likely not its ultraconservative factions such as Ahrar al-Sham.
NUSRA FRONT: Al-Qaida’s branch in Syria. It was declared a terrorist group by the United States, so it won’t be getting any aid. Still, along with the Islamic Front, its fighters have been the toughest against the Islamic State. It has also been one of the most effective forces against Assad’s troops, using suicide bombers to back its fighters. Once a mix of Syrian extremists and foreign jihadis, many of its non-Syrian fighters defected to the Islamic State the past two years. It is led by a Syrian known as Abu Muhammed al-Golani.
THE ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ AND THE LEVANT: Originally al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, led by Iraqi militant Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it stormed into the Syrian civil war in 2012, initially welcomed by other rebels for its experienced fighters. They turned against it because of its brutal tactics, but particularly because it seemed determined to take over the rebel movement for its own aims — creating a transnational extremist state. Al-Qaida’s central command ejected it from the network for its clashes with other rebels. Backed by foreign fighters from Chechnya and around the Arab world, it controls the northern city of Raqqa, areas near the northern city of Aleppo and a stretch of territory further east to the border with Iraq, where its lightning offensive overrunning multiple cities has raised U.S. fears that it could threaten the entire region.