The short answer is “yes”. The longer answer is, “It depends on how good you want,” and discovering the answer to that relies on having a strategic vision of what you want from Syria.
The easiest way to conceptualise the war in Syria is that there are six main forces:
1) The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS): Formed initially as at-Tawhid wal-Jihad by the Jordanian Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, a senior al-Qaeda figure in Taliban Afghanistan, it was always autonomous within al-Qaeda’s network. In 2001, Zarqawi fled west, via Iran, to northern Iraq, while Osama bin Laden went east to Pakistan. Once in northern Iraq, with the assistance of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Zarqawi waged a war under the banner of Ansar al-Islam against the autonomous Kurdish government.
Before the Anglo-American invasion, Zarqawi had organised an assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan and set up the “ratlines” from Syria by which the Bashar al-Assad regime would co-operate with the Salafi-jihadists warring against constitutional government in Iraq. In 2004, Zarqawi officially renamed his organisation “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” (AQM) and swore baya (allegiance) to bin Laden. After a campaign of mayhem and murder, including the massacre of Shi’ite civilians that even Ayman az-Zawahiri complained about, Zarqawi was killed in the summer of 2006 and his network was unpopular even among the Sunni Arabs in whose name it fought. While it was largely assumed at the time that AQM’s ostensible merger into the “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI) at the end of 2006 was a piece of agitprop to give al-Qaeda an Iraqi face, in fact there is good reason to think this was genuine. ISI declared that the Caliphate had arisen again in nucleus form; jihadist websites even began a count (it’s just over 2,500 days at this point).
Senior Qaeda leaders complained privately that they had no control over ISI and yet were being held accountable for its atrocious conduct, and by the end of the last decade, after Zarqawi’s successors were done away with, the process of “Iraqisation” that took the group even further out of al-Qaeda’s orbit was well-advanced. In summer 2011, ISI sent a team into Syria to set up a Salafi-jihadist network, which announced itself as Jabhat an-Nusra (see below) in January 2012. In April 2013, ISI’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared that Nusra had merged with ISI to become ISIS. In reality this was a coup attempt: Baghdadi was trying to subordinate a branch of the network he had helped create and which had now outgrown him. Nusra’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, made a counter-statement rejecting the “merger” that swore baya to Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda for the first time publicly (“reaffirming” an allegiance given in private), and Zawahiri then ruled in his favour that Baghdadi and his men should return to Iraq. Baghdadi’s refusal has set in train the greatest schism in the global jihadist movement. In February, al-Qaeda formally disowned ISIS after they refused to submit to arbitration of independent shari’a courts—something they cannot do since they claim to be a State authority, not just one more jamaat (group) in the Syrian jihad. ISIS’ viciousness and arrogance led to a revolt against it beginning on January 3 this year that has so far killed 6,000 people.
ISIS has about 7,500 core members, only 2,000 of them Syrians. It also has maybe 15,000 civilian and armed volunteers in its orbit, either intimidated or sympathetic*.
2) Jabhat an-Nusra li Ahl a-Sham (The Victory Front for the People of Syria): Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, ISIS’ presence has done the impossible and made these people look “moderate”. They are, as one analyst put it, the “sensible psychos“. Sharing ISIS’ ideology and even some tactics—notably suicide attacks—it has nonetheless gained a reputation for “pragmatism”. Its difference with ISIS is that while ISIS learned nothing from Iraq—it still believes suicide bombing in crowds of children if they are infidels is correct—Nusra saw that it has to wage a “hearts and minds” campaign too, or as in Iraq, it would be rejected. It wants a Caliphate but is prepared to start with Syria. It has taken the lessons of Abu Musab as-Suri, who saw the Algerian jihad end in bloodshed and ruin, with the Islamists decisively rejected. Now war has been declared for real: ISIS has rejected Nusra’s Syria-first approach as a heresy, an unforgiveable concession to the “Sykes-Picot borders,” and Nusra have not forgiven ISIS for murdering one of their senior ideologues.
Nusra is foreign-led—Golani himself is quite probably a foreigner, likely an Iraqi says Romain Caillet—but it is majority-Syrian in composition. It has perhaps 7,000 core fighters. Its strength is difficult to gauge because many rebel units also fight alongside it, notably Ahrar a-Sham, and its media operation makes it appear ubiquitous throughout Syria.
The crucial thing about these two armed units is that they should not be called “rebel” groups. They are—at least ostensibly—committed to fighting the regime, but their agenda is their own; it has little to do with Syria, and since they are foreign intrusions they can hardly be said to be “rebelling” against anything. Their funding and fighting skill—and in ISIS’ case especially, its brutality—has brought a great number of Syrians under their sway if not outright control but this is largely born of practical considerations: had there been serious funding and weapons for secular brigades early in this, rather than allowing the Wahhabi donors on the Gulf to do it, we would not have seen the widespread adoption of Islamist insignia across the insurgency, if only as a “marketing strategy“.
3) Salafist rebels:
The largest grouping here is the Islamic Front. Formed in November 2013 from seven battalions of varying Islamist hue, was said to have been 45,000 and 60,000 fighters, which if true would have been something approaching half the insurgency. Unlike previous alliances, the IF was explicitly committed to a merger. But that has not happened. The internal ideological tensions and the anti-ISIS revolt have strained this even further and the alliance is now almost collapsed.
The main group to watch for is Ahrar a-Sham, which clearly has a pro-Qaeda faction within it, and was always the most ideological rebel group, refusing, for instance, to ever wear the FSA insignia. As part of it’s broader alliance, Harakat Ahrar a-Sham Islamiya (HASI), it is probably by the numbers the largest rebel group at 15,000 to 20,000 men, but the numbers are difficult to assess because Ahrar employs large numbers of civilians and its rank-and-file is not as fanatical as its leadership. The IF seemed to be moderating Ahrar, then it looked as if Ahrar had decisively sided with Nusra, and now Ahrar is signatory to a Covenant that “might as well be issued by a secular group.” A good indicator of the flow of this rebellion is the way Ahrar tacks. Jaysh al-Islam, the largest unit around Damascus with over 9,000 fighters, is really quite extreme, and its leader has made some ferocious statements against the Alawis, but the group is largely under Saudi control—not all that reassuring, granted, but not al-Qaeda, either. Liwa at-Tawhid, the Aleppo-based super-battalion that might have 10,000 men to itself—though has unfortunately lost its charismatic leader—is at its leadership level of a softer Islamism and a very pronounced nationalism rather than Salafism, and it is so large that almost by definition it is composed of every shade of belief. Let it be said, however, that Tawhid welcomed—and its leader used to speak to—Western journalists, which the zealots do not. Suqour a-Sham is a smaller Idlib-based brigade that is rather extreme but its leader was willing to make statements of secularism before this terrible radicalisation overtook the rebellion and with the group splintered by ISIS’ enticing away some units and crushing others, the Falcons are much less of a factor now. Liwa al-Haq is the major battalion around Homs City, though with the recent collapse of that front, that is somewhat in flux. The other two IF units—Ansar a-Sham and the Kurdish Islamic Front—are small, and the latter there mostly for decoration, created as it was with Ahrar’s active participation.
The only other “pseudo-Salafi” force of real note is Jabhat al-Asala wa al-Tanmiya (the Authenticity and Development Front), which at one point had 13,000 fighters and civilians. In some of the reshuffling of the last few months it appears to have ebbed and flowed, though one of its units, Kataib Nour ad-Din az-Zinki, is salient in Aleppo.
4) Nationalist Rebels: Having gathered under the banner of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) and expected Western support that never arrived, they were nearly destroyed when President Obama stood back from the strikes on the regime last September in favour of a Russian-orchestrated deal that re-legitimised the dictator. With, it has to be conceded, a little help from the Saudis and even the Qataris, these forces have now reformed and re-shaped into some distinctive units and alliances. The Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF), Harakat Hazm (Steadfastness Movement), Liwa al-Yarmouk, and (however nebulous) the “Southern Front” are the primary brigades that are almost wholly free of even Islamist rhetoric. Bashar az-Zoubi, the leader of Yarmouk and now ostensibly a main commander of this “Southern Front,” held out even as the Islamists took the lead in declaring for even a “soft” Islamic State and made no mention of the Holy Law. SRF is led by Jamal Marouf and is the main anti-ISIS force on the ground. Marouf stands accused of being a brigand, and one would have to grant some truth to that. But that’s exactly what gives hope: he is essentially without ideology and will be directed by finance, his only goal being the destruction of the regime. If the price of that is the destruction of al-Qaeda and its bastard children too, Marouf is more than happy to oblige: the best kind of ally money can buy. Hazm is the major promise. Composed mostly of military defectors, it is known that the Obama administration looks more kindly on Hazm than the SRF. Having sounded out the SRF in the press, the administration seems to have taken heed of its detractors, who say it is a gang of lawless, thieving civilians. (As strategy this is awful: assuming this description is true, they are not going to get more orderly by abandonment.)
SRF has about 25,000 fighters, Liwa al-Yarmouk about 5,000, Harakat Hazm about 5,000, and the “Southern Front” anything between 10,000 and 30,000—the reality definitely at the lower-end of that scale—with Yarmouk being a part of this.
5) The People’s Protection Units (YPG): Now hijacked by the PYD—the Syrian wing of the PKK—and having pushed out the KNC, which was aligned with the KDP (the Kurds always seem to go for these three-letter acronyms), these units are the Kurdish forces in the north-east of the country. They claim 45,000 fighters; other estimates say 10,000. In either case they do very well against the Salafi-jihadists and Arab rebels, keeping Hasaka remarkably free of such forces. They are in a de facto strategic alliance with the regime, if not an actual alliance.
6) The Regime: It was always wrong to think of the Mafia syndicate headed by the Assad family as a government, now it is certainly so. What remains of the State is a sectarian militia of over 100,000 men, calling itself the National Defence Forces (NDF), controlled by Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp’s-Quds Force, the most lethal unit of Iran’s foreign-intelligence apparatus, designed to spread the revolution. It is true that there has been something of a “militiafication” of the regime’s forces but to a degree that has been reversed: the paramilitary forces like the Popular Committees, the Ba’ath militias, and the infamous Shabiha—itself a capacious term—were folded into the NDF with the army when the Iranians tried to secure a more professionalised counter-insurgency force to rescue their satrapy in late 2012.
The obvious starting point is that ISIS and Nusra are out as possible recipients of Western support. President Obama’s West Point speech this week identified Islamic terrorism as the chief menace to Western security, and he was correct. But he did not accept the corollary: This, almost by definition, takes out the regime too. It’s not just its overlap with the Qaeda network—or indeed Iran‘s, whose collusion is ongoing. But Assad’s presence is a boon to the Salafi-jihadist cause. Moreover, Iran, in effective control of the regime, is the consistent lead State sponsor of terrorism that has now flooded in thousands of Shi’ite jihadists to Syria on the regime’s side. If your concern is Islamic militancy and the export of terrorism then support for the regime cannot be an option.
Even as a long-time supporter of the Kurdish campaign for at least autonomy, and independence if they so choose, there is no way of backing the PKK: this wizened faction of cultists is deeply authoritarian and would impose a regime of a kind we thought we had left behind in 1991. The Syrian Kurds should be supported with aid needs and provisions for refugees but the Western intent should be to weaken the PYD.
The obvious “goodies” are the nationalist rebels but simple arithmetic tells against being too punctilious: the time for that was much earlier in this terrible war. Liwa at-Tawhid is an obvious choice for Western help: it is Islamist but its ambitions are exclusively national and whatever deficiencies it would have as a ruling faction it would not be internally murderous or externally destabilising in the way the Assad dictatorship is. Ditto Jaysh al-Islam: more extreme it might be, it has no ambitions beyond Syria and is strategically placed around the capital and under Saudi sway. Within the Salafi camp the only clear red line (to coin a phrase) is Ahrar a-Sham. Very good argument has been made that Ahrar should not be legally designated a terrorist organisation because it would complicate efforts to help the rebellion. Still, no direct aid should be given to it and the clear long-term intention should be to pull away the forces that are there for the money and weapons and to isolate the forces who are there for ideological reasons.
There will be no good outcome for Syria: someone awful will one day come to power in the country. On a strategic level, what can be done is to destroy a regime that has murdered our soldiers, destabilised every single one of its neighbours by the export of violence, and break the power of the Iranian theocracy in the Levant as a precursor to trying to put enough pressure on it that it can be disarmed of its nuclear weapons without a war. And on the humanitarian side Western help can drag the outcome away from the apocalyptic. The temptation to fatalism has allowed this to become the war of self-fulfilling prophecy. Activism could not be any worse and perhaps—who knows?—the West might be able to create self-fulfilling prophecies that actually help Syria.
[*] Numbers are extremely tricky. The ISIS one is—so far as I can tell—quite good, but all of them are approximate and many are the result of reports that either themselves have an agenda to inflate or marginalise certain brigades, or which were supplied with information by people who have such an agenda.