Guide to the Syrian opposition
More than two years after the uprising began in Syria, the opposition remains fractious and deeply divided.
The wide variety of political groups, exiled dissidents, grassroots activists and armed militants have been unable to agree on how to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Several groups, however, have tried to form coalitions to unite opposition supporters in Syria and gain international help and recognition.
Here is a guide to some of the most prominent groups.
National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces
On 11 November 2012, Syrian opposition factions agreed to set up a new and more inclusive leadership council at a meeting in Doha, Qatar.
It was hoped the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which includes members within Syria and abroad, would be recognised formally as the country's sole legitimate representative, become the conduit for all financial and possibly military aid, administer areas controlled by rebel forces, and plan for a post-Assad transition.
Moaz al-Khatib, a Sunni Muslim cleric who was once imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and was jailed several times for criticising the president before leaving Syria in 2012, was chosen as the National Coalition's first president.
Riad Seif, a veteran dissident, and Suhair al-Atassi, a descendent of a famous political family and a woman who held one of the last open political discussion groups in Damascus, were elected vice-presidents.
Mustafa Sabbagh, a businessman who helped the Syrian diaspora organise a humanitarian relief effort, was named secretary general.'Civil, democratic Syria'
A blueprint for the National Coalition was outlined in a document published by Mr Seif, which called for the creation of a Syrian National Initiative (SNI). It was based on the Cairo conference documents agreed by opposition factions in July 2012.
Mr Seif called for revolutionary and political opposition factions to "unite under one leadership framework to end Syrians' suffering and transition Syria to a democratic, civil, pluralistic, strong and stable state".
He argued that such a leadership framework would ensure that the body would enjoy the broad support of the Syrian people and thus had the legitimacy to be recognised as their sole representative.
On its Facebook page, the National Coalition says it "works to aid and support the revolutionary forces struggling to overthrow the Assad regime and to transition Syria towards a democratic and pluralistic civil state".
"The coalition also plays an important role in liaising between the needs of the Syrian people and the international community," it adds.
According to its website, the National Coalition is dedicated to upholding the following principles:
- Absolute national sovereignty and independence for Syria
- Preservation of the unity of the Syrian people
- Preservation of the unity of the country and its cities
- Overthrowing the Syrian regime, dismantling the security forces, and holding responsible parties accountable for crimes against the Syrian people
- Not to engage in any dialogue or negotiations with the regime
- Uphold our commitment for a civil, democratic Syria
The Doha meeting was a response to increasing pressure from the opposition's foreign backers to form a new alliance that superseded the Syrian National Council (SNC), which was widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting and little respected on the ground.
Reaction within the SNC was mixed, with several groups expressing concern that they would by marginalised because they would only control 22 of the 70 seats in the leadership council. However, SNC chairman George Sabra asserted at the time: "This is a serious step against the regime and a serious step towards freedom."
The National Coalition also includes members of the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), a network of grassroots opposition activists, as well as representatives of the local revolutionary councils. It also has the support of the rebel Supreme Military Council (SMC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
However, it does not include the National Co-ordination Committee, which represents the internal political opposition groups that reject violence and want to negotiate with the government, and several militant Islamist groups fighting alongside the rebels, including the al-Nusra Front.
International reaction to the new National Coalition was generally positive, helping to raise its profile and giving it a strong boost among opposition supporters inside Syria.
On 12 November, the six member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates - were first to recognise it as "the legitimate representative of the brotherly Syrian people".
France became the first Western country on 13 November to recognise the National Coalition as "the sole representative of the Syrian people". The UK, EU and US eventually followed suit with full recognition after satisfying themselves that it had the support inside Syria.
The next month, 100 countries at the Friends of the Syrian People conference in Marrakech, Morocco, also recognised the coalition. Absent were Russia, China and Iran, which have backed President Assad or blocked action by the UN Security Council.Resignation
Despite its international support, the National Coalition has suffered many of the problems experienced by the SNC, on which it is still dependent operationally and organisationally, including internal divisions and outside interference.
On 24 March 2013, Mr Khatib declared that he was resigning, complaining that foreign powers were placing too many conditions on aid to opposition and armed rebel groups, and were trying to manipulate events for their own interests.
"They support whomever is ready to obey, and the one who refuses has to face starvation and siege," he said in his statement. "We will not beg to satisfy anyone, and if there is a decision to execute us as Syrians, so let it be."
Mr Khatib was replaced as interim leader by George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council, on 22 April 2013.
Mr Khatib's resignation came five days after the coalition elected Ghassan Hitto as prime minister of an interim government, whose creation Mr Khatib believed was premature. Mr Hitto's candidacy was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the SNC, and Mr Sabbagh, who has strong links to Qatar.
The previous month, the SNC had publicly criticised Mr Khatib for saying he would be ready to attend talks with Vice-President Farouq al-Sharaa in a third country if President Assad's government met several conditions, including the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners.
The National Coalition has also been unable to assert overall command over Syria's many rebel groups. The local leaderships of the Military Council and Free Syrian Army did not order the recent offensives in Aleppo, Damascus and Raqqa province. Instead, they were initiated by jihadist groups, which have refused to recognise the coalition's primacy.
It has similarly struggled to address the humanitarian crisis, in part because of a lack of funding. An Assistance Co-ordination Unit was set up, but it has struggled to carry out anything on a significant scale. The coalition has also not yet created a provisional government inside Syria to administer liberated areas and provide basic services and supplies.
In May 2013, a coalition of leading rebel groups fighting in Syria issued a joint statement sharply criticising the SNC, accusing it of failing to fulfil its duties, and of allowing itself to be taken over by regional and international players.
Syrian National Council (SNC)
The Syrian National Council (SNC) is a coalition of opposition groups formed in October 2011 to offer a credible alternative to the Syrian government and serving as a single point of contact for the international community.
The current president is George Sabra, a Christian and a veteran leftist dissident.
He replaced Abdelbaset Sayda, a Kurd, in November 2012, shortly before the creation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
Mr Sayda and his predecessor, Burhan Ghalioun, were both criticised for failing to reconcile different groups within the opposition and present a united front.
The SNC's website says it is committed to the following principles:
- Working to overthrow the regime using all legal means
- Affirming national unity among all components of Syrian society and rejecting all calls for ethnic strife
- Safeguarding the non-violent character of the Syrian revolution
- Protecting national independence and sovereignty, and rejecting foreign military intervention
It has laid out plans for a transitional period which would see it:
- Form an interim administration
- Hold an all-inclusive national convention on democratic change
- Organise the election of a constitutional assembly within a year to draft a new constitution and hold free parliamentary elections within six months of the new constitution being approved
- Form a judicial commission to investigate crimes against humanity and form a national reconciliation commission
The new Syria, the SNC states on its website, will be a "democratic, pluralistic, and civil state; a parliamentary republic with sovereignty of the people based on the principles of equal citizenship with separation of powers, smooth transfer of power, the rule of law, and the protection and guarantee of the rights of minorities".
The SNC, which is dominated by Syria's majority Sunni Muslim community, has struggled to win over Christians and members of President Assad's Alawite sect, who each make up about 10% of the population and have so far stayed loyal to the government. The council's primacy has also been challenged by the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC), an opposition bloc that still functions within Syria and is led by longstanding dissidents, some of whom are wary of the Islamists within the SNC. Several members of the SNC have also complained about its ineffectual leadership.
The SNC has also found it difficult to work with the Free Syrian Army. However, the two groups have agreed to co-ordinate their operations and the SNC has urged the international community to support the rebels.
In November 2012, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the SNC could "no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition" and called for an opposition leadership structure that could "speak to every segment and every geographic part of Syria".
Following the creation of the National Coalition, Mr Sabra insisted that the SNC would not be "subsumed under anybody".
"The SNC is older than this initiative or any other initiative, and it has a deep political and regional structure," he said.
Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni - the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the SNC - said there had been "much exaggeration" in the talk of divisions within the opposition.
He also complained that the SNC had never received the financial and military support it needed to overthrow the government, and accused the international community of failing in its commitments to the Syrian people.
National Co-ordination Committee (NCC)
Formed in September 2011, the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC) is made up of 13 left-leaning political parties, three Kurdish political parties, and independent political and youth activists.
It is led by the veteran opposition figure Hussein Abdul Azim.
End Quote Qadri Jamil National Co-ordination Committee member
The slogan 'the overthrow of the regime' is unpractical, unrealistic and useless”
The NCC differs from the Syrian National Council (SNC) on the questions of dialogue with the government and foreign intervention.
The NCC calls for dialogue conditional on the withdrawal of the military from the streets, the end of attacks on peaceful protesters by security forces, and the release of all political prisoners.
The group is strongly opposed to any form of foreign intervention that would involve military measures, such as a no-fly zone, and would prefer economic sanctions and other diplomatic measures to increase pressure on President Assad.
"We reject foreign intervention - we think it is as dangerous as tyranny. We reject both," Mr Azim said last year.
It is the only group to have called for conditional dialogue with the government, arguing it remains the least costly route to political transition.
Despite this, the NCC has refused to engage in the government's national dialogue initiative, saying that the authorities are merely trying to buy time while they ''liquidate the forces of the uprising''.
The NCC has also been reluctant to affiliate itself with the SNC and challenged its primacy, with some members said to be wary of the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on the umbrella group.
Free Syrian Army (FSA)
The Free Syrian Army was formed in August 2011 by army deserters based in Turkey and led by Riyad al-Asaad, a former air force colonel.
At its founding, the group said it would seek to "work hand in hand with the people to achieve freedom and dignity, topple the regime, protect the revolution and the country's resources and stand up to the irresponsible military machine which is protecting the regime".
Col Asaad claims to have as many as 40,000 men under his command and that soldiers are defecting every day and being assigned tasks by the FSA. However, analysts believe there may be no more than 10,000.
They are also still poorly armed, and many have only basic military training. The FSA has admitted that it is unable to directly confront the Syrian army, which is estimated to have 200,000 soldiers, and hold on to territory.
Nevertheless, a growing number of defections, partly caused by sectarian division, is weakening the military, strengthening the FSA and increasing the violence. The army's rank and file is largely Sunni while its leadership is mainly Alawite.'Liberated'
The FSA's fighters were limited at the start of the uprising to small-scale attacks on military convoys and patrols in the north-western province of Idlib, which borders Turkey.
However, it was not long before operations spread to the cities of Homs and Hama, and major rebellions were launched, triggering a series of government crackdowns.
In September 2011, FSA fighters and other army defectors took control of parts of the town of Rastan, just north of Homs. In early October, government forces launched an offensive involving hundreds of armoured vehicles, only recapturing Rastan after a week of clashes.
Over the next two months, the FSA carried out increasingly effective attacks on security forces, particularly in Idlib. In late December, the army stormed the mountain stronghold of Jabal al-Zawiya and killed some 200 rebels and male civilians, according to activists.
In January 2012, residents of Zabadani, a mountain town north-west of Damascus, said it had been "liberated" by the FSA and that the army had agreed to a ceasefire. The truce lasted for several days before troops launched an assault to retake the town.
Later that month, a string of the capital's eastern suburbs briefly fell into FSA control, bringing the armed rebellion to the city's outskirts for the first time. However, security forces forced the rebels to retreat within days.
The FSA suffered a major setback in February, when the military launched a major offensive on its strongholds in Homs, notably the district of Baba Amr. Activists said an estimated 700 people were killed as rockets and shells rained down for nearly a month. Troops moved into the city in early March after the FSA staged a "tactical withdrawal".
The insurrection appeared to be on the verge of being crushed, and the rebels spent the next two months regrouping.
In early April, the FSA received a much-needed boost when several Western powers announced that they would provide millions of dollars in "non-lethal" aid, including communications and intelligence support. Gulf states meanwhile agreed to set up a fund to pay the salaries of FSA fighters, and reportedly discussed plans to send money to the rebels to help them buy weapons and ammunition on the black market.
Later that month, the FSA and the government said they would abide by the ceasefire negotiated by the UN and Arab League's envoy, Kofi Annan, as part of his peace plan. However, both sides accused each other of violating the conditions and fighting resumed.
By the beginning of June, dozens of people were dying every day despite appeals for calm. The FSA announced it was no longer committed to the ceasefire and had resumed operations to "defend our people".'Guerrilla tactics'
In mid-July, the rebels launched audacious and deadly attacks in the heart of Damascus for the first time, targeting military and intelligence bases and briefly taking control of several areas before the government sent in large numbers of troops and tanks to recapture them.
The group also claimed that an affiliate was behind the bombing inside the headquarters of the National Security Bureau (NSB) in Damascus on 18 July, which killed President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law, Gen Assef Shawkat, Defence Minister Gen Daoud Rajiha, former Defence Minister Gen Hassan Turkomani and NSB chief Gen Hisham Ikhtiar.
Less than a week later, the FSA launched a large-scale attack on security forces in Aleppo, reportedly prompting the military to send thousands of reinforcements, as well as deploying warplanes to strafe rebel-held areas for the first time in 16 months.
Col Malik al-Kurdi, a spokesman for the FSA command, said the rebels would not try to hold on to the territory they had seized in Syria's two biggest cities because they could not confront the better-equipped regular army or the elite Republican Guards.
"The Free Syrian Army is carrying out a war of harassing the regime army until it is exhausted, using guerrilla tactics," he told the Washington Post. "We can't keep control of an area, so this is a circular operation, moving from one place to another, one city to another."
Col Kurdi pointed to the capture of a number of border crossings with Turkey and Iraq, some of which changed hands several times over the period of a few days.
"We cannot say the Free Syrian Army is in complete control, and we cannot say the regime army is in complete control, and this will stay the same until the Free Syrian Army gets heavy weapons and there are more defections."
FSA fighters began by using only light weapons, but do already have more sophisticated and heavier weaponry that has either been captured or smuggled in from abroad.
US officials and Arab intelligence officers told the New York Times in June that automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some anti-tank weapons were being funnelled, mostly across the Turkish border, by way of a "shadowy network of intermediaries", including Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
A small number of CIA officers were also operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters would receive the weapons, in an effort to prevent them falling into the hands of groups allied to al-Qaeda, they added. They were also reportedly providing satellite imagery and intelligence on troop movements, and advising how to establish command and control systems.Human rights abuses
Up until now, the FSA has functioned primarily as an umbrella group for army defectors, civilians who have taken up arms and Islamist militants. Fighters are believed to have only limited or no contact with each other or the FSA's leaders in Turkey.
Though they are working towards a similar goal - the overthrow of President Assad - many are thought to adopt the name "Free Syrian Army" to underscore their revolutionary aspirations, their army background or that they are not pro-government militiamen.
The FSA leadership told the UN Human Rights Council in February that commanders in the field did not receive orders from it and currently made their own rules of engagement. The leadership saw its role as facilitating co-ordination and ensuring media outreach.
The council said it had documented instances of gross human rights abuses committed by members of various FSA groups. In Homs, FSA members were found to have tortured and executed suspected members of the pro-government militia, the Shabiha, in retaliation for abuses committed by them.
Some armed civilians in Homs, including those belonging to the FSA, have also allegedly sought to kill the family members of Shabiha and security forces personnel to exact blood revenge, or take them hostage.
The FSA's leadership has also found it difficult to work with the Syrian National Council (SNC), which has publicly stated that it wants to safeguard the uprising's "non-violent character".
However, in January the two groups agreed to co-ordinate their operations more closely through a liaison office and the SNC has appealed to the international community to support the rebels "by means of military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves".
The FSA has also acknowledged that some foreign jihadist militants, including those linked to al-Qaeda, have travelled to Syria to join its ranks, but claims they do not play a decisive role. A shadowy group calling itself the al-Nusra Front has said it was behind a series of suicide bombings which have rocked Damascus since January.