This was the status of forces at the time the US-led “Anti-ISIL” Coalition kicked off :
The Shia Bloc: Most powerful and vicious alignment in the killing fields of Iraq and Syria. Primary constituents: Khomeinist regime in Tehran, Bashar Assad’s Baathist regime in Damascus (effectively a Khomeinist proxy), Lebanon’s pro-Assad Hezbollah fighters in Syria, and at least on and off, the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Includes paramilitary groups, sectarian militias and death squads equal in savagery to Islamic State’s jihadists. History of “fluid” relationships with al-Qaida, especially in the case of Assad’s regime, which has avoided confrontations with al-Qaida’s offshoots in Syria, including the Islamic State.
The Islamic State: Also known as ISIS, ISIL and Da’ash (Arabic pejorative). Based in Raqqa, Syria. Established in June as an expansionist revival of the 7th-century Islamic “caliphate.” Enforces Taliban-like terror controls on subject populations. Holds about a third of Syrian landmass, nearly as much of Iraq, vast military resources looted from military bases in both countries, lucrative revenue streams from extortion and black-market oil sales. Led by Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, former senior Iraqi al-Qaida consiglieri, mastermind of scores of suicide-bomb attacks in Iraq’s persistent Sunni-Shia conflict, self-proclaimed successor to Prophet Muhammad. Force strength variously estimated to 30,000, perhaps a third of them “foreign fighters”: Turks, Yemenis, Saudis, Chechens, Gulf Arabs, Europeans, North Americans.
The U.S.-brokered anti-ISIL coalition: Formed in August. Aligned with the new Iraqi leadership in Baghdad under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Massoud Barzani’s democratic and semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. Mandate limited to containing and “ultimately” defeating al-Baghdadi’s ISIL. Operations restricted to airstrikes. Primarily U.S. air force targeting ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra positions in Iraq and Syria. Ten NATO-aligned members carrying out airstrikes on ISIL targets in Iraq; Five Arab League members striking ISIL targets in Syria. About 150 fighter jets in total, six of them Canadian CF-18s.
Turkey: Not a coalition member, but a NATO member, nominally aligned with pro-democracy Syrian forces, controversially promiscuous with jihadist forces (allegedly even ISIL). Unreliable, authoritarian, neo-Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a close family friend and key ally of Bashar Assad until Assad’s ultra-violent reaction to Syria’s Arab Spring in 2011; now Assad’s most determined state-actor enemy. Crudely hostile to Kurdish minority; risked revival of 1990s-era Kurdish insurrection by allowing ISIL forces to besiege Syrian Kurds at border town of Kobani.
Syria’s Islamist fighters: A dizzying array of groupuscules, independent militias and proxy formations representing Sunni Islam’s innumerable schisms and competing Koranic-school factions. Relevant primarily because of their resources. Chief benefactors: dangerously indolent Arab League oil-billionaires and freelancers among the hundreds of Saudi princes and Gulf state emirs. Key group: Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIL’s blood-feud al-Qaida franchise-holder in Syria and key target of coalition airstrikes. Groups range across spectrum. “Moderate” Islamists, dubious Qatari proxies (i.e. the Ahfad al-Rasould militia), Muslim Brotherhood factions, hard-right Salafist renegades (i.e. Ansar al-Islam factions remaining outside ISIL orbit). Also includes powerful Saudi-backed Islamic Front alliance, vaguely amenable to Islamic democracy.
Syrian patriots and freedom fighters: Most prominent category of non-state, non-proxy combatants as recently as 2012, now vastly diminished. Mass defections to Syria’s Islamist fighting groups, loss of popular credibility from close association with the U.S. (now widely regarded as having betrayed Syrian revolution). Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces occupies Syria’s chair at Arab League; recognized by 100 UN member states as key interlocutor of Syrian people. Main body: Syrian National Council. Main combatant alliance: Free Syrian Army. Some FSA affiliates among “vetted” rebel groups to be trained in Saudi Arabia in $500-million project the U.S. House of Representatives approved last month; expected to fight ISIL but not Assad regime. On Nov. 1, two of the FSA’s most effective affiliates, the Harakat Hazm movement and the Syrian Revolutionary Front, were overrun by the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in a crushing defeat that included the loss of U.S.-supplied GRAD rockets and TOW anti-tank missiles. Most consistently effective: Kurdish YPG guerillas of Northern Syria, but hobbled by close alignment with Turkey’s Kurdish PKK, listed as terrorist entity by Turkey and consequently by most NATO countries.