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Who Are the Moderate Opposition in Syria?

23/10/2015 08:30 BST | Updated 22/10/2016 10:12 BST

Syrian Opposition groups have opposed the brutal Assad regime for years but came together and swelled in numbers in 2011 after government forces responded to peaceful protest by firing into crowds calling for democratic elections, murdering innocent protestors and shocking the world with the regime's brutality.

So just who are the Syrian Moderate Opposition now? What do they want and who are they fighting? Below we attempt to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about the Syrian Moderate Opposition.

Who are the Syrian Moderate Opposition?

The Syrian Moderate Opposition are made up of people who subscribe neither to the values of the regime, nor of ISIL, nor of al-Qaida. They are people fighting for Syria. Many Syrian citizens joined Moderate Opposition groups in 2011 or even before then in response to Regime brutality against the Syrian people. They have been imprisoned and tortured by the regime and lost family members and friends, but are determined to give Syrians a better future. These groups represent a range of political views, but are today united in their aim to fight ISIL, oppose Assad and support a political transition to get Syrians a fair, democratic and representative government.

What do they want?

Moderate Opposition groups want a safe and unified homeland that offers a future for Syria that respects, represents and protects all Syrians, regardless of ethnic or religious background. Like the rest of the world they want to see ISIL destroyed and peace brought to the region.

How big is the Moderate Opposition?

Taken together, Opposition groups have over eighty thousand armed men fighting both the regime and ISIL. Their support is crucial for a political solution, and they have strong credibility with much of the Syrian population. This credibility means they offer the best hope of defeating ISIL in Syria, from both a military and ideological point of view.

Isn't the 'Moderate Opposition' just a different version of ISIL or AQ?

Absolutely not; ISIL is a terrorist group .The Opposition are everything that ISIL and Assad are not: moderate, inclusive and committed to political pluralism and the rule of law. The Syrian Moderate Opposition are in no way part of ISIL or vice versa. They have repeatedly condemned Islamic extremism and are fighting both ISIL, and all it stands for, and the oppressive Assad regime to secure a better future for Syria. The Moderate Opposition includes the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition.

Some people in Syria must be extremists?

There are two particularly notable extremist groups in Syria, firstly ISIL, and secondly Al Qaida-linked Jabhat Al-Nusra.

The majority of groups in Syria are not extremists, or terrorists, and are focussed only on the removal of the Assad regime and ISIL from their country, and on protecting their families and Syrian civilians from both these brutal forces.

What is the Syrian National Coalition?

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces is an umbrella organisation made up of various political groups and individuals who together represent a broad range of political views, and include members from across Syria's various regions and its religious and ethnic denominations. It was founded in late 2012. National Coalition has come together to try and create a better future for Syria, without Assad. Many members have been working for a freer Syria for years before the revolution, and have been imprisoned and tortured by the regime. This unified umbrella group proves that Syria has not been divided beyond repair despite Assad's best attempts. The National Coalition's core aim is to enter negotiations to achieve a peaceful and just settlement for all Syrians. They do not want a formal role in transition, and are not seeking power - their standing orders state that the organisation will be disbanded as soon as the fighting stops, and an agreed transition begins. They do not see themselves as a government in waiting.

Who is the Free Syrian Army (FSA)?

The Free Syrian Army is the name given to groups of moderate fighters active in both Northern and Southern Syria. It was begun by a group of defected Syrian Armed Forces Officers and Soldiers in 2011 at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution. It lists its opponents as the Assad regime as well as ISIL and other extremist groups, and consists of approximately 80,000 members.

Even Mr Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said that the FSA was part of Syria's future.

So the FSA is armed...are they not extremists as well?

No. The Moderate Opposition is named so as it is the antithesis of terrorist groups operating in the region. The Free Syrian Army is using military force to oppose both ISIL and the Assad regime, which has itself been complicit in the rise of terrorism in Syria. Their aim is to bring peace to the country and they have formally committed to the UN framework for a political solution for Syria under the Geneva Communiqué, and continue to call for direct negotiations to lead to a transition and new political settlement. The Assad regime has not committed to this process.

The Moderate Opposition are fighters - surely they can't be part of a political process?

A common misconception of the moderate armed Opposition - including the FSA, but also other organisations - is that they are removed from the political process. Though their focus remains a battle against both the regime and ISIL, moderate groups have in fact been heavily engaged in political negotiations. All of the main groups, including those who are more conservative, have agreed to action against Al Qaida, and to protection of minority and women's rights, political pluralism, representation, free elections and the rule of law. Contrary to the regime's narrative, these groups are pragmatic and understand how their values, some more conservative than others, fit in into a context of a democratic, civil state.

I keep hearing about the Kurdish YPG - who are they?

The Kurdish People's Defence Units or YPG are the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party or PYD who govern the Kurdish regions of Northern Syria. The group is made up of around 25,000 members, primarily Kurds, but also count Arabs, Turks and Westerners within their ranks. Although the YPG is a key and effective opponent of ISIL, the group is regarded as distinct from the armed Opposition groups. It has co-operated with Syrian Opposition fighters against ISIL, but avoids engaging Syrian regime forces in battle.

The Russians say they are striking ISIL - surely that helps the Moderate Opposition?

Quite the opposite. 85% of Russian strikes have been in areas where ISIL is not even present. Russia is targeting Moderate Opposition fighters opposed to the Assad regime. Russia seems to be playing along with the regime's fantasy that all Opposition groups are terrorists. In fact, the majority of Opposition groups are moderate. Russia's actions are killing the Moderate Opposition; the only people fighting against ISIL. Russian activities could allow ISIL to make territorial gains.

Will Russian activities stop people joining the Moderate Opposition?

The danger of radicalisation of the Moderate Opposition is real as a result of Russian bombardment. Those fighting on the front lines may be tempted to defect to extremist groups who they feel can best channel their anger. This is why Russia's actions are so counter-productive: not only are they weakening the forces that are fighting ISIL, they are also fuelling radicalisation.

How does the UK work with these groups?

The UK has always been clear that there can only be a political solution to the conflict. The UK does not supply weapons to any group in Syria. This is why it is important for us to encourage unity between moderate armed groups, the National Coalition and other political actors; and to support their engagement in the political process.

We also work with a range of other civilian actors on the ground in Syria, including civil defenders, Free Syria Police and Local Councils. Find out more here.

But I heard the Opposition rejected the political process?

This is not true. The Opposition - including armed groups - has restated its commitment to a genuine political process on the basis of the Geneva Communiqué. However whilst Russia - a UN Security Council member - continues to attack them, and whilst civilians continue to be targeted by the Assad regime on an industrial scale, it is quite clear that any such discussions will be very difficult

The Moderate Opposition are failing to defeat ISIL so surely they'd welcome Russia's actions?

Russia is not targeting ISIL whilst over the last year the Global Coalition has undertaken nearly 3,000 strikes in Syria, removing territory from ISIL and destroying their training camps, bases and infrastructure. In October alone, the Coalition destroyed ISIL Headquarters near Kobane and al- Hasakah as well as an ISIL training camp near Raqqa.

Moderate Opposition forces in Western Syria had removed the ISIL presence from almost all of their territory, and are fighting the most intense battles against ISIL anywhere in Syria in the area north of Aleppo City. However the Assad regime, with a few exceptions, has rarely targeted ISIL areas or engaged in large-scale confrontations with the organisation. Whilst the 50km frontline between ISIL and Opposition forces in Northern Syria sees daily fighting, the 130km frontline between ISIL and the Regime is usually quiet.

What is Jaysh Al-Fatah? The Russians say that the Moderate Opposition is allied with terrorists?

Jaysh Al-Fatah is not a single organisation. It is a loose mechanism for coordination between different groups fighting both the Assad regime and ISIL. This mechanism does contain some terrorist elements - principally The Al-Nusra Front, although most of the groups involved are not extremists or terrorists. The reason for this coordination is practical. The Al-Nusra Front is currently concentrating on fighting the regime. The Moderate Opposition is already fighting both the regime, and ISIL and now being bombarded by the Russians. It cannot afford to attack Al-Nusra as well at this stage. Rather it is concentrating on fighting the enemy who are continuing to target civilians with impunity. The Russian argument that everyone who coordinates with Jabhat Al-Nusra is themselves a terrorist is patently false and ignores the reality of the conflict. If the regime stopped bombing its own people and seriously looked at engaging in a political process, the Moderate Opposition would be able to weaken and confront Al-Nusra. But right now, they cannot afford to have that battle.

Gareth Bayley is the UK's special representative in Syria