Although the Syrian revolution is two years old, the rebel forces haven’t formed a unified command. Gen. Salim Idriss, commander of the Free Syrian Army, has tried to coordinate the fighters. But this remains a bottom-up rebellion, with towns and regions forming battalions that have merged into larger coalitions. These coalitions have tens of thousands of fighters. But they lack anything approaching the discipline of a normal army.
Even though the rebels have only loose coordination, they have become a potent force. They have seized control of most of Aleppo and northern Syria, and they are tightening their grip on Damascus, controlling many of the access routes east and south of the city, according to rebel sources. Free Syrian Army leaders believe that the battle for Damascus will reach its climax in the next two to three months.
Rebel shells have hit landmarks in central Damascus, such as the Sheraton Hotel and the neighborhood of Abou Roumaneh, where many diplomats are based. To the east, the rebels now appear to control East Goutha, which commands eastern access to the city, and are firing on the Damascus airport. To the west, they are reportedly shelling the neighborhood of Mezzeh.
The lineup of opposition military groups is confusing to outsiders, but rebel sources say there are several major factions.
The biggest umbrella group is called the Jabhat al-Tahrir al-Souriya al-Islamiya. It has about 37,000 fighters, drawn from four main subgroups based in different parts of the country. These Saudi-backed groups are not hard-core Islamists but are more militant than the political coalition headed by Sheik Moaz al-Khatib, who last week claimed Syria’s seat in the Arab League.
The second-largest rebel coalition is more extreme and is dominated by hard-core Salafist Muslims. Its official name — Jabhat al-Islamiya al-Tahrir al-Souriya — is almost identical to that of the Saudi-backed group. Rebel sources count 11 different brigades from around the country that have merged to form this second coalition. Financing comes from wealthy Saudi, Kuwaiti and other Gulf Arab individuals. Rebel sources estimate about 13,000 Salafist fighters are gathered under this second umbrella.