Views of Key Actors

The greater polarization of views among those supporting different sides in the conflict which we observed this year was also evident in their attitudes towards the key figures and groups in the Syrian struggle. Views of individuals and organizations we tested divided even more sharply along pro-regime and anti-regime lines than last year. The nuances and qualifications some respondents attached to perceptions of their leaders also have largely vanished. However, there was somewhat more common ground around the rejection of extremists. Pro- and anti-regime respondents tended to share negative views of ISIS, and to a lesser degree, Jabhat al-Nusrah and Jaish al-Mujahideen.

Views of Assad Further Apart than Last Year

Supporters of Bashar al-Assad saw him as the trustworthy protector of the Syrian people. There was no ambivalence or middle ground in views of the President, as there was in our prior research.

Strong, honorable, and honest government with great credibility that is working hard to keep the people pleased. Long live Dr. Bashar and the government.
— Alawi man (pro-regime), 44, Damascus

Bashar al-Assad’s government is a government of safety and stability. It is the government of its leading, brave, wise president, who cares about his people and looks out for them. He is the leader.
— Kurdish woman (pro-regime), 35, Al Hasakah

Conversely, all regime opponents we interviewed were extremely negative towards the President, describing him as an animal, criminal, or murderer.

A regime that is unjust, tyrant, murderous, and blood thirsty. There is no possible monstrous description that would be enough to describe it.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 27, Aleppo

Assad, how can I describe him to you? How can I describe this animal? First thing, I want to describe his name, what his name means: a vicious animal, unjust, carnivore, and in fact he is a carnivore, a thief, a stealer, and seller of lands.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 25, Hamah

Similar Polarization of Views on the Army

Nuanced views of the Syrian government army last year have also been replaced by sharp disagreement. Regime supporters viewed the army as the heroic protector of Syria from invading foreign terrorists seeking to divide the country.

The national army, and the only guarantee that this country will remain unified and protected.
— Christian man (pro-regime), 28, Damascus

May God protect this courageous army. This is our army that is protecting us, protecting Syria, and protecting its people. It would sacrifice its life because of ISIS and its bastards. And also the other bastards.
— Alawi man (pro-regime), 24, Tartous

Regime opponents, however, viewed the Syrian army as criminal killers of children with chemical weapons and barrel bombs.

The army of Bashar [al-Assad], the criminal, which killed children with chemical weapons and exploding barrel bombs.
— Kurdish man (pro-regime), 32, Al Hasakah

An army of infidelity and humiliation, may God curse them. How can they stand with a tyrant to kill their brothers in religion and country? The worst of armies it is.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 40, Deir al-Zor

FSA Held in Higher Esteem by Opposition

Many of the doubts regime opponents held about the Free Syrian Army (FSA) last year have dissipated. Now, views of the rebel army are almost entirely positive, despite the reported setbacks that it has encountered in the field. Respondents described the FSA as the “real army” and the best hope against the regime.

They are our real army which is fighting for the rights of all Syrians. It is the real Syrian Army that is loyal and devoted to Syria and is determined to rid Syria of Assad and his gang of criminals.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 26, Hamah

It is our real army, sacrificing for our freedom, refusing to kill their Syrian brothers for Bashar al-Assad.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 32, Aleppo

Few opposition supporters believed that the FSA might not exist everywhere in the country when asked specifically if it did.

Likewise, only a few recognized that it had been weakened by opposition disunity. An exception was this comment: “At the beginning, the Free Syrian Army was holding itself together in order to achieve their goal, but now that other groups have entered its forces, they have broken the unity of the army. These cells have destroyed the Free Syrian Army,” said a Sunni woman refugee, 25, in Jordan.

Regime supporters were uniformly scornful of the FSA – referring to its members as terrorists, traitors, and foreigners. They perceived it as weakened and tended to conflate it with ISIS and the Nusrah Front.

Traitor terrorists, they are not free, they are agents who destroyed the country in the name of revolution while their only goal is money and support. They are paying for it. I haven’t heard about it for a while but I am sure it still is [there]. After being Free Army it became Al-Nusrah Front then Da’esh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS); they all are murderers.
— Alawi man (pro-regime), 44, Damascus

What army? They are animals. There is only the army of President Bashar al-Assad. [They are] people like Da’esh who are destroying their people and killing them. They are people who must be executed. There aren’t many of them, thank God, because our valiant army destroyed them all, and God willing, there will not be anything left from them.
— Alawi man (pro-regime), 24, Tartous

Syrian Opposition Coalition Also Has
a Boost in Stature among Opposition

Perceptions of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) have improved somewhat since last year, reflecting the more intense polarization of the contending sides. Anti-regime respondents generally praised the SOC for making sacrifices to protect Syria, aiding people in need, and demonstrating the legitimacy of the opposition.

It is offering protection to the people and the country. It is sacrificing its souls for the country. Concerning the area I am in, it is not offering anything because the regime is in control. But the rest of the areas, it is providing a lot of aid and many needs.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 25, Hamah

An Arabic and international support to the Syrian opposition. Also they are trying to prove to the world that the government of the opposition is the legitimate government for the Syrian people.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 25, Raqqah

However, one regime opponent described the SOC as more interested in personal gain than helping Syria. “The opposition inside Syria is fighting and trying to free our country, while the opposition abroad are only collecting money and putting it in their pockets,” said a 35 year old man who is a refugee in Jordan.

As expected, regime supporters were uniformly negative towards the SOC. “Saboteurs, crazy and bastards” was what a Sunni man, 29, in Raqqah termed them. Another, a Sunni man, 37, in Homs, said, “This party is going to stay up late in the hotels of Qatar and Kuwait collecting money.”

Interim Government Enjoys Positive
Image but Weak Presence

Comments about the Interim Government from regime opponents were generally positive. They described it as their legitimate representative. However, this seems largely symbolic: few said it is present or active in their area, and they had difficulty distinguishing it from the Syrian Opposition Coalition. However, some refugees in Turkey, where it is based, credited it with providing aid.

This government is the first step in ending Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It is working for our benefit and goals. They are working towards ending Bashar al-Assad’s regime to take over.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 27, Aleppo

It’s not really [playing a role in Al-Hasakah], but they have a representative who visits our area occasionally to ask about how we are doing and what we need.
— Kurdish woman (anti-regime), 23, Al-Hasakah

It is providing us with food supplies and medicine. It is also providing our children with school supplies by presenting our tragedy and our suffering to the international committees who didn’t hesitate to help us after what they have heard.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 38, refugee, Turkey

Regime supporters refused to acknowledge the Interim Government. “A government? This is not a government. This is a game. People who are mentally deranged and are playing games outside Syria and under the patronage and guarding of other countries who seek the destruction of Syria. They do not exist in Syria in the first place,” commented a pro-regime Alawi man from Tartous, aged 34.

ISIS Rejected by All

Participants expressed opposition to ISIS almost across the board, with negative views shared by both regime opponents and supporters. They regarded ISIS as brutal and foreign-dominated. Some argued it has undermined opposition efforts as well as Islam itself. Hostility was particularly intense among those living under ISIS in Raqqah, whatever their political leanings.

They are terrorists. They are disbelievers. They came to Syria in the name of Islam and Muslims, and as we all know, Islam is the religion of peace and tolerance. They have destroyed the true image of Islam. They are killing our sons and daughters.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 25, refugee, Jordan

We have a bitter experience with them. They want to apply Islamic law their way. This law has got nothing to do with Islam. They harmed Islam and the Syrian revolution more than they benefited it. May God get rid of them.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 25, Raqqah

Some respondents viewed ISIS as a creation of the US, Israel, or other Western countries. Thus, an Alawi man in Damascus, 44, who supports the regime said, “Those are infidels made up by the USA, and of Israeli origins. They aim at misrepresenting Islam before the Arab and the West. These people are crazy with murders. They are long beards, empty brains, and hearts of iron to kill unconsciously.”

Some opposition supporters wonder if ISIS might be working in cooperation with the regime.

They are no different than the oppressive regime. They used to only fight in the liberated areas and they didn’t even fight in Aleppo. ISIS and the regime are two sides of one coin. We pray that the regime is crushed along with ISIS as soon as possible.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 38, refugee, Turkey

They only fight the rebels. They play the biggest role in dividing the country. I think they have connections with the regime or America, and this alliance that was created to fight them is nothing but an obvious ploy.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 40, Deir al-Zor

Views of Jabhat al-Nusrah Mixed
But Negative Among Opposition

Jabhat-al-Nusrah aroused varying reactions among opponents to the regime, though on-balance these were hostile. It continued to receive praise for its contribution to the fight against the government, as last year.

I pray for them with all my heart; may God bless them and grant them strength to fight the regime. They are Jihadists with every sense of the word who do not accept injustice, and they will be granted victory, God willing.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 35, IDP, Homs

Jabhat Al-Nusrah is comprised of good people who have initiated incredible actions throughout the last year. They shook the bases of the regime when they targeted the headquarters of staff and the crisis cell, in which the criminals met their destiny. They are hardworking fighters who do not know weakness.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 29, refugee, Turkey

They were also compared favorably to ISIS by a few. “When ISIS was here, a long time ago, [Jabhat Al-Nusrah fighters] were in adjacent areas to Raqqah,” said an anti-regime Sunni man, age 40, in Raqqah. “They treated us in a manner nicer than ISIS and its injustice. They were easier on the people and helped them.”
But others accused Jabhat-al-Nusrah of barbarity and not representing Islam, and compared it to ISIS. Like ISIS, some saw it as under the control of foreigners. A few mentioned its connection to al-Qaeda.

All these groups, Jabhat al-Nusrah and ISIS, have nothing to do with Islam or anything else. They have goals from the outside. They are controlled and sent to us to achieve these outsider’s projects, nothing more.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 27, Aleppo

I can’t understand them anymore, they are once with ISIS and another against ISIS; they disfigured the name of Islam with their crimes. They are all related to Al-Qaeda.
— Christian man (anti-regime), 29, IDP, Homs

As with ISIS, some wonder if Jabhat-al-Nusrah cooperates with the regime. “They are no different from the oppressive regime. They are oppressive murderers who do not have a shred of humanity in their bodies. They are doing the exact same thing Bashar al-Assad is doing, and they are following in his footsteps,” said a Sunni man who is anti-regime, 30, and a refugee in Jordan.

Regime supporters uniformly rejected the group. “They are truly terrorists who say that they practice Islam,” said an Alawi woman, 55, in Damascus.

Low Awareness, Conflicting Views
on Jaish al-Mujahideen

Jaish-al-Mujahideen, an Islamist group largely drawn from the Aleppo area, was unknown to many of the respondents, even in the opposition. Views were mixed among those who knew it. Some saw it as a violent group using religion as a pretext; others saw it as non-extremist and an asset to the rebel cause.

I know nothing about those people, they are the Mujahideen Army at one point and ISIS at another. These are criminal people who are trying to differentiate between the Syrian people as they spread disorder. These people know nothing about fighting in the name of Islam or anything related to it.
— Christian man (anti-regime), 29, IDP, Homs

Jaish al-Mujahideen is diversified and distributed; it has a part that is Syrian, and a big part of many different nationalities. It is moderate and defends many of our areas.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 40, Raqqah

Regime supporters rejected Jaish-al-Mujahideen, as they did other opposition groups. “Mujahideen means people of Islam. These are crazy infidels, not mujahideen, because they are killing the nation and the Muslims of this nation. Religion doesn’t allow for a Muslim to kill another Muslim,” said an Alawi man, 44, in Damascus.

Islamic Front Poorly Known and Gets Mixed Reactions

Respondents also had limited knowledge of the Islamic Front. Among those who knew about the group, views were mixed, but more critical than of Jabhat Al-Nusrah or Jaish-al-Mujahideen, even among regime opponents.

Some comments marked confusion and lack of clarity about this group, which was easily mixed up with other Islamist formations. They referred to it as “one of several armies” or an “unreal army.” They are a group of Islamic parties united to fight al-Nusrah Front. Then, they started fighting Da’esh. Like I told you in the beginning, we have thousands of parties that we do not know the names of,” said a Sunni woman (anti-regime), 34, Deir al-Zor.

Some saw it as a legitimate part of the opposition, comprising Syrian patriots. However, others were wary of it, even as they acknowledged its contribution to the opposition.

The Islamic Front is part of the Syrian revolution and the Syrian opposition. They embrace moderate ideology and we appreciate such type of people and fighters.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 23, refugee, Turkey

An army of Mujahideen that was comprised from several fighting fronts. They aim to remove the injustice, attack, and terrorism on Syria. However, it does have some problems; it is a bit radical.
— Kurdish woman (anti-regime), 23, Al-Hasakah

Regime supporters saw the Islamic Front as an anti-Islamic, foreign army fighting for outsiders’ interests, rather than those of Syrians. Everything that misrepresents Islam is done by traitors and traders of religion. They are agents for the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia, the biggest accomplice in the destruction,” said an Alawi man from Damascus.

Views of PYD/YPG Mixed

Views of the Kurdish fighters and their affiliated political party were very mixed and depended primarily on ethnicity and political alignments. Not surprisingly, Kurds viewed them quite favorably.

It is an honest party that wants the Kurds to be independent in this world, and that is what the Turkish government is opposing.
— Kurdish man (pro-regime), 32, Al-Hasakah

Kurds are a part of the strong, firm Syrian people that will always defend Kurds and would never sell us to the Turkish government. They even protected us from them.
— Kurdish woman (pro-regime), 35, Al-Hasakah

As with the Kurds themselves, some pro-regime respondents regarded the Kurdish fighters as partners of the government in the fight against the rebels. Some opposition supporters expressed the same view, but with anger.

The Kurds are Syrians anyways. Simple people that live like us, and Syria protected them from the criminal Turks. And the YPG is theirs; they fight ISIS and others because they know the conspiracy is against them as well.
— Alawi woman (pro-regime), 29, Hamah

They are traitors who should be punished and tried for supporting the oppressive regime.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 26, Hamah

A few on both sides of the conflict also voiced concern about the risk of Kurdish separatism.

We are against the PYD demanding a Kurdish state, and we assure that Syria is for all the Syrians, and cannot be divided into two different parts.
— Sunni man, 32 (anti-regime), Aleppo

The Kurds are an integral part of the fighting Syrian people, but they haven’t set forward their goals and which side they are supporting yet.
— Christian woman (pro-regime), 23, IDP, Homs

European Fighters Get Polarized Reactions

We asked respondents their views on different groups of foreign fighters in Syria. Among those favoring the opposition, many saw foreign fighters from Europe as a part of the fight against the regime. However, some expressed concern over their extremism or fear they serve foreign interests.

Those are mujahideen alongside us. They are doing jihad with us against the regime and against everything that kills Islam.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 39, Raqqah

They are lost people running after life and desires, fighting Islam and Muslims everywhere. They came to spoil the land and spread corruption.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 27, Hamah

Not surprisingly, regime supporters interviewed rejected Europeans fighting in Syria.

These are the lords and the core of corruption and destruction whose consciences can be bought with money. They don’t want their own countries to be destroyed, so they come here and destroy ours. Christian woman (pro-regime), 23, IDP, Homs

Those people who are coming are terrorists and they come under the name of Islam, but Islam has got nothing to do with them.
— Alawi man (pro-regime), 24, Tartous

Hezbollah and Iranian Fighters
Welcomed by Regime Supporters

Regime supporters in our study unanimously supported the presence of Hezbollah fighters in Syria and saw them as welcome help against the rebels. The opposition was equally hostile, seeing them as killers and foreigners.

They are the people who have taken a stand of honor. We are proud of them in front of the whole world because they have proven to us that they are our brothers with all the sense of the word.
— Kurdish man (pro-regime), 32, Al-Hasakah

They are more criminal than the regime. They are destroying Syria and killing people. It is neither their country nor their people. Without them, the regime would have ended. They must be killed without trial. They helped the regime with their killings, and with the weapons.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 34, Deir al-Zor

Summary of Findings Regarding Views of Key Actors

Divisions between regime supporters and opponents are even starker in this year’s study than last year. Both sides have closed ranks; they are more supportive of the leaders and groups on their side and more hostile to those on the other. However, extremism is a common concern in both camps. While regime opponents and supporters agreed on little when it comes to the other major figures and groups shaping this war, they did agree that ISIS is a negative force whose emergence has worsened the conflict immeasurably. They also share similar concerns to varying degrees about other extremist groups involved in the struggle.

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