What’s wrong with this conflict map of Syria?


Two days ago, PBS’ FRONTLINE released a map [above] that purports to show which groups dominate regions in the Syrian civil war. FRONTLINE said the map was “assembled from data shared with FRONTLINE by researchers who have consulted extensively with Syria’s armed groups” and that it “shows the best available information about the main actors’ areas of control as of early February 2014.”

The groups are identified as: “government,” “opposition,” “ISIS” (Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham), and “Kurds.”

So what is wrong with this map?

The answer is simple: FRONTLINE makes zero effort to document areas controlled by the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, which is an official al Qaeda branch in Syria. The Al Nusrah Front’s emir, Muhammad al Julani, reaffirmed his allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri in April 2013, and has followed al Qaeda’s guidance throughout. But for the makers of FRONTLINE’s map, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria is considered to be merely part of the “opposition.”

Additionally, the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist brigades that are allied with the Al Nusrah Front and constitutes the largest rebel force in the civil war, is also lumped into the FRONTLINE map’s “opposition.” Keep in mind that Abu Khalid al Suri (a.k.a. Mohamed Bahaiah), who is a senior leader of Ahrar al Sham, one of six brigades in the Islamic Front, currently serves as Zawahiri’s representative in Syria. Al Suri has also served as Osama bin Laden’s courier, and is accused by the Spanish government of passing surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center and other American landmarks to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan in early 1998. [See LWJ reports, Syrian rebel leader was bin Laden’s courier, now Zawahiri’s representative, and Statement from Zawahiri’s representative shows Syrian rebel group tied to al Qaeda.]

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.

Tags: , , , ,


  • Tony says:

    Well technically they’re opposed to Assad, so it’s true. I don’t think anyone believes they are working to liberate the Syrian people in any meaningful way, but then, neither is anyone else.

  • Tristan says:

    I wouldn’t bee too hard on them considering the quality of every other map on the Syria conflict. Also, if you break it down into current belligerents, Al Nusrah fits more under the “opposition” category along with the 5,000 other actors that they mention.
    That being said, as a concerned American citizen I want to know where Al Nusrah is and hope someone makes a map of that. But in the context of the Fronline program which was about the armed opposition groups VS ISIS I feel like it makes sense.

  • Jonathan Ullrich says:

    I (as often) fully agree with that article, now we could ask ourselves about WHY Al-Nosrah and other extrem salfists from Jabha Al-Islamiyya are not pictured in these kind of maps : as well as the lack of knowledge of its map makers, there is a big lobby to picture the islamists as an acceptable force for western governements, thus calling them “rebels”, “free syria army”, or whatsoever, for exemple from pro-bombing or people lobbying to arm these guys (who said about like 30 years ago in Afghanistan ?), for exemple McCain. Byt we all know that nowadays Salafists/AlQaeda are leading the fight (jihad ?) agaisnt the Syrian regime, and that FSA is almost nonexistent, apart on Facebook and on other medias of course, but no more as a military force…
    And of course, lobbyists can’t say that these weapons will finally end up in the hands of alQaeda…

  • Doug says:

    I wondered about that map during the broadcast. That said, the three Frontline programs on Syria and the program with the Arab reporter embedded with AQAP in Yemen were excellent reports. No one else has the balls to embed this deeply with such risk to their journalists.
    As we conflict observes know, the Syria civil war is as complex of a conflict can get. facts totally lost on the average joe/jane. At least PBS is trying to explain these complexities to the American public. After the debacle in Iraq our fellow countrymen have become understandably gun shy. Drones and the NSA have become four letter words. Hopefully honest reporting like Frontline will help to educate and create a political culture willing to grow some balls and reengage in the GWOT.

  • Michael says:

    It’s PBS. Shoddy work is par for the course.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram