(CNN) — Big questions loom over the debate on whether the United States should strike Syria: Who are the Syrian rebels? Should the United States and other countries help them?
The first thing to know is that the rebels aren’t all playing on the same team. They’re arrayed against the Syrian government in a constellation of groups and factions, each with its own agenda. Some are in league with al Qaeda.
Secondly, the opposition has morphed in the last few years. It started with ordinary Syrians angry at police for arresting children who painted anti-government graffiti. Now it attracts fighters from outside Syria.
What else should you know about the rebels in Syria? A lot.
Here are 20 points to get you up to speed, based on CNN’s reporting since the Syrian crisis began in 2011.
1. The opposition didn’t start out as a military movement.
Syrian security forces opened fire at one demonstration, killing at least four protesters — the first casualties, activists say, in Syria’s civil war.
2. But it wasn’t long before things grew more violent.
As anti-government protests spread across Syria that year, calls for reforms quickly escalated into calls for the removal of the entire al-Assad regime.
In July 2011, seven Syrian military officers appeared in a YouTube video announcing their defection, calling themselves the « Free Syrian Army » and promising to wage guerrilla war against al-Assad.
3. Some rebel groups are closely allied with al Qaeda.
Syria’s al Qaeda wing is known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and it’s been gaining a greater foothold.
And analysts say al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, is generally the most effective force fighting al-Assad. The group’s name means « Victory Front. » It was listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in December.
4. That’s one reason why many in the West have expressed qualms about helping them.