BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian civil war, and the intense new ground battle in the divided city of Aleppo, is often seen as a contest between a chaotic array of rebel groups and the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the reality is that Mr. Assad’s side is increasingly just as fragmented as its opponents, a panoply of forces aligned partly along sectarian lines but with often-competing approaches and interests.
There are Iraqi Shiite militiamen cheering for clerics who liken the enemy to foes from seventh-century battles. There are Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting on behalf of a Shiite theocracy. There are Afghan refugees hoping to gain citizenship in Iran, and Hezbollah militants whose leaders have long vowed to fight “wherever needed.”
The Syrians themselves are in a few elite units from an army steeped in a nominally socialist, Arab nationalist ideology, exhausted after five years of war, as well as pro-government militias that pay better salaries. And, yes, overhead there are the Russian pilots who have relentlessly bombed the rebel-held eastern side of Aleppo — trained to see the battle as supporting a secular government against Islamist extremist terrorists.
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