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Who’s who in the fight against ISIL in northern Syria

A look at the major players fighting ISIL in Syria’s north and their strategic interests in the region

The fight to stop the rapid expansion of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has, in some cases, united forces that have been longtime foes — the Turkish government and Kurdish separatist groups, for example. 

Nevertheless, the biggest players have clear strategic self-interests that shape their efforts to defeat ISIL in northern Syria. Here are the major power centers:


ISIL is battling several groups on multiple military fronts as it looks to continue expanding a state that adheres to its interpretation of Islamic law. 

In Syria, ISIL worked with the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But since February 2014, the two groups have split and often fight each other over control of territory and resources. ISIL has become the strongest opposition group in Syria and Iraq, taking control of approximately one-third of both countries, prompting the United States and some of its allies in the region to engage in airstrikes against the group.

ISIL has established its capital in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa and launched offensives against the Kurds, most notably in Kobane, Syria. The group has also taken control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, from the Shia-led Iraqi government forces.


After an explosion on July 20 killed dozens of people at a Kurdish cultural center in the southern Turkish town of Suruc, Turkey officially joined the anti-ISIL fight. It launched airstrikes against ISIL and agreed to allow U.S. planes to launch airstrikes from a Turkish airbase. Turkey and the U.S. have also agreed to set up an "ISIL-free zone" in northern Syria, near Turkey's border.

Turkey, however, has also used the offensive as an opportunity to target Kurdish armed groups, which have been key players in the ground war against ISIL.

Ankara has long feared that the military gains of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) — the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is an offshoot of the separatist Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) — would fuel the PKK’s separatist ambitions in Turkey. The YPG has carved out a semi-autonomous region in Syria’s north and northeast.

In Kobane, a Syrian city bordering Turkey where the Kurds have been battling ISIL for months, Turkey's military has largely remained on the sidelines.


Bashar al-Assad's regime has struggled to maintain control of large portions of Syria since the civil war began four years ago. The number of soldiers in the Army has dropped significantly, due to casualties and desertions, and it is increasingly using loyalist militias to add fighting strength, including foreign Shia fighters from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In a recent television appearance, Assad admitted for the time publicly that his military cannot fight for all of Syria and will instead focus its efforts on more easily defensible lines in the west. That strategy, which would would pull back the Syrian army to a line extending roughly from Damascus to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast in northwest Syria, will likely leave the regime out of the equation in northern Syria, as Turkey and the U.S. carve out an "ISIL-free zone" in the region.


Who are the PKK?

The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an armed separatist group based in Turkey and northern Iraq, has battled ISIL since 2014 in parts of Syria and Iraq. The PKK helped thousands of Yazidis escape Sinjar after a major ISIL offensive against the ethnic minority and helped push back ISIL fighters in Kobane.

But the PKK's main ambition, which it has pursued for decades, is an autonomous Kurdistan in Turkey, and it may be using the fight against ISIL to better position itself against Turkey. Escalating conflict between the Kurdish armed group and Turkish forces over the past month has ended the already fragile peace talks between the two parties. President Recip Tayyip Erdogan said on July 28 that peace with the PKK is "not possible."



The People's Democratic Party (HDP), a Kurdish socialist opposition party in Turkey with 80 seats in parliament, has been instrumental in coordinating peace talks between the PKK and the Ankara government. However, HDP is often forced to "clarify its stance" towards the PKK, which the government deems a terrorist organization.

HDP's leader, Selahattin Demirtas, has expressed concerns over the Turkey-U.S. initiative to create a "ISIL-free safe zone" in northern Syria, believing Turkey's actions are "intended to stop the Kurds" from setting up an autonomous state in Syria.


As Syria plunged into civil war, the Kurdistan’s People’s Protection Unit (YPG), the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), used the opportunity to gain control over Kobane in 2012 and declare autonomy over the region in northeast Syria. Since September, however, YPG and their women’s unit, the YPJ, have been active in fending off an ISIL offensive against the city and its surroundings

Free Syrian Army

At the start of the Syrian civil war, the Free Syrian Army, made up mostly ofsoldiers and officers who had defected from the Syrian army, were the first armed group that emerged to challenge the regime. But infighting has weakened the FSA, which has also suffered a stream of defections to better-funded rivals.

Dubbed the "moderate" rebels by Washington, the Free Syrian Army is the Obama administration's favored faction in Syria in the fight against ISIL and the Assad regime. But a trickle of U.S. aid to the group has been inadequate to make a difference on the ground, and some analysts argue that pumping the rebels with arms will only prolong the country's war. 

The FSA may have the most to gain from Turkey's goal of creating an "ISIL-free zone" in northern Syria. Ankara, which is aligned with Washington in opposition to Assad, has long called for more aid to the FSA and argued that a the zone would provide a safe haven for training and arming FSA factions. Some of the group's fighters have already received training from the U.S., though it has been reported that fewer than 100 men were involved in those programs.

However, the FSA's main focus is battling the regime, not ISIL. In some cases, the group has worked alongside ISIL in battles against Assad's forces. In other cases where the FSA has successfully weakened Syria's army, ISIL has swooped in to control the territory and claim victory. 

Jaish al-Fatah

Jaish al-Fatah is a coalition of groups spearheaded by Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, and another powerful group called Ahrar al-Sham. The group has emerged in recent months as the most powerful of the non-ISIL rebel factions, wresting control of the provincial capital of Idlib from Assad regime forces earlier this year and making a move on the pivotal northwestern town of Jisr al-Shaghour.

Its rise poses another dilemma for U.S. policy in Syria, because efforts to dislodge ISIL could inadvertently benefit its chief rival, Al-Qaeda. Although the Nusra Front has vowed not to impose its interpretation of Islamic law on the country, nor carry out reprisals against minority groups like Assad's Alawites, its ideology is similar to that of ISIL's.

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