PS21 Insight: US-Turkey plan to fight ISIS has serious flaws

The crowded Gran bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey (Photo: Moyan Brenn)
The crowded Gran bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey (Photo: Moyan Brenn)

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  • Plan serves US and Turkish national interests at the expense of Syrians
  • Without a common goal, will be impossible for the two countries to work together effectively
  • Turkey’s focus is on fighting the PKK, not ISIS
  • US criticized for going easy on Asad

Last week, Turkey and the US agreed on a plan to train and strengthen Syrian opposition forces fighting the Islamic State. The plan envisions American, Syrian and Turkish forces working together to drive IS forces away from the Syrian-Turkish border and create an “IS-free” zone in northern Syria.

Below are some early conclusions from members and contributors of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). If you wish to contact any of them directly, please email Please credit PS21 if you quote from this report.


Hayat Alvi: Professor of Middle East studies, US Naval War College, and PS21 global fellow.

Rasha Elass: journalist formerly based in Syria and PS21 global fellow.

Milena Rodban: independent geopolitical risk consultant and PS21 global fellow.

Ostensibly, the deal will enable Syrian forces to fight ISIS. But there are doubts as to how effective it will actually be.  

Rodban: The US-Turkey plans to train Syrians first came into play in February, but the plans were repeatedly delayed, until earlier this summer, when the joint program started training fighters in earnest. Recently, it became clear that the program has had an extremely limited success rate, due to high vetting standards. It has yielded only about 60 fighters, some of whom were promptly taken hostage by IS-affiliated groups.

Alvi: The U.S. is in a pathetic state of affairs with regard to the training of the Syrian opposition, reaching only 60 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters so far… [who are] all in a unit called Division 30…  And, out of that 60, about 8 of them got captured by the Nusra Front (Al Qaeda in Syria), and… were paraded in front of a camera in a Nusra video.  This is a lot of egg on the U.S. face.  Plus, there are countless reports of U.S. airstrikes in Syria resulting in civilian deaths.  Not a good thing for the US…

In recent days, 20+ U.S.-trained FSA fighters – also in Division 30 — have been kidnapped.  One additional US-trained FSA fighter has been killed in fighting in Syria.  These facts are deterring others from joining the US training program.

Civilian deaths resulting from US airstrikes in Syria and Iraq number 450+.

Some have also said that the plan is more about serving American and Turkish interests than fighting ISIS, arguing that it gives Turkey an excuse to re-ignite its war against the PKK and the US to enmesh itself further in the Syrian civil war.

Elass: It’s shortsighted because it lacks a common goal, let alone a long range one. Sure, Turkey and the US agree that the target for this move is Islamic State. But how will this manifest on the ground when Turkey finds that the Kurds, who are a major U.S. ally, are a threat to Turkish sovereignty?

The US and Turkey also disagree on priorities, with the US focused primarily on fighting Islamic State while Turkey continues to reiterate its stance that president Bashar al Assad must go? With the US and Turkey at such odds, how long can their partnership continue before running into a major glitch?

Alvi: The U.S.-Turkey plan to fight ISIS encompasses each country’s respective national interests, which is to be expected.  That’s what states do, they discern and strategize national interests.

For the U.S., the primary focus is to go after ISIS, mainly because of the terror group’s killings of westerners.  The Syrian opposition has criticized this narrow focus, because it does nothing to go after Asad and the Asad regime, and that’s even after Pres. Obama has said that “Asad has to go.”

For Turkey, the primary focus is to ensure that the Kurdish militants — inside ISIS as well as in the PKK — do not attack Turkey.  That red line was broken when the PKK killed 2 Turkish police officers last week.

The fact that Turkey convened a special meeting with NATO indicates that Turkey wants its safety net:  if things get way too out of hand with the Syrian war spillover into Turkey, then it has the option of invoking Article 5 collective defense of NATO members.  That gives Turkey a sense of some security.

Also, the fact that Northern Iraq’s Kurdistan regional government called on the PKK to stop its attacks against Turkey is also an indication that the PKK is indeed provoking trouble in the region.  Turkey has already carried out airstrikes against PKK camps in Northern Iraq.  This is not something Iraq wants, and it recognizes the dangers of PKK provocation.

Rodban: The primary problem with the US-Turkey plan… is that the countries have very different endgames. The US wants to support the Kurds, whom Turkey sees as enemies (given their history with the PKK, etc.). Turkey continues to bomb more Kurd/PKK camps than IS targets in its ongoing campaign against IS. The countries have had strikingly different attitudes towards IS, with Turkey only now really taking the fight against the group more seriously, following attacks on Turkey’s territory, but appearing more committed to using the campaign to strike the PKK, which undermines US desires to hit more IS targets…

Many remain wary of Turkey’s commitment to beating IS- they don’t believe Turkey will do all that’s necessary to defeat the group. PKK leader Cemil Bayik told the BBC that Turkish President Erdogan is protecting IS because he wants IS to keep fighting the PKK, and stalling or rolling back Kurdish gains (which Turkey sees as a threat). This is not just a PKK view. There is enough evidence to suggest Turkey sees the Kurds as their primary enemy, with IS a distant second. While IS remains active, it keeps the attention of the Kurds firmly focused on fighting the terror group, and not the Turkish government, which had been the PKK’s primary target.

(Note: the “Kurds” should not be seen as a united or cohesive entity- the Syrian/Iraqi/Turkish Kurdish groups are distinct, with different capabilities, goals, etc., and some in the PKK are resistant to turning all of their attention away from fighting the Turkish government. Hence recent shootouts with Turkish police/military targets.)

…Allowing the US to launch drones and warplanes from Turkish bases… will make US strikes more effective since the proximity of Turkish bases, particularly Incirlik, in the SW of Turkey, since it’s only an hour away from IS targets in Syria, which will allow the drones and planes to spend more time hitting targets and less time traveling. While US airstrikes may successfully destroy more IS targets, Turkey is likely to continue focusing on striking PKK targets, making it less likely that this campaign will be as comprehensive and integrated as intended. 

With clashing interests, it certainly seems that it will be difficult for the US and Turkey to work together as outlined by the plan. The so-called “IS-free zone” is also a point of contention.

Rodban: Discussion of a proposed “safe zone” in northern Syria, bordering southern Turkey, seems to also have different purposes, depending on whether you’re talking to Turkish or American leaders. Turkey thinks the safe zone will allow refugees living in Turkey to start going home. The Americans dispute that this is the main goal. With disagreements over such major issues, it seems the battle plan is far from comprehensive and certainly not cohesive.

Elass: Although no one is calling it a no-fly zone, in effect that is what it is. By default, Syrian warplanes do not intercept the same air space that the US-led coalition has been using to bombard IS. Now that a stretch of land has been designated by Turkey and the US as a safe zone for Syrians fleeing IS, it is highly unlikely that Syrian warplanes would breach this space. Assad sees himself as a partner in the fight on terrorism, and would therefore not want to be seen as interfering with these efforts. Iran, which arguably has greater say these days than Assad does in Syria’s military operations, is also now unlikely to throw a wrench in the US-Turkey plan.

A no-fly zone has long been called for by Syrian opposition and many humanitarian aid providers. Now that there is a de facto no-fly zone, it might make sense to create more of them in other parts of Syria.

While the US and Turkey have competing interests, it will be difficult for them to trust each other in the war against the Islamic State.

Rodban: While Turkey’s attention is split between the PKK and IS, the campaign is likely to have limited success. In Turkey, public opinion supports the campaign against IS, and less support for focusing too much on the PKK, especially following the deadly IS attacks on Turkish soil. Yet there is still opposition to Turkish boots on the ground in Syria. The US will need to either find a way to refocus Turkey on the fight against IS, which is unlikely unless IS strikes deep in the heart of Turkey and throws popular support overwhelmingly behind a campaign against the brutal group, or realize that the US does not really have an equal partner in this fight.  

Alvi: As long as the U.S. stays narrowly focused on attacking ISIS and Nusra Front in Syria, and does nothing substantive about bringing Asad and the Asad regime to justice, public opinion in the region will not view U.S. intentions and actions as serious and sincere with regard to preventing / ending genocide.  Turkey, which is the United States’ partner in the fight against ISIS and other elements in Syria, also shares that opinion of the U.S.  That alone speaks volumes.

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