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No Friends but the Mountains: A Look at the SDF's Current Geopolitical Situation

16 August 2023


Introduction & Overview

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is a Kurdish-led, ethnically mixed coalition known for its successful war against the Islamic State, as well as its political project which focuses on local governance, cultural autonomy, and women’s rights. Currently, the SDF is responsible for protecting a significant geographical area of Syria, home to nearly three million people. The SDF and the political body it represents – the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) – have earned many admirers, yet its future is precarious. The SDF and AANES lack political recognition both in Syria and abroad, not even having a seat in the Syrian Constitutional Committee established by UN peace talks. Furthermore, it is surrounded by enemies and lacks effective allies which are wholly committed to aiding it in the long term. This analysis will examine those threats first before discussing the potential avenues for support necessary for the survival of the SDF.

Türkiye as a Threat to the SDF

The most prominent threat to the SDF is Turkey (now also recognised as Türkiye), which borders its territory to the north. Turkey considers the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and E.U., which they have been fighting since 1984. Many members of the Kurdish YPG and YPJ (the dominant components of the SDF) have previously served with the PKK and the AANES shares its ideology. Turkey has launched several ground incursions against the SDF, including in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Recep Tayipp Erdogan’s recent electoral victory over a more isolationist opposition spells more trouble for the SDF. While the opposition campaigned on winding down the Syria campaign, Erdogan spent the year leading up to the election threatening a renewed offensive and escalating air attacks.

Due to tacit opposition by Russia and the United States, as well as a lack of political capital for Ankara, there will likely not be another ground attack in the immediate future. In lieu of such an advance, Turkey has found other methods to destabilize the AANES. Over the last year, an increasing number of drone strikes has killed experienced and famous SDF soldiers and AANES politicians. (1) Among other things, it has also used water as a weapon, restricting the flow of the Euphrates River and causing grief for northeastern Syria’s many farmers. (2) By slowly eliminating key administration figures and straining its resources, Turkey hopes to render the AANES weak in the eyes of the population it rules and put the SDF behind the eight-ball if another full-fledged attack does occur. Turkey’s attempt to drain the SDF of expertise and resources could also help fuel another threat – ISIS.

The Dormant Danger of the Islamic State

Though they were territorially defeated in 2019, the Islamic State still poses a threat via a low-level insurgency and the large prisoner population the SDF is responsible for. There are around 10,000 ISIS prisoners in northeastern Syria, including 2000 non-Iraqi and non-Syrian members. Negligence on behalf of the international country means few foreign fighters have been repatriated. The AANES recently announced it would proceed with trials despite a lack of international support. (3)

Demonstrating the threat posed by the captured militants, a 2022 prison uprising caused the death of at least 120 SDF fighters. (4) The threat persists, with Islamic State patrols roaming freely in Deir Ez-Zor as recently as June 2023 (seen below). While the IS threat might have been a useful bargaining chip in the past, western governments seem to want to put the intervention in Syria behind them, especially with the war between Russia and Ukraine raging. The more Turkey takes the SDF’s attention away from containing ISIS, the more the group could jeopardize AANES’ project. Particularly, the SDF’s special forces, the anti-terror units (YAT) have been successful in breaking ISIS cells. (5) Taking them away from that fight would be catastrophic for the anti-ISIS mission. 

Assad & His Allies

Some opposition activists have accused the SDF of allying with Ba’athist forces. While there have been some instances of cooperation between the two, there has also been strife and Damascus’s relationship with the AANES can best be described as predatory. During the 2019 Turkish offensive, SAA troops moved into AANES territory to discourage further aggression, however such moves erode the SDF’s territorial integrity. Politically, Assad has been uncompromising in negotiations; though they agree on protecting Syria’s territorial integrity, AANES’ demands for cultural and political autonomy have been shot down by Damascus. Assad will likely do anything in his power to close the walls around the SDF until they are either destroyed or forced to submit to him completely. The Syrian President’s allies aren’t much friendlier.

Russia has had decent relationships with the SDF and AANES, providing some military support and allowing them to open political offices in their own country. (7) Still, Russia’s main goal is to tip things in the balance of its ally Assad. Russia has used the SDF as a quid pro quo with Turkey, greenlighting attacks against the AANES in exchange for launching offensives against opposition-controlled areas. They have additionally pressured the SDF into merging with Syrian government forces. (8) Any hopes they might relent must take into account Russia’s war in Ukraine, where it is important for Moscow to maintain decent relations with Ankara because of its relatively neutral stance. Further complicating things, Ukrainians reportedly considered launching attacks against Russian targets in Syria from SDF territory, which would not do much to endear the AANES to Russia. (9)

Iran is outwardly antagonistic, attacking American forces based in northeastern Syria and fomenting dissent among Arab tribes in the region against the SDF. (10) Iran has internal reasons for wishing the AANES to fail as it too has a Kurdish population that it keeps subjugated. PJAK, a PKK aligned group, is one of many Kurdish armed actors fighting the Iranian regime. The SDF could potentially use an anti-Iran stance as a lure to more support from Washington and the west, but in the past general commander Mazloum Abdi has stated he has no interest in his forces being used in a proxy conflict with Tehran.

Now that the threats to the SDF’s survival have been discussed, it is important to examine what other armed or political actors could help it counter these threats.

Other Kurdish Parties

The SDF finds itself in the middle of a tense Kurdish political chess match, one where its primary allies are limited in their abilities to provide them aid. The PKK is the SDF’s biggest natural ally considering the overlap between many YPG and YPJ figures with the group but is constrained by Turkey’s military successes. Their only option for distracting Turkey is an elevated urban terror campaign, which comes with the risk of a harsher response from Ankara and alienating other potential supporters. (11) Iraqi Kurdish parties have their own role to play.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq is ruled by two parties: the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Kurdish Unity Party (PUK). The KDP has strong ties to Turkey with even its Syrian branch being supportive of Ankara’s actions against the SDF. KDP Peshmerga has gone as far as to close the border on the AANES’ territory, straining the isolated polity’s trading ability. (12) On the other hand, the PUK favors closer ties with the YPG, even training the SDF’s special anti-terror units. A PUK helicopter crash that resulted in the deaths of seven YAT members drew headlines, revealing the extent of the PUK’s cooperation with the SDF. (13) The PUK could continue to aid the SDF militarily but will likely be constrained by the presence of the KDP and Turkish meddling in the KRG.

The Role of the United States

America is perhaps the least reliable ally the SDF could ask for. While strong bonds have been formed between U.S. advisors and SDF forces in the ongoing operation against the Islamic State, most in the AANES have no false hope about American forces staying. Should the 2024 US Presidential election result in Donald Trump (who attempted a pull-out in 2019 before public opinion turned against him, returning to the White House) an American withdrawal could be expedited. Even if Biden won re-election, he has not moved towards recognizing the AANES in any way, probably due to the SDF’s PKK links.  Despite the lack of a long-term strategy for when and how the U.S. exits, roughly 900 American service members continue to operate in Syria. (14)

For the leverage it does not have militarily due to its lack of long-term goals, the U.S. does less to bargain for the SDF and AANES politically. While Americans will sometimes do joint-patrols with the SDF following Turkish drone attacks, their government’s statements tend to fall short of naming the perpetrator. One instance simply condemned “escalating actions” while refusing to directly condemn Turkey. Like Russia, the U.S. sees placating Turkey as vital, especially with Ankara being such a key player in NATO. (15) Despite recent tension between Turkey and Washington, particularly over Ankara’s expansionist goals in the region, there is no indication the U.S. tends on fully turning its back on Turkey. Should that change, it could provide another lifeline to the SDF.

While asking America to stay forever in Syria would be unreasonable, it is obvious the U.S. is not doing enough to advocate for its partner force. What about countries in Europe or even Arab powers?

The European & Arab Powers

Germany and France helped train the SDF during the war against ISIS. (16) However most European countries are largely hesitant to provide any political or military support due to its links to the PKK. (17) Sweden’s accession into NATO has been dependent on them swearing off support for the SDF and establishing a joint task force to “address terrorism” with Turkey, demonstrating again how much leverage Turkey has. Notwithstanding a recent Koran burning in Sweden which has provoked anger in much of the Muslim world, Erdogan remains unchanged, restating “it would be in Sweden's favor if they take concrete steps on the fight against terrorist organizations and on the extradition of terrorists." (18)

Arab countries such as the UAE have provided support to the SDF in the past. (19) Mazloum Abdi has previously asked the UAE to broker talks between the Autonomous Administration and Damascus. But given the Arab League’s recent rehabilitation of Assad, they might not provide the help AANES officials are looking for.


Guarantor states supplying anti-air weapons to the SDF is likely out of the question, particularly when U.S. made warplanes used by the Turkish Air Force (TAF) would be on the other end. What the AANES’ backers can do to deter Turkish air attacks is raise the stakes for Ankara by patrolling more frequently with SDF fighters in order to dissuade drone strikes. Diplomatic leverage could be used as well by recognizing the AANES’ governance or by delisting the PKK from the list of foreign terror organizations, either of which could make negotiating more lucrative. Meanwhile, the continued delivery of weapons and training between the U.S. and SDF should continue, both for the anti-ISIS mission and to aid in combating any future Turkish/SNA offensive. Finally, socio-economic aid is critical to help stem the hits to the crop supply from Turkish damming of the Euphrates. If they are not going to repatriate their ISIS fighters, foreign states might consider giving the SDF the funding to build secure prisons to house all the militants following trials. It would make northeast Syria more secure while freeing up resources for the Autonomous Administration to use elsewhere.

The SDF’s future is unknown. Turkey and Assad would prefer to see the project wiped off the map, while ISIS remains a constant threat. International actors either lack the capital or the will to aid the SDF in forcing Assad to broker a deal or protecting it from Turkish military aggression. It must do whatever it can to leverage the threat of ISIS, Iran-US tensions, and regional and global power competition to change its circumstances. If that fails, it will not stop many of their fighters from continuing the armed struggle under the PKK, YPG or YPJ, as they have created something they believe is worth fighting for.  

Works Cited (Chicago)

(1) - Kurds in Switzerland protest Turkish aggression in Northern Syria. Medya News. (2023, June 22).

(2) - Ligios, G. (2023, February 28). Turkey is running northern Syria dry. New Internationalist.

(3) - Broomfield, M. (2023, June 30). Justice after Isis: Statistics show need for new approach. Kurdish Peace Institute.

(4) - Loveluck, L., & Cahlan, S. (2022, February 3). Prison break: Isis Fighters launched a brazen attack to free their comrades. The Washington Post.

(5) - Ahmad, J. (2023, May 5). SDF captures Isis cell operator in Deir ez-Zor . North press agency. 

(6) - Christou ـ, W. (2023, June 12). Can the SDF strike a deal with a newly emboldened Assad?. The New Arab.

(7) - Russian policy towards the Syrian Kurds*. ERI. (2017, August).

(8) - Sheikho, K. (2022, June 18). Russia presses SDF to merge with Syrian regime forces. Awsat.

(9) - Hill, E. (2023, April 21). Ukraine planned attacks on Russian forces in Syria, leaked document shows. The Washington Post.

(10) - Alhamad, A., & Dukhan, H. (2021, April 6). Iran’s growing network of influence among Eastern Syrian tribes. The Washington Institute.

(11) - Zaman, A. (2023, June 14). Did Kurdish PKK call off truce with Turkey to make peace or war?. Al Monitor.

(12) - KDP forces close Rojava Sêmalka border crossing with metal blocks. Medya News. (2021, December 16).

(13) - Chelak, C. (2023, March 19). Crashed Duhok helicopter was purchased by PUK group: PM Barzani.

(14) - Aftandilian, G. (2023, February 24). Syrian Kurds are hoping for, but not banking on, continued US partnership. Arab Center Washington DC.

(15) - Seligman, L. (2022, November 23). Commander of Syrian Kurds calls on Biden to prevent Turkish invasion. POLITICO.

(16) - Amar. (2016, June 15). New details in the German, American and French forces support for the Syria Democratic Forces in the northeastern countryside of aleppo • the syrian observatory for human rights. The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights.

(17) - Wilgenburg, W. van. (2020, November 11). Syrian Democratic Forces (Syria). ECFR.

(18) - Reuters. (2023, July 21). Turkey urges Sweden to act over terrorism for NATO membership support. The Jerusalem Post | 

(19) - Cher-Leparrain, M. (2017, February 22). The UAE has it in for the muslim brotherhood. The New Arab.

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