Escalating Tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces Might Further Destabilise the Region

The Syrian Democratic Forces
A picture of the Syrian Democratic Forces (Credits: Voice of America in Kurdish, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 38 Issue 14
Author: Silvia Boltuc

Tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have escalated following the killing of two Turkish soldiers and 17 mercenaries by SDF operations. The SDF has conducted a series of targeted military operations against Turkish military forces and mercenaries, resulting in casualties on both sides.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted at the possibility of a new ground incursion into northern Syria, showing a potential shift in Turkish military strategy. Ongoing airstrikes by Turkey in northern Iraq and northern Syria, coupled with Erdogan’s criticism of the United States and Russia, signals a complex geopolitical landscape.

Key Findings

  • SDF operations resulted in the killing of two Turkish soldiers and 17 mercenaries, prompting an aggressive response from Turkey.
  • Turkish President Erdogan hinted at a potential new ground incursion into northern Syria, challenging previous diplomatic efforts by the United States and Russia.
  • Large-scale airstrikes by Turkey in northern Iraq and northern Syria indicate an escalation in hostilities, with Erdogan expressing dissatisfaction with international commitments.

Background Information

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recently conducted multiple military operations against Turkish military forces and mercenaries. The operations, spanning various regions, targeted checkpoints, bases, and villages. Turkish soldiers and mercenaries reported casualties.

On January 16th, 2023, Turkish President Erdogan’s dissatisfaction with the situation in Iraq and Syria, coupled with the recent killing of nine Turkish soldiers, has prompted aggressive military actions, including a broaden military operations against groups affiliated with Kurdish militants in Iraq and Syria.

The President’s unwavering commitment to these military measures underscores a determined response to perceived threats and a commitment to tackling the PKK-linked entities in the region.

Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkey:
Geopolitical Analysis

The geopolitical dynamics in the region are complex, with Turkey’s ambitions in northern Syria facing opposition from the US-allied SDF. Erdogan’s veiled threats of a new ground incursion show a potential shift in Turkish strategy, challenging previous diplomatic efforts by major powers.

The ongoing airstrikes underscore Turkey’s determination to combat Kurdish militants and protect its interests. The situation is further complicated by Erdogan’s dissatisfaction with the United States and Russia, raising concerns about the broader regional impact.

Composed mostly of Kurdish elements and Arab fighters from different Syrian opposition groups, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) came together as a multi-ethnic military alliance in October 2015.

Their primary aim is to combat the Islamic State and other extremist factions in Syria, aspiring to establish a democratic, secular, and pluralistic system in the region. The SDF has actively participated in military operations against the Islamic State, reclaiming key areas like the strategic city of Manbij in 2016 and ongoing efforts to defeat terrorist foreign fighters in the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor.

Besides their military endeavours, the SDF has been actively involved in establishing a democratic and pluralistic political system in the areas under their control. This encompasses initiatives such as forming local councils, implementing legal and judicial reforms, and advocating for women’s rights and gender equality.

Despite receiving support from various international actors, notably the United States and the international coalition against the Islamic State, the SDF encounters challenges in acquiring broader recognition and Ankara’s vehement opposition.

This stems from the intricate political landscape in Syria and concerns from certain countries regarding the role of the Kurdish-led SDF in the region.

According to the SDF, in 2023, Turkey carried out 798 attacks on areas under SDF control, including 103 drone attacks and airstrikes. It is important to underline that Ankara does not distinguish between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and SDF, considering the latter to be an offshoot of the PKK.

Particularly, the US-backed SDF are largely made up of the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers to be the Syrian branch of the PKK.

There has been a shift in Turkish military strategy over recent years. Initially focused on targeted attacks against SDF leaders accused of being affiliated with the PKK, the operations have now expanded to encompass several territories in the Rojava region. Indeed, currently it is focusing on what Turkey considers being their source of funding, such as oil infrastructures. Along with oil fields and refineries, Ankara began striking power plants, weapons depots, military camps, and administrative and financial headquarters.

After this renewed pattern of behaviour by Ankara, the United States and Turkey experienced tension when, on October 5th, 2023, a US F-16 shot down a drone that had targeted areas near the Global Coalition military base in Tall Baydar. This wasn’t the initial instance of a Turkish strike on a US base exploited by the Global Coalition, as an incident had already occurred on November 22nd, 2022, in Syria’s Hasakah.

Read more | Geopolitics of Turkey’s military operation in Syria

Risk Assessment

The risk in the region has heightened due to escalating tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Potential military actions, including a new ground incursion by Turkey, pose a significant threat to stability.

Fighting off Turkish incursions would divert SDF resources from protecting a prison holding Islamic State’s fighters or fighting its sleeper cells still waging hit-and-run attacks in Syria.

The United States is planning to bolster its military presence in the Middle East by deploying 1500 soldiers to Syria and Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the international coalition’s effort against the Islamic State. This move has the potential to heighten tensions in the already strained relations between Ankara and Washington, which have been affected by recent events in Syria and disagreements over Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.

The likelihood of additional confrontations, rising casualties, and a more extensive regional conflict is significant, especially since Turkey requested both Russia and the United States to urge the SDF to withdraw from certain areas several years ago.

Despite efforts by Moscow and Washington over the past three years to dissuade and deter Turkey from launching a new ground operation in Syria, the Turkish President has expressed a firm commitment to proceed with such an operation, regardless of any opposition he might encounter. Therefore, international diplomatic efforts may face challenges in de-escalating the situation, particularly given Erdogan’s criticism of previous commitments by major powers.

Increasing destabilisation in Syria could pave the way for the resurgence of terrorist groups and trigger fresh waves of migration.

Scenarios Analysis

  1. De-escalation through diplomacy. International diplomatic efforts defuse tensions, leading to a decrease in hostilities. Both Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces engage in negotiations to address their grievances, reducing the likelihood of a new ground incursion.
  2. Escalation to Full-Scale Conflict. Tensions escalate to a full-scale conflict, involving not only Turkey and the SDF but potentially drawing on other regional actors. The situation becomes increasingly volatile, with potential consequences for broader regional stability.
  3. Limited Escalation with Proxy Involvement. The conflict remains localised but sees increased involvement of proxy actors, exacerbating the complexity of the situation. Regional powers may support either Turkey or the SDF, further complicating efforts to find a resolution.


The situation requires immediate attention and proactive diplomatic efforts to avoid making it worse. International stakeholders should engage in dialogue to address grievances on both sides and work towards a negotiated settlement.

The deteriorating security situation in the region poses a grave risk, potentially bolstering terrorist groups like the Islamic State.

Ankara’s persistent military efforts to defeat the SDF heighten the prospect of not only involving major international actors like the United States and Russia but also creating a perilous power vacuum that terrorist organisations could exploit.

Preventing further escalation is paramount in a region already grappling with prolonged destabilisation, and the added complexity of the situation between Israel and Palestine in the Gaza Strip further underscores the urgency for strategic measures.

The existing humanitarian catastrophe experienced by the local population following a devastating earthquake in the country would reach a new level in the event of a decline in security in the region.

Addressing and mitigating these multifaceted challenges is imperative to safeguard regional stability and curb the potential resurgence of terrorist entities.

For those with an interest in acquiring comprehensive insights into the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East, we encourage you to reach out to our team by sending an email to We are poised to facilitate an assessment of the opportunity for you to obtain a meticulously crafted and specialised report tailored to your intelligence needs.

Read more | Syria: Assessing the Threat of the Islamic State

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