Syrian Democratic Forces (Syria)

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is the key powerbroker in north-eastern Syria. Operating through the local Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES), the Kurdish-dominated SDF has established itself as the West’s main partner in the fight against the Islamic State group (ISIS). The SDF hopes to receive international recognition for its autonomous project. But, even as the group has secured its position on the ground, its ties to the wider world have remained uncertain due to its alleged relationship with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which the European Union lists as a terrorist organisation – and Turkey’s hostility to Kurdish self-governance. The SDF has also largely been abandoned by the United States under the Trump administration. As such, the SDF’s vulnerability has forced it to reach out to Damascus.

The SDF’s structure and approach to governance

Created in October 2015 with US support, the SDF is a multi-ethnic coalition of Kurdish, Arabic, and Christian fighters. But it is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), established three years earlier. The YPG was formed by PKK veterans including SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi, who returned to Syria after the start of the civil war. Ultimately, the SDF hopes to gain international recognition for its autonomous region similar to that of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. However, the Syrian opposition and Damascus have – like Ankara – rejected any form of autonomy for the SDF due to its nationalist nature.

The YPG follows the ‘democratic nationphilosophy of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, a decentralised ‘radical democracy’ based on local councils, gender equality, and ethnic and religious pluralism. Accordingly, the YPG does not aim to create a Kurdish nation-state in Syria. This is logical, given that Kurdish enclaves in the country are disconnected from one another, and that SDF-held areas are home to Arab majorities. While, in 2012, YPG supporters referred to a ‘Rojava Revolution’ (a reference to the idea of western Kurdistan), they dropped the term in 2016 out of respect for Arab concerns in Raqqa, Deir ez-Zour, and other areas. These concerns have also prompted the SDF to make concessions such as refraining from the implementation of gender equality laws, conscription, or a secular education system in Arab-majority areas.

This approach makes the Syrian model very different from the nationalistic one of the Iraqi Kurds. Moreover, the PKK heavily criticised the SDF for making oil deals with the US, engaging in US-sponsored Kurdish unity talks, and attempting to join the UN-led political talks on Syria – all steps that are indicative of the YPG’s pragmatic leadership under Mazloum. However, despite the SDF’s multi-ethnic model and establishment of local Arab-majority councils, there are persistent complaints about power imbalances between Arabs and Kurds in SDF-controlled areas, as well as the presence of cadres from the YPG’s political wing in administrative bodies. Meanwhile, the UN Commission on Syria has said that some members of the SDF may be guilty of the cruel treatment of detainees – alleged war crimes that the group has promised to investigate.

By and large, the SDF has maintained security across the region it controls, even if the situation in Deir ez-Zour remains volatile, with ISIS networks still active there. Yet, since Turkey’s October 2019 incursion into north-eastern Syria, the SDF’s situation has changed significantly. Russian and Syrian regime troops have also entered SDF-held territory, while the US reduced its presence there (with some American forces relocating to Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor, supposedly to protect oil infrastructure). The SDF has lost significant territory, pulling back from Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain but retaining control of Manbij, Raqqa, the countryside surrounding Deir ez-Zour, the Kobane region, and large parts of Hasakah province. The group also controls Syria’s main energy-rich regions, in Hasakah and Deir ez-Zour.

Despite losing territory and being forced to make a deal with the Syrian regime to stop the Turkish advance, the AANES continues to operate effectively across much of north-eastern Syria. The feared handover of authority to the Syrian regime did not happen, as the deal between it and the SDF remains limited to a presence of regime troops at contact points with Turkish forces. Indeed, the AANES is more successful than Damascus in terms of the provision of services, and the fact that it pays higher salaries than the regime to more than 250,000 employees. In 2019 the AANES had a total budget of more than $115m (generated mostly from oil sales to locals, the regime, Turkey, and the Iraqi Kurds). So long as the US keeps Russia and the regime out of energy-rich areas, the AANES will be able to sustain itself. Moreover, the local population continues to largely support or cooperate with the SDF – despite Turkish and regime pressure on the group – due to a lack of better alternatives, fears that the regime will return, and the SDF’s ability to pay salaries.

Shared interests and an uncertain future

The SDF’s relations with Western countries are based on the US-led and European-supported military campaign against ISIS, which began in September 2014, during the battle of Kobane. Since then, the US has provided military and financial support to the SDF, while French and UK special forces have backed the group’s operations on the ground. Since the fall of the last ISIS enclave in Baghouz in March 2019, the US has continued supporting SDF counter-terrorism operations in Deir ez-Zour and Hassakah.

As part of this battle, the SDF has detained thousands of foreign ISIS fighters and their families, including those from European countries. With EU countries reluctant to repatriate ISIS fighters, the SDF has proposed the establishment of an international court in Syria, a development that it hopes will bring it greater international recognition. But this proposal has not gathered pace, partly due to EU concerns about the legality of supporting a non-state actor. Moreover, the US opposes such a court, as it wants EU countries to repatriate their citizens.

Despite having shared interests with Europe in the fight against ISIS, the SDF has not secured formal European recognition of its role in the region it controls. While several EU member states recognise the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition, the SDF’s political arm is excluded from UN-led political talks in Geneva due to Turkish hostility to the group. Moreover, the United Nations recognises Damascus’s sovereignty and limits aid to the north-east at its request. And Russia has closed the vital Yarubiyah border crossing, leaving the area reliant on unofficial cross-border aid.

The SDF lives in fear of a new Turkish attack, due to Ankara’s insistence that it will not accept the group’s autonomy. It is possible that Russia will approve a Turkish move to force the SDF to surrender to Damascus. This could lead to the withdrawal of the remaining US forces in Syria. This has pushed the SDF to engage in hitherto fruitless talks with Damascus about gaining some form of recognition of its autonomous status.

The ambiguity of US policy also poses significant difficulties for the SDF. “[The regime is] waiting for something to happen”, according to one source in the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s political wing. “We don’t know what kind of deal they have with Russia and Turkey.” This uncertainty has forced the SDF to tread a careful line between the US, which remains its key external sponsor, and Russia – as seen in the group’s recent decision to send a delegation to Moscow.

European outreach

The SDF has a core interest in developing bilateral ties with EU governments, as a way to secure further external protection. France is one of the few European countries to have high-level political contact with the SDF. President Emmanuel Macron hosted a senior SDF official at the Elysée Palace in October 2019, in a show of solidarity. Paris also sought to help mediate negotiations between the YPG’s political wing and its rival, the Kurdish National Council, which is currently excluded from the SDF. (After these efforts failed, the US launched another Kurdish unity initiative – which is ongoing.) A Swedish delegation recently visited the north-east for several days – a trip that was unusually long for one by Europeans.

While many EU countries talk to the SDF administration, they refrain from giving it direct material or political support. These states are unwilling to provide non-lethal assistance to the SDF because of the group’s alleged links to the PKK, its status as a non-state actor, and its alleged human rights violations. Many prefer to channel humanitarian support to foreign NGOs or UN organisations without directly supporting the local SDF administration.

Turkish pressure has also helped make many European governments unwilling to fully engage with the SDF. Amjad Othman, a spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Council, noted that relations with EU countries are relatively weak due to their desire for “good relations with Turkey”. European leaders fear a more severe breakdown in their relationship with Ankara, particularly because this could result in a rise in the number of Syrian refugees journeying from Turkey to Europe. While the EU and most of its member states opposed Turkey’s military intervention in Syria and placed an arms embargo on the country for the move, they refrained from tougher sanctions and have not pushed to include the SDF in Syria’s political talks. Some European leaders believe that, ultimately, the SDF will need to reach an agreement with Damascus. But, given European states’ opposition to the Assad regime, they have been unwilling to help the group do so.

This means that the SDF will continue to face significant uncertainty, likely giving its opponents (be it Damascus or ISIS) an opportunity to make inroads into the areas it controls. To address the SDF’s vulnerabilities – and to recognise its contribution to stability in Syria – the EU could increase its material support for the group, push for its political recognition, and play a more active role in preventing further Turkish military incursions.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a political analyst, journalist, and a co-author of The Kurds of Northern Syria.

This case study was submitted on an individual basis without prior knowledge of the respective contributions. The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.