U.S.-SDF Relations: Counterterrorism Against ISIS in Syria

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Policy Briefs Program

December 2022

10 Cents

U.S.-SDF Relations:Counterterrorism Against ISIS in Syria


As Turkey progresses its operations in Syria, U.S. counterterrorism efforts, specifically those conducted in partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces, have been complicated. 


Q: What is the extent of current U.S. counterterrorism efforts against ISIS in Syria? 

A: The U.S. has four main objectives in Syria: to reduce violence, maintain military pressure on ISIL (ISIS), address Syria’s humanitarian crisis, and to support Israel. As of mid 2022, there are approximately 900 US soldiers in Syria. 

Since a US-led military coalition launched an operation called “Inherent Resolve” in 2014 against ISIS, the U.S. has been providing airstrikes, artillery, advice, and intelligence support to local Syrian and Iraqi partner forces. The U.S. also trains, equips, and advises partner forces to counter ISIS in the region with the goal of limiting the size and duration of the U.S. military presence needed to counter ISIS.  


Q: How have the U.S. and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) partnered in counterterrorism efforts? 

A: Since late 2015, U.S. forces have been deployed to northern Syria in an advisory and planning capacity with the SDF and to Iraq to advise and train Iraqi forces, gather intelligence, and secure U.S. personnel and facilities. Some U.S. forces are situated in SDF-controlled areas of northeastern Syria such as Hassakeh and Raqqa provinces. 


Q: What has recently complicated the U.S.-SDF partnership? 

A: The SDF announced on December 2 that ‘“all coordination and joint counterterrorism operations’ with the US-led coalition battling remnants” of ISIS in Syria have been halted. The group cited Turkey’s strikes on northern Syria, where the SDF is based, as reason for halting operations against ISIS. The group has long warned the US that Turkish attacks against its ranks would divert resources away from protecting a prison holding ISIS fighters or fighting ISIS sleeper cells still waging hit-and-run attacks in Syria.


Q: Has U.S.-SDF collaboration halted amid these developments?  

A: On December 2, U.S. Central Command’s Spokesperson stated that CENTCOM forces have paused “all partnered operations against ISIS in Syria” while “patrols at the al-Hol Internally Displaced Persons Camp and detention facilities continue.”

On December 3, U.S. troops were reported to have resumed joint patrols with the SDF.


Q: Why is the al-Hol camp an exception scenario?  

A: A refugee camp opened in 1991, Al-Hol camp hosts around 57,000 people; it has become home to tens of thousands of relatives of suspected ISIS members. According to Army Gen. Michael ‘Erik’ Kurilla, the commander of U.S. Central Command, al-Hol camp “is a literal breeding ground for the next generation of ISIS.” On December 6, the State Department continued to dissent against Turkish attacks in Northern Syria, as CENTCOM declared a return to “normal patrols” in the region.  


Q: Why is Turkey launching operations in northern Syria?  

A: This offensive comes in the aftermath of a deadly bombing on Istanbul’s İstiklal Avenue. Turkey blames the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and groups it identifies as PKK-affiliates in Syria and Iraq for the bombing. The SDF is mostly made up of YPG fighters, which Turkey considers a ‘terror group’ linked to the PKK. However, Turkish warnings of attacks in Syria persisted prior to the bombing. 

This reflects Turkey’s fourth major operation in Syria since 2016. Turkey’s primary objective in this conflict is to deter the Kurds from achieving their own state, a development that could threaten Turkish sovereignty, power and influence.


Q: How has Turkey engaged with the United States amid this? 

A: On December 6, Turkey urged the United States and Moscow to persuade SDF withdrawal from northern Syria, specifically Manbij, Tal Rifaat and Kobane, within 2 weeks. 

Subsequently, the CIA Director warned the Turkish intelligence chief against recent Turkish strikes against Kurdish targets in Syria, partially due to a Turkish airstrike conducted a quarter mile from U.S. troops. Turkish operations have also targeted the al-Hol detention camp, thus disrupting U.S. counterterrorism objectives in the region.


Q: What does the ISIS threat in Syria look like today? Is U.S.-SDF counterterrorism collaboration critical? 

A: Since the Inherent Resolve Operation in 2014, the group’s hold over Iraq and Syria has seen a sharp decline. The coalition announced ISIS’ defeat in Iraq in 2017 and in Syria in 2019. ISIS currently holds no sovereign territory and mostly operates via small, decentralized sleeper cells.  

ISIS continues to wage a low-level insurgency in Iraq and Syria and likely has sufficient manpower and resources to continue operating this way indefinitely in the Syrian desert. The cells launch attacks on civilians and U.S. partner forces, such as the SDF, and against Assad government forces in southwest Syria and the central Syrian desert. However, the recent developments at al-Hol detention camp could improve ISIS’ capabilities, making it ever so important for the US to engage in counterterrorism collaboration.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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