The Turkish-Syrian border is divided into separate areas of control—under the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib, and Turkey in several cantons—which sustain contradictory political projects. Yet these border areas constitute a single political-security ecosystem, one connected to southern Turkey and regime-held Syria. As such, only a peace agreement that treats the border areas as an indivisible whole and delimits the major powers’ zones of influence can lead to a stable long-term arrangement.

Key Themes:

  • The war in Syria has led to the economic activation of areas along the Syrian-Turkish border. New border crossings were opened with Turkey, as were internal crossings connecting areas controlled by different actors.
  • The border areas are heavily militarized and securitized. Tens of thousands of fighters blend in with millions of civilians. Efforts by Turkey to stabilize the economy by stimulating industry where it wields influence have had scant success, and the border areas remain dependent on trade.
  • The locus of Syria’s armed conflicts has shifted to an arc that extends west to east along the entire Turkish-Syrian border. A leading cause of conflict is Ankara’s position that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it views as the power behind the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), poses a grave threat to Turkey’s national security.


  • The border between Syria and Turkey has shaped bilateral relations since the beginning of the twentieth century. The exception was the first decade of the 2000s, when it receded in significance. Following the onset of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the border once again became the decisive factor in Syrian-Turkish relations.
  • The war has shaped a new socioeconomic order in Syria’s north. Several political projects and zones of influence have emerged—and sometimes fallen prey to political deals between the bigger powers.
  • The war has reengineered Syrian society. Along the entire border with Turkey, residents displaced from across Syria live alongside the original inhabitants in densely populated areas. Demography and displacement in these areas have been main sources of contentiousness and any military activity risks more painful changes of that sort.
  • The current status quo in Syria’s north is untenable in the long run. Conflicting agendas are at play. Only if a comprehensive deal is reached, one that treats the border area as an indivisible whole and delimits the major powers’ zones of influence, will a stable arrangement take shape.

This report was originally published on the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center website.