International pressure, ideological shift, and domestic developments shape the future of the eastern Euphrates region

Russian military vehicles patrolling the Syrian province of Hasaka on the border with Turkey - 22 February 2020 (AFP)

International pressure, ideological shift, and domestic developments shape the future of the eastern Euphrates region

Russian military vehicles patrolling the Syrian province of Hasaka on the border with Turkey - 22 February 2020 (AFP)

Russian military vehicles patrolling the Syrian province of Hasaka on the border with Turkey - 22 February 2020 (AFP)

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Ali Darwish | Ninar Khalifa | Saleh Malas | Nour al-Din Ramadan

Complications have started to appear in the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northeast Syria with Turkey’s recent escalating pressure and international attempts to deter Turkey from conducting a new military operation in the Euphrates’ east.

The main problem lies in Turkey’s escalation, which is met by the corresponding support in the Kurdistan region of Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) east of the Euphrates. The PKK governs the autonomous administration, its military wing represented in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and its political wing represented in the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC). Furthermore, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Kurdistan Democratic Union Party (PYD), is the mainstay of the SDF.

The autonomous administration structure was based on the PYD’s formation announcement on 21 January 2013. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) is established as a PKK branch in Syria in 2003 and calls for democratic self-government.

However, the PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States of America  (the US), the European Union (EU), Iran, Australia, and some Arab countries.

In this file, Enab Baladi looks into the options of the autonomous administration, and in particular its military wing, the SDF, in dealing with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) amid pressure exerted by neighboring countries, military developments in Ain Issa, north of Raqqa, and the role of international actors in shaping the future of northeastern Syria, and the impact of the SDF’s policy on the tribes in the region.

An organic link between PKK and PYD

Options and consequences for their disengagement

The PKK and the PYD have a very complex relationship, larger than the simplified image shown in the media. The administrative and organizational relationship between the two parties is not limited to interest or the presence in one geographical area.

Therefore, the process of conducting a disengagement between the two parties will not be an easy matter, even if they try to show otherwise in public, or if they pretend to break the link as a result of the American pressures that are being exerted on both, according to a statement made to Enab Baladi by Saad al-Shari, a researcher and oil engineer at al-Sharq Center.

Researcher Saad al-Shari ruled out that the disengagement would be logical in practice, explaining that those who “roughly” control the eastern Euphrates region are the so-called “Cadres,” meaning the cadres of the PKK.

The “Cadres” arrived in the region from the Qandil Mountains in the far north of Iraq. They are now the primary decision-makers of the PYD, the autonomous administration, the SDF, and even the Internal Security Forces, also known as the Asayish. “No Syrian can make a single decision if there are (Cadres) in one of the Autonomous Administration institutions,” said the researcher.

As a result of the public American pressures in the recent period to bring about change in the region, the autonomous administration and the SDF are trying to hold discussions with the PKK to reach disengagement and expel the latter from the eastern Euphrates region, according to researcher Saad al-Shari.

This is mainly exemplified by the threats of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) to launch an attack on the town of Ain Issa.

However, the US special envoy to Syria, Joel Rayburn, said during an online press conference attended by Enab Baladi on 3 December, “We have not seen major escalations indicating that the ceasefire agreement has been violated or abandoned in northeastern Syria, or that there will be a repeat of the October attack 2019.”

According to Saad Al-Shari, the PKK still shows intransigence because it seeks more guarantees for the disengagement and believes that its presence in the eastern Euphrates region is an asset that should not be wasted of American or other pressures.

A photo featuring Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Chairman of the Popular Will Party, Qadri Jamil, and the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), Ilham Ahmed- 31 August 2020 ( The U.S. Department of State Twitter account).

 SDF faces difficult choices

On 10 November, the Head of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi (also known as Mazloum Kobani), announced his readiness to hold peace talks with Turkey without any preconditions, indicating that he might consider mediating between Turkey and PKK after solving the problems with Turkey.

If Abdi’s statement was motivated by a conviction resulting from the presence of PKK members, especially non-Syrians and their tension, and transferring the war between the PKK party and Turkey to Syria, then he can represent a window for dialogue between Turkey and SDF via the American side. This has happened previously. It may have been transferred to direct dialogue at an advanced stage, the political researcher and expert on eastern Euphrates affairs, Badr Mulla Rashid, told Enab Baladi on 13 December.

Saad al-Ashari believes that SDF is facing difficult choices whether to accept the PKK’s presence in its areas of influence, which means more military operations in the future, maybe on the entire border strip between Syria and Turkey.

On the other hand, the SDF does not have enough authority in ordering the PKK cadres to get out of Syria, and it is forced to balance between its desire for that exit and its inability to achieve it. It may succeed with American help by using specific people outside Syria to persuade the PKK to reduce the intensity of its media activities in the region and stop some slogans that provoke the Turks and push them to launch military operations.

Abdi acknowledged the presence of trained foreign PKK-affiliated fighters in north-eastern Syria in an interview with the International Crisis Group (ICG) in mid-September. These fighters came to fight against the Islamic State (IS).
In an interview published by Ronahi TV, on 4 December, Abdi stated that four thousand PKK fighters were killed in Syria during their participation in the battles, indicating that requesting PKK support is normal and can be done in the future in case of future attacks.

Saad Alshari pointed out that the upcoming  autonomous administration elections are regular and semi-periodic, in which the “administration” tries to appease the anger of the Arab components, considering that “the elections do not affect anything in the situation of the eastern Euphrates region, as they are internal elections.”

The areas controlled by the autonomous administration have witnessed demonstrations in Deir Ezzor governorate’s eastern countryside during the past few days in opposition to imposing compulsory recruitment on teachers and workers in the health and municipal sectors.

Demonstrations rejecting the “administration” policies and the SDF are also frequent in the region, resulting in poor services and deteriorating living conditions.

Russian military vehicles in a convoy from the town of Tel Tamer to the Qamishli airport in northeast Syria - 9 March 2020 (France Press)

Russian military vehicles in convoy from the town of Tel Tamer to the Qamishli airport in northeast Syria – 9 March 2020 (France Press)

PKK’s new ideology

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Abdul Wahab Asi, a political researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, believes that the PKK has undergone a new division within its ranks, as a new movement has emerged within the PYD and its apparatus that carries local Syrian trends imposed by the circumstances of the conflict. This movement calls for the maintenance of power and wealth privileges away from the PKK’s monopoly for years.

The researcher added that the field cooperation between the SDF and the US imposed a forced change on the ideology adopted by the (PYD) leadership and was based on the socialist-communist model. Hence, the discourse became more flexible, and there was a response to the democratic and capitalist model to preserve its survival.

It may seem difficult to have a deep disagreement between the SDF and PKK in the foreseeable future, but at the very least, “It is believed that during 2021 the latter will have to deal with the SDF more independently than before, especially if the Kurdish-Kurdish talks succeed.” according to Abdul Wahab Asi.

According to the researcher, the organic relationship between the PPK and the PYD does not necessarily mean that there is no dispute over the decision, especially after the US resorted to dealing with local leaders instead of communicating with party cadres.

Also, the US’s treatment of local rules is not a sufficient indication to say that there is a desire by the PYD to adopt policies that are permanently independent of the PKK. Still, the latter may face difficulty restricting the rise of local power over the decision-making positions in the “autonomous administration,” especially if the terms of the Kurdish-Kurdish agreement are implemented.

Ain Issa: Field developments targeting the heart of the SDF

After taking control of two villages at the entrance of Ain Issa, north of Raqqa, the SNA is preparing to launch a Turkish military operation.

Wissam al-Munifi, a fighter from the “First Corps” of the SNA on Ain Issa’s fronts, talked to Enab Baladi and described the situation as “somewhat calm,” pointing out that preparations on the ground are continuing. Ammunition and logistical equipment have been distributed, and heavy weapons have been prepared for the upcoming action.

The SNA arrived on Ain Issa’s outskirts in 2019 before the military operation code-named Operation Peace Spring was halted east of Euphrate due to a Russian-Turkish agreement. The agreement stipulated conducting joint patrols, a ceasefire, and the SDF withdrawal from Syria and Turkey. However, none of these conditions has been implemented yet, which has prompted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to issue intermittent threats in recent months.

On the eastern side of Ain Issa, Russian forces are stationed in an independent base, while the Syrian regime forces are distributed along the lines of contact with the SNA. Most of Ain Issa’s people are still there, and some took out the most important items in case a military operation takes place in the town. 

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Colonel Fayez al-Asmar, a political analyst, said that Ain Issa, located in the east of Euphrates, especially near the M4 highway, is a hot turbulent battleground between the actors there. Everyone seeks to increase their control at the expense of the SDF.

The colonel believes that the town has become a bargaining ground, in which Russia uses Turkish threats as a “bogeyman” against the SDF to win the town in the interest of the Syrian regime. Thus, the city might face the same fate as Afrin, controlled by the SNA with Turkish support in 2018.

There have been indications of a military operation against the SDF in Ain Issa during the past months. First, the Turkish president made serious threats to carry out military operations in Syria if Turkey does not obtain its promises. On 3 October, he said, “We will go by ourselves to cleanse the hideouts of terrorism in Syria in case the promises made to us are not fulfilled.”

The second indication was through the SDF comment on the bombing, saying that the SNA and Turkey intensified their bombing on Ain Issa. The SNA was preparing bases near the international road M4 to launch attacks.

Another indication came in statements by a leader to Enab Baladi, who declined to be named, that the current bombing is a prelude to a military operation that includes Ain Issa and areas on the M4 international road, and that a similar operation may take place in the city of Ain al-Arab.

The Islamic State (IS) group, east of the Euphrates, is also taking advantage of the conditions to strengthen itself. Its operations reached the north of Deir Ezzor after being limited to sporadic operations in the Syrian desert, mostly in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor.

Colonel Fayez al-Asmar explained that the IS group is changing its method of operations, relying on the tactic of near-daily attrition of its opponents, and adapting to methods of fighting that it is quite good at guerrilla warfare, rapid and lightning raids, night and day raids, successful ambushes on supply routes, and booby-traps with small groups that kill, capture, seize, and withdraw before they are being struck by the Russians or the international coalition.

According to al-Asmar, this tactic “worries the most powerful armies, because it is like fighting ghosts who appear, strike and disappear, and have no specific place for them.”

Caption 4: A map showing the location of Ain Issa on the “M4” highway and the controlling parties in northern Syria

Ain Issa : the most strategic transportation node east of the Euphrates

Ain Issa is under the control of the SDF. It is a Syrian nahiyah (subdistrict) located in Tel Abyad district in Raqqa and lies about 55 kilometers from Raqqa. Ain Issa is a key node in the transportation network that connects the provinces of Aleppo and al-Hasakah through the M4 highway. The town has an important network of local roads linking it to Tel Abyad on the Turkish border and the city of Raqqa.

The SDF took over ain Issa with the support of the US-led international coalition in mid-2015 after a long conflict with the so-called IS group, which failed in several attempts to regain it.

The US troops, leading the international coalition, established a military base in Ain Issa in early 2016. This raised Ain Issa’s profile, prompting the Kurdish autonomous administration to establish many institutions and councils therein. After that, the Americans withdrew, allowing the Russians and the Syrian regime forces to fill the gap.

A Kurdish journalist working for a local media newspaper, who spoke to Enab Baladi earlier on anonymity condition, said that Ain Issa has become a semi-capital of the autonomous administration of the north at the instigation of the US. He also pointed out that Ain Issa had been neglected, and its social services had been very poor before the US military base was established.
According to the journalist, several important meetings between the autonomous administration officials, international coalition officials, and Western officials were held in Ain Issa.

In addition to the US-led coalition officials’ visits to Ain Issa, regular meetings of the autonomous administration institutions—interior bodyhealth authoritywomen’s council, and executive councils—were held monthly in Ain Issa.

The SDF is holding onto Ain Issa to connect its areas of control. Ain Issa is located on an important road network and is a transportation node that connects the areas of Ayn al-Arab and Tel Abyad with Manbij, Youssef Hammoud, the SNA spokesperson said in a previous interview with Enab Baladi. 

The SDF has allowed the Syrian regime forces and Russia to enter the region due to the Operation Peace Spring launched on 9 November 2019.

The SDF and the Syrian regime forces in Ain Issa (55 kilometers north of Raqqa) share the first contact points with the SNA, while Russian forces are deployed on the back lines.

International parties draw up the future of northeastern Syria

North-eastern Syria is witnessing shifts and external pressures, in addition to internal shifts and pressures, and regional and international political conflicts that cast their shadows on the complex scene. It raises question marks about the future of the region and who will prevail in it amid the divergence of interests between the US, Russia, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan. Each side has its own plans and strategic calculations of its interests, causing it to try to make progress by diplomatic means and military pressure at other times.

Recently, international, regional, and local competition over the region has become the master of the scene. How will the current balances be managed? Who will succeed in stabilizing its influence? And what is the future of the actors’ map that will contribute to redrawing the region’s features again and defining its political and security equations?

Fears for existence and economic ambitions

Syrian academic and researcher Dr. Abdul Qadir Naana believes that eastern Syria is one of the most problematic areas in the Syrian scene. The interests of the intervening actors vary and contradict.

According to what Nanaa indicated in his interview with Enab Baladi, Turkey appears to be the most concerned about the region and is watching it with caution, fearing the success of Kurdish separatism supported by external forces (the US and some Gulf countries).

The Kurdish forces that run the region are an extension of the PKK on the one hand. They form a neighborhood of a Kurdish extension in Turkey with a separatist tendency and is currently dormant. This makes the region a “supreme security priority area” for the Turkish government, which seeks to be present in shaping the future through understandings based on exchanging interests with other powers to prevent the occurrence of a separatist scenario.

On the other hand, it can be said that there are two main currents in Iraqi Kurdistan, one of which represents “the Hawks.” “The Hawks” works to provide support for separatists in eastern Syria or to form an autonomous entity, at least similar to the experience of Iraqi Kurdistan.  The second current is balanced and more moderate. It fears the negative consequences of the expansion of PKK. This current seeks to build settlements that preserve the Kurdish minority’s rights without pushing for secession.

As for the other axis, which is represented by Russia and the Assad regime, and even Iran, its aspirations seem to be based on several pillars such as the attempts to pose the Syrian regime’s power, even in the nominal terms, on the largest area possible to emphasize the Russian role. It also works as a model for other regimes that fear internal instability, according to Dr. Nanaa.

Besides, Russia hopes that its influence will extend to that region, either directly or through the Syrian regime, to narrow the US presence area. Russia may aspire to end the US’s role and finally expel it from Syria. If it proves able to remove the US, the chances of expanding its oil investments in that region will increase. Moreover, it is trying to use the aforementioned Turkish concerns to create mutual interests with Turkey in the northwestern regions of Syria. These pillars aim to strengthen Russia’s international standing, which is one of the most important goals of its current president, Vladimir Putin.

Regarding the American role in the region, Dr. Nanaa considers that the US policies towards Syria are still “Trump” policies that seek not to be militarily involved and maintain a minimal but strategic presence at the crossroads in the heart of the region. Thus interrupting the expansion of IS, Iran, Turkey, and Russia in those areas and constituting an extension of the American presence in central and western Iraq, apart from the oil benefits. This also prevents other powers from making settlements across that region that are not compatible with American interests, thus preserving the status quo until a new American project is ready for the Region.

The map of interests also includes indirect actors in addition to the previous powers. “The region is also a soft Saudi-Emirati area of influence through political and financial relations with the SDF. These two states seek to strengthen the separatist tendency of the SDF to form a security threat on Turkey in a way that erodes the Turkish presence in the Arab region and keeps Turkey busy with security issues”. Dr. Nanaa believes that although Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not achieved much progress, the two states are still making some efforts; they finance part of the costs of the US presence in eastern Syria.

For his part, the writer Shorsh Darwish confirms that the region is confused and swings in the balance of competing forces’ hands, highlighting the goals that the active states place on their agendas and seek to achieve.

The US has interests that go beyond ending the IS group or tracking its sleeping cells, according to what Darwish pointed out in his speech to Enab Baladi, as Washington’s declaration of the necessity of narrowing Iranian influence passes through the entire eastern border region with Iraq, including northeastern Syria, in addition to ensuring the implementation of the economic sanctions program and the Caesar Act, by preventing the Syrian regime from benefiting from the precious resources in the SDF-controlled areas.

The US began imposing broad and severe economic sanctions (as it described it) on the Syrian regime under the “Caesar Act” on 17 June. The law stipulates the freezing of reconstruction aid and imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime and companies cooperating with it unless the perpetrators of violations are prosecuted. It also targets Russian and Iranian entities that support or cooperate with the Syrian regime.

In turn, Russia seeks to seize the privileges of internal trade between northeastern Syria and the areas under the control of the Syrian regime through controlling the main roads, taking advantage of the siege imposed in the eastern Euphrates and border security tensions, which means that Moscow is keeping an eye on the economic importance of the region.

Staying in Syria requires securing financial resources and economic interests that are only available in the northeast. Besides, there is a Russian role that depends on inciting Turkey and allowing it to engage with the SDF, which confuses the US’s relations and causes instability in the region, according to Darwish.

On the ground, Turkey seems to be in a hurry more than the rest of the parties to exert more control and expand on areas, especially regarding the international trade Aleppo-Latakia road (M4), and to isolate Ain al-Arab and Ain Issa from the province of Hasaka, according to Darwish.

In addition to striking the SDF in Ain Issa and the western and southern countryside of Ras al-Ayn, Turkey seeks to dismantle the SDF, which clashes with the US’s vision that wants to preserve the strength and cohesion of the SDF as “the only power that enjoys central decision-making and the required competence for combating IS.” Darwish points out that the Turkish government does not seem comfortable with the arrival of the administration of the new American president, Joe Biden, to power, which does not see a justification for giving Turkey everything it wants in northeastern Syria. “Most likely, Washington will call Ankara for accepting mutual concessions with the SDF instead of the all-Turkish policy.”

Members of the Russian Special Forces with Syrian children in Deir Ezzor - (Getty Images)

Members of the Russian Special Forces with Syrian children in Deir Ezzor – (Getty Images)

 

Iraqi Kurdistan: Interests related to national security

 Iraqi Kurdistan has interests related to its national security, as the presence of Kurdish forces on the west bank of the Tigris River in Syria means relieving the region from threats caused by the arrival of other groups to rule the region. The region’s interest is embodied in preventing the expansion of its ally Turkey in the northern regions of Eastern Syria. Such an expansion would transfer trade lines from Iraq through Iraqi Kurdistan (Ibrahim Alkhalil crossing) to Syria, which Turkey aspires to control.

On the other hand, there is an escalation between the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government and the PKK that would weaken the relationship between Erbil and Qamishli, given that the leadership of the region sees the “autonomous administration” as supportive of the “PKK.” However, the US desires to stop the Kurdish tension not to lead matters to the stage of estrangement and aligning Erbil with Ankara, which will lead to greater polarization.

The Kurdish-Kurdish dialogue began with an initiative launched by the leader of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, after the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition’s military operation, “Operation Peace Spring” east of the Euphrates, in October 2019, and the US President Donald Trump’s announcement of his country’s withdrawal from some of its bases in Syria.

The two main poles of the dialogue are the US-backed PYD, which is the core of the “autonomous administration,” and the “Kurdish National Council” favored by Ankara and Iraqi Kurdistan. Both parties declared a joint statement on 17 June, stating that the first phase of dialogue of “the unity of the Kurdish ranks” has been completed. They explained that the 2014 “Dohuk” agreement on “governance and partnership in administration, protection, and defense” is a basis for continuing the dialogue, intending to reach the signing of a comprehensive agreement in the near future.

These meetings were prompted by international parties, most notably France and the US, amid Turkish caution and anticipation from the opposition and the Syrian regime.

What awaits the area?

Writer Shorsh Darwish believes that things will not go into a collision course. The priority is to reduce tensions in northeastern Syria and reach a broader formula for the agreement between Moscow and Washington, leading to finding a solution throughout Syria, which may start from this region.

Washington’s biggest remaining issue is the way to persuade Ankara not to go towards escalation but the cessation of hostilities and accept less severe solutions. Darwish considers that it is in Turkey’s interest in light of the Biden administration’s arrival to power to listen to Washington’s advice. It is also in Moscow’s interest is to return to the coordination policy that it had with the US during the rule of former US President Barack Obama. Darwish expects the US to draw up a public policy in the upcoming period, in contrast to the ambiguity that enveloped the involvement of President Donald Trump’s administration in Syria, especially in the regions of northeastern Syria, “As for the interests of the Kurdistan region of Iraq and SDF and the residents of the region, they rank second in the ladder of interest of the influential countries.”

Researcher Abdul Qadir Nanaa agrees with Darwish about the nature of the balances that may govern the region. He believes that the eastern region’s future remains dependent on the future of Syria in general and the stalled settlements between the main forces controlling the Syrian scene. He also considers that any settlements that will be reached will preserve a minimum of interests in Syria for three actors, namely the US, Russia, and Turkey, and the limited influence of the three Gulf powers in those settlements, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar.

Tribes: The portal of the conflicting parties to impose influence in eastern Syria

The eastern Euphrates region’s importance on the Syrian side is due to its geographical expansion and the oil wealth it contains. Consequently, the controlling party there gives it negotiating power in the context of any final political solution to the Syrian file.

In conjunction with the multiplicity of international, regional, and local actors in the region, one of these parties’ domination over the area means excluding the rest of the parties and weakening their roles in formulating a political solution.

In the east of the Euphrates, it is impossible to rely solely on military control over the region to give any political legitimacy to the controlling party. Tribalism is still an important form of the region’s identity, and it has an influential form of social and military mobilization. This matter is well recognized by any political party, regardless of its intentions to impose power on the region, so these parties seek to win the tribal community on their side.

During the past few years, the previously single sheik led cohesive tribe was divided into a clan whose loyalties were distributed among more than one party. This was according to the areas in which they lived, whether for the Syrian regime, the opposition, or the “autonomous administration,” meaning that the hierarchical structure of the tribes was absent and dispersed between several parties.

 The Syrian Tribes Conference in Ain Issa in the countryside of Raqqa - 3 May 2019 (Enab Baladi

The Syrian Tribes Conference in Ain Issa in the countryside of Raqqa – 3 May 2019 (Enab Baladi)

The SDF repeats the Syrian regime’s approach to dealing with the tribes

In March 2019, IS’s control of the last Syrian cities and villages in al-Baghouz, east of Deir Ezzor, ended at the SDF’s hands with support from the international coalition.

After two months of this declaration, the SDC held a conference for the Arab tribes in Ain Issa titles “The Syrian tribes protect the Syrian society and safeguard its social unity.” It was attended by the leaders of the tribes of the eastern region, the former president of the PYD, Salih Muslim, and officials in the SDC led by Ilham Ahmad.

In the final statement, the tribes emphasized that one of the most significant obstacles and challenges in ending the conflict and the Syrian crisis is caused by the exclusion and absence of influential solution forces and representatives of the renaissance solution project, a large part of which is “autonomous administration.”

However, there are problems with the autonomous administration’s treatment of tribes’ members, most notably those related to the autonomous administration’s political orientation due to the PYD’s domination over it, according to what political analyst Majid Al-Aloush sees in a previous interview with Enab Baladi. The administration deals with the people of the region according to its own intellectual references that are far from the region’s culture, which reflects negatively on the component of the Arab tribes in the areas under the control of this administration, thus questioning its representation of them or their expression of their aspirations.

Furthermore, the autonomous administration does not differ in its dealings with Arab tribesmen from the Syrian regime’s dealings with them, Anas Shawakh said, in terms of marginalization and security control. Thus, this administration made the same mistake as the Syrian regime regarding dealing with VIPs and leaders of loyal tribes and benefiting from its power, rather than a comprehensive and real development process in the areas of these tribes.

report by the US Department of Defense (Pentagon), issued on 31 March, confirmed that perception because most Arab tribes have negative opinions about the SDF and the civil institutions associated with it.

Because of these opposing views, the US Department of Defense is working to reduce the role of the SDF in the region and direct it towards the fight against the IS, which still maintains a “low level” of its operations in the eastern area in Syria, and its ability to take limited defense measures in terms of scope, duration and number of fighters, according to the report.

The US Department of Defense fears the development of security tensions and the failure of managing the eastern region due to cultural and national differences. The same conditions that allowed the emergence of IS and its recurrence gives room to reappear.

How did the Syrian regime deal with the tribes?

According to a research paper published by the Hermon Center for Contemporary Studies as part of a project that aims to provide the most comprehensive tribal maps for the governorate of Deir Ezzor in northeastern Syria, the “Baath” Party in Syria sought to undermine the independence of the country’s tribes, by intimidating them, infiltrating them and their relying on it.

The hostile policy towards the tribal community in Syria continued under the rule of both Assad, the father, and the son, according to the research paper, and was exacerbated by long periods of economic stagnation and the almost complete collapse of the rural economy in the eastern Euphrates regions between 2003 and 2010, due to drought, misuse of water resources and mismanagement of agricultural lands.

When civil protests against the Syrian regime erupted in 2011, many tribal leaders lost their sources of influence, especially money, to benefit members of the tribes supported by the Syrian government. The Syrian government allowed Iran to “proselytize in villages near the city of Deir Ezzor, especially in the villages of al-Busayrah, Hatla, and Jadeed Baggara, to create a socio-economic belt from Deir Ezzor to Raqqa governorate,” according to the research paper.

This policy, through which the regime dealt with the tribal community, weakened the social foundations of the tribes to make the leaders and sheiks of the tribes gain their loyalty and turn into functional tools in the service of power. Still, they do not have the social or political influence to mention, the spokesman of the “Syrian Tribes Council,” Mudar Al-Asaad, told Enab Baladi.

According to al-Assad, the defection of officers from the Syrian regime’s forces from among the tribesmen to join the armed opposition increased after 2011, even if the leaders of these tribes used to be loyal to the government, which contributed to destabilizing the authority of the tribal leaders, which was the subject of the exploitation by IS of divisions militarily and later socially.

The government of the regime marginalized the Arab tribes and clans, trying to permanently dismantle them and empty them of their original values so that they would not be a hindrance or a competitor to its institutions and its security and social control over the region, according to what the Syrian researcher at the “Jusoor for Studies” Center, Anas Shawakh, said in his interview with Enab Baladi.

The regime’s association with the Arab tribes was also limited to some beneficiaries from the dignitaries and leaders of some of these tribes who would guarantee their absolute loyalty and support.

Maltreatment by the Syrian regime and exploitation by the IS group

Due to the Syrian regime’s neglect of solving security problems in the tribal areas, the IS group took control of the areas of the spread of Arab tribes in northeastern Syria, according to how Shawakh sees it. Still, the striking military and security forces in which the group dealt with the tribesmen played a significant role in strengthening its control over those areas.

Among the concerns of IS in the eastern Euphrates region is that it is seen as a hostile force in its rule. Since 2014, the IS group has attracted some tribes from the eastern region in Syria to fight within its ranks. However, the presence of fighters from these tribes within the IS group does not mean that the tribes, as an entity, support the IS that took full control of them in 2014.

In August 2014, the members of the “Shaitat” tribe entered into a conflict against the IS group, refusing its control over the eastern region, which ended with the killing of 700 members of the tribe and the IS’s control over the towns of Granij, Kashkiya, and Abu Hamam, which are inhabited by the tribe’s members, east of Deir Ezzor.

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