Khaled al-Jeratli | Hassan Ibrahim
The administration of former US President Barack Obama chose the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as Washington’s main partner in Syria to fight the Islamic State (IS) group, but such a choice came in an area dominated by Arab clans in northeastern Syria.
The American support for the Kurdish forces has marginalized the role of the Arab clans without excluding them, as American commanders are constantly meeting with the notables and sheikhs of these clans.
Washington is also showing a tendency to win over the clan component in the region, which is what the Syrian regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, are also striving for.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses with researchers and experts the possibility of clans returning to the fore once again after years of marginalization.
It also discusses the obstacles to this return, given the adherence of the US-backed Kurdish forces to its centrality in managing the region and Washington’s interest in its alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) more than others.
Options open to Washington
In March 2020, the US Department of Defense issued a report criticizing the exclusion of the Arab component from decision-making joints within the military and civil institutions of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF.
The Pentagon report stated that the majority of the Arab components in the region view the SDF and its institutions negatively.
The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) said that the SDF and YPG control the centers of power and decision-making, even within civil administrations.
According to the report, this behavior confirms the unwillingness of these forces to share power with the Arab component, even in its regions, although the majority of the elements deployed on the front lines there are Arabs, such as Deir Ezzor governorate.
The latest that was raised to revive the Arab component in the region were leaks that were not confirmed by official sources until the preparation of this file about meetings that included officials from Gulf countries and US officials to strengthen the role of clans.
On 12 January, Kurdish websites talked about a new American project and its intention to revive old Arab tribal factions, most notably the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade led by Ahmed Alloush (known as Abu Issa).
The Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade is a faction established in 2013 in the Raqqa governorate, and the people of the governorate make up the majority of its fighters. After the Islamic State (IS) group took control of the governorate, the faction turned its guns on IS, announcing its alliance with the SDF.
In 2016, with the control of the SDF on Raqqa, the latter integrated the faction into its military components, and its leaders disappeared from the forefront.
The Kurdish Basnews website quoted a source close to the SDF as saying that America has a project to support opposition factions in the region and expand the participation of the Arab component in the institutions of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).
The source said that Washington intends to build a new alliance between the SDC and Syrian opposition parties to achieve Arab participation in the existing institutions in various fields, to form a broad alliance in conjunction with the efforts of rapprochement between Turkey and the Syrian regime, pointing out that the Raqqa Revolutionaries faction will return to the fore once again, with US support.
This information was not confirmed by official sources until the file was published, as Enab Baladi tried to communicate with former commanders of the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, but they refused to comment.
Balance is required
The talk about the clan revival project came after an American delegation visited the Raqqa Revolutionaries faction at the 17 Division headquarters, and they met with its leader, Abu Issa, with news circulating about sending American weapons and equipment to the Division’s headquarters.
The US move to activate the role of the tribal component came along with the planned Turkish ground military operation against the SDF.
Political researcher Firas Allawi believes that the US meeting with the Raqqa Revolutionaries commander has been greatly exaggerated.
“Washington is not yet looking for a process to replace or weaken the SDF as much as it supports it, just as the outcomes of the meeting did not appear, and there are no concrete indicators or facts at the present time,” he said.
Allawi added to Enab Baladi that the American meeting with the leader of the revolutionaries of Raqqa is an attempt to “feel the pulse” to offer solutions to prevent the Turkish operation or to make concessions to Ankara in order to reduce tension in the region.
From a different point of view, researcher and writer on political affairs Majed Alloush believes that Washington may have begun to realize that social forces in the region, especially tribal formations, are more necessary to engage in the American project.
Alloush explained to Enab Baladi that the Americans are developing their position east of the Euphrates River, which is required by their continued presence, awaiting a final solution in Syria, regardless of who is harmed and who benefits.
The Americans were very late in introducing fundamental modifications to the situation east of the Euphrates. Perhaps they believed that they would be able to gradually modify the behavior of the (SDF) and disengage from the (PKK) or undermine its ideological illusions.
Majed Alloush, Expert in political affairs
Allawi ruled out changes in the region unless the Turkish operation actually took place or an American rapprochement with the Turks was achieved.
In the event that there are American proposals in this regard, Allawi believes that they are reflected in the creation of an Arab force to separate between the SDF and Turkey, provided that it is acceptable to Turkey and is similar to the factions of northern Syria.
Alloush, on the other hand, prefers to wait before issuing judgments since the picture is not clear, considering that the success of the new American approach is linked to the local population.
He also linked reaching better results to the success of the local actors in dealing with the American approach and building an administrative model with a minimum level of “rationality.”
Initiative did not see the light
American initiatives are at the forefront of the field and political scene in response to protests or field developments.
Muzahim al-Salloum, former spokesperson of the New Syrian Army (NSyA) who is familiar with the work of the International Coalition Forces (ICF) in Syria and Iraq previously, told Enab Baladi that the Coalition projects in this regard did not go beyond the planning stage.
The most prominent of which is a project previously put forward by the Operations Room of Inherent Resolve, which aims to transfer local fighters from the Maghawir al-Thawra (or Free Syria Army) from the al-Tanf garrison on the Iraqi border to the town of al-Baghouz, east of Deir Ezzor.
He added that this project is re-introduced at the beginning of every year, but US officials always prefer the SDF, especially since those influencing the actual decision of the coalition forces in Syria, from the remnants of the Obama administration, have not been changed and they are the ones who re-introduce this project repeatedly.
The “old and new” American proposal also deals with the transfer of the management of the al-Tanf garrison located in Jordan to its operations room in Erbil, and this means strategic and intelligence changes.
“Washington wants to form an actual Arab force alongside the SDF in the region, especially in al-Baghouz overlooking the Euphrates River, and at the Iraqi border, and in a few oil wells, al-Salloum says about America’s goal behind this project.
However, the Coalition’s most distant strategic goal is to find a justification for opening a logistical supply line between northeastern Syria and al-Tanf, passing through areas controlled by the regime forces and Iran.
In the event that the Maghawir al-Thawra forces are deployed between the eastern countryside of Homs and the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, the justification for opening the supply route becomes available.
A former fighter in the Maghaweer al-Thawra, based in al-Rukban camp, told Enab Baladi that the American plan was repeatedly discussed, and its most prominent justification was the corruption of the Maghaweer al-Thawra members and leaders before the amendments that the faction witnessed in mid-2022.
One of the justifications of the Americans in the al-Tanf garrison was that these modifications were necessary to bring new members from outside the Maghaweer al-Thawra to the area, away from the faction’s members and leaders from the al-Rukban camp, he added.
The SDF share and role
With the return of this file to the fore, attention is directed towards the SDF, and its position as the “weakest link” in the region, as the clan file, is considered one of the thorny files in a region that is witnessing strong tensions and conflict, and projects for some of them to establish an independent entity or self-rule.
On 20 November 2022, Turkey launched the “Claw-Sword” air operation against the areas of influence of the SDF and the PKK in Iraq.
Turkish statements accelerated after the launch of the operation about carrying out ground military action and “eradicating terrorists.” America met the statements with warnings and calls for “restraint” and focusing efforts on fighting the Islamic State organization.
While the leader of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, commented on Washington’s reactions at the time, that “stronger statements are needed.” Without a “green light” from Washington or Moscow, Turkey cannot launch a ground offensive against the Kurdish forces in Syria, according to Abdi.
Researcher Majed Alloush says that what is happening is a direct American intervention to correct the “abnormal” conditions in the region at the expense of the SDF.
The fundamental mistake committed by the SDF is its belief that it has become the first and perhaps the only option for America, and therefore the Americans will preserve its position and support it under all circumstances.
Alloush stated that the SDF did not realize its role in relation to the Americans in the first place, as it was a “ready and loaded gun” to carry out a specific mission, which is controlling an area rich in oil wells to prevent the implementation of a Russian solution and thwart the Iranian project.
He added that according to the formula that arose between the Coalition and the SDF, there is no fixed and recognized share for the SDF in the region, but only a “role.”
The Hudson Institute, an American think tank, published a report that included steps to succeed in unifying Turkish and American spheres of influence in Syria and revitalizing the partnership in their relations.
The steps included removing the People’s Protection Units from Deir Ezzor, by separating the Deir Ezzor Military Council from the SDF, and removing the “units” from al-Hasakah, according to the report.
Not at the expense of the SDF
The potential changes that have been repeatedly presented appear as strengthening one party at the expense of the other because the current analyzes are based on portraying that the clans of Syria and the SDF are enemies and that the United States may be ready to float the clans.
The expert in clan affairs, Allawi, believes in this regard that America will not support a clan component in northeastern Syria at the expense of the SDF, whether by replacement or weakening.
Washington wants to support the security solution and prepare the societal ground for fear of its explosion at any moment, whether through a Turkish operation or the failure of the SDF to do something, the researcher confirms.
For his part, Mahmoud al-Hussein, a Syrian researcher in conflict management, told Enab Baladi that the US has maintained a “reasonable limit” in relation to the tribal component, especially in the province of Deir Ezzor, which is witnessing a relationship with the International Coalition more than others, and it always holds meetings and communicates with the tribal figures there.
Al-Hussein believes that support for the tribal component will continue to exist, with the possibility of increasing it further during the coming period. It is likely that there will be a real representation and more reliance on the Arab tribal component, but not at the expense of the Kurdish forces in the region.
He pointed out that this policy may be “interim” while stressing that the clan component will be taken into account in any attempt to arrange the region east of the Euphrates.
Samer al-Ahmad, a researcher who covers the East Euphrates region, told Enab Baladi that the US forces and their administration in Syria have always tried to encourage the Syrian clans to take initiatives and steps to prove their presence in the region but “not at the expense of the SDF.”
And if it really happened that US officers or officials met with notables from the tribes of northeastern Syria, then the purpose is to encourage them to take an active role in the region, especially in Deir Ezzor governorate, according to al-Ahmad.
However, the US can not back a new military entity at the expense of its allies from the YPG and what is known as the Qandil Cadres (PKK affiliate), he added.
The American incitement to the clans may aim to impose a kind of stability on them, especially since the cells of the Islamic State organization are still spread in the region, where the ambitions of the Iranian militias and the Syrian regime are growing.
Among the demands put forward by notables from the Deir Ezzor clans in their meeting with the International Coalition Forces at the end of December 2022 in the town of al-Kasra, west of the province, is the formation of a special military council for the members of the al-Baggara tribe.
And for this council to be separate from the authority of the Deir Ezzor Military Council affiliated with the SDF (the security and military party responsible for Deir Ezzor), but al-Ahmad believes that granting this kind of powers to the clans is not currently possible.
Local news accounts published a photo on Facebook at the time showing the SDF commander, Mazloum Abdi, with Sheikh Hajim al-Bashir, one of the representatives of the al-Baggara tribe in the city of al-Hasakah, to discuss security developments and the demands of the people in the western countryside of Deir Ezzor.
How does the SDF manage the region?
Protests are recurrent in the regions of northeastern Syria, in which the protesters demand the SDF to strengthen the Arab component in its administrations and withdraw service decisions from the hands of the Qandil Cadres in Syria, but these demands are often ignored.
Sheikh Amer al-Bashir, one of the notables of the al-Baggara clan and head of the executive body of the Syrian Tribes and Clans Council, told Enab Baladi that the SDF ruled its areas of influence in Deir Ezzor through a group of foreign Kurdish cadres that it “imported” into the region.
These commanders do not have clear names, and they are known locally as “Baran,” and they are the de facto ruler of the Deir Ezzor Civil Council of the Autonomous Administration, along with the commander of the Deir Ezzor region, Luqman Khalil, and the general military official for Deir Ezzor is called “Ronny.”
According to al-Bashir, this trio is the source of all decisions and directives and the source of work policy throughout the province, far from the formal interfaces placed therein.
Al-Bashir said that from the moment the SDF entered Deir Ezzor, the policy of “exclusion” of the Arab component began. It is impossible for any director or official to be appointed in the Deir Ezzor Civil Council without Baran’s exclusive approval, he added.
Researcher Samer al-Ahmad believes that the SDF has actually pursued a policy of exclusion against the Arab component in the region, and in this respect, it did not differ from all the de facto authorities in the Syrian geography.
Since its effective control of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, it has sought to exploit some tribal notables and use them as a front for its actions, bearing in mind that the tribal concept in the region has a great dimension that can be employed in a better reality.
The SDF has always tried to marginalize the Arab component, but it is trying to work on this issue indirectly because it knows the danger of direct confrontation with the people of the region.
Mahmoud al-Hussein, a Syrian researcher in conflict management
Anas Shawakh, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Enab Baladi that the SDF has adopted a policy of exclusion with regard to clan members in the region at all levels, political, military, service, and even social.
Although the SDF appointed personalities and members of the tribes of the region to various positions, in the end, they were fronts for its officials, who were not involved in decision-making.
The SDF’s relationship with the region’s clans revolved around personalities from outside the “house of sheikhdom” (who do not represent the clan), who were appointed to formal positions, and the relationship between them and the SDF took the form of a “relationship of interests” and nothing more, according to Shawakh.
Terms of change
The project to change the map of control in the northeastern region is not yet clear, and it depends on regional and local powers and is surrounded by changes at the local level.
It is represented by popular resentment and protests against some of the SDF policies, in addition to the file of Turkish rapprochement with the regime and global events related to forces that have influence in Syria.
Political researcher Firas Allawi believes that any change that may occur as a result of a Turkish process or agreements with Ankara will be more political and administrative than military.
This change is likely to be at the level of administration in the region, and therefore a role can be given to the clans and their sons in managing the region, especially the economic and security files, Allawi adds.
Regarding the military file, the researcher thinks that it will remain in the hands of the SDF for a long time until either a partial solution for the region or a comprehensive solution for all of Syria is reached.
Mahmoud al-Hussein, an expert in conflict management, says that the passcode in the eastern Euphrates region is the American presence and that the future of the region depends on that in the event that America remains in it, support for the SDF will remain within the plan of the International Coalition to “fight terrorism.”
And in the event that the Americans withdraw, the situation will be completely different, as Washington does not have a clear policy towards Syria, and its policy is “negative,” and it is trying to maintain the current situation within the scope of a “frozen conflict without reaching a solution,” al-Hussein added.
He also pointed out that the US presence in northeastern Syria will keep the situation as it is, and this applies to the role of clans as well.
In his turn, the researcher Majed Alloush believes that the scale of changes in the world from the repercussions of the Russia and Ukraine war, the protests in Iran, the unprecedented collapse of the economy in the areas controlled by the Syrian regime, and the new Turkish approach to rapprochement with the regime does not impose a serious search for a logical solution, but it opens the eyes of Americans to the idea of “sudden change, “so they started preparing options,” he said.
Among these options is strengthening the security and social situation east of the Euphrates, which means making additional efforts to attract as many local social blocs as possible, especially Arabs and non-Arabs, including the Kurds without the SDF, according to Alloush.
In addition to new understandings, it is possible to achieve the goal, perhaps with the help of Arab countries that have a relationship and connection with the clans of the region, such as Saudi Arabia.
The allegiance of the major Syrian clans today is divided and fragmented, as it appears in the councils of their senior families and their “historic” sheikhs, as they are called locally.
For example, the al-Jubur clan is considered one of the largest clans in al-Hasakah, and thousands of people from the region belong to it, its historical sheikh since independence from France until now is Abdul Aziz al-Meslet, the father of the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Salem al-Meslet.
While Nawaf al-Meslet, son of Sheikh Abdul Aziz, resides in al-Hasakah city without any political status yet, his brother Salem represents the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition in northwestern Syria.
As for Hassan al-Meslet, the nephew of Sheikh Abdul Aziz, he is the head of the Clan Council supported by Russia and the Syrian regime.
It can be seen that this situation is also frequent for the clans of Deir Ezzor, as the al-Baggara clan is considered one of the largest clans in the province, and it is represented in Deir Ezzor today by Sheikh Hajim al-Bashir, who has good ties with the SDF.
On the other hand, it is possible to look at the areas adjacent to the Euphrates River from the western side, where the people of al-Baggara clan are spread out, represented by the former oppositionist Nawaf al-Bashir, who is currently backed by Iran while Sheikh Amer al-Bashir resides in Turkey, he is opposed to both the Syrian regime and the SDF.
In 2019, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the US is using the Kurds in northeastern Syria to support its plans for a “long-term” survival, which undermines the Astana political process.
The Russian statements came at the time against the backdrop of holding a conference for the tribes in Raqqa, describing the conference as “a step to achieve broad Arab representation” for Washington.
Syrian regime follows the track
Local activists and notables of villages and towns in northeastern Syria called for protests against the SDF in the city of al-Hasakah, following the arrest of Sheikh Mizar al-Meslet, one of the notables of the al-Jubur tribe and a member of the Council of Sheikhs and Notables of Syrian Clans and Tribes in al-Hasakah.
Al-Meslet’s arrest came during his return from an event organized by the Syrian regime in its security square in al-Hasakah, on the role of the clans against the SDF and the US presence in northern Syria.
The official Syrian news agency (SANA) said that the SDF had circulated to its checkpoints and armed groups a “memorandum for the arrest of the Sheikh of the Tayy tribe, Dhari Mohammad al-Fares,” who is one of the Sheikhs participating in the same event.
Meanwhile, the regime’s media is trying to present the narrative of the protests as “the uprising of the Deir Ezzor clans against the US presence,” which contradicts the reality of the region, whose residents repeatedly objected to the passage of Russian army convoys through it during 2021.
Sheikh Amer al-Bashir told Enab Baladi that the western countryside of Deir Ezzor governorate, where the members of the al-Baggara clan live, and the area that is witnessing protests against the SDF, witnessed more than once an attempt by Russian forces to cross into the governorate of Raqqa, but it was met with great popular rejection.
These areas also fell out of the regime’s control from the first months of the Syrian revolution, which al-Bashir considered “conclusive evidence” of the clan’s members in these areas rejecting the regime’s presence and its “oppressive policies,” which they had previously suffered from.
Regarding the regime’s ability to influence the region, al-Bashir says that the Syrian regime’s influence in Deir Ezzor is “weak and meager,” but it continues to try to float itself, taking advantage of any rejection of the SDF as calls for its return or support for it.
The regime is still working daily to find something to rely on in these areas, al-Bashir concluded.
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