As conflict grows, Eastern Euphrates region on “a Hot Tin Roof”

Tribal fighters mobilize in Aleppo countryside before heading to the eastern Euphrates region in support of local tribesmen in the fight against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - September 1, 2023 (NurPhoto/Edited by Enab Baladi)

As conflict grows, Eastern Euphrates region on “a Hot Tin Roof”

Tribal fighters mobilize in Aleppo countryside before heading to the eastern Euphrates region in support of local tribesmen in the fight against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - September 1, 2023 (NurPhoto/Edited by Enab Baladi)

Tribal fighters mobilize in Aleppo countryside before heading to the eastern Euphrates region in support of local tribesmen in the fight against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - September 1, 2023 (NurPhoto/Edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

Since the control of the last strongholds of the Islamic State group in 2019, the areas of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have lived relatively stable, as the American support and presence in them prevented the front lines from igniting on a large scale, while the aerial bombardment decreased, with the exception of specific strikes targeting leaders in the SDF or ISIS, in contrast to the areas controlled by the Syrian opposition in northwestern Syria.

Despite the deterioration of the economic situation, it did not reach the level of the economic crisis that afflicted the areas controlled by the Syrian regime, despite the sporadic protests to improve the service and living conditions.

This image of relative stability hides behind it a sea of ideological and political unrest and chaos, which erupts from time to time, after which the SDF tries to contain and manage crises with American guidance or support.

However, the crisis of Arab representation and the intervention of the PKK leaders in managing the joints of areas where the SDF does not have a popular incubator recently worsened in Deir Ezzor and reached a direct clash with clan groups that suddenly found themselves besieged without the leaders of the first row of the Deir Ezzor Military Council (DMC), Those who have been arrested or besieged by the SDF.

Arab clan calls for solidarity with the Deir Ezzor Military Council, and confronting the SDF gave a national character to this clash, although the DMC is part of the SDF, which includes other components of various nationalities, and Kurdish leaders manage the decision-making joints in it.

In this file, Enab Baladi discusses with specialized think tank fellows and analysts the outcome of the military confrontations between the SDF and the Arab clans, whether it is an ideological confrontation or internal fighting, the possibilities of its development or containment, and its impact on the region in the future.

Beyond the Deir Ezzor Military Council

From the first moment of the dispute, which began with the arrest of the leader of Deir Ezzor Military Council (DMC), Ahmed al-Khbeil (better known as Abu Khawla), the SDF tried to portray the problem as just a new security campaign it is carrying out in the region against ISIS.

The clans of Deir Ezzor had a different position, as clans from the region allied with the DMC fighters against the SDF, and military clashes that were described as “violent” began in some villages and towns of Deir Ezzor, which were completely out of the control of the SDF, then the forces returned to contain the tension in them.

The depth of clan solidarity reached the governorates of al-Hasakah, al-Raqqa, and Aleppo, as some clans and tribes declared their support for the “Council,” not in support of its leader Ahmed al-Khbeil, but rather in hostility to the SDF.

The General Coordinator of the Supreme Council of the Syrian Clans and one of the sheikhs of the Jabour tribe, Sheikh Mudhar al-Asaad, told Enab Baladi that the Arab clans deployed in the south of al-Hasakah, specifically in the al-Shaddadi area, have begun to move against the SDF in support of the clans of Deir Ezzor, including the Jabour tribe, Baggara, al-Mushahadha, al-Jawana, al-Zubaid, and other clans.

Al-Asaad added that the tribes and clans of the region are still awaiting a larger move, targeting the SDF’s checkpoints militarily in the region and cutting off the roads connecting al-Hasakah and Deir Ezzor by preventing military supplies from reaching the area where the battles are taking place.

Dozens of Arab tribesmen who joined the SDF defected from it on the second day of the confrontations, according to al-Asaad, in response to the clans’ demands.

He attributed the reasons for the defection to the fact that the people of the region are actually “forcibly recruited” by the SDF, based on examples, the latest of which was a massive campaign of arrests against members of the Jabour tribe in the city of al-Shaddadi, east of al-Hasakah, in order to prosecute those who evaded military service.

Although the DMC is part of the SDF and carries its ideas with regard to the opposition factions and the Syrian regime forces, factions of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), which has extensions in the eastern region, rushed to support the Deir Ezzor clans, by opening a battlefront against the SDF in the city of Manbij, east of Aleppo.

Manbij witnessed security tension due to the background of clashes and battles between fighters from the tribes and the SDF, accompanied by the exposure of the surrounding villages to raids that were said to be Russian.

Calls were also issued by the Sheikh of the Baggara tribe, who is close to Iran and the Syrian regime, Nawaf al-Bashir, calling for defection from the SDF and support in its fight.

The sheikhs and notables of the clans present in the SDF areas called to rise up against it, among them the Sheikh of the al-Ukaidat tribe, Ibrahim Jadaan al-Hafel, who called on all the Arab clans to stand “one man.” ​​He said that this movement is tribal in the absolute sense and not, as the SDF claims, that it consists of terrorist cells.

Al-Hafel called on the US-led International Coalition, on behalf of the clans in Deir Ezzor in general and the al-Ukaidat tribe in particular, to form a military leadership council from the trustworthy notables of the Deir Ezzor clans and the military with capabilities.

Tribal fighters mobilize in Aleppo countryside before heading to the eastern Euphrates region in support of local tribesmen in the fight against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - September 1, 2023 (NurPhoto/GettyImages)

Tribal fighters mobilize in Aleppo countryside before heading to the eastern Euphrates region in support of local tribesmen in the fight against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – September 1, 2023 (NurPhoto/GettyImages)

The DMC leader, Ahmed al-Khbeil, has many violations as he deserves a trial by the region’s clans, but not at the hands of the SDF run by the PKK, which in turn committed grave violations against the region’s Arab clans.

Sheikh Mudhar al-Asaad – General Coordinator of the Supreme Council of Syrian Clans

Why was al-Khbeil removed?

Three days after the armed confrontations, on August 30, the SDF announced the dismissal of the leader of the DMC, Ahmed al-Khbeil, through an official statement.

According to the statement, the decision to isolate al-Khbeil came after “complaints filed by the people and residents of Deir Ezzor against him,” without referring to the first-row DMC leaders who are being held by the SDF in al-Hasakah.

The official announcement attributed al-Khbeil’s dismissal to his commission of “many crimes and transgressions related to communication and coordination with foreign parties hostile to the revolution.”

The Syrian researcher Muhannad al-Katea, who hails from al-Hasakah governorate, told Enab Baladi that the reasons for the dispute go back to the emergence of al-Khbeil several weeks ago, challenging the SDF and threatening a military escalation against it, which the latter did not remain silent about, despite reaching a settlement at the time.

Al-Khbeil’s threats of escalation in Deir Ezzor prompted the SDF to lure him and arrest him along with other leaders of the DMC, which led to an explosion of the situation at the hands of al-Khbeil’s supporters in Deir Ezzor, where “ethnic and tribal fanaticism was used to mobilize against SDF.”

The dismissal decision came days after al-Khbeil was arrested in al-Hasakah, after he was invited, along with other DMC commanders, to attend a meeting at the al-Wazir military base in al-Hasakah, according to what Jalal al-Khbeil, Abu Khawla’s brother, said in a video recording circulated by activists on social media.

Samer al-Ahmad, a fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, published a series of tweets through his personal account on the X (formerly Twitter) platform, in which he said that the SDF move is a dangerous escalation in the region, aimed at weakening the tribal tide, which has begun to materialize in several recent developments.

Al-Ahmad, who covers the eastern Euphrates region, added that the escalation is “a real test of the strength of the clans and their reaction to the de facto authorities, and it may constitute a new opportunity to extract the rights of the people of the region from the SDF, which has exhausted them with economic and security restrictions several years ago.”

Omran’s fellow believes that the SDF is trying to eliminate the power and influence of the DMC in the same “treacherous” way that it eliminated the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade and in the same way that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) swallowed the opposition factions in northwestern Syria.

Regarding the possibility of the SDF plan succeeding in surrounding the DMC, al-Ahmad said that it is related to “the reaction of the tribes of the region, which constitute the popular support for the Council and its leadership.”

Syrian regime forces in the border city of al-Bukamal, east of Deir Ezzor - November 21, 2017 (SANA)

Syrian regime forces in the border city of al-Bukamal, east of Deir Ezzor – November 21, 2017 (SANA)

Ideological or internal disagreement?

The SDF did not officially clarify its operations against the DMC or the clan groups supporting it and adhered to its official version that the operations were against groups affiliated with ISIS or cells sent by the Syrian regime.

In its attempt to support its version of the events, Hawar News Agency, which is close to the SDF, interviewed members and leaders to talk about the course of events in Deir Ezzor, without mentioning that the battles are taking place between the DMC itself and its forces.

The DMC members and leaders talked about the regime’s efforts to intervene in the region and the SDF’s fight against it, referring to the statement made by the former opposition and the leader of what is known as the “clan lions,” Nawaf al-Bishr, supported by Iran, west of the Euphrates.

Al-Bashir had tried to mobilize the people of his Baggara tribe, who are divided between the two banks of the Euphrates, which are controlled by the regime in the west and the SDF in the east, through a video recording published by local news accounts.

The dispute developed from the perspective of the tribesmen, after calls for its notables to stand against the SDF, into an Arab-Kurdish dispute, which prompted factions of a tribal nature within the National Army (in the countryside of Aleppo) to stand by the DMC even though it is an essential component of the SDF, which is hostile to the Turkish-backed National Army.

The Syrian researcher, Muhannad al-Katea, told Enab Baladi that the DMC must first be viewed as one of the formations established by the SDF in Deir Ezzor.

Ahmad al-Khbeil derived his influence and strength within this formation and in general through the unlimited support of the SDF for him to be “the most prominent and powerful influential figure in the region,” with the aim of implementing the plans of the parent faction in it, al-Katea says.

What is happening in eastern Syria today is internal fighting within the SDF formations themselves, and not a conflict between Kurdish and Arab components, especially since most of the SDF fighters who were forced to confront the Deir Military Council are also Arabs.

Muhannad al-Katea – Syrian researcher

Ibrahim Kaban, Kurdish researcher and director of the Geostrategic Network for Studies, told Enab Baladi that the “propaganda” published by media outlets affiliated with many parties over the days of escalation contributed to transforming the problem in the region into an ideological dispute.

He added that this “propaganda” is not new, but today, it has been accompanied by an escalation in the region, as it has always targeted the east of the Euphrates to cause national or religious strife.

Kaban believes that many parties are trying to exploit the events east of the Euphrates, and this can be seen when monitoring the media close to the regime, Turkey, some Syrian opposition media, and even the Turkish media.

The evolution of SDF allegations

During the first moments of Abu Khawla’s arrest, the SDF announced the launch of a security campaign called “Strengthening Security,” which included the entire areas east of the Euphrates without referring to the relationship of the DMC in it.

With the issue of the arrest of the leader of the DMC getting out of control and the news of his arrest leaking through his brothers, the events turned into a violent reaction in Deir Ezzor, which developed the SDF version of the events into a campaign targeting the ISIS sleeper cells.

And while the video recordings and statements of clan solidarity with the town of al-Izba, north of Deir Ezzor, due to its siege by the SDF, were spreading, the latter was talking about that its security campaign itself had developed to include “outlaws, drug dealers, and ISIS cells, under the supervision of the International Coalition.”

On the evening of August 31, the narrative developed again, as the SDF held the Syrian regime responsible for the events in the region.

An official statement published by the SDF on its official website stated that its forces “are taking additional measures to pursue armed groups that infiltrated villages in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor from the western bank of the Euphrates River, and began mobilizing to attack our forces in the villages of the eastern countryside,” noting that the regime is the one who sends them.

Anas Shawakh, a fellow at the Jusoor for Studies Center, told Enab Baladi that several reasons could stand behind the SDF covering the reality of events in the region.

In previous similar cases, it used the cover of security operations to fight or pursue ISIS cells to achieve goals or interests of its own, which the SDF made during the demonstrations that took place in Raqqa governorate about two months ago, said Shawakh.

The SDF suddenly announced a security campaign to pursue ISIS’s cells in Raqqa, during which the movement’s organizers and a large number of its participants were arrested.

Shawakh added that a second reason may stand behind the SDF’s reservation, as the SDF is trying as much as possible “not to cut the lines of return with the DMC as it is not sure of its ability to resolve the situation by using force during this process.

In view of the course of events, it may be forced to partially restructure the Deir Ezzor Military Council by returning some leaders without accountability to control the area after the escalation therein, according to Shawakh.

He added that the SDF announcement that its operation is targeting the DMC may embarrass it later.

A US army soldier alongside residents from the eastern region of Syria - December 23, 2022 (CENTCOM)

A US army soldier alongside residents from the eastern region of Syria – December 23, 2022 (CENTCOM)

The Deir Ezzor Military Council (DMC) was established in 2016 by members of the Arab tribes (Al-Ukaidat, Baggara, Jabour, al-Mashahda, Bu Shaban). The beginning was in the form of small groups in the city of al-Shaddadi, which started to expand in the areas of northeastern Syria by luring the locals of areas controlled by ISIS, mostly former Free Syrian Army members and ISIS opponents.

Later, the DMC joined the SDF in its military battles against ISIS, whose military weight was concentrated in Deir Ezzor, and with the defeat of ISIS from the region, the DMC was stationed in the governorate from which its fighters hail from.

Where is the International Coalition?

On August 31, five days after the confrontations, the International Coalition led by the United States of America called for calm and an end to the clashes between its allies in Deir Ezzor and to focus on fighting ISIS.

The Coalition said in a statement that the Combined Joint Task Force in the Inherent Resolve Operations Room is closely monitoring the events in northeastern Syria, while the focus of work with the SDF is still on “ensuring the fight against ISIS.”

In its statement, the Coalition stated that “the violence in northeastern Syria must stop,” adding that this “distraction” from fighting the sleeper cells of the Islamic State raises fears of its revival.

The role of the Coalition forces, according to the statement, is limited to providing “advice, assistance and empowerment to the partner forces” in order to defeat ISIS.

The statement disavowed any role of the Coalition in the battles taking place in the region, while the SDF said at the beginning of the events that its security operation in the region is taking place in coordination with the International Coalition.

The Inherent Resolve Operations Room did not answer questions posed by Enab Baladi since the first day of the confrontations about the role of the International Coalition in the interacting events in the region.

Jusoor’s fellow, Anas Shawakh, believes in this regard that the Coalition forces are aware of this operation and its details for several reasons, especially since the SDF indicated the Coalition’s participation in it.

Shawakh added that the arrest of the DMC leaders was carried out in two stages and at two International Coalition bases.

The first at the al-Omar Oil Field base, where Khalil al-Wahsh, Abu Khawla’s deputy, was arrested, and the second at the al-Wazir Rest House base in the al-Hasakah countryside, where the general headquarters of the SDF Command was built and the residence of its leader, Mazloum Abdi.

Therefore, Shawakh asserted that the Coalition was aware of luring “Abu Khawla” to its military bases in al-Hasakah and Deir Ezzor and that these bases had previously been prepared after assurances from the International Coalition.

The researcher believes that the International Coalition had previously called on the SDF and the DMC to mediate in resolving the previous dispute between them about a month ago, so it cannot be said that the Coalition did not intervene, but rather it is still supervising and following up at least on this process.

Why would the Coalition get involved?

The DMC’s violations have always been at the forefront of the events in the areas controlled by the SDF in Deir Ezzor during the past years, including the management of smuggling operations between the two banks of the Euphrates River and others related to the rights of the local people, which the SDF has tried to shed light on recently.

The most prominent of these violations was in mid-December 2022 when the villages in northern Deir Ezzor witnessed security tension that lasted for days after the bodies of two girls were found in the area whom the DMC was accused of kidnapping earlier.

The region witnessed protests that lasted for days, during which armed men from the Baggara tribe threatened to escalate against the DMC and its leader, “Abu Khawla,” according to a video recording published by the local Nahr Media network.

The militants also mentioned during the video that the DMC is responsible for the liquidation of young men from the area and attributed the liquidation operations to the ISIS cells in the region.

Although al-Khbeil played a role in the SDF’s control of the region, he reached another stage that aroused the ire of the general command of the parent faction against him, as his influence increased in the region, and he became a strong and popular figure in Deir Ezzor, Osama Sheikh Ali, a specialist in northeastern Syria and a fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi in a previous interview.

Sheikh Ali added that it is possible that the SDF had exploited the card of “Abu Khawla” violations and his “suspicious relations” to obtain US approval to remove him from the region.

The SDF imposed a curfew in the town of al-Sabha, east of Deir Ezzor, and other villages, coinciding with military confrontations (Enab Baladi/Obada al-Sheikh)

The SDF imposed a curfew in the town of al-Sabha, east of Deir Ezzor, and other villages, coinciding with military confrontations (Enab Baladi/Obada al-Sheikh)

New Territory?

The Autonomous Administration divides the areas controlled by the SDF in northeastern Syria into three main regions: the Euphrates, al-Jazira, and Afrin.

The SDF mainly controls the provinces of al-Hasakah, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, and parts of Aleppo, and the DMC influence at the security level is increasing in Deir Ezzor province.

The Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade used to administer parts of Raqqa governorate until the SDF launched a security campaign against it that led to its complete termination.

While the al-Sanadid forces, formed from the Shammar tribe, control parts of the eastern countryside of al-Hasakah along the Iraqi borders.

Ibrahim Kaban, the director of the Geostrategic Network for Studies, told Enab Baladi that the features of giving a kind of independent administration to the Arab tribes east of the Euphrates recently is a result of the experience gained by the SDF from the Arab-Kurdish disputes in Iraq previously.

The researcher suggested that this administration would extend from the vicinity of the US-run al-Tanf garrison to the Raqqa governorate, along the border with Deir Ezzor, which is the area inhabited by the Arab clans, of course.

He added that the dramatic transformations taking place in Deir Ezzor governorate recently have a direct relationship to the granting of this administration to the Arab tribes by the United States.

No solution can be reached regarding the burning problem in Deir Ezzor today except by granting the Sunni Arab tribes more administration and representation in the region from Deir Ezzor to Raqqa.

Ibrahim Kaban – Director of the Geostrategic Network for Studies

Kaban added that this new region is required to establish a “Sunni belt” in the areas where Iranian-backed militias are proliferating, mainly in Deir Ezzor, and the governorate of Raqqa and the city of Manbij may join it, which is likely to be within this belt, as it is subject to the same nature.

The project aims to end the state of Arab-Kurdish conflict in the region, according to Kaban, as he believes that the new entity must be achieved, provided that it is not in conflict with the SDF.

To avoid a larger confrontation

Iranian militias surround the SDF areas from several axes, and some of them, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, have previously stated that they will support the “popular resistance” in the region to fight the American presence in it and the SDF it supports.

At the beginning of last July, there was repeated talk about America’s intention to start a military operation that would connect the al-Tanf base east of Homs to the areas of American influence east of the Euphrates, along the Iraqi border.

While these analyses did not have an echo in the Western media, this information found its way to the Syrian regime’s media, as the analytical reports related to the assumed response of the “resistance axis” to possible US attacks in eastern Syria topped the front pages.

Washington, in turn, denied planning any military action in the region through the press secretary of the US Department of Defense (Pentagon), Air Force Brig. Gen Pat Ryder, on August 17, when he said that protecting the Syrian-Iraqi border is not among the tasks of the US forces present in Syria.

Despite American denials, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a televised interview that America had increased its military presence in Syria to target Iranian militias on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border.

This was preceded by the speech of the director of the SDF’s media office to the Al-Yaum channel on August 17, when he said that his faction would not engage in any military operation against Iran in Syria, pointing out that its main mission is “to maintain security and stability in the Syrian arena.”

At the time, researchers read the SDF’s refusal to move against Iran in Syria as due to the PKK’s relationship with controlling the joints of the SDF’s administration, as the SDF has a good relationship with Iran, unlike the Arab tribes of the region.

Mustafa al-Nuaimi, expert in Iranian affairs, believes that the recent confrontations between the SDF and the Deir Ezzor Military Council are not far from the conflict with the Iranian militias, as the SDF refuses to confront Iran, while the DMC does not mind.

The SDF held the stick in the middle for fear of losing the geography that the Iranian militias besieged it within.

Mustafa al-Nuaimi, Expert in Iranian affairs

He said that the SDF’s operations against the DMC fall within the “SDF’s messages” to the Syrian regime and Iran that it will not engage in any project to confront Iran, as al-Nuaimi believes that the attack on the Deir Ezzor Council may aim to spare the region a new escalation.



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