Old fears fuel dispute between Deir Ezzor tribes and SDF
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
More than four months have passed since the armed clashes in Deir Ezzor governorate, during which the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a major party in the conflict, have made numerous promises to address the grievances of the local tribes, who aligned themselves with the Deir Ezzor Military Council (a component of the SDF and the other party in the conflict).
However, during these four months, no changes have occurred in the region, despite the admission by SDF commander Mazloum Abdi last September to Reuters that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (the political umbrella of the SDF) had failed in managing the region. He also acknowledged widespread deficiencies in the representation of various tribes in local councils.
During the same period, Abdi spoke to al-Mashhad channel (based in Dubai) about the mistakes made by the SDF in managing Deir Ezzor, with its tribal nature. This was after an uprising led by locals, including elements within the SDF, against the Kurdish faction that controls east of the Euphrates River.
The rift caused by the SDF’s policies in the region has been accompanied by attempts by the Syrian regime and Iran to win over the tribes, exploiting the Arab grievances in Deir Ezzor governorate.
On November 29, the SDF held an extensive meeting with representatives of the International Coalition against ISIS and the elders of the al-Akidat tribe in Deir Ezzor. The meeting mainly focused on discussing the ongoing events in the Deir Ezzor area, especially the attempts to incite discord among various components of the region using different denominations and sectarian slogans. The SDF also decided to restructure the Deir Ezzor Military Council.
Enab Baladi contacted a former prominent leader in the Military Council who agreed to provide information on the condition of anonymity, on the condition that his name and position are not mentioned. He stated that the SDF leadership preferred restructuring the current council rather than forming a new one, given the dominance of tribal influences. The restructuring will rely on former leaders, and no new faces will emerge in the council.
He further added that if the SDF decides to restructure the council in a way that meets the demands of the region, it will have to replace all foreign staff members who oversee the security situation in Deir Ezzor. There are many foreign leaders from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (most of whom do not speak Arabic) in the region.
The SDF will seek to appoint a figure from the Deir Ezzor tribes to lead the council to avoid appearing as if it is carrying out a retaliatory process against the Arab component in response to the armed clashes witnessed in Deir Ezzor and their ramifications that continue to this day.
Samer al-Ahmad, a researcher at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that when the SDF formed the Deir Ezzor Military Council in 2016, it relied on individuals from the Bakir clan, which is part of the al-Akidat tribe in Deir Ezzor, during its battles against the Islamic State at that time. Since then, Ahmed al-Khabeel (Abu Khawla) has been leading the council.
The SDF’s reliance on the Bakir clan, which naturally includes families opposed to the representation of the clan by Ahmad al-Khabeel, has sparked anger among the al-Hafel family, who are also from the same clan. This is the case for other families or tribes in Deir Ezzor, including individuals who work for the regime’s benefit, as well as others who work for the interests of the United States, Turkey, or Iran, according to al-Ahmad.
With the outbreak of clashes between the SDF and the Deir Ezzor Military Council on August 27, sparked by the arrest of Ahmed al-Khabeel, the Bakir tribe called for his release, and young people from the tribe took to the streets to block the roads leading to their villages, obstructing the passage of SDF military vehicles.
However, in the days following the clashes, the Deir Ezzor Military Council and Ahmed al-Khabeel were not among the top priorities for the tribesmen who took up arms against the SDF in Deir Ezzor. They were demanding the restoration of their rights that had been lost under SDF rule for years, according to researcher Samer al-Ahmad.
In addition to the above, the inhabitants of the area have been affected by rumors that have been circulating around them, claiming that the SDF intends to hand over the region to the Russians and Iranians, which they consider a threat to their interests.
Researcher Samer al-Ahmad summarized the concerns of the people of Deir Ezzor into three categories. The first is the fear of Iranian influence and its proxies entering the region to gain control. This constitutes an “ideological fear” because the tribes of Deir Ezzor extend into Iraq, and the people from this region in Syria know what it means for Iran to control a specific area through their relatives in Iraq.
The researcher believes that there are other fears of a nationalist nature held by the tribes of Deir Ezzor towards the SDF, considering it as an armed Kurdish faction that is seen in the region as attempting to exclude Arab nationalism, which is the majority of the population.
In addition to the above, the researcher considers that the people of the region also hold political fears of the return of the Syrian regime to control the province, as the tribes of the eastern Euphrates in Deir Ezzor were among the participants in the Syrian revolution since its outbreak in 2011.
Within the context of these concerns emanating from the three forces that control the geographical area surrounding these tribes, the people of the region are trying to approach the International Coalition (composed of 86 countries, led by the United States) to achieve cooperation with it and manage their own region.
These tribes demand the cooperation of the International Coalition with them, as it cooperates with the Free Syrian Army (an Arab opposition faction to the Syrian regime) at the al-Tanf base in eastern Homs province, according to the researcher.
These demands for cooperation aim to convince the International Coalition that the people of the region are capable of fighting the Islamic State and, unlike the SDF, can also combat the Iranian-backed militias located on the western bank of the Euphrates.
The oil fields in Deir Ezzor governorate have long been considered the most productive in all of Syria, to the extent that they currently constitute the majority of the SDF’s oil production, according to researcher Samer al-Ahmad.
In addition to the oil wealth, the region itself has high agricultural production. It can be said that the areas controlled by the SDF in Deir Ezzor alone account for more than 50% of the total economic income achieved by the SDF in its entire areas of control.
Apart from the economic, nationalist, and ideological reasons mentioned earlier, the researcher believes that the economic concerns for the people of the region are a main cause of the hostility they harbor towards the SDF.
Al-Ahmad said that Deir Ezzor produces approximately 50% of the SDF’s budget, but in this annual budget, only 16% is allocated to the province itself.
He further added that the Deir Ezzor province has not witnessed a significant displacement movement. This is due to the large number of human resources it possesses, as it has become a destination for displacement after the regime’s control of the western bank of the Euphrates River, which has increased its population.
The researcher believes that the economic policy of the SDF in Deir Ezzor has made migration to Europe via Turkey a destination for the youth in the region, similar to other areas under the Syrian regime’s control. Nevertheless, there is a difference in the economic and productive capabilities between the two regions.
The absence of the International Coalition has also contributed to the deteriorating economic situation in the region. The researcher stated that Deir Ezzor came under the control of the SDF with the support of the Coalition at the expense of the Islamic State. Thus, it is an area exempted from sanctions, and there should be a development plan to address the effects of IS in the region, according to the researcher.
In May 2022, the US Treasury Department approved allowing activities in 12 sectors, including agriculture, construction, and finance, in northeastern Syria, controlled by the SDF, and areas in northwestern Syria controlled by the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA).
The US Department’s decision allowed for some foreign investments in areas located in northern Syria and outside the control of the regime’s government. These areas were considered strategic in achieving economic stability and defeating the Islamic State.
Despite the demand for services in the region, Deir Ezzor still suffers from a severe lack of services. The SDF has not built any new hospitals, and the locals have had to build one at their own expense.
No restoration work has been carried out in schools, and Deir Ezzor has a deteriorating educational situation regarding educational services.
The need for intervention by the Coalition
During the early days of the armed clashes in Deir Ezzor, the International Coalition led by the United States called for de-escalation and an end to the clashes between its allies in the fight against IS, the SDF, and the Arab tribes.
The Coalition stated in a statement that the Joint Task Force in Operation Inherent Resolve is closely monitoring the events in northeastern Syria while the focus of its work remains on ensuring the fight against the IS organization.
Researcher Samer al-Ahmad believes that the International Coalition dealt with the problem in Deir Ezzor as an “internal issue between the components of the SDF and preferred not to intervene. Meanwhile, the SDF tried to bring together tribal notables who are loyal to it with the International Coalition to convey the message it desired rather than the actual messages held by the tribal members.
He pointed out that Iran is working to confine the conflict between itself and the United States in the open area extending between Deir Ezzor and al-Hasakah, similar to what has happened in Iraq before. Iran has managed to introduce security cells affiliated with it to the same area, according to the researcher.
The researcher believes that Iran is now moving into the region to turn it into a “conflict zone” with the United States, and this is something that the International Coalition must take into account today.
He added that this type of risk can only be avoided by gaining popular support, not by shelling houses with heavy weapons or carrying out mass arrests as the SDF has been doing in Deir Ezzor for months.
The researcher emphasized the need to “protect the society” against the breaches Iran is seeking to carry out through development programs and governance. This is the only defense against the Iranian breach that has actually occurred in the region.
The Military Council of the SDF held its regular meeting on November 29 in the presence of its General Commander Mazloum Abdi. The meeting extensively discussed the faction’s readiness for a “potential war” and rejected turning the region into a battleground between international parties.
The Press Secretary of the US Department of Defense (The Pentagon), Colonel Pat Ryder, stated in a recorded press conference on November 27 that Iranian proxies are trying to exploit the war in Gaza to achieve their own goals.
In the case of Iraq and Syria, these groups have long aspired to see US forces leave, according to Ryder. He noted that the presence of US forces in Iraq was based on an invitation from the Iraqi government and focused solely on defeating the Islamic State without referring to the justifications for its presence in Syria.
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