How regional conflict controls rules of engagement on Euphrates banks

A regime forces headquarters in the town of al-Duwair, east of Deir Ezzor on the western bank of the Euphrates River - January 16, 2024 (Enab Baladi/Obada al-Sheikh)

A regime forces headquarters in the town of al-Duwair, east of Deir Ezzor on the western bank of the Euphrates River - January 16, 2024 (Enab Baladi/Obada al-Sheikh)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

Armed clashes periodically ignite between militias loyal to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) positioned on the western bank of the Euphrates River in Deir Ezzor province, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) supported by the International Coalition on the eastern bank of the river.

One of the latest confrontations was witnessed on the banks of the river on March 19, when the SDF shelled the city of al-Mayadeen, following a similar bombardment launched by the Iran-backed militias towards their areas of control east of the river.

The confrontations seem to be governed by rules of engagement, as they have neither escalated nor ceased, while official comments from the Syrian regime about what is happening in its areas of control in Deir Ezzor are absent.

In mid-February, the SDF said in a statement published by its media center that it thwarted an infiltration attempt by a group of “mercenaries supported by the security apparatus of the Syrian regime” towards the towns of Dhiban, al-Khashma, and al-Sha’fah, across the Euphrates River.

The statement added that they managed to force the group to withdraw to the western bank of the Euphrates River, where the Syrian regime controls after inflicting a number of deaths and injuries on them, but the regime did not comment on the event.

What are the roots of the problem?

In August 2023, the eastern and northern countryside of Deir Ezzor witnessed armed battles between fighters from the Deir Ezzor Military Council supported by Arab tribal fighters and the SDF, under whose umbrella the council is enlisted.

The two sides clashed in various geographical areas, but the confrontations were primarily concentrated in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, which is directly adjacent to areas controlled by the Syrian regime.

The confrontations followed the arrest of the Deir Ezzor Military Council commander, Ahmed al-Khabil (Abu Khawla), after a dispute that lasted more than two months, while the first-rank leaders of the council were besieged in the city of al-Hasakah.

Days after the confrontations, the name of the council completely disappeared from the armed clashes, leaving the SDF and fighters from the local tribes, led by one of the sheikhs of the Bakara tribe, Ibrahim al-Hafel, who is accused by the SDF of allegiance to the Syrian regime.

Since then, the Syrian regime has tried to utilize its loyal militias in the region, such as the Lions of the Tribes militia established by the former opponent and one of the tribal leaders of Bakara, Nawaf al-Bashir, which always tried to portray itself as supporting what it called “the uprising of the tribes of Deir Ezzor.”

On the other hand, Musab al-Hafel, the brother of Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hafel (resident in Qatar), denied to the Qatari Al Jazeera channel any relationship between the Arab tribal movement and the Syrian regime or Iran, indicating that the tribal movement emerged to demand their rights and stop the SDF from its practices in the region.

To this day, the Syrian regime’s forces and the Iran-backed militias west of the Euphrates provide fire cover for fighters allegedly affiliated with Ibrahim al-Hafel, who attacked SDF sites east of the Euphrates River.

Coupled with a regional factor

The armed confrontations on the Euphrates coincided with a US-Iranian escalation that affected the region. Militias loyal to Iran continued to target US military bases daily, and the United States responded by striking these militia headquarters repeatedly until it stopped at the beginning of February following a widespread US attack that included 85 targets in Syria and Iraq.

Osama Sheikh Ali, an assistant researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, believes that the ongoing escalation between the two banks of the Euphrates is largely linked to regional factors, most notably the escalation between the United States and Iran.

He added that SDF elements were previously killed during the targeting of Iran-backed militias at the al-Omar Field base, where US forces are stationed east of Deir Ezzor, prompting Washington’s ally in Syria to be a party to the escalation and to maintain its presence and not appear as a weak side, but it maintains the rules of engagement in the region.

At the same time, the Syrian regime attempts to be present on the front lines, exploiting the pressure that the Iranian militias impose on the SDF in Deir Ezzor, via tribal fighters who cross the Euphrates to carry out operations in SDF controlled areas.

The researcher added that the appearance of the SDF in a state of weakness is due to pressures from various directions, such as Turkish escalation in the north, attacks by the Islamic State organization in the east, and attacks by tribal fighters. Therefore, the regime tries to exploit these pressures to gain concessions from the SDF, especially since negotiations between the two sides have been completely suspended for about a year.

No pursuit of open confrontations

Since its inception, these confrontations have not seen a pivotal change in the course of events, nor witnessed qualitative strikes or wide-impact repercussions from either side, as they are limited to armed skirmishes and mutual shelling with medium weapons.

Researcher Osama Sheikh Ali believes that neither side is trying to turn the confrontations into an open war, but the parties to the escalation continuously attempt to exert pressure on the opposing side.

Sheikh Ali told Enab Baladi that the SDF has the same perspective towards the Syrian regime, as it tries to exert pressure on it through the contact line existing in Deir Ezzor, considering that the Syrian regime is currently not in its best state.

In turn, the regime does not dare to escalate extensively in areas east of the Euphrates due to the repercussions of the Gaza war. It tries to distance itself from it amidst the presence of US forces supporting Israel in the region.

Despite the pressures attempted by the parties, the researcher believes that the parties may also try to send messages to each other. However, at the same time, he sees that the gains that can be obtained through such an escalation are very limited.

Why Deir Ezzor?

Despite the security tension experienced by the banks of the Euphrates River in Deir Ezzor province, both parties are positioned in joint military points in other provinces such as al-Hasakah and areas in the countryside of Aleppo.

The city of Tal Rifaat in northern Aleppo is an example of the military forces’ intermingling, where the regime’s forces and the SDF share military checkpoints and points spread along the contact lines with the Syrian National Army (SNA) supported by Turkey.

Regime forces also deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border in al-Hasakah province, others in the city of Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) east of Aleppo province, and have a presence in the security squares within the cities of al-Hasakah and Qamishli, deep in SDF-controlled areas.

Researcher Osama Sheikh Ali attributed the condition of the interlacing of forces and deployment in the northern Syrian region, and the enmity in Deir Ezzor province in particular, to the line of contact between the sides along the Euphrates River being an area of Iranian influence, with an American zone of influence, and therefore it is subject to controls related to the regional tension in the area.

The situation of the deployment differs for the parties in other provinces such as al-Hasakah and Aleppo countryside, as Russia is positioned alongside regime forces in these provinces, with Iran being effectively absent.

For Russia, there is currently no desire for escalation in any Syrian geography.

The researcher considered that the regime’s escalation against the SDF in other areas where it is deployed could result in a loss of this positioning, which it does not desire, especially with the proximity of Turkish military forces to these areas. At the same time, it does not want to anger the Russians through operations that lead to some form of escalation.

On the other hand, it is not in the SDF’s interest to pressure the regime in these areas, considering it faces a continuous Turkish threat of a military operation towards the region at any time.


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