The precedent of Deir Ezzor Military Council threatens SDF’s centrality

Fighters from the Deir Ezzor Military Council during celebrations marking the control of the town of al-Baghouz nearly five years ago - March 23, 2024 (Syrian Democratic Forces)

Fighters from the Deir Ezzor Military Council during celebrations marking the control of the town of al-Baghouz nearly five years ago - March 23, 2024 (Syrian Democratic Forces)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which is the political umbrella for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), promised reforms in its areas of control in Deir Ezzor province following military confrontations witnessed in the region, setting a six-month period to accomplish these reforms. However, these promises have not been implemented on the ground despite seven months since their announcement.

The promises for reforms were made by AANES in October 22, 2023, against the backdrop of armed confrontations stirred up by opposition from tribal members to the presence of the SDF, which erupted aiming to resolve this opposition.

The Civil Administration affiliated with the Autonomous Administration in Deir Ezzor held a conference called “Enhancing Security and Stability Towards Developing and Consolidating Participatory Governance in Deir Ezzor” at the time, with participation from a delegation from the Autonomous Administration, another from the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), and members from civil and military institutions, tribal leaders, and political parties in the province.

The most prominent promise made at the time was the restructuring of the Deir Ezzor Military Council under its control, which was triggered by the arrest of its leader, Ahmad al-Khabil, by the SDF leading to armed confrontations for about a month, the repercussions of which are still evident in the region today.

While the SDF tries to present the Deir Ezzor Military Council’s name as being active again in the province’s scene, and that there are no internal issues within it, it has not yet managed to complete the restructuring, and the faction that once controlled parts of Deir Ezzor, representing the region’s tribes, remains undermined.

Where has the course of negotiations reached?

According to information obtained by Enab Baladi from former leaders in the Deir Ezzor Military Council who attend meetings with SDF leaders aiming at restructuring, the course of negotiations remains unclear. The SDF aims to merely maintain the Deir Ezzor Council without any real influence on the ground.

Two military sources who attended the restructuring negotiations told Enab Baladi that the course is still unclear and expect to come out with a restructuring announcement next week, without providing details about what the new faction would look like, or the leaders nominated for leadership positions in it, if the upcoming round of negotiations set for May 12th is successful.

A third leader in the Deir Ezzor Military Council refused to provide information to Enab Baladi before the upcoming meeting between the parties, but he indicated that the next meeting is determined to accomplish the new restructuring, and it is expected that the parties will reach a final result unless the SDF leadership tries to impose dictates on the former leaders of the Deir Ezzor Council who are present at the meeting, leaving them freedom of action and choice.

He added that the local parties’ trust in the Deir Ezzor Military Council is not high regarding the representatives from the parent faction (SDF), but the presence of an International Coalition coordinator responsible for achieving satisfactory results for both sides is what the council leaders are betting on.

The leader refused to provide any details about the coordinator’s role or the extent of influence they have on the course of negotiations.

Ahmad al-Ahmad, a political activist living in Deir Ezzor, a former mediator in the prisoners and detainees file between the people of Deir Ezzor and AANES, and knowledgeable about the negotiations aimed at restructuring the Deir Ezzor Military Council, told Enab Baladi that he and others approached the SDF and SDC with a set of demands.

The local parties’ demands included restructuring the Deir Ezzor Military Council, activating the role of locals in all areas, and genuinely involving the people of Deir Ezzor in managing service, civil, and health institutions, among other demands.

He added that despite seven months since the launch of the promises, no part of them has been actually achieved, due to a focus on personalities and tribal leaders who confiscate people’s rights while pursuing their personal interests.

Al-Ahmad started an initiative with other locals to restore trust between the residents and the region’s leadership, and to enhance security there.

He added that the SDF’s leadership informed the local parties, including him, to present academics to seriously address and correct the mistakes made in the region recently, which the local parties are striving to achieve today.

Enab Baladi contacted the media center of the SDF to obtain answers about the reasons for the delay in restructuring the Deir Ezzor Military Council, and did not receive a response at the time of editing this report.

Deir Ezzor is marginalized

More than nine months have passed since the armed confrontations in Deir Ezzor province, during which the SDF made numerous promises for reform to absorb the anger of the region’s tribes, who aligned with the Deir Ezzor Military Council.

Over the past months, no change has occurred in the region, although the leader of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, admitted, in September 2023, the Autonomous Administration’s neglect in managing the region during a meeting with Reuters agency, acknowledging widespread shortcomings in the inclusivity of the local councils for various tribes.

During the same period, Abdi spoke to Al-Mashhad channel (based in Dubai) about errors in the SDF’s management of Deir Ezzor, which has a tribal nature, after an uprising led by local residents, including SDF elements, against the Kurdish faction controlling the east of the Euphrates.

The rift caused by the SDF’s policies in the region was accompanied by attempts by the Syrian regime and Iran to woo the tribes, exploiting the Arab victimization in Deir Ezzor.

For years, the Arab component has been represented in the Autonomous Administration by Arab personalities loyal to it, which did not fulfill the aspirations of the region’s Arab tribal residents during the years of Kurdish forces’ control over the region.

The SDF and the Autonomous Administration face accusations of excluding the Arab component and conducting demographic changes in northeastern Syria since its establishment in 2016, but the latter denied all these accusations through its leader, Mahmoud Barqadan, describing them as “malicious accusations”.

Threat to SDF centrality

The ongoing standstill at the threshold of completing the restructuring repeatedly reflects a mix of unwillingness and inability to complete it due to several factors and contexts that play a directly influential role in re-establishing the Deir Ezzor Military Council at the forefront of Deir Ezzor.

Samer al-Ahmad, a researcher specializing in northeastern Syria affairs at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that the armed confrontations between the SDF and its affiliated Deir Ezzor Military Council at the end of August 2023 provided a “serious indicator” to the SDF leadership that its central authority is threatened.

He added that the broad powers that the SDF granted to the Deir Ezzor Military Council and the Civil Council have started to threaten its central existence and full control over the areas where its forces are spread, after the council turned into a direct enemy.

Al-Ahmad sees that the SDF’s fears first came because the Deir Ezzor Military Council appeared to be independent in its decisions, far from the parent faction, to the extent that it started consulting the International Coalition on combating Iranian militias in East Euphrates towns where the latter are based, and other regional issues.

Primarily, the SDF’s fears focused on the possibility of the International Coalition supporting the Deir Ezzor Military Council as an independent entity, similar to the mechanism supporting the Free Syrian Army at the Al-Tanf military base in eastern Homs, the only forces supported by the Coalition in Syria outside the SDF umbrella, and not linked to it in relations or coordination, according to what the faction’s leader previously told Enab Baladi.

The researcher, Samer al-Ahmad, considered that the concerns cannot be limited to the Deir Ezzor Military Council alone, as the latter’s potential coordination with the Coalition means that its other councils might follow the Deir Ezzor Council example and seek to coordinate with the Coalition and become independent from the parent faction.

The SDF consists of military councils, each spreading across an area or canton, as the SDF calls it, like the Manbij Military Council, the Tel Rifaat Military Council, and others.

Three possibilities

Within the complex military, security, and even service scene in the areas under the control of the SDF in Deir Ezzor, Anas Shawakh, a researcher specializing in Kurdish affairs at the Jusoor for Studies center, summarized the reasons for the obstruction of restructuring the Deir Ezzor Military Council into three possibilities.

Shawakh told Enab Baladi that one possible reason could be the SDF’s inability to establish a tribal quota that would satisfy the components of Deir Ezzor for restructuring the council, especially since the Deir Ezzor Military Council in its old form was marred by many tribal disputes. However, its leader, Ahmad al-Khabil, managed to balance the disputes despite opposition from many components to his leadership.

He added that Iranian movements aiming to infiltrate the SDF controlled areas east of Deir Ezzor could also be one of the reasons for the hindrance, as the Iranian-backed militias stationed west of the Euphrates River have managed to penetrate among the area’s components and could play a role in influencing the restructuring.

The third possibility is old-new and consists of objections by members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to the establishment of a new military entity in Deir Ezzor, after the old one that had battled with the SDF, according to Shawakh.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party controls the decision-making levers in the SDF, but the latter’s leaders always deny their connection to the Kurdish party.

Besides the above, the people of Deir Ezzor carry their political fears of the Syrian regime’s return to control the province, as the tribes east of the Euphrates River in Deir Ezzor province have participated in the Syrian revolution since its outbreak in 2011.

Amid these fears of the three parties controlling the geographic area surrounding these tribes, the locals are turning to the International Coalition (formed of 86 countries, led by the United States) in hopes of achieving cooperation with it and managing their region themselves.

These tribes demand cooperation from the International Coalition as it cooperates with the Free Syrian Army faction.

Those demanding this cooperation are trying to convince the International Coalition that the local people are capable of fighting the Islamic State organization and, unlike the SDF, they can also combat the Iran-backed militias stationed on the western bank of the Euphrates River, on the outskirts of their villages and towns.

 

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