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'A volcano': Arab grievances in Syria's Deir Ezzor pit US allies against each other

Arab tribal leaders tell MEE the US-backed SDF's failure to address local grievances sparked bloody fighting
Members of Syrian Democratic Forces gesture as they move to al-Dhiban front line in Deir Ezzor province in eastern Syria, on 4 September 2023 (AFP)

Among the thousands of fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) streaming into Syria’s eastern province of Deir Ezzor to put down an uprising by Arab tribes are female fighters from the Women's Protection Units (YPJ). 

“It’s a big insult,” Hifl Abboud Jadden al-Hifl, a tribal elder whose nephew, Ibrahim al-Hifl, is on an SDF wanted list as the public face of the fight to oust the Kurdish-led alliance from the oil-rich region.

“They put them in our hometown just to send a message that our women will get you,” he told Middle East Eye over a phone interview. 

The comments are a sharp reflection of the acrimony brewing between two US allies in a forgotten corner of Syria: the SDF and Sunni Arab tribes that fought together with the US-led coalition to remove the Islamic State militant (IS) group from the region.

Now, long-standing complaints about corruption and political disenfranchisement at the hands of the SDF have erupted into violence that is destabilising the US-controlled part of Syria.

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'We have no problem cooperating with the international coalition'

- Sheikh Amir al-Bashir, a leader of Deir Ezzor’s Baggara tribe

“Anyone who was watching the deteriorating situation in Deir Ezzor wouldn’t have been surprised by this,” Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria told MEE.

“Arab grievances against the SDF go back years. Instead of the US addressing those concerns and moving Kurds out of Deir Ezzor and bringing in local Arab leaders, it sat on its hands,” he added.

The fighting broke out on 27 August when the SDF detained Ahmad al-Khabil, better known as Abu Khawla, the controversial head of the Deir Ezzor military council, amid suspicion he was conspiring to oust the SDF from the region, MEE has previously reported.

But analysts and tribal leaders tell MEE that the fighting in Deir Ezzor speaks to wider grievances of the region’s Sunni Arab majority against Kurdish rule.

'People can't buy bread'

“The people of Deir Ezzor are suffering. Corruption is everywhere," Mahmoud Meslat, a Syria expert at Oberlin College who hails from a prominent Arab family in the region, told MEE.

"People can’t even afford to buy bread and they are being totally ignored by the coalition,” Meslat added. 

SDF Deir Ezzor
Syrian Democratic Forces in al-Dhiban in Deir Ezzor province in eastern Syria, on 4 September 2023 (AFP)

The uprising in Deir Ezzor is not against the US, tribal leaders from the al-Hifl and Baggara tribes told MEE. Their main demand is an end to SDF rule and the creation of an independent military council made up of local Arabs that can coordinate security and economic assistance directly with the US. 

“We have no problem cooperating with the international coalition, but it must be under the leadership of people in the region and with a total rejection of SDF forces,” Sheikh Amir al-Bashir, a leader of Deir Ezzor’s Baggara tribe fighting the SDF alongside the al-Aqeedat tribe, told MEE.

As of Tuesday, the fighting in Deir Ezzor centred around the towns of al-Hawaij and al-Diban, two bastions of support for the al-Aqeedat. In telegram channels affiliated with the tribe viewed by MEE, audio messages have called on tribal members in Turkey and other parts of Syria to join the fight against the SDF.

'What the US has done so far is try to pretend none of the fighting happened' 

- Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Syria

“The tribal region has become a burning volcano. It’s like a rolling ball of fire that won’t stop unless our demands are met,” added Bashir, who spoke with MEE via WhatsApp from his base in Sanliurfa Turkey.

Deir Ezzor is a fertile, resource-rich region that is home to some of Syria’s only oil fields. The US maintains military bases at the Conoco gas field and al-Omar oil field. Deir Ezzor was the last major stronghold of IS.

In 2017, the SDF fought alongside local Arab tribes with US backing to remove the group from the province.

Today, Deir Ezzor is split along the Euphrates River. The US and its allies hold the eastern bank, while Syrian government forces and their Russian and Iranian allies control the west. Because of its position next to Iraq, it sits on lucrative smuggling routes, the control of which has enriched local commanders.

Tensions between the Arab community and SDF have been simmering since the defeat of IS.

The tensions are partly economic. In interviews with MEE, leaders of the Baggara and Akaidat tribes complained of widespread corruption and accused the Kurdish-led group of hijacking Deir Ezzor’s natural resources.

Deir Ezzor
A child suffering from cholera receives treatment at Al-Kasrah hospital in Syria's eastern province of Deir Ezzor, on 17 September 2022 (AFP)

The US-backed SDF is a multiethnic Syrian force, but its backbone is the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. The Syrian YPG has close ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long war for independence against Turkey.

“The biggest problem in Deir Ezzor is the dominance of the PKK party and its control over the military and civil bodies in the region,” al-Bashir of the Baggara tribe told MEE, adding that the region’s economic resources were being diverted to fund the PKK and that drug smuggling was rampant.

The US’s ties to the SDF are a major irritant in relations with Nato member Turkey, which views the SDF as an extension of the PKK. While the US considers the PKK a terrorist organisation, it refuses to cut ties with the SDF, which Washington sees as its most effective ally against IS remnants.

US mediation

Critics have also accused the SDF of governing undemocratically and violently suppressing peaceful protests.

The staunchly secular, Kurdish majority SDF has also clashed with the traditional and more conservative Arab population in Deir Ezzor. There are reports the SDF has attempted to draft Arab women into its ranks and has tried to prevent the re-settlement of Arabs to Deir Ezzor by forcing them to have a Kurdish sponsor to live in the area.

Critics say the US has failed to address the concerns of its Arab partners. Bassam Ishak, a representative in Washington DC of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the civilian counterpart of the SDF, denied the government in the autonomous Kurdish region was specifically targeting Arabs and said complaints about corruption should be addressed peacefully. 

'The tensions today are a byproduct of the US’s inability to define what the ‘counter-IS mission is'

- Gregory Waters, Syria expert, Middle East Institute

On Sunday, senior State Department official Ethan Goldrich and Major General Joel Vowell, who heads the coalition against IS, released a statement saying they had met Arab tribal leaders and SDF commanders and agreed to "address local grievances" and "de-escalate violence as soon as possible and avoid casualties”.

But in an interview with Al Jazeera Arabic, Musab al-Hifl, one of the leaders of the Akaidat tribe fighting the SDF, said no members of his tribe, one of the largest in Syria, were present at the gathering.

“Basically what the US has done so far is try to pretend none of the fighting happened and dozens of people haven’t been killed. They think they can just go back to square one,” said Ford, the last US ambassador to Syria and noted sceptic of the US military presence.

“I don’t see any evidence that the US is willing to address the Arab’s calls for reform,” Ford said, adding that he believed the US was siding with the SDF over the tribes. “I don’t see the US threatening to cut off arms supplies to the SDF. It’s clear they have empowered one side of the conflict.”

Experts say the US’s approach to the fighting speaks to the bigger question of what the US’s endgame is in Syria.

'Take it by force'

US troops arrived in the northeast in 2015 as part of Operation Inherent Resolve to eradicate IS. Although the so-called "caliphate" was territorially defeated in 2019, around 900 US troops and more military contractors remain in the region where they train the SDF and carry out raids on IS sleeper cells.

Critics of the mission have dubbed it another of America’s "forever wars". Because US casualties are low, the US presence has drawn little public attention and congressional efforts to end it have failed to gain traction.

SDF special operations troops and US-led coalition take part in military exercises in the countryside of Deir Ezzor, on 25 March 2022 (AFP)

While the official justification for the US footprint remains the defeat of IS, experts say the US is unwilling to withdraw its troops because Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies would likely step in. The Bashar al-Assad government has publicly stated its aim is to drive the US out of Syria.

The US is also concerned that a pullout could lead to a fresh Turkish incursion against the Kurds. Turkey has carved out a big chunk of northern Syria where it backs Arab rebels. Ankara’s military and administrative footprint dwarfs that of the US. 

'We don’t want the Iranians or Russians here. The only thing keeping them out is the US flag'

- Hifl Abboud Jadden al-Hifl, al-Aqeedat tribal elder

“The tensions today are a byproduct of the US’s inability to define what the ‘counter-IS mission is,” Gregory Waters, an expert on IS in Syria and non-resident scholar at Middle East Institute, told MEE.

“The US says it’s not in Syria for state-building so it refuses to wade into internal Kurdish-Arab disputes that it doesn’t consider an immediate threat to the anti-IS operation,” he added. 

Meanwhile, with the fighting raging in Deir Ezzor, Washington’s foes sense an opportunity.

Hifl Abboud Jadden al-Hifl told MEE that he has urged fighters to reject outreach from Assad and Russia. “I don’t want the Iranians or Russians in Deir Ezzor. The only thing keeping them out is the US flag,” he told MEE.

Kurdish officials accuse the Syrian government and its Iranian allies of fuelling the conflict.

The al-Hifl tribe has ties with Damascus and an Iranian-backed faction of the Baggara tribe, led by Nawaf al-Bashir, has supported the uprising. On Tuesday, al-Aqeedat sources told MEE that Ibrahim al-Hifl, who has been leading the fight, fled to Syrian government-controlled territory. 

In an interview with Al Arabiya on Monday, the SDF General Commander Mazloum Abdi said the US-led coalition had provided air support against fighters in support of the SDF.*

Hifl Abboud Jadden al-Hifl told MEE that air strikes against fighters trying to cross the Euphrates from Syrian government-held territory have taken place. 

A spokesperson for US Central Command referred MEE to press statements condemning the violence but didn't mention air strikes.

Waters said Assad has been trying unsuccessfully for years to flip Deir Ezzor’s Sunni tribes, but doesn’t have the resources amid an economic crisis. Damascus is struggling to address protests in government-controlled parts of the country.

The tribes lack the SDF’s heavy weaponry, but Ford cautioned the US against banking on an SDF military victory to restore order.

“The SDF taking Deir Ezzor back by force doesn’t end this. The tribal grievances are still there," the former ambassador said. 

*An earlier version of this article erroneously said 'air strikes' instead of 'air support'

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