Eastern Syria usually makes the headlines when the self-styled Islamic State group (IS) carries out an attack or clashes break out between Washington and pro-Iranian targets.
For more than a week, Syria’s eastern governorate of Deir Ezzor — especially the Kurdish-held areas on the eastern bank of the Euphrates — has shared international headlines with anti-government demonstrations in Sweida and Daraa, but for different reasons.
A lingering resentment between Kurdish forces, which make up most of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — backed by Washington in its anti-terrorist fight against IS — and local “Arab tribes” has culminated in a series of clashes, and could reshuffle the cards in the region.
Although uncertainty lingers over the conflict, it is certain the repercussions of the Aug. 27 arrest of an unpopular Arab warlord there go beyond a mere incident.
Officially, the conflict began nearly 10 days ago. Ahmad al-Khabil, aka Abu Khawla, head of the Deir Ezzor military council — a predominantly Arab SDF-affiliated militia — was arrested at a meeting of senior Kurdish officials, along with several of his lieutenants. He was accused of several irregularities, including corruption, mismanagement of security in the region and drug trafficking.
The situation escalated when members of his tribe — whom some media consider the most influential in the region — were joined by other Arab fighters in attacking SDF positions in several localities.
The clashes resulted in the deaths of dozens of fighters on each side, with the death toll rising to almost 90 by Sept. 6, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. That day Kurdish-led forces declared “the end of military operations.”
Expelling the Kurds
Abu Khawla is widely accused of corruption and criminal activities, so this incident probably does not signal local support for the warlord, but it does reflect the anti-Kurdish resentment felt by residents of the predominantly Arab provinces where the semi-autonomous administration extended its control after driving out IS in 2019, in cooperation with Washington.
“There is no doubt that the Arab tribes are trying to make their voices heard through the recent escalations, which was not the case in previous years,” said Omar Abu Layla, founder of the Deirezzor24 website. “Today, these military clashes send a clear message about the significant divide between the SDF and the Arab tribal component.”
Marginalized in the region’s administration, Arab tribes have been demanding a share in the decision-making process for several years, while denouncing Kurdish forces’ monopolization of profits from the oil fields they control in the northeast of the country as well as business mismanagement and corruption.
It is possible that, concerned by these demands, the SDF arrested Abu Khawla with the aim of dissolving “the Deir Ezzor Military Council, which is viewed as a local umbrella that provides a degree of autonomy for the Deir Ezzor region from the [Kurdish-administered region.,” noted Haian Dukhan, lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Teesside in the United Kingdom.
According to reports from New Lines media, the arrest was directly prompted by the discovery of a project led by Abu Khawla aimed at expelling the Kurds from the region in collaboration with other actors from Deir Ezzor and neighboring governorates, some of whom have links with the Assad regime.
Far from being an isolated incident, this episode sheds light on conflicts of interest and power struggles among several regional and international actors in the governorate and its surrounding territories, all seeking to fuel or capitalize on the ongoing clashes to advance their own agendas.
“Any internal friction within the SDF, especially between the Kurdish and Arab components, is good news for Turkey, Russia, and the regime,” said Armenak Tokmajyan, a non-resident researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Turkey, which supports anti-regime militant factions, aims to oust the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, a primary component of the SDF, which Ankara sees as a Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it considers a terrorist organization.
Since the arrest of Abu Khawla, attacks on the northern Syrian city of Manbij, which Kurdish forces attribute to Turkey, have killed several internal security forces personnel in the semi-autonomous region. Russia has also carried out airstrikes.
In the eyes of the Syrian regime, backed by Moscow and Tehran, the recent developments provide an opportunity to contain the Kurds with the aim of regaining territories rich in natural resources.
With Damascus controlling the west bank of the Euphrates, Kurdish forces have explicitly accused “elements of the regime and some allies” of Abu Khawla of being responsible for the unrest.
According to the investigation conducted by New Lines, key tribal leaders have recently reestablished ties with the Assad regime, especially since its return to the Arab fold, signaled by his presence at the Arab League summit in Jeddah in May.
With the help of its sponsors, the less-isolated Syrian state is pursuing the expulsion of American troops stationed in the country. Drawing on classified documents leaked on the Discord social media platform, The Washington Post disclosed the project in the spring.
These leaks suggest Damascus and its allies are preparing a coordinated campaign to incite anti-American uprisings in northern and northeastern Syria. Iranian militias, deeply entrenched in the region, have long coveted the American base at al-Tanf, located at the border between Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. With American troops and their allies gone, the region could serve as a crucial transit point for Tehran’s proxy forces to move their weapons from neighboring Iraq.
This has caused some concern in Washington. Its 8-900 troops are officially in Syria to prevent the resurgence of IS cells, but the US has other objectives.
“There are underlying motives tied to preventing Iran and Russia from achieving full control over Syria and benefiting from its oil and gas resources. “The US is undoubtedly leveraging its presence in eastern Syria to counter a potential full-blown Iranian dominance that stretches from Iraq to Lebanon, aiming to disrupt this sphere of influence in the region.”
Less than a month ago, Tehran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias accused the US army of secretly sending reinforcements to the Ain al-Assad air base in western Iraq with the aim of locking down the Iraqi-Syrian border.
For his part, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who is close to Tehran, said that his country no longer needs “foreign combat units” within its borders to combat the threat of IS.
To consolidate their gains in the region, US troops are seeking to avoid a rebellion within the ranks of their allies at all cost. Last Sunday, two American officials met with leaders of the SDF and Arab units in Deir Ezzor in an attempt to calm things down. While some fragmented Arab units are keen to unite under a single banner to persuade Washington that they can handle domestic issues without the SDF, the US seems far from considering this option.
“Washington is inclined to maintain a unified force under the SDF and to resolve internal disputes through negotiation rather than having two separate entities governing the north-east,” said Tokmajyan, particularly since the unanimous participation of the region’s Arab forces is not guaranteed.
“The US will not allow any disruption in the management of the region,” said Abu Layla. “They are trying to find logical solutions and coexistence between all the components, despite the corruption of many SDF leaders or their dependence on many foreign leaders in their ranks.”
This story first ran in French in L'Orient-Le Jour, translated by Joelle Khoury.