Years of simmering tensions between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and local populations in northeast Syria have exploded this week into still-expanding battles across much of Deir ez-Zor. The current violence was triggered by the SDF’s Aug. 27 arrest of Ahmed al-Khubayl (“Abu Khawla”), the emir of the Bakir tribe and commander of the SDF’s Deir ez-Zor Military Council. Five days later the chaos shows no sign of subsiding — in fact it appears to be spreading as more towns and clans take up arms against the SDF. The roots of this crisis are multilayered and complex, reaching back years. The region defies simple labels, but at its core most people here are fervently against Bashar al-Assad’s regime as well as ISIS — both of which have committed innumerable crimes against the population. And whatever their feelings toward the SDF, they have for years requested direct coalition engagement with local leaders and communities. Describing the fighting as a Kurdish-versus-Arab conflict ignores that first, some clans remain allied to the SDF, second, Arabs in Raqqa and Hasakah remain on the sidelines, and third, many of the SDF fighters dying this week are Arabs from elsewhere in the northeast.
Rather, the current violence is a repudiation of the entire SDF system as it has been employed in Deir ez-Zor, not just the Kurdish leadership. These grievances are well documented and go back years, rooted in abusive and exploitative practices by both the Kurdish leadership and many of the Arab SDF leaders they back, SDF killings and arrests of innocent civilians, a general lack of protection against ISIS attacks and assassinations targeting local leaders, and neglect for the region’s economy and services. It is not a simple issue of Arabs chafing at Kurdish rule — though the above grievances may often be expressed using sectarian rhetoric. One has to look no further than the initial lack of Arab solidarity over Abu Khawla’s arrest. Abu Khawla spent the last several years expanding his support base across Deir ez-Zor, always working explicitly within the SDF system, gaining new supporters outside his own clan thanks in part to his control over the legal and illegal economy and ability to provide better protection for his followers. Yet within hours of his arrest and calls for retribution, nearly every non-Bakir element had either reaffirmed its loyalty to the SDF or declared neutrality. It would seem that Abu Khawla’s money could not buy loyalty from a population that abhorred his abusive and corrupt methods.
Renewed violence breaks out
The first 24 hours, therefore, saw the most intense fighting confined to the towns belonging to Abu Khawla’s Bakir clansmen. It was only after increasing reports of indiscriminate SDF attacks and mounting civilian deaths that a wider mobilization of tribal fighters began to take shape. Stories from the towns of Izbeh and Daman in particular seem to have resonated deeply across the region. In Izbeh, locals reported indiscriminate shelling and sniper fire resulting in the death and injury of more than a dozen civilians during the SDF’s three-day siege of the village. In Daman, Kurdish special forces that were trained by the United States military allegedly killed a family of four in retaliation for the death of eight soldiers and their Kurdish commander. Initial reports, spread widely on social media, claimed the Kurdish unit had carried out door-to-door searches, killing and abusing civilians along the way. Subsequent reporting, however, seems to indicate that the murders were isolated to one house.
The stories of these deaths and rumors of SDF executions, regardless of their veracity, have resonated deeply within these communities, which for years have seen Arab and Kurdish SDF members firing on peaceful protestors and killing innocent people during anti-ISIS operations. Every dead child and every new rumor of SDF executions mobilizes more men and makes any possibility of a so-called return to normal that much more distant. Late on Aug. 30, the sheikh of the large Akidat tribal confederation, which dominates SDF-held Deir ez-Zor, broke his silence. Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hifl, a long-time ally of the SDF and victim of past ISIS assassination attempts, released an audio statement in which he called on all tribes and clans in Deir ez-Zor to unite under one banner against the SDF. Such calls for inter-tribal unity have not been heard since the initial uprising against Damascus in 2011. Hifl’s call represents a key turning point in this conflict, likely ending the possibility that the violence could die out on its own. As journalist Mohammad Hassan writes, “The motive for the entry of the clans is not to support Ahmed al-Khubayl […] but from their conviction that the goal of the Autonomous Administration is to eliminate the Deir ez-Zor Military Council […] and the killing of civilians during their military operations.”
Local tribal alliances and divisions
Now the fate of Deir ez-Zor likely rests on the decisions of the Shaytat and Baggara tribes. The Shaytat, alongside the Bakir, is one of two powerful components of the Akidat confederation, together with a variety of smaller clans. The Shaytat appears to have increasingly thrown its weight behind the tribal forces since Hifl’s statement. In the two days since, the SDF has been expelled from every Akidat and Shaytat community stretching from the Khabour River to the Iraq border. The Baggara tribe, which is not part of the Akidat confederation and whose members have long been split among every side of the war, remains divided. While some members began attacking SDF positions early on Aug. 31, other leaders have made explicit statements in support of the SDF, with most remaining neutral. Late on Aug. 31, the head of the Baggara, Sheikh Hashim al-Bashir, released a statement calling for a ceasefire and the creation of a shura council to conduct negotiations.
It is not clear that either side is ready to talk, nor that they could find common ground if they did. As long as local forces continue to expel the SDF from their towns and leave scores dead, they have little incentive to give into the SDF’s demands for a return to normal. For its part, the SDF leadership appears to have no plan other than deploying more soldiers and heavy weapons against these communities. Both the military and civilian leadership in Qamishli has taken to labelling the militants as “Damascus infiltrators,” “ISIS” members, and “mercenaries,” claiming that this minority of “hostile infiltrators” is seeking to “tamper with civil peace and coexistence.” Various regime and ISIS sleeper cells have likely joined in the fighting — either portraying themselves as tribal fighters or conducting their own attacks — yet it is undeniable that the vast majority of the fighting is being conducted by regular locals.
A Chance for Coalition Mediation
The fighting must end, but the people of Deir ez-Zor cannot be expected to accept the conditions that led to this situation in the first place. This leaves the United States and the international coalition in a delicate but critical position. The U.S. has an interest in stopping the violence, even if that entails mediating between both sides. The coalition’s continued presence in northeast Syria and its partnership with the SDF is predicated on the counter-ISIS mission, and therefore concerns over the impact this crisis will have on ISIS should be paramount. In that sense, any partial resolution that ends the fighting but does not address the underlying issues will only serve to bolster ISIS cells. Were the SDF to simply return as rulers by force it would likely result in a “Daraa scenario,” where ISIS cells are able to exploit local hatred and a weak security presence to hide and operate among communities’ own insurgents. More importantly, such a partial resolution would firmly end the coalition’s ability to build effective local intelligence networks to root out ISIS leaders.
A full resolution to this conflict requires the coalition to do what it has explicitly avoided for years: engage with the Kurdish administration on deep political and administrative reforms. Such actions have been firmly viewed as outside the U.S.’s mandate in the northeast in the past. However, the current crisis is unprecedented and undeniably directly impacts the mission to defeat ISIS as well as the coalition’s ability to operate effectively. Whatever path the coalition takes, it must remember that Deir ez-Zor’s revolt is not a revolt against the coalition or in favor of some other external actor. It is a result of years of growing tensions over mistreatment and corruption by both the local and central authorities. These tensions are not unique to Deir ez-Zor and have been playing out in both Arab and Kurdish communities across the northeast in less violent manners in recent years. Prior to Aug. 27, none of these gradual patterns of disengagement with Qamishli threatened to collapse the entire governance structure — simply to weaken it. But the years of ignoring these internal issues is now clearly hindering the coalition’s ability to fight ISIS. Perhaps the violence in Deir ez-Zor can lead to a more creative and locally driven approach to the northeast that, in the end, will see the creation of a more resilient governance and security structure.