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PoliticsMiddle East

Syria's Deir el-Zour: Unrest quelled without shared road map

September 9, 2023

The latest clashes were fueled by years of discontent and power struggles. Analysts, however, link the future of the oil-rich region to more than just collaboration of Arab tribes and Kurdish rulers.

An ISIS propaganda video showing Islamic State militants during battles along the border of Iraq and Syria
Northeast Syria is home to Islamic State fugitive cells, under Kurdish-led control with an Arab majority population. Image: ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

Chances are high that the clashes between Arab tribes and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, in Syria's northeastern region of Deir el-Zour won't escalate in the coming days.

On Thursday evening, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi told the news agency Reuters that he had met the leaders of local Arab tribes and would honor their request to set dozens of local fighters free. "We decided to issue a general amnesty for those involved," he said. "We already released half that were arrested, and we will release the rest," Abdi added.

His promise referred to those Arab fighters who had revolted against the arrest of Ahmed al-Khbeil, better known as Abu Khawla. Until the SDF detained the Bakir tribe leader in late August over criminal activity charges, he had been the head of the SDF-subordinated Deir el-Zour Military Council.

Abdi also pledged to restructure the civilian council of the province as well as the Deir el-Zour Military Council to make them more "representative of all the tribes and components in Deir el-Zour."

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 54 people have been killed in the clashes.

A SDF fighter sits on an armed vehicle in Deir e-Zour.
SDF forces are trained and equipped by the US, which is not popular among the Arab majority in the region.Image: Aboud Hamam/dpa/picture alliance

More than a sectarian strife

While the release of the Arab fighters might end the clashes for now, Julien Barnes-Dacey, researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, or ECFR, doesn't see that this truly addresses the underlying issues.

"The short-term answer involves talks and new arrangements between Kurds and Arabs on the ground," Barnes-Dacey said. "But there are wider differences that are blocking a sustainable solution and raising the prospect of ongoing tensions and clashes down the line," he said.

Syria has been mired in a devastating civil war which started in 2011 when forces of President Bashar al-Assad cracked down on civilian protesters. After initial defeats, Russia joined the war in 2015 and has since been successfully supporting Assad, together with Iran. The US entered the war the same year in a bid to fight the terror group Islamic State in Syria with the support of local Arab militias and the Kurdish-led SDF in the country's northeast.

Despite the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria in 2019, the US has been maintaining a base with some 900 troops in Deir el-Zour who continue to support, train and equip the SDF.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (left) with the Russian deputy foreign minister Michail Bogdanow (right)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russian deputy foreign minister Michail Bogdanow maintain close relations. Image: SANA/dpa/picture alliance

However, the US-Kurdish alliance has caused much dismay among the Arabs in the region.

They say that they feel neither represented — despite a handful of Arabs in leading SDF positions, like Abu Khawla — nor do they feel that they have been benefiting sufficiently from the revenues of the nearby Al-Omari oil field.

Syria's largest oil field was captured from the Islamic State group in 2017 and has been under the rule of the SDF since.

"Locals have been complaining for years that their [Arab] participation in the autonomous administration is for a good part window dressing and that SDF cadres exercise their power heavy-handedly," Heiko Wimmen, Syria project director at the non-governmental conflict prevention organization International Crisis Group, told DW.

"Another complaint by locals is that the fight against ISIS is often abused to settle scores or empower some groups over others," he added.

In turn, he regards the current clashes only in parts as an Arab-Kurdish ethnicity problem.

"They have much more to do with the SDF's organizational culture," Wimmen said, adding that in other majority Arab areas, such as the city of Raqqa, the SDF has had a better reading of local dynamics and players.

This view is confirmed by one of the protesters in Deir el-Zour who asked to not publish his name for fear of retribution. "Our uprising is against the massive problems and violations by the SDF, and we do not care about the SDF's problem with Ahmed Al-Khabeil," he said. "Our region, our customs and our clans reject the policy of the SDF," he added.

He also said that the situation was fueled by a recent push for a new school curriculum "that serves the interest and agenda of the SDF". "What we want is to live in dignity, without being dominated by a foreign group," he said.

A US military vehicle on a patrol in Deir e-Zour
The US-backed Kurdish Democratic Forces are widely unpopular in the Arab-majority region of Deir e-Zour.Image: Baderkhan Ahmad/AP/picture alliance

No shared road map

Meanwhile, analysts link the future of the strategically and economically important region to other political actors as well. 

A key concern for Syria's northeast remains the widely defeated Islamic State. For years, fighters have been hiding in fugitive cells from where they carried out multiple low-level attacks against civilians. Researchers have no doubt that they could try and gain momentum once they see an opportunity.

Also, a recent report by the Washington-based think tank The Institute for the Study of War highlights Iran's, Russia's, and the Syrian regime's shared interest in the departure of U.S. forces from Syria.

"The US presence is of high strategic value, without it, even a solid alliance between the SDF and the tribes would not be enough to keep Assad out," Wimmen says. 

Also, neighboring Turkey could again increase their attacks on the Kurdish autonomous region in Deir el-Zour, Barnes-Dacey warns.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed his support for the Arab tribes. "Deir el-Zour's true proprietors are the Arab tribes and their actions are a struggle for dignity," he told Turkish media earlier this week.

However, as of now, the US also show no signs of considering a withdrawal or waning support for the SDF. "We ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS through partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces," the US embassy to Syria tweeted earlier this week.

Omar Albam contributed to this report from Syria.

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Jennifer Holleis is an editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.