Analysis: The SDF's Deir Ezzor challenge
Updated: Aug 25, 2019
By WLADIMIR VAN WILGENBURG
Text and photos by Wladimir Van Wilgenburg
ISIS lost its final stronghold in Baghuz in the province of Deir Ezzor in March 2019 at the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Nevertheless, a strong ISIS underground network continues to carry out attacks in the province, and other parts of the area east of the Euphrates.
For instance, on 8 August, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that ISIS carried out 43 attacks within 15 days in the east of the Euphrates. According to a monthly report of the Rojava Information Centre (RIC), ISIS carried out 48 attacks in Deir Ezzor in July, compared to 55 in June.
The Deir Ezzor Governorate is split by the Euphrates river with the east bank controlled and most of its oil resources held by the US-backed SDF forces and the Syrian government backed by Iran and Russia controlling the West bank with the city of Deir Ezzor and the towns of Abu Kamal and Mayadeen.
The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the division of Berlin between the Russians and the US after the defeat of the Germans after World War II. Although there is no wall dividing the two: only a river. But why is it difficult for the SDF to control this territory in Deir Ezzor? In a recent article, Elizabeth Tsurkov and Essam al-Hassan suggested that “the resurgence of ISIS in Iraq stemmed from Sunni disenfranchisement, and the same scenario could repeat itself in eastern Syria due to disenfranchisement of Sunni Arabs.” Three other articles were written by the journalist Shelly Kittleson seeming to suggest something similar - that the SDF should have allowed ‘local Arab forces’ to control Deir Ezzor’s countryside, such as an FSA group affiliated to Ahmad Jarba. This although Jarba’s group abandoned frontlines in Raqqa after ISIS attacks, and ceased to exist inside Syria in 2017.
Moreover, the FSA was not able to stop Nusra and ISIS from taking over Deir Ezzor, after 2012 due to its own disunity, corruption and bad planning. From 2014, ISIS controlled almost all of Deir Ezzor.
Why is it difficult for the SDF to control this territory in Deir Ezzor?
2003 Jihadist networks
These articles on Deir Ezzor ignore the reality that even before 2003 fighters were recruited in Deir Ezzor to fight against the US in Iraq after the fall of Saddam in 2003. Even prior to ISIS, Jihadist fighters returned from Iraq to Deir Ezzor and contributed to the growth of both ISIS and Nusra in the province.
Al Qaida documents show that that Deir Ezzor was an important transit point for jihadis hoping to infiltrate into Iraq, at least until 2006. Moreover, 34.3% of the Syrians al-Qaida recruited in before 2007 were from Deir Ezzor.
“The people have the mentality to work with such groups,” one SDF official explained. “In 2003-2005 people were recruited from Deir Ezzor and sent to Iraq to work with al Qaida. Some of them came back, and their families were affected by these ideas, so it’s easy for them to work with Nusra, and later with ISIS.”
Now the situation is even worse after ISIS controlled Deir Ezzor for several years. A report written by Rudayna Al-Baalbaky and Ahmad Mhidi also confirmed that "many of (ISIS) tribal members are still in their areas, enjoying the protection of their tribes against any possible retaliation from members in the Kurdish People’ Protection (YPG) Units or others who are loyal to the regime.”
Moreover, the US-led coalition quoted in a Pentagon Watchdog report also confirmed that ISIS in Syria “maintains some support among Sunni Arabs along the Euphrates River and other Arab-majority areas due to tribal affiliations.”
Furthermore according to a recent UN report, there are an estimated 800 ISIS fighters in the area east of the Euphrates.
The SDF acknowledges in private meetings that it’s difficult to control Deir Ezzor, where the SDF has an estimated 18,000 fighters in Kasra, Hajin, Suwar, and Shadadi, with a majority of Arabs, with some Kurds from Qamishli, Hasakah, and Kobani.
The SDF was actually pushed by the US-led coalition to fight ISIS in Deir Ezzor in 2017. The US did not want to have the oil-rich province fall under the control of Damascus and Iranian groups which would have helped Iran in establishing its so-called land bridge.
While the SDF was able to control the Omar oil field in October 2017, the SDF was not able to take Abu Kamal, which was taken by mostly Iran-backed groups in November, 2017. This divided Deir Ezzor in a Syrian government-held area, and a SDF held territory. A local SDF-backed council is now ruling the SDF-held non-urban area.
Deir Ezzor civil council leaders and even local municipality members have to deal with daily assassination threats and threatening messages by unknown phone numbers.
The nearby presence of Iranian-backed forces also makes it more difficult for the SDF to control the area. ISIS, Turkey, Iran, and Damascus all want to destabilize the area and want the SDF project to fail. These actors operate sleeper cells in these areas to spread unrest, protests, and carry out assassinations and attacks.
Already Arab fighters in the SDF and members of the Deir Ezzor Council have been assassinated – for example SDF commanders from Deir Ezzor Abu Ishaq al-Ahwazi in January 2019, and Yasser al-Dahla in July 2019. Also Marwan Fatih, the co-head of the Deir Ezzor council was killed in December 2018. Most SDF sources blame either ISIS or the Syrian regime and Iran for these acts and other such attempts in Deir Ezzor.
Deir Ezzor civil council leaders and even local municipality members have to deal with daily assassination threats and threatening messages by unknown phone numbers. This month the head of relations of the civil council,a prominent figure of the Bagara tribe, was targeted - but he survived. Leaders of the civil council have survived several assassination attempts. This makes it very risky for anyone to work with the SDF. Nevertheless, the council has 300 members all of them non-Kurds. "We have the Turks, Iranians, Syrian regime, Daash [Arab acronym for ISIS]. We don't know who the enemy is here," said Aram Hamma, a commander of the Syriac Military Council (MFS) that took part in the battle against ISIS in Deir Ezzor, and part of the operations room.
The US-led coalition also confirmed this in a new Pentagon Watchdog report released this month. The coalition said that "Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime, and ISIS seek to weaken the SDF by leveraging Arab grievances against it." These regime efforts to undermine the SDF could result in “overall failure to maintain the mission [against ISIS] in Syria,” the report read.
There were also attempts to create a tribal council in the SDF-held areas in Deir Ezzor, but this proved difficult since several tribal leaders for the tribal confederations of the Bagara and Agaidat are located in Turkey, Gulf countries, or in Damascus, such as Nawaf al-Bashir who switched from the FSA to Iran and the Syrian government in 2017. Mus'ab al-Hifil from the Agaida confederation is in the Gulf, while his younger brother Ibrahim Al-Hifil is still in Deir Ezzor. Creating a tribal council without the main leaders could lead to problems among the tribes. The SDF-linked administrations also have limited support for doing reconstruction in the areas they have liberated. This can also be used by ISIS to recruit fighters, the Coalition acknowledged in a Pentagon Watchdog report. It was therefore not a surprise that the Syrian government tried to use protests in Deir Ezzor last May as propaganda against the SDF. Also pro-Turkish government media tried to utilize the protests to damage the SDF reputation. This again shows that both Damascus and Ankara have interest in damaging the SDF.
The fact that the local administration in northeast Syria and the SDF are still not recognized and that there is still a risk that US president Donald Trump will withdraw from Syria also hurts local confidence in the SDF.
Some Arab tribes and leaders in Deir Ezzor want guarantees from the SDF for the future before working with them. But the SDF is not able to give guarantees or recognition for the future for the Kurdish majority areas, let alone for Deir Ezzor.
When Turkey threatened to attack, the SDF also threatened to withdraw forces from areas like Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. This raised a fear in Deir Ezzor that the regime and Iran could enter since many younger residents fear regime conscription.
The fact that Turkey in March 2018 was allowed to occupy Afrin also damaged confidence among people in northeastern Syria. Also in Syria, many people took notice how the US did not stop Iranian-backed forces and the Iraqi army from taking Kirkuk from the Kurds in October 2017.
It should be mentioned that the protests in Deir Ezzor last May were not related to the SDF selling oil to Damascus due to opposition to the Syrian government. “They [some tribal members] said give the oil to us and we will sell it to the regime," a senior SDF advisor said.
Even under ISIS some tribes had certain privileges to sell oil, and now some tribal houses want this control over oil back. However, the SDF wants to centralize the natural resources and use it for all the seven regions of the SDF-held territories to pay the thousands of employees in the northeast. According to the report written by researchers Rudayna Al-Baalbaky and Ahmad Mhidi, ISIS was not able to prevent the Al-Bu Chamel tribe in Dhiban and the al-Gu'ran tribe in al-Tayanah, to monopolize the investment in oil in al-Omar field.
There were also conflicts among armed factions and tribes in Deir Ezzor before ISIS took control in 2012-2014. The SDF does not want to repeat this experience by giving privileges to certain houses of tribes.
Another reason for the protests were high fuel prices and lack of fuel compared to other areas under SDF control and lack of services. While Deir Ezzor has a lot of oil, they did not have the same price for fuel as other areas.
However, military conscription was not the reason that protests erupted in Deir Ezzor, as mentioned by the Pentagon report. Until now the SDF did not implement conscription yet in Deir Ezzor, since this could lead to widespread opposition in tribal areas.
Although more protests or even a popular uprising was expected by some journalists and media as mentioned in the Pentagon watchdog report, in fact protests died down in June after SDF commanders and the council managed to cool down tensions for the moment in Deir Ezzor.
The only way to prevent more disturbances in Deir Ezzor and sleeper cell attacks is to give more recognition to the SDF
To conclude, Deir Ezzor's situation is complicated. First of all, there are older jihadist networks dating back to the Iraq war and people in Deir Ezzor that joined ISIS under ISIS rule. There is also limited support for reconstruction in Deir Ezzor's countryside and internal divisions between the tribes.
ISIS, Iran, the Syrian government are also trying to undermine the SDF by targeting Deiris working with the SDF or the Deir Ezzor Civil Council. Therefore, the recent Pentagon Watchdog report warned that without additional Coalition force support, there is a danger that the anti-ISIS mission could fail. The only way to prevent more disturbances in Deir Ezzor and sleeper cell attacks is to give more recognition to the SDF, increase funding for the SDF, improve local governance in Deir Ezzor, and keep a continued US troop presence in Syria. Also the SDF needs coalition support to counter sleeper cells of the Syrian government and ISIS.
The SDF, or its political counterpart, the SDC could also be included in peace talks to give more legitimacy and recognition.
A potential agreement on a safe zone between the US, Turkey and the SDF could also help to prevent the resurgence of ISIS in Deir Ezzor, and retain a focus on the counter-ISIS mission. Any fighting between Turkey and the SDF could lead to a ISIS resurgence or the Syrian government and Iran taking benefit of the vacuum in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is an Erbil-based analyst of Kurdish politics, journalist at Kurdistan24, and co-author of the book The Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity and Conflicts published by IB Tauris in 2019. Follow him on Twitter @vvanwilgenburg