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Assassinations increase in Deir Ezzor


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The term ‘assassination’ describes an organized and deliberate murdering of a prominent figure of intellectual, military, and political influence. Assassinations are usually carried out for doctrinal, political, economic, or retaliatory reasons, targeting a specific person whom the assassins consider to be an obstacle that prevents them from spreading their ideas and fulfilling their aims.

Thus, assassination in history has tended to involve the killing of influential people, with a specific motivation. Over history, organized assassinations have hardly exceeded this frame.

By contrast, with regard to assassinations in the current context of incidents in Syria, Iraq, and other locations, and in view of statistics in Syria, and especially Deir Ezzor, revealed here, it may be said that assassinations in these areas mostly did not target specific figures. Rather, the victims’ general affiliation and orientation was the cause for their murder.

Nature of assassinations and controlling forces

Assassinations in Deir Ezzor are not limited to one group; however, we can observe and asses the sides which benefit from the assassinations, the assassinations timing, and messages. The campaign that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched with the support of the International Coalition against Daesh and its conquest of the last Daesh stronghold in al-Baghuz in 2019 stirred a desire for revenge and retaliation against the SDF among Daesh structures and those who cooperate with them. Given this, the most important element accused of assassinations in Deir Ezzor is Daesh, which is active especially in the countryside in this area. This is indicated by frequent arrests announced by the International Coalition and SDF. Some assassinations bear clear signs of Daesh involvement. Recently, nine cases of assassination by burning, stabbing with knives and blades, and five cases using explosives have been recorded.

However, it appears that the Daesh campaign of assassinations is only organized on a limited level, and there is no high coordination between all cells. Rather, the cells have one objective, but have different tactics and plans. Daesh usually refers to this tactic as that of ‘lone wolves.’ Describing the assassinations as being conducted by ‘sleeper cells’ does not always mean that the cells are affiliated with Daesh. In other words, the assassinations are carried out and the Daesh cells agree to take responsibility for them. The conflict of various powers in Syria, however, indicates the possibility that other parties are involved in the assassinations and benefit from insecurity in the area east of the Euphrates.

For instance, Turkey highly benefits from insecurity, the embarrassing of the SDF and International Coalition, and the creating of the impression that they cannot control the situation. Weakening the Autonomous Administration (AANES), which rules this area and which Turkey classifies as a branch of the terrorist PKK, on the political and military levels is one of Turkey's public aims Reports indicate that Turkey has provided facilitation for Daesh members.

The Assad regime also benefits from the situation to deliver messages to the controlling powers and society in the eastern Deir Ezzor countryside that the situation is untenable and that the SDF cannot maintain control of these areas.

This also satisfies the Russians who are pleased to embarrass the United States, and demonstrate that its allies in the SDF are unable to sustain security. Iran seeks to expand its leverage to other areas east of the Euphrates. The SDF may also be the beneficiary from or directly involved in assassinating former SDF fighters and Free Syrian Army members.

It is likely that Daesh cells conducted most of the assassinations, but with the support, motivating, and blessing of beneficiaries in some cases. For instance, it seems that the Syrian regime is the beneficiary from recent assassinations of tribal dignitaries, along with Daesh.

Concerning the assassinating of civilians who are the largest percent of the victims - 175 from a total of 251, it seems that the aim is the delivering of messages and terrorizing people. Daesh is known to use these methods to spread chaos and destabilize an area.

Viewing charts

Deir Ezzor 24 has posted the toll of assassinations in Deir Ezzor. The statistics cover the period between 2018 and February 2021. The assassinations numbered 21 in 2018 ,84 in 2019, and 116 in 2020. These statistics have doubled in early 2021, as 30 assassinations were recorded in the first two months of the year alone - a significant and serious escalation.If we rule out the year 2018 and the first quarter of 2019 which is the date of liberating al-Baghuz, the Daesh last stronghold in Syria, the point from which the SDF and International Coalition controlled the entire area of Syria east of the Euphrates, the statistics in the last 21 months show 216 assassinations out of a total of 251.

Notes about the nature of assassinations in Deir Ezzor

Regarding assassinations of SDF fighters or agents directly. It appears to have been sufficient that the targeted people belonged to the SDF, as a reason for their targeting. 44 cases of assassination of SDF fighters and three of commanders have been recorded.

Re. assassinations of workers and officials in the Deir Ezzor Civil Council, eight heads and eight members of local councils have been assassinated. It is clear that the reason for these assassinations is an attempt to frighten people and prevent them from cooperating with the Deir Ezzor Civil Council that is considered to be affiliated with the SDF and International Coalition.

Re. assassination of three former Free Syrian Army members and three SDF fighters. These assassinations bear marks implying retaliation, the victims were former members of these organizations and may know certain secrets.

Re. assassinations of tribal dignitaries in Deir Ezzor. These assassinations are not limited to agents of the SDF, rather most of those dignitaries are influential people on the social and tribal levels who work with the controlling power, but they are not considered to be directly affiliated with these powers. Seven such assassinations have been recorded.

Re. assassinations of 157 civilians who form the largest percent of the statistics. Motivations for these killings vary. These assassinations reflect insecurity in the Deir Ezzor countryside., especially the eastern area in which most of the assassinations occurred.

Assassinations with unclear motivation

Although most of the assassinations are clear with regard to those standing behind them, there have been some assassinations or attempted killings that can be interpreted in various ways with regard to the motives and the parties standing behind them.

We will address the assassination of some dignitaries in Deir Ezzor as well as some failed attempts. We will also discuss the attempt on the life of Dr. Ghassan al-Yousef, the joint president of Deir Ezzor Civil Council, by gunmen at a checkpoint of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the confusion it caused.

Assassination of tribal figures

Seven assassinations targeted tribal figures, who had great importance in society, and great influence on the population. These took place in the period from April, 2020, to the end of that year. These figures were far from politics, and were dealing with most issues as tribal elders. They had an important role in keeping the civil peace and avoiding bloodshed.

The assassination of such people causes popular tension against the controlling forces. The parties that seek to destabilize the region, even if they may not have been directly responsible for the assassinations, are the primary beneficiaries of this. In the tribal file, for example, we notice that Iran is trying its best to have a role in it by attracting tribal leaders and dignitaries, to gain a foothold in the eastern Euphrates region, but nevertheless some have accused the SDF of being behind these assassinations.

These assassinations, especially the killing of Sheikh Muttshar al-Hifil, and the attempted assassination of Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hifil were followed by popular unrest. This shows how assassinations affect the social fabric and stability in the region, and increase tension in it. The tribes concerned released several statements saying that the SDF is responsible for maintaining security in the region, and hence held it responsible for the security chaos, which led them to hold tribal meetings, and the U.S. Embassy to mourn the death of Sheikh Muttshar and condemn his killing.

The assassination attempt against the joint president of Deir Ezzor Civil Council

On January 30, 2021, Dr. Ghassan al-Yousef, the joint president of Deir Ezzor Civil Council, survived an assassination attempt when members of a checkpoint in Raqqa opened fire at his three-car convoy, killing one of the escorts and injuring others, including Al-Yousef.

The SDF's Internal Security Forces in Raqqa released a statement saying that the incident was not intentional. The statement said “to the media and public opinion, while the military traffic was conducting routine patrols in the eastern countryside of Raqqa, a convoy of three cars passed through the military checkpoint without slowing down, which pushed the members of the checkpoint to open fire. According to initial testimonies of the checkpoint members, the shooting resulted in the killing of one driver and the injury of three other people. Later we learned that the cars belonged to the joint presidency of Deir Ezzor civil council. The Internal Security Forces Command in Raqqa province opened an immediate and thorough investigation into the incident after it arrested the checkpoint members to know what happened and reveal the truth.”

This incident has provoked considerable tension in the social circles and civil society of Deir Ezzor. It caused panic among people because al-Yousef has an important position among the people of the region, as he is close both to the coalition and to tribal and community figures. Although the statement of the internal security forces denied that the incident was intentional, some say that there might be an intention to assassinate al-Yousef by some figures in the Syrian Democratic Forces (the Autonomous Administration), indicating a conflict within the administration itself.

Findings, conclusions and recommendations

We can reach several findings in the context of the increased assassinations, and provide some recommendations for the actors in the region.

First, the SDF backed by the international coalition and the US in particular are responsible for maintaining security and stability in the region.

Secondly, Daesh is the main suspect in most of the assassinations taking place in the region.

Third, parties such as the Syrian regime, Iran, Russia and Turkey are the beneficiaries of the state of insecurity in the areas under the influence of the international coalition.

Fourth: Despite the many security campaigns led by the SDF, with direct support of the coalition, and the arrest of dozens of Daesh leaders and persons working for the group, assassinations have been increasing.

Fifth, there is popular tension and a state of resentment among people due to the security chaos, instability and poor economic conditions, especially since they know their areas are rich with oil.

Sixth, people feel that the SDF (civil administration), the international coalition and the US do not care about their real concerns and do not have a working strategy in the region, and this can be seen through the fragility of infrastructure and the failure to rehabilitate it like in Raqqa.

Recommendations for the various actors in the region:

- Work to establish security through cooperation between the security forces and the people of the region, and gain their trust, because without the assistance of the people of the region, it is impossible to control security in the region.

- Take into account the special nature of the tribal community in Deir Ezzor countryside, as it has an impact on various issues.

- Provide the necessary protection for the workers of Deir Ezzor Civil Council against the assassinations and pressures they are subjected to.

- Deal with Deir Ezzor in a strategic way by rehabilitating infrastructure and schools.

- Taking care of education and meeting the demands of the residents of the area and not forcing them to study superior curricula. (The Autonomous Administration areas (Hasakeh- Raqqa - Deir Ezzor) including Deir Ezzor, which is run by Deir Ezzor Civil Council, imposed curricula in three languages (Kurdish, Syriac, and Arabic). These curricula were criticized by Deir Ezzor people, as firstly they have no recognition in the United Nations. In addition, local residents say that the Islamic religion class was replaced by a book entitled ‘culture and ethics’. This book, according to local people, hardly mentions Islam, other main religions and related ethics, while focusing on other religions, such as Zoroastrianism. People considered this to be against the morals of society in Deir Ezzor, where the majority of people are Sunni Muslims.

-Improve the health sector by activating existing centers and opening new ones due to Deir Ezzor's overpopulation and vast spaces.

- Address the economic situation and provide jobs in the non-military sector, especially for young men .

- Provide a safe atmosphere for the work of international civil organizations and provide facilitation and protection to them to meet residents' needs.

- Support media institutions , especially the local independent ones to help convey field news of the area neutrally and contribute to prevent rumors and media war from which different sides benefit.

- Support research institutions, especially the local independent ones to help convey the real situation to decision makers and sides active in the Syrian case, especially Deir Ezzor, in a neutral, professional, and academic way.

The author is a Syrian expert who focuses on security and governance dynamics in northeast Syria. CEO @DeirEzzor24, which has a group of researchers inside the country.

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