Syrian Democratic Forces faces protests and challenges in Deir Ezzor, Euphrates valley region
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN The Euphrates river valley southeast of Deir Ezzor (دير الزور) city has become restive in the first weeks of August 2020 due to protests and disputes over an assassination of a tribal member. This area was retaken from Isis in 2018 but has remained at the center of tensions between the Syrian Democratic Forces and adversaries that would like to stir up discontent, either to undermine the SDF or US influence.
This makes the middle Euphrates river valley area a center of competition between the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran and even Turkey in competition for influence. In addition ISIS sleeper cells continue to be a threat. In addition mid-August was the six-year anniversary of the massacre of Shaitat tribe members by ISIS. The US Coalition put out a statement commemorating the massacre and thanking the tribe for its role fighting ISIS.
In the first two weeks of August a series of incidents in the desert regions and areas adjoining the Euphrates river in eastern Syria have seen an uptick in assassinations and protests. This area is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main anti-ISIS force backed by the United States. However this area also adjoins Syrian-regime held areas where there are Iranian-backed militias. There are also tribes here, some of whom were once under ISIS control and others of which may be either sympathetic to their own interests, the Syrian regime or even Turkey. It’s a complex area and many countries have an interest in either keeping it quiet or making it boil with tensions.
To try to understand the complexity I’ve provided various reports below from Arabic media and left many of the inconsistencies in them, including spelling of several names, to get a sense of what may be competing narratives and agendas. Although some of these reports are from Turkey or Russia, many of these media have local Arabic sources and write up their reports also in Arabic.
A little history is necessary to understand this area before plunging into more details. ISIS conquered this area, using the Euphrates river like a highway to move infiltrate Iraq in 2013 and 2014. Some of the tribes here, according to diplomats interviewed over the years, were once sympathetic to the Saddam Hussein regime, even more than the Assad regime, despite being in Syria. They had family connections on both sides of the border. Some joined ISIS or trafficked jihadists in the past helping insurgents move to Iraq to fight the US, a system the Syrian regime supported. When ISIS took over it massacred Beduin tribes that resisted, such as that Shaitat. The SDF, backed by the US, retook this area in March 2019. In February 2018, while the SDF was still fighting ISIS, Russian mercenaries working for the Syrian regime tried to cross from Deir Ezzor city and attack the SDF to Seize oil and gas fields. They failed and were killed by US warplanes. Later Iranian-backed groups set up shop on the western bank of the Euphrates at Albukamal, Mayadeen and other areas. The Iranian IRGC traffics weapons to Hezbollah via this corridor.
On August 2 the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that an SDF fighter was killed near Al-Kebar village in the western countryside of Deir Ezzor. It said this was one of hundreds of fighters and locals killed in attacks over the past years in this and adjoining areas. The subsequent assassination attempt of a tribal leader and the killing of another tribal leader forms the key incident that led to protests and clashes. The leading sheikh of the tribe Ibrahim Khalil Abboud al-Jadaan al-Hafil (إبراهيم خليل عبود الجدعان الهفل) is the man's whose attempted assassination angered many. The man who was murdered during the attempt was named Mutashar al-Hammoud al-Hafil (مطشر حمود الهفل), although his name is spelled differently in various accounts. In Arabic a second spokesperson for the tribe, sheikh Musab Khall al-Hafil (مصعب خليل عبود الهفل) is also mentioned.
The Turkish account
Anadolu news, a pro-government channel in Turkey, wrote on August 4 that a civilian was killed and three wounded in a clash with the SDF. Turkey calls the SDF the “YPG/PKK” which Turkey views as a terrorist organization. In October 2019 Turkey invaded eastern Syria and attacked the SDF and forced the US to withdraw from a border area. The US now has forces in the area of the Euphrates river, sometimes called the Middle Euphrates River Valley, and the US says it is securing oil.
Into this mix comes frequent controversy. The pro-Turkey media claims there was an assassination of Mutchir al-Hammud al-Cedan (Sheikh Mutashar Hammoud Al-Hafil), a leader of the Aqeedat (Akaidat) tribe. Aqeedat (العكيدات) are a tribe that is present in numerous villages along around 25 km of the Euphrates river southeast of Deir Ezzor. The entire area is around 120 km of strategic landscape from Deir Ezzor to the Iraqi border. Turkey claims that the tribal leader refused to attend an SDF meeting with SDF leader Mazloum Kobani. It appears the Turkish report is based on slight detail changes in an SOHR report on August 4 that said a woman was killed in a shootout between the SDF and “unidentified gunmen in the village of Al-Hawaij.” SOHR said the SDF deployed after protesters blocked roads in the area.
Deir Ezzor 24 account
Omar Abu Layla, a local journalist, noted that a commander of the “SDF-linked Al-Bukamal regiment was killed by unknown gunmen” on August 6. He said that “Assad cells” were working to “sow sedition between the Arab and Kurdish components” of the SDF.” A social media account said the SDF officer was named Shaaban al-Maat. He was shot from a motorbike near Hajin.
Russia's RT account
Meanwhile Russia’s RT also reported the clash. Russia’s foreign ministry over the weekend condemned the US for “illegally occupying” and “robbing” natural resources. This is likely a reference to an oil deal by a US company with the SDF that was made public in early August. The RT report says there were protests against the US and SDF at Theban, Shuhail, and Huwayj. RT said locals blamed the SDF for assassination attempts on tribal leaders.
The Kurdish channel Rudaw noted that the clashes began on August 6 after peaceful protests against the assassination turned violence. Weapons were used and two SDF members were killed. Later an SDF commander named Ahmad Abu Khawla (head of Deir Ezzor Military Council) told reporters that a vehicle was blown up and sabateurs were responsible. The US embassy condemned the attack on Facebook. “The US condemns the attack on Sheikh Mutashhar al-Hamoud al-Jadaan al-Hafl, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Khalil al-Aboud al-Jadaan al-Hafl and notables of the Aqeedat tribe.” The Rudaw report was posted by the Rojava Information Center, which is sympathetic to the SDF.
Asharq al-Awsat's account
Another report at Asharq Al-Awsat said the local SDF headquarters had been occupied by protesters and that six were injured. This report provided more details on the assassination, claiming that another Sheikh Ibrahim Khalil al-Jadaan al-Hafil (إبراهيم خليل عبود الجدعان الهفل) was wounded. Men on motorcycles had shot at the tribal leaders near Ragheeb junction near Hawayj. The locals demand the SDF leave the down. It appeared several SDF members were briefly detained in the clash.
On August 8 another clash took place in a nearby village all Al-Jadid Aqeedat (Akidat) when “unidentified’ gunmen fired on an SDF post. The next day, Sunday, SOHR reported that the SDF, backed by helicopters and the coalition, raided the town of of Huwayj. This was the third day of clashes the report said, although it appears more like the fifth day.People were arrested “for their loyalty to the Syrian regime,” SOHR noted. Seven young men were detained in Al-Shuhail village. Six civilians, five from one family, were detained.
The New Arab account
The New Arab has a slightly different version of these events. It argues they began with SDF Internal Security Forces conducting a security sweep in al-Shuhail (الشحيل) and Hawayj (الحوايج) to stop ISIS cells that were “stirring up sedition.” Two SDF fighters were killed by ISIS sleeper cells in recent days, the report says. It took place in the context of an attempt by unidentified elements to assassination “the most prominent tribal sheikh in the countryside of Deir Ezzor, Ibrahim Khalil Abboud Al-Jadaan Al-Hafil of the Aqeedat tribe, the largest of the Arab tribes in this countryside.” That had sparked unrest. The attack on Al-Hafil had killed Mutashar Hammoudd Al-Hafil, a well known “notable of the tribe.”
Locals blame the “Qasd (QSD-قسد)” or SDF for the attacks and claim that the US-backed forces, which they complain of being “Kurdish” are trying to “empty the area of tribes.” The New Arab report provides larger context. It notes that in recent months locals have rejected a new curriculum linked to the civilian leadership of the autonomous region of eastern Syria, which is controlled by the SDF. It points out tension between the Arab tribes and the Kurdish leadership of the SDF, which the SDF has tried to mollify. It also notes that the US condemned the attack on the sheikh. “The majority [of people in this region] adhere to tribal customs. Perhaps the most prominent of these tribes and clans are the Shammar, Jabour, Aqeedat, Baggara, Bou-Shabban, Albu-Nimr, Adwan, Qais, An-Naim, Tayy and other tribes.” It also notes that the area includes several large towns “including Al-Busirah and Hajin and the towns of the Al-Shaitat clan, which are Al-Hammam, Al-Gharanij and Al-Kashkiya.” It says a protest happened in Kashkiya against the SDF and the curriculum.
Al-Mayadeen, which is generally pro-Syrian regime and pro-Hezbollah, also has a report on the tensions in Deir Ezzor areas. It notes that there were clashes between the Aqeedat (Akidat) tribe and the “Qasd militants.” It described the US-backed SDF as imposing a curfew and blamed the US for the actions. It said the area of clashes was near Al-Latwa (الناحية) and Al-Barid and included machine guns and RPGs. “Clashes also took place in the village of Swaidan island and in the vicinity of the town of Dhiban (ذيبان).” It said this area was the center of the tribe’s populace.
Riyad Darrar of the Syrian Democratic Council accused “miscreant fingers" of "subversion in Deir Ezzor." He argued that this was linked to the Syrian regime, Turkey and oil. An August 8 article notes "As for those who benefit from stirring up sedition, Mr. Darrar believes that there are threads spinning in more than one site. “The tribal council project, which Turkey has called for, its representatives openly declare and always incite this strife, as well as the fingers of the regime." Aldar Xelil, a PYD/TEV-DEM official, argued on August 9 that "the reliance is always on the awareness and rationality that characterizes the Arab tribes to transcend such schemes aimed at sedition, as the blood that was mixed on the soil of Deir Ezzor from the various regions of north and east Syria in order to liberate it from ISIS and its aides; It will not be forgotten by the original Arab clans, which will always confront the attempts of strife and conflict." Reports also accused Russian media of fabricating statements by the Aqeedat tribe blaming the SDF for the attack.
Social media reactions More reports can be found on social media. Pro-Syrian regime accounts note that the SDF has “abducted a number of civilians.” These pro-regime tweets claim the locals want the US “occupation forces” to leave. They assert that the US has sent reinforcements to the area on Saturday night. The pro-regime accounts also accuse the SDF of looting. Others, who oppose Iran, says that Iran is following the events closely after the assassination of the sheikh. Others report that the tribes have appealed to the US to reduce the number of Kurdish officers in the area. One video shows someone reported to be Sheikh Abdullah Al-Muhainsi, according to journalist Omar Abu Layla, who accuses the man in the video of being “malicious” and lying.
The Aqeedat demands
On August 11 the Aqeedat tribe provided a statement after a meeting with the US-led Coalition in Thiban, posted online, about some of its concerns and demands. These included.
1- Controlling the security situation by preparing a plan to sustain stability and security. 2- Investigating recent assassinations against tribal dignitaries and revealing and accounting the perpetrators.- Activating the Arab component like effective people and security officials to run their own areas. 4- Releasing prisoners. 5- Releasing women and children detained in refugee camps.
Abu Layla wrote that "The meeting was good as it resulted in necessary and important terms that boost the current and upcoming stages to activate good wills to sustain stability and security, and to prevent the enemies from destabilizing the area." The Coalition has shown more engagement in this area and attempts to understand the tribal dynamics. But the tribes are also holding the US and Coalition responsible for issues. There are disputes about what the two meetings consisted of and the final demands. That leave Ankara and Damascus with an opening to encourage the tribes to push more friction with the SDF and US. (Photos can be seen here and more analysis here that raises concerns about how it may affect Iraq).
The overall picture in eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor region near the Euphrates, an area of around 120 kilometers to the Iraqi border in which the Aqeedat tribe dominate around 25 kilometers of frontage along the Euphrates river, is that a sensitive area is experiencing unrest. The US has had to juggle complex tribal realities here even as the US wants to drawdown forces. This is the worst possible situation to be in because the Iranian and Russian-backed Syrian regime sense US weakness. Turkey also wants to prey on divisions and stoke up tensions. ISIS cells are operating and they may also work with enemies if they think they can undermine other enemies. The US has long considered how best to empower the local Sunni Arab tribes but at the same time the US has a problem because its withdrawal from northern Syria led to a Turkish invasion that forced the SDF to work with Russia and the Syrian regime in Kurdish areas that Turkey threatened. This left a kind of rump polity in the desert south of Hasakah and east of Deir Ezzor, the area the US wants to work with the SDF is now primarily an Arab area and that is the area where the US wants to secure the oil. But the US can’t simply create a new version of the SDF, it already helped the Kurdish YPG create the SDF in 2015. So it and the SDF must work within the paradigms they have with little to no international support and ISIS detainees chafing to escape and Turkey and Iran and Russia undermining US and SDF efforts. Turkish drones, for instance, attack people near Qamishli and Turkish agents have tried to smuggle people out of Al-Hol camp where ISIS family members are present. Covid-19 is also a threat and the UN has shut the humanitarian border at Russia’s behest. Now with a US oil company seeking to help rehabilitate the oil facilities, every small clash has geopolitical ramifications. That appears to be what happened this month.