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Syria’s Kurds Struggle to Contain Backlash After Detaining Allied Arab Militia Leader

Kurdish-led forces guarding Syria’s Islamic State prisons have been on high alert amid spreading clashes in Deir Ezzor province.

Tribal backlash. The Kurdish-led alliance of Syrian militias backed by the US military to fight the Islamic State group is facing a fresh challenge to its authority in the oil-rich eastern Deir Ezzor province amid spreading clashes with local tribes.

What began as isolated skirmishes following the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) arrest of the head of the subordinate Deir Ezzor Military Council on Sunday has led to public demands for autonomy from the Kurdish-led authorities by tribal leaders.

The eruption of long-simmering tensions threatens to undermine cohesion within the US-controlled corner of Syria, raising concerns that other parties to the conflict may exploit the opportunity to roll back Kurdish gains and potentially stage attacks on American military forces in a bid to drive them out of the country’s resource-rich northeast.

More than a decade into the conflict, Syria remains a patchwork of statelets backed by foreign powers: the US keeping pressure on the remains of the Islamic State, Turkey backing Syrian opposition fighters and Russia and Iran in support of the Assad regime.

“We’re confident right now that we will be able to continue to work with the international coalition to stay focused on the defeat-ISIS mission,” Pentagon press secretary Pat Ryder told reporters of the roughly 900 US troops in Syria on Thursday.

“We reserve the right to self defense and will take appropriate actions to safeguard and ensure that our forces are protected,” Ryder said.

The US-led coalition issued its own statement on Thursday, calling on the belligerents to stand down. “The violence in northeast Syria must cease, and the effort returned to creating peace and stability in northeast Syria, free from the threat of Daesh [IS],” the coalition said.

What went down: Initial reports suggested the SDF detained Deir Ezzor Military Council chief Ahmed al-Khbeil, better known as Rashid Abu Khawla, in the city of Hasakah on Sunday.

The SDF on Wednesday confirmed it had arrested Abu Khawla and four of his lieutenants, citing allegations ranging from drug trafficking, nepotism and mismanaging security in Deir Ezzor. 

The Kurdish-led force also accused Abu Khawla of “communication and coordination with external entities hostile to the revolution,” a likely reference to Turkey-backed factions, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus or its Russian and Iranian backers.

His arrest came as little surprise. The militia chief and his loyalists had long tested the patience of Kurdish leaders while racking up a litany of criminal accusations by local tribes in Deir Ezzor over the years.

Coinciding with his arrest on Sunday, the SDF swiftly launched raids in the eastern province targeting what it said were Islamic State sleeper cells, “criminal elements” and smugglers.

“Some of those criminal elements, drug traffickers and those extorting people were elements of the Deir Ezzor Military Council,” an SDF official told Al-Monitor.

But the sweep appears to have backfired. Initially, skirmishes were limited to the areas of Suwwar, Busayrah and other strongholds of Abu Khawla’s support base in the Bakir clan, informed sources on the ground told Al-Monitor.

Leaders among the more influential Akaidat and Baggara tribes issued statements calling for calm and neutrality amid the SDF’s moves, in marked contrast to calls by Abu Khawla’s relatives and other loyalists to rise up against the Kurdish-led force.

But by Wednesday, the fighting had spread and civilian casualties mounted. Hit-and-run attacks had begun targeting SDF checkpoints in the Euphrates river valley, and allegations spread that an SDF counterterror unit had killed four members of a family during a raid in Daman.

In an audio message circulated online on Thursday, Ibrahim al-Hifl, a prominent leader of Syria’s largest Arab tribe, the Akaidat, called on the tribes to stand together against the SDF operations, accusing the US-backed forces of killing women and children and calling on them to release those it had detained.

Al-Hifl also demanded the formation of an independent military council led and manned by tribesmen in direct contact with the US-led coalition in Syria for services and security. Baggara leader Hashim Bashir released his own statement calling for a shura council in response to the violence.

Videos circulated on social media on Friday of tribal fighters declaring control of the towns of Dhiban and Hajin, near the site of the Islamic State’s final stand in 2019. The SDF declared a full 48-hour curfew in Deir Ezzor province beginning on Saturday.

Outside actors: The tensions are ripe for exploitation by other parties to Syria’s civil war. Rumors and allegations have already been cast as the Kurdish-led administration seeks to deflect criticism while drawing due attention to the danger.

Assad has long sworn to retake the oil-producing region by force if necessary, likely a shared goal with Russia. And militias backed by Iran’s Quds Force are believed to want greater access around the Iraq-Syria border area. 

Some two hundred miles away across Syria on Friday, opposition factions backed by Turkey attacked and seized villages near the SDF-held city of Manbij before Russian airstrikes responded – a reminder of the tangle of quietly-calculated alliances that govern the dormant battlefield. In Idlib, jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham voiced support for the Deiri tribes. 

“Iran and [the] Assad regime want to depict this unrest as a result of an ethnic conflict between Arabs and Kurds and to distract the Syrians from the protest movements in [the] south of Syria,” Ilham Ehmed, co-chair of the executive committee that heads the PYD-led autonomous administration, tweeted on Friday.

“Trying to drive American troops out of Syria is one potential goal. They may be attempting to win international pity and support for this cause by presenting the situation as being driven by Arab tribes,” she wrote.

Deeper roots: While more than century-old Arab-Kurdish tensions can’t be discounted, they’re insufficient to explain the current unrest. One thing nearly all parties can agree on: It’s not about Abu Khawla.

Barring of a subset of his Bakir clan, the motorbike thief-turned-revolutionary who briefly joined the Islamic State before fleeing to Turkey in 2015 is not well liked by the people of the region. His arrest and the death of one of his brothers (a fugitive wanted on allegations of rape) during the raids were celebrated in Shuhayl by the distribution of candy in the streets.

“Abu Khawla is intensely controversial,” Nicholas Heras, a senior fellow at the Newlines Institute who studied eastern Syria’s tribal networks during the campaign against the Islamic State, told Al-Monitor.

“A significant part of his influence relies on support from the US through the SDF. He is not really an iconic figure to inspire a multi-tribal insurgency in Deir Ezzor.”

Peculiar alliance: Critics say the fighting has been a long time coming, the inevitable outcome of the three subsequent US administrations’ ad-hoc policies towards Syria eclipsed by the Pentagon’s blistering defeat-IS campaign, which was designed to be fought “by, with and through” local militias.

The SDF’s ideology – a mix of secular left-wing politics and Kurdish self-determination – proved a potent motivator on the battlefield against the Islamic State’s Sunni supremacism. But it has been unwelcome in more religiously conservative Arab-majority region of Deir Ezzor, where locals have long accused the Kurdish-led administration of an authoritarian approach to local politics and security.

The Kurds only reluctantly agreed to push their forces into the Islamic State’s heartland in 2017 and kept Abu Khawla on as head of the local military branch under US pressure.

By that time, the Trump administration was devising a strategy to economically strangle Syria’s economy with a panoply of sanctions and open-ended occupation Syria’s oil- and wheat-producing regions in hope of coercing Bashar al-Assad to abdicate. 

That has hasn’t happened, leaving the Kurds, and US troops, with no clear exit. 

In the meantime, the ruin ensured by US sanctions and prevention of post-war reconstruction has aroused unrest in Assad’s domain and the Kurdish-controlled areas alike.

“The Americans are sitting on quicksand,” Joshua Landis, chair of the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Middle East Studies, told Al-Monitor.

“They they managed to get relative peace for a number of years, which is really something. But in order to prolong that, you need economic growth, you need a future,” Landis said.

“The region doesn’t have that kind of future. In fact it’s gone backwards very rapidly.”

Deir Ezzor contains the huge majority of Syria’s oil and natural gas, but locals have long complained they’ve seen few benefits since liberation from IS, even as traders linked to the Kurdish-led administration have shipped the stuff across frontlines.

The US bombing campaign decimated the region’s hydrocarbon infrastructure, leaving home-grown refining pits to litter the landscape with toxic pollution, a freelance endeavor the autonomous administration has sought to rein in.

The whiplash of US aid to Syria hasn’t helped. Some $200 million in stabilization funding was frozen under Trump, then reinstated by the Biden administration – which then nixed a Trump-era export license designed to enable the Kurds to build a revenue base off Deir Ezzor’s oilfields.

“You’re giving with one hand, but you’re taking away with the other,” Landis said.

Years of US-backed nighttime raids hunting down suspected Islamic State stragglers in the Khabur and Euphrates river valleys have also taken a toll on public support for the Kurdish-led force.

Sensing opportunity, but unable to retake Deir Ezzor by force, the Assad regime and its foreign backers have reportedly turned to clandestine means to add fuel to the fire.

In 2020, the Pentagon reported that the Assad regime and Russia were actively seeking to undermine tribal support for the US-backed SDF in Deir Ezzor. Kurdish authorities allege the subterfuge continues.

More recently, senior US military officials have suggested Russia and Iran have been coordinating plans to pressure the US contingent to withdraw (though the most recent coalition commander, US Army Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane, recently pushed back on that).

Either way, the truncated contingent of roughly 900 US troops in Syria remains vulnerable, placing continual demand on the Pentagon’s allocation of advanced fighter jets for air cover.

At McFarlane’s change-of-command ceremony last month, the four-star commander of all American forces in the Middle East, Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commended the outgoing defeat-IS coalition leader for having “managed more risk on a day-to-day basis than any commander in the joint force around the world.”

Meanwhile in Washington, Syria has long been a back-burner issue for the Biden administration, with no clear policy approach in sight.

It remains to be seen whether the growing fissures in the US-backed alliance will spur Biden’s National Security Council into action. Faced with few realistic options, the NSC’s top Middle East policy chief Brett McGurk appears to be overseeing a laissez-faire approach to Syria in stark contrast to that of his predecessors.

A first step would be for State Department and US military coalition leaders to sit down with Deir Ezzor’s tribal leaders and come up with realistic solutions to their demands. 

It’s too late for a new bout of economic aid to smooth things over. On Saturday morning, Akaidat leader Ibrahim al-Hifl released a new statement addressing the Sheitat, Albukamal and other tribes, saying it was forced upon them to liberate their regions and that they are not aligned with any side. The audio statement was released alongside photo depicting al-Hifl with a Kalashnikov in hand.

“Washington is trying to run this on remote control,” Landis told Al-Monitor.

“The Americans set themselves up for mission-impossible because they can’t create a Kurdish state and they can’t create a democracy in Syria,” he said.

Source : Al-Monitor