Violent clashes took place in northeastern Syria last week between fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by the Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) and military forces affiliated with Arab tribes in the area, resulting in high rates of death and injury.
The clashes took place after SDF militias arrested the leader of the Deir Al-Zor military
Council Ahmed Al-Khbeil and other military clan leaders after they were lured into a meeting in Al-Hassakeh in northeastern Syria.
The fighting then spread to towns and villages throughout northern and northeastern Syria. Medium-size and sometimes heavy weapons were used, prompting Arab tribes in the area to mobilise their supporters and call on support from local residents.
The Arab tribes in eastern and northern regions of Syria rushed to support the fighters of the Deir Al-Zor Military Council, issuing declarations that they would be ready to participate in long-term combat, fight the SDF, and receive US support.
The Arab clans were not only backed by Arab residents and tribes, but also by displaced Arab tribesmen north of Al-Hassakeh or outside Syria who urged Turkey to allow them to cross to Deir Al-Zor to fight the SDF. Others called on the International Coalition led by the US, which supports the Kurds, to mediate between the military council and the SDF to end the bloodshed.
Disputes between the two warring parties are nothing new. Arab tribal forces represented by the Deir Al-Zor Military Council were first allied with the SDF, and both were supported by the US. Tensions began when the council became suspicious that the SDF wanted to replace it with the Al-Sanadid Military Group, another ally of the SDF.
The tribal council objected to the SDF transporting the Al-Sanadid militia to eastern Syria, triggering clashes between the two sides.
The Deir Al-Zor Military Council commands some 4,000 combatants from Arab tribes in northeastern and eastern Syria. The Kurds control the SDF, which is loyal to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – classified as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and other countries.
The council includes fighters from influential tribes in the region, including the Al-Aqidat, Busaraya and Baggara. The Shammar clan is the backbone of the Al-Sanadid group,
with some 2,000 fighters. In past years, both sides operated under the umbrella of the SDF, after reaching understandings involving the US.
This week, due to the fierce battles between the two sides, tribal forces in Deir Al-Zor chased out the SDF militias from areas around the city. Some 100 combatants defected from the SDF, prompting the US to intervene to stop the bloodshed.
On Sunday, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ethan Goldrich and Commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Joel Vowell mediated between the SDF and tribal leaders in
Deir Al-Zor. The US officials reminded both sides that Washington’s support for them stemmed from their role in defeating the Islamic State (IS) group in the region.
For the time being, US efforts to mediate between the two sides have not succeeded, however.
Geographically, the SDF controls the eastern bank of the Euphrates River that divides the Deir Al-Zor Province into two parts. Syrian regime forces and pro-Iranian groups are stationed on the west bank of the river, though they do not have the power to intervene to halt the local fighting.
The Syrian opposition said that the move by the SDF against Al-Khbeil was in response to the US intention to close the Syrian-Iraqi border and to the protests in southern Syria (Suwayda).
The opposition discounts the SDF’s explanation that Al-Khbeil is corrupt, stressing that the militias that cooperated with him already knew his track record, since he had previously been accused of smuggling antiquities and gold.
Other parties in the region believe the SDF actions are triggered by concerns over Al-Khbeil’s ambitions, since he wants to break away from the SDF by relying on local Arab tribes.
Ahmed Rahal, a Syrian dissident military analyst, said that the events in Deir Al-Zor were the result of accumulated problems between the leadership of the SDF and the Deir Al-Zor Military Council, as well as the SDF and locals in Deir Al-Zor.
Rahal suggested that Al-Khbeil’s arrest could have been coordinated between the SDF and the US-led coalition based on reports of smuggling deals between Al-Khbeil and Iranian militias. However, once the clashes had accelerated, the US had reconsidered its position and urged the two sides to “de-escalate,” he said.
Rahal said that this did not mean that Washington would give the SDF the upper hand. “The US is unhappy with the SDF’s refusal to buy into the US scheme to expel Iranian militias from areas along the Syrian-Iraqi border,” he said. “They support the Arab tribes, in preparation to engage them in any US efforts. The SDF has sensed this and wants to abort these attempts in their infancy.”
The clashes between the two sides were sparked by inadequate reasons. In reality, the fighting was triggered by injustices felt by local Arab tribes and claims that the Kurds were marginalising the Arabs on local councils and monopolising US assistance and aid and that the Arabs were subjected to security repression and SDF corruption.
There is also a conviction that the SDF is cooperating with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus. This would not be the first time that the regime has wanted to change the control of northeastern Syria and sabotage the US plans there.
Washington wants to close the Syrian-Iraqi border and stop the flow of Iranians and Iranian weapons from Iraq to Iran’s allies in Syria. It may also be concerned about indirect coordination with SDF forces.
As a result, the US did not fight the tribal forces in the recent clashes, and it did not put pressure on them. Instead, it stepped in to mediate, stop the fighting, and find compromises, which shows that Washington supports the tribal forces indirectly.
Northeastern Syria is a complex area, and all the players there have different interests. Each is trying to control the decision-making in this important strategic region, whether because it is an oil region, or the gateway to the Syrian-Iraqi border, or the area adjacent to the Turkish border, or for other reasons.
The US intervenes in northeastern Syria, as does Turkey, this time to end the Kurdish threat. The Iranians are involved because the area hosts their weapons as they move from Iraq to Syria.
The tribes, the majority of the local population, feel the Syrian opposition is closer to them than are their ties to the SDF and the Kurds. The Syrian regime is focused on sabotaging US plans in the region and facilitating those of its Iranian ally. Russia is also involved in order to prevent losses by the Syrian regime.
The area is an incomplete mosaic. It seems likely that the disputes will continue and will remain as embers under the ashes that will ignite later, even if they appear to be doused for now.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly