Syria Insight: Deir az-Zour tribal uprising sparks new war
A three-week ceasefire in eastern Syria shattered on Monday, as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and armed Arab tribes faced off in the battle for Deir az-Zour.
Vast and resource-rich, the eastern province has been fertile ground for a power struggle since the collapse of the Islamic State (IS) group in 2019, when the Kurdish-led and US-backed SDF seized control of a largely conservative and Arab-dominated region.
Meanwhile, a powerful coalition of Iran-backed Syrian militia forces sits on the west bank of the Euphrates River with repeated threats, and periodic attempts, to claim the territory. On Monday, the SDF repelled a ferocious assault by supposedly pro-regime groups, with many killed on both sides.
The Arab population of Deir az-Zour had largely sided with the SDF against IS - and earlier, fought the Syrian regime - but complain they are squeezed by the financial constraints of a faltering local economy and the heavy-handed approach of the local security apparatus.
Despite the region being rich in oil and gas, corruption and blockades have seen hospitals close, businesses downsize, and prices for basic goods skyrocket, forcing thousands of people out of the province, either abroad or to nearby Hassakeh province.
"Vast and resource-rich, the eastern province has been a fertile ground for a power struggle since the collapse of the Islamic State group in 2019, when the Kurdish-led and US-backed SDF seized control of a largely Arab-dominated region"
"People feel abandoned and sidelined which make them angry [due to the] living conditions and being excluded from managing their own areas while a handful of individuals selected by the SDF... were never liked by the majority of locals," said Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher. "This continued for years and shows an ill-structured leadership that was forced on locals."
Their frustrations erupted last month after the heavy-handed arrests of leaders of the Deiz az-Zour Military Council (DMC), the local Arab tribal confederation, with the head, Ahmed Al-Khubail, accused of abusing his power, involvement in the drugs trade, and a lax approach to the fight against IS.
Al-Khubail - known locally as Abu Khawla - has been accused of colluding with Syrian regime elements to expel the SDF, despite his own past opposition to Bashar Al-Assad.
The tribal leader, who rose to power during anti-IS operations, is largely mistrusted by other tribes due to his perceived corruption. The death of his bodyguard and the guileful nature of the detentions (reportedly during a meeting to soothe tensions) were seen as provocations too far, kick-starting an Arab rebellion against the SDF.
"The arrest of Abu Khawla and other officers caused anger among his supporters, but when the SDF responded with more arrests and house searches it led other clans, that don't support Abu Khawla, to fight the SDF," said Al-Ghazi.
Battles between Arab and Kurdish elements erupted, leaving dozens dead, with drones and rockets reportedly used in the assaults, including during a failed attempt by the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army to take the city of Manbij.
Local Arab intellectuals met SDF officials in an attempt to stymie the violence, while the US - who have 500 troops in northern Syria - have been desperate to avoid a full-scale war, which could seriously jeopardise counter-insurgency efforts.
Fighting only ended when the SDF defeated the last Arab clan and brought the remaining rebellious villages under its control but although they lost the battle, the tribes might still win the war, Al-Ghazi said.
A local sheikh, known to oppose Abu Khawla, Ibrahim al-Hafal, garnered goodwill among locals when he led his tribe in the fight against the SDF, highlighting deep-seated issues at play in the uprising.
"The SDF lost despite being able to win this round. This shows the SDF doesn't have support on the ground from clans and its response with violence reflected the lack, or absence, of any peaceful solution that could satisfy locals," Al-Ghazi said.
"Now it's obvious that the current good relationship with tribal leaders may be a façade that would end any time."
The irony here is that the SDF relied on Abu Khawla to control Arab-majority areas in the oil-rich province, resulting in a personal fiefdom where corruption and abuses were rife. This, as much as anything, contributed to the poverty and disempowerment of locals in tribal areas, resulting in an uprising against the SDF.
Alexander McKeever, an independent researcher and author of the 'This Week in Northern Syria' newsletter, said the SDF-linked Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria [AANES) need to ensure promised political reforms satisfy local grievances and the proceeds of oil revenues find their way to the people.
"The SDF has nominally pacified the armed uprising however it remains to be seen what concessions the SDF will grant local actors and whether these will be sufficient in alleviating local grievances," he said.
"Anti-SDF actors, tied to the region but residing outside it, from both the regime and opposition sides, encouraged the uprising."
"The SDF has nominally pacified the armed uprising, however, it remains to be seen what concessions the SDF will grant local actors and whether these will be sufficient in alleviating local grievances"
The role of Turkey in the crisis has also been questioned, with SNA's bid to seize Manbij and Ain Issa, which have been ongoing targets of Ankara, not sustained.
Turkey largely stayed out of the conflict, said Amer Mohamad, a researcher and analyst focused on the Middle East region, in order not to discredit the uprising and domestic pressures. Another disincentive to engage in the war was the perception in Ankara that there was little hope of success for the eastern Arab tribal uprising against the heavily armed, US-backed SDF, he added.
"Turkey instead sought to shed light on the uprising via its media outlets and upscale it as much as possible by allowing tribal fighters in Turkey-held areas to attack the SDF at the frontlines in Manbij and Ain Issa," said Mohamad.
"Meanwhile, Turkish officials used it to call the US to rethink its policy... In the future, new serious rounds of rebellion against the SDF may see a different response from Turkey as it will be more in anticipation."
Omar Abu Layla, executive director of Deir Ezzor 24, believes that while the bleak economic situation in Deir az-Zour was a main catalyst for the unrest, SDF policies also contributed heavily to resentment.
"There is no real trust between the SDF and people. What we are witnessing now is Mazloum Abdi (Syrian-Kurdish leader of the SDF) trying to rebuild a new relationship with Arab tribes. He met with intellectuals from Deir az-Zour and he promised them to fix things," he told The New Arab.
"We are still waiting to see what happens and what is the SDF's policy, whether they will change it from all aspects or repeat the same mistakes."
This week's clashes also underlined the ability of the Syrian regime to stir tensions between the one-time brothers in arms.
Despite the 9 September ceasefire largely holding, with the promise by Abdi of reforms, violence broke out again on Monday when armed elements crossed the Euphrates from the regime-held town of Mayadeen and attacked the village of Ziban under the cover of artillery fire.
The fighting left dozens dead, with analysts worried that Iran and the Syrian regime could arm the so-far relatively lightly armed tribes and use them as a battering ram to break into the east bank of the Euphrates.
When the clashes between the Arab tribes and Kurdish-led militias first broke out on 27 August, the SDF issued a series of press releases warning of possible attempts by the regime to assassinate tribal heads and blame it on the US-backed force. The regime is also rumoured to be shipping arms to Arab tribes who are currently massively outgunned by the SDF.
The danger will be that lingering resentments are capitalised on by the Syrian regime, or the Islamic State group, by stirring tensions, either through propaganda or direct infiltration of Deir az-Zour's tribal matrix.
"IS is very happy with the fighting between its two enemies (SDF and DMC)... and are just watching on the sidelines, looking to use it to their advantage in the future," said Abu Layal.
"The war began as a fight between the SDF and DMC. Now it is becoming a clash between the SDF and the people of the tribes, with the regime telling them it is your right to fight the SDF and we will support you. This narrative has affected the people."
Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin