Syria Weekly: Deir az-Zour residents demand to return to their homes after regime expulsion

Syria Weekly: Deir az-Zour residents demand to return to their homes after regime expulsion
With winter fast-approaching, Syrians in the east of the country are campaigning to be allowed back to their homes in Deir az-Zour.
5 min read
30 September, 2019
Thousands of Syrians have been displaced from their homes in Deir az-Zour [file photo-Getty]
Syrian protesters marched towards Syrian regime roadblocks on Friday, demanding an end to the presence of Iranian-backed militias in Deir az-Zour and to be allowed back to their homes in villages along the Euphrates River.
Some travelling on motorcycles, others on trucks - many of them masked to protect their identities - they were briefly held back at a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) checkpoint in Al-Salhiyah, which had been set up to prevent another bloodbath occurring, as happened last Friday when Iranian-backed fighters fired on protesters. 
Despite the evident danger from approaching the regime fighters further up the road, videos shared on social media showed the protesters streaming past and towards regime blockade.
Within earshot of the regime fighters they demanded an end to the presence of the Iranian-backed militias - who have come to dominate the eastern side of the Euphrates River - in the region, chanting, "No blood, no vendettas, we demand the pro-regime militias leave." 

Omar Abu Layla said, Director of the Deirezzor24 monitoring site, said this is the second Friday protests have taken place.

As mentioned in Syria Weekly last week, activists have helped organise protests against the dominance of Iranian militias in Deir az-Zour, which have expelled many civilians from their homes in villages along the Euphrates River.
"The protesters' first demand is the expulsion of the Iranian militias from those villages as well as from the entire region of the eastern Euphrates and from Deir az-Zour in general," he said.
"People asserted their right of return to their villages and homes, from which they have been displaced... They sent clear messages, especially to the [US-led] international coalition, to support them in this regard by all means so that they can return to their areas."
Last Friday, three protesters were killed when regime militias attacked demonstrations in Deir az-Zour.
Abu Layla said that between 15,000 to 20,000 civilians have been left homeless since the regime retook parts of Deir az-Zour, many now living in makeshift camps in SDF territories.
With winter fast approaching and families lacking adequate shelter, for some the need to return home is a matter of life or death. The protesters say that with notorious regime militias patrolling their villages, even if they were to return home their safety could not be guaranteed.
This week, militia fighters did not fire on the protesters but the regime did stage their own a pro-Assad rally, which Abu Layla said was made up of plain-clothed militia fighters from the Baqir Brigade
Despite the Iranian-backed tribal militia policing of the towns and villages in regions to the east of the Euphrates, Abu Layla said there is only one real power in Deir az-Zour.
"The Assad regime is just a pawn that does not have the power to make such a decision, especially in Deir az-Zour. The real decisions are taken by Iran and carried out by its militias on the ground, which is why people continue to protest because Iran's militias refuse to hand over these villages or withdraw from them," he said.
"The protests will continue until the international community exerts pressure to expel the Assad regime and the Iranians from these villages, and help people return to their homes."

Dareen Khalifa, Senior Syria Analyst at the International Crisis Group, has been researching the situation in Deir az-Zour since the fall of the Islamic State group (IS).

She relates the recent protests to the displacement of civilians from their homes after the regime raced against the SDF to capture territories from IS in the resource-rich Deir az-Zour region in 2017.
"The most recent demonstrations in Dei az-Zour were sparked by civilians who have been displaced from seven villages east of the Euphrates that have been under regime control since 2017. The protesters are pushing to be able to return safely to their homes," Khalifa said.
Khalifa said that a general description of a divide in the areas of Deir az-Zour would be of the "al-Shameya" to the south of the Euphrates, which is under regime control, and the "al-Jazeerah" to the north in the hands of the SDF.
"There are a few exceptions north/east of the Euphrates where the regime was able to advance in certain villages and capture them from IS before the SDF," she points out.
Despite this, Khalifa underlines that the tribes in Deir az-Zour are not monolithic and it is difficult to define relations between them and the SDF, but there are some general trends that can be observed.
"The local residents generally prefer to work with a force that is protected by the US over the alternative. That being said, there has been a lot of vocalised local grievances over security and governance," she said.
"The most significant governance issue in Deir az-Zour revolves around devolution of genuine authority and sharing of local resources, [for example] hydrocarbon revenues. Also, [IS] attacks against Arabs working with the SDF have caused a backlash and are deriving a wedge between the population and the SDF."
Khalifa notes that despite being defeated, IS have embarked on a low-level guerrilla campaign against the SDF in Deir az-Zour, launching a number of hit-and-run attacks on security forces and civilians.

The situation could potentially get worse in eastern Syria, in part due to the US-led coalition's handling of IS detainees and counter-insurgency operations.
Tensions also increased after last week's threats by the Baqir Brigade to launch an offensive on the SDF. 

Khalifa said for now the SDF is working to de-escalate tensions, while the recent protests are unlikely to spread to other regime areas due to the power dynamics.
"The SDF has managed to calm down the protesters for now, and I don't think the balance of power would allow for wide scale unrest in regime-controlled areas."

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Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin