What's behind Kurdish-Arab fighting in Syria? Are the US-backed SDF involved?

What's behind Kurdish-Arab fighting in Syria? Are the US-backed SDF involved?
Days of clashes between the Kurdish-led SDF and Arab tribal fighters have rocked eastern Syria's Deir Al-Zour province. This explainer gets to the roots of the crisis.
4 min read
04 September, 2023
SDF fighters have clashed with Arab tribal militias in Deir al-Zour [Getty]

Days of deadly clashes between the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and local fighters have rocked eastern Syria's Deir Al-Zour province, threatening a fragile balance in the strategic area.

The Kurdish-led SDF spearheaded the offensive that defeated the Islamic State group's self-declared caliphate in Syria in 2019.

Arab-majority Deir Al-Zour province, a resource-rich region which borders Iraq, is bisected by the Euphrates river and is home to dozens of local tribal communities, some of whose fighters joined the SDF in its battle against IS.

Who's in Deir Al-Zour?

Control of Deir Al-Zour is split between the US-backed SDF to the east of the Euphrates, and Iran-backed Syrian regime forces and their allied militias, including fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the west.

The border area is part of key smuggling routes for fighters, weapons, drugs and consumer goods.

The SDF, which includes Kurdish, Arab, Armenian and other fighters, seized swathes of Deir Al-Zour province following successive US-backed campaigns against IS.

A semi-autonomous Kurdish administration controls areas in north and northeast Syria, through local civilian and military councils in an effort to stave off Arab discontent, and regularly announces meetings between SDF officials and tribal leaders.

US-led coalition forces, who entered Syria in 2014 to fight IS, have set up bases to the east of the Euphrates.

IS cells in the province carry out attacks on both SDF and regime forces, particularly from desert hide-outs.

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What triggered the fighting?

On August 27, Kurdish-led forces detained Ahmad al-Khabil, also known as Abu Khawla, the head of the Deir Al-Zour Military Council, which is affiliated with the SDF.

The SDF has accused Khabil of communicating with the Syrian regime, and of alleged drug trafficking and mismanagement leading to an uptick in IS activities.

Angry fighters loyal to Khabil launched attacks on the SDF that spiralled into clashes in several villages and towns, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor.

The situation escalated after some pro-regime fighters crossed the Euphrates and joined the clashes, according to the SDF and the Britain-based Observatory, which has a network of sources inside Syria.

Dozens of people have been killed, mostly fighters loyal to Khabil and SDF members including Arab fighters, but also civilians, according to the Observatory.

The SDF announced a 48-hour curfew in the area starting last Saturday, and on Monday urged civilians to leave the last town where it said hostile local fighters were stationed.

The US embassy in Syria, which is based outside the country, said Sunday that two senior officials had met with the SDF, Kurdish authorities and tribal leaders from Deir Al-Zour, urging de-escalation "as soon as possible".

Dispute with Arab tribes?

The SDF has denied any dispute with Arab tribes in the region, saying the clashes have mostly involved "elements of the regime and some beneficiaries" of Khabil.

It has urged local residents "not to be drawn into the strife".

However, Syrian regime media has characterised the fighting as pitting the SDF against Arab tribes, while pro-government daily Al-Watan has described the local fighters as "Arab tribal forces".

"There is nothing actually known as Arab tribal forces," said Omar Abu Layla, an activist who heads the DeirEzzor24 media platform, noting that some tribal leaders work with the SDF while others quietly collaborate with the government.

Officials close to Khabil, "especially those who benefit from smuggling", started the fighting, he noted.

"What is happening today is incitement to chaos by a number of internal and external parties," he said.

"If the tribes had really all agreed to go against the SDF, then they (the SDF) would not still be in Deir Al-Zour."

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Who benefits?

Aron Lund of the Century International think tank said that "village, family, tribe, trade, smuggling - all of that probably matters as much as the ethnic Arab-Kurdish dimension or the political conflict".

However, "if fighting spreads and Arab-Kurdish relations are poisoned... there's no shortage of actors that would be interested in feeding the chaos", he told AFP, describing the area as a "tinderbox".

Clashes rocked neighbouring Hasakeh province on Sunday, after some fighters in Turkish-held areas had urged support for those opposing the Kurdish-led forces in Deir Al-Zour.

Turkey sees the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which dominate the SDF, as an offshoot of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and has launched successive incursions into Syria targeting Kurdish forces.

President Bashar al-Assad's regime rejects the Kurdish administration and accuses it of "separatism".

"Turkey, the Syrian government and the Islamic State all have an interest in subverting the current order," Lund said.