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After Deir e-Zor’s clan revolt: ‘Lost prestige’ and fears of SDF domination

In Deir e-Zor province, nearly two weeks of clashes between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Arab clans calling for self rule have come to an end, but residents are uneasy about what the future holds “after the clans were defanged.”


11 September 2023

PARIS — After nearly two weeks of clashing with clans in Deir e-Zor, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced the end of military operations in the northeastern province on September 8. Deir e-Zor was the epicenter of fighting that quickly spread to SDF-held parts of Hasakah, Raqqa and Aleppo provinces at the end of August.

Clashes began on August 27, when the SDF arrested commanders of its affiliated Deir e-Zor Military Council—including the group’s leader, Ahmed al-Khubail Abu Khawla. However, the SDF’s statement last Friday claimed it had conducted a military operation against Islamic State cells, noting that “specific security operations” would continue.

The recent clashes between Arab clans and the Kurdish-majority SDF highlighted long-standing tensions in northern Syria, and prompted members of local clans to demand self-rule in the place of what they described as “Kurdish guardianship.” 

During the fighting, which spread throughout large areas of northeastern Syria, the United States-led international coalition—which backs the SDF—made minor efforts to prevent the region from slipping into ethnic conflict. Pro-regime forces entered the fray, while Syrian National Army forces backed by Turkey—a longtime enemy of the SDF—also sought to use the clashes to their advantage.

In the days since the reported end of the SDF’s operation, the group’s forces have continued to impose a curfew and carry out raids and arrests. These have been centered in the eastern Deir e-Zor countryside, particularly the area inhabited by members of the al-Shaitat clan, raising residents’ fears about what the future holds. 

Clan revolt

On August 27, following a two-month dispute, the SDF invited the Deir e-Zor Military Council’s commander and other top leaders to a meeting at the al-Wazir base in Hasakah. There, the SDF encircled the group and arrested Abu Khawla. 

Clan sheikhs called for action, and local fighters began clashing with the SDF. Soon, the fighting spread to encompass clan areas of the SDF-controlled Hasakah, Raqqa and Aleppo countryside. 

While Abu Khawla’s arrest sparked the events in Deir e-Zor, he was not the main reason for the fighting. Members of Deir e-Zor’s clans had themselves opposed his leadership of the military council. They previously made several requests to US forces and SDF leadership for him to be removed, accusing him of corruption, theft and extortion. 

But the arrest stirred embers that had been smoldering for years. Local clans viewed the incident as “an attempt by the SDF to dissolve the Arab component in the region, represented by the Deir e-Zor Military Council, and attach its fighters to its own [SDF] units under the auspices of [foreign] Qandil cadres,” Ibrahim al-Hussein, a journalist with the local Alsharqia Post, told Syria Direct

“The long accumulations of injustice, the marginalization of the region and the lack of job opportunities are the real cause,” said Abu Hussam, a community leader in the eastern Deir e-Zor countryside. Abu Khawla “means nothing, except to his clan and those who benefit from him,” he told Syria Direct, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. He characterized the participation of local fighters in the recent clashes as “clan chivalry.” 

The spokesperson for the SDF’s Northern Democratic Brigade, Mahmoud Habib, said Abu Khawla’s arrest came after “sheikhs and notables from Deir e-Zor’s clans complained to SDF leadership about Ahmed al-Khubail’s abuses.” He was then summoned for investigation by the SDF, coinciding with a “campaign to shore up security in Hasakah and Deir e-Zor,” he said. 

SDF forces conducting the “campaign” came under attack in al-Azba village—Abu Khawla’s headquarters—by some members of the Deir e-Zor Military Council, Habib added. In the fighting, some SDF forces were killed, in addition to the “injury and detention of some comrades, and threats to kill them.” 

With that, the operation became “a military campaign that required the withdrawal of all small and scattered [SDF] positions from the entire eastern countryside of Deir e-Zor, and a reorganization of our ranks to confront this rebellion,” Habib added. “Over the course of a week, most of the area was cleansed,” as he put it.

Samir Muhammad, a media activist in Manbij, a city in the SDF-controlled eastern Aleppo countryside, said the SDF dealt with recent clashes as “external sedition, with some parties trying to mobilize the clans against it,” referring to the involvement of Ankara and Damascus. “This accusation is contrary to reality,” he said. “The Arab clans are inflamed to the point of explosion because of the SDF’s injustice.” 

Local clans have clear demands, Muhammad said, to “allow Arabs the space to manage their areas without Kurdish cadres from outside Syria controlling their areas and wealth as consultants of the Autonomous Administration.” 

But the latest clashes—particularly in Deir e-Zor—soon subsided in the favor of the SDF. Kurdish-led forces were able to extend their control over most of the villages and towns in revolt, turning them into military zones. 

In Manbij, where similar fighting took place, violence has also largely subsided, with the exception of some sporadic clashes in the city’s countryside, Muhammad said. 

Lost prestige

For years, the SDF-backed Autonomous Administration has faced broad accusations of “ethnic discrimination” and unequal opportunities and services in its areas of influence. Criticisms mainly center on allegations of the deliberate marginalization of the Arab regions that make up the bulk of SDF-held areas, and only providing senior positions in civil, military and security institutions to Kurds. 

In response to these accusations, Northern Democratic Brigade spokesperson Habib said “clan members are the ones who lead their areas, both militarily through the military council and administratively through the local council. All these institutions are part of the SDF and Autonomous Administration systems.”

Amid these longstanding accusations, the SDF and the Autonomous Administration have dealt carefully with Arabs in their areas, and avoided entering into military confrontations with local clans. 

But after the latest “asymmetric” clashes ended in a “surrender agreement,” Deir e-Zor has “lost its prestige, lost the regard the SDF used to hold for it,” Abu Hussam, the notable from the province’s eastern countryside, said. He has participated in several meetings between community leaders and SDF leadership, including during the recent fighting. 

“What happened was not negotiations, but rather a handover agreement prepared by representatives of each of the area’s villages and towns separately,” Abu Hussam added. Local leaders took this step because they realized “the risks of confronting the SDF, and that the Americans would not abandon their ally, especially after regime groups entered” the frontline against the SDF. 

The agreement includes “turning over the area and ceasing military operations,” he said. “It did not discuss the issue of withdrawing weapons or wanted people, nor did it discuss the cases of detainees or the area’s other legitimate demands, which are to be discussed at a later date,” he added.

For example, in the Deir e-Zor countryside town of al-Tayana, a number of local notables met and came to the opinion that “it is not possible to confront the SDF, so they agreed to hand over the town, which is [also] what happened in al-Shuhayl,” Abu Hussam said.

After residents surrendered their areas, most villages became military zones, as the SDF imposed partial or complete curfews and increased the deployment of military positions. “Currently, there is an SDF checkpoint every 100 meters, while before there was one or two checkpoints in every village,” Abu Hussam said. 

The SDF told residents “these are temporary positions that will be withdrawn later, and that an amnesty will be issued, but there is no confidence in them,” he said. 

Abu Hussam had reservations about “participating in the recent clan uprising, which is the case of many people in Deir e-Zor who did not take part in it.” He fears “the SDF dominating the area, especially after the region lost its prestige and the clans’ weakness was revealed before the SDF.”

Two other media activists in Deir e-Zor voiced similar fears, speaking to Syria Direct on condition of anonymity. Mustafa, in the province’s eastern countryside, worried “the SDF will increase its policy of marginalizing Arabs after the clans were defanged, especially since the international coalition has not taken a stance on their demands.” 

Manbij has also seen a significant SDF mobilization, media activist Muhammad said. After the events in Deir e-Zor, the SDF “has lost trust in Arab leadership,” accused of attempting to assassinate the commander of the SDF’s Manbij Military Council, Abdulrahman al-Banawi. An explosive device was planted in his car last week and detonated, but he survived. 

Checkpoints belonging to the SDF’s Internal Security Forces and Anti-Terrorism Forces are deployed in main markets and public markets throughout Manbij. Muhammad sees the installations as an attempt to frighten residents and prevent them from moving about. 

“There are measures that will meet the demands of people in the region, in order to achieve disciplined, effective performance within the existing system in northeastern Syria and prioritize those areas,” spokesperson Habib said. “These measures will be taken in consultation and coordination with local sheikhs and notables to ensure more effective performance,” he added, promising “better conditions for the area’s residents.” 

Seizing an opportunity

Hours after the spark of unrest was lit in Deir e-Zor last month, military groups affiliated with the Syrian regime—mostly made up of people from the western Deir e-Zor countryside—crossed to the SDF-controlled bank of the Euphrates River and entered the fighting on the side of the clans. 

At the same time, Damascus’ media machine worked to put the clashes to use against the SDF and the “American occupation.” The official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) wrote on September 6 that more than 2,000 families fled from areas “controlled by the separatist SDF militia in the Syrian Jazira region to the Syrian Arab Army’s areas of deployment in Deir e-Zor.” 

Deir e-Zor notable Abu Hussam confirmed “the regime sent groups affiliated with Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, the 4th Division and others, mostly from the western Deir e-Zor countryside, and provided them with weapons that the clans cannot buy.” However, “these groups withdrew after the SDF took control of the area.” 

At the same time, groups of fighters from the Ankara-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) entered SDF territory at Tal Tamar, Jarablus, the Manbij countryside and opposition areas neighboring flashpoints between clans and the SDF. These forces entered the fighting against the SDF “under the names of their clans, not the SNA,” journalist al-Hussein said. “They took off their uniforms and wore popular clothing to fight the SDF.”

In the Manbij area, SNA fighters came under fire from “the regime and Russian planes,” the journalist added. A plane thought to be Russian targeted the area of the al-Halounji and al-Mahsanli villages in the eastern Aleppo countryside on September 1, after clan fighters took control. 

“Countries and groups intervened directly in the Deir e-Zor events through military, intelligence and the media to promote hostile projects,” Habib said, adding that the SDF had proof of interference. 

Attempts by Damascus and Ankara to seize the recent fighting in northern Syria as an opportunity appear to have prompted the international coalition to give the SDF a green light to complete its security operations in Deir e-Zor without intervening to stop the clashes. Abu Hussam alleged the coalition relied on “photographs obtained through its surveillance balloons that showed the entry of regime groups in Deir e-Zor and the SNA in the north, so was content to just monitor the SDF.” 

At the start of September, US officials met with the SDF and a number of clan sheikhs in northeastern Syria to discuss de-escalation efforts. Manbij-based media activist Muhammad called coalition-backed negotiation efforts “useless” because the coalition “summoned sheikhs and notables who support and work with the SDF, ignoring the sheikhs and clans that launched the movement against it.” 

In response, some of the excluded sheikhs issued “statements confirming that they were not invited for dialogue or negotiation, and that those who attended the meeting with the coalition and SDF do not represent the movement, but only themselves,” Muhammad added. 

Looking towards an uncertain future, Abu Hussam hopes “the SDF will not be domineering in the coming days after the clans’ prestige was broken, that there will be a real partnership and that the Arabs will be given their rights.” 

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This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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