Protests in Deir e-Zor reveal divisions between locals of the Eastern Euphrates and the Autonomous Administration
In the aftermath of an SDF and Coalition raid on the home of a suspected IS member in eastern Deir e-Zor, members of the ‘Ugaydat tribe gathered to deliver a concerted message to the U.S.-led international coalition.
Meeting in the home of one of the raid’s victims, ‘Ugaydat Sheikh Jamil al-Rashid al-Hafal called on Coalition forces to hand over the administration of the Arab-majority province to its own citizens.
In addition, he demanded “an immediate stop to all arbitrary arrests,” as well as the release of residents arrested on “pre-fabricated” suspicions of affiliation with IS and pro-Turkish groups.
The raid, carried out with support from Coalition helicopters last Thursday, led to the death of eight individuals, the injury of several more, and two arrests.
It resembles a similar raid made late last month, which killed six people and sparked angry protests from the local Arab population.
Syria Direct reached out to Kino Gabriel, the SDF’s spokesperson, for comment on the incident, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
However, another source in the SDF media office, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Syria Direct that the raid was targeting an IS sleeper cell in al-Shuhayl, and resulted in the arrest of an IS emir and the death of a group of “armed individuals.”
The al-Shuhayl raid inflamed already-high tensions in eastern Deir e-Zor, which has been witnessing near daily anti-SDF protests. Protestors have burned SDF guard posts, blocked roads, and have called for Arab members of the SDF to desert.
Alleged discrimination in services and representation
The protests, which began in April, have been the most visible mobilization against the SDF since it took control of the region in 2017.
The protests highlight the deep dissatisfaction of local residents with the administration of Deir e-Zor, which is run by local councils established by the SDF.
The establishment of local councils has been a practice for the Kurdish-led SDF in the areas they have liberated and is in line with their vision of “democratic federalism.” According to the Kurdish ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD), the system seeks to democratize and decentralize authority in liberated areas.
Local councils are in charge of provision of municipal services and security, and are run by local residents. They are the most local level of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria’s political structure.
According to the PYD, the councils gives locals autonomy and includes them in the political process. Critics counter that councils are not given much authority and are merely an attempt to co-opt local populations in order to solidify Kurdish control over North and East Syria.
However, in the wake of often destructive battles to expel IS, residents of many towns still have seen little in the way of services or aid provided by these councils.
Mohammed, an activist in Deir e-Zor, who spoke under a pseudonym, explained how he saw the situation on the ground in Deir e-Zor.
“The SDF only cares about the military aspect of things,” Mohammed told Syria Direct. “The civilian factor has been neglected in the Arab areas.”
“In terms of services, there is discrimination. Electricity, education, local councils, in most of our areas there aren’t any of these things. The SDF is still working on repairing the one water pumping station here, in addition to the electricity station. Most of the bakeries in our areas are out of service. People rely on generators and the parts of the electrical grid we have repaired ourselves.”
“In the last two weeks people have protested, condemning what they call the Kurdish occupation’ he continued, adding that “residents have denounced the administration of the region, as well as the SDF, accusing it of neglecting the Arab population” in appointing individuals to military and civil posts.
Though there are Arab representatives in the local administration, there are claims that they have been sidelined.
An Arab member of the Deir e-Zor Military Council, the SDF military body formed in 2016 for anti-IS operations in the province, previously told Syria Direct in 2018 “the majority of the positions that we [Arabs] have gotten have been for show only, whereas the Kurds have more power than the Arabs.”
“There is an attempt by the Autonomous Administration to marginalize the Arab figures in order for it to accomplish its [political] goals and its project.”
The Deir e-Zor Military Council has a joint Kurdish-Arab leadership, but the majority of its members are from the al-Shai’tat tribe.
The Arab officer added “I joined the Deir e-Zor military council, like dozens of other young men, in order to liberate my city. At the time, the Kurds assured us that the people of Deir e-Zor would govern the city and its countryside. We were even given military positions when it was formed, which encouraged us to join.”
“With the beginning of military operations and the liberation of Deir e-Zor city, the position of the SDF began to change towards the region and its inhabitants.” Deir e-Zor city has fallen into government hands since the time of the interview.
After IS was expelled from the Deir e-Zor countryside, the Autonomous Administration rushed to form local councils to administer the area and provide services.
Protesters raise signs objecting to the SDF presence in al-Shuhayl, a town inDeir e-Zor.
The Autonomous Administration presided over the formation of the first councils, in consultation with local residents, and conducted workshops to explain how the councils would work within the framework of the Autonomous Administration.
Fawza Yousif, a co-president of the Autonomous Administrations Executive Council, explained to Syria Direct, “The councils were formed under emergency conditions, and they were created with members who were displaced from areas of IS control, so there is a need to re-think their level of representation and competency.”
She added, “Our primary principle is representation from all groups on the councils, in addition to competency and p
Yousif denied that the Arab population was being marginalized, saying “the established councils are not self-sufficient, they need help from other areas, and this isn’t just the case in Arab areas, Kobani is a perfect example.”
The city of Kobani was almost completely destroyed in a battle to re-take it from ISIS in 2015. It has since deeply relied on neighboring cities for assistance in its reconstruction.
Yousif outlined how the support of the Qamishli Council for the al-Raqqa Council does not mean that the al-Raqqa Council exists in name only, which has developed since it was first formed.
“The Kurdish areas were liberated first, so they have the capacity to help the other areas.”
Yousif believes some parties are trying to “concretize the cleavages” between the different and religious groups.
“This is incorrect, we as different groups complement each other.”
Local Arab alternatives to SDF rule
The SDF are not the only organized force in the region, although they have taken actions to keep in check local Arab political parties and armed groups and fully absorb them into their umbrella, which these groups have usually bristled at.
The Elite Syrian Forces (ESF), the military wing of the Syrian al-Ghad party headed by Ahmad al-Jarba, a Syrian Arab tribal sheikh and former opposition leader, participated in the military operation to liberate Deir e-Zor and Raqqa alongside the SDF.
In June of 2018, the SDF and the majority-Arab Elite Syrian Forces clashed in Abu Hamam, a town in the countryside of Deir e-Zor, resulting in casualties on both sides.
The fighting started after the SDF attempted to arrest an ESF leader and troops present with him.
The ESF is the military wing of the Syrian al-Ghad party headed by Ahmad al-Jarba, a Syrian Arab tribal sheikh and former opposition leader. The group participated in the military operation to liberate Deir e-Zor and Raqqa alongside the SDF.
The fighting was stopped only after the intervention of International Coalition forces.
Previous to the June skirmish the groups had frequently clashed, though the ESF never publicly announced their involvement in the fights, said an ESF spokesman, who spoke anonymously to Syria Direct due to security reasons.
Despite the political and military deal made with the SDF and the subsequent recognition of the ESF as an independent faction operating alongside the International Coalition, the ESF felt that “the SDF was trying to pressure [them] to join” the International Coalition and fight under its leadership.
In the summer of 2017, the ESF were the first forces to enter al-Mashlab and al-Sina, neighborhoods in Raqqa. Soon after their entry however, a conflict broke out between the ESF and SDF, prompting the SDF to expel them from the battle and city.
That conflict resembled an earlier dispute between the two factions that occurred during operation “Island Storm,” part of a greater SDF campaign to rid Deir e-Zor of IS.
The SDF also fought with another local Arab armed group, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, in June of 2018. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa fought alongside the YPG and SDF, and participated in the 2016 operation “Euphrates Volcano” to expel IS from the northern Raqqa countryside.
The SDF ended up arresting most ifs members and confiscating its arms, effectively disbanding them.
“It’s possible they were afraid that Arabs would once again control the region,” said a source from the leadership of the ESF about the SDF-led operation against Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa.
“They wanted to disarm them while they could.”
The recently-formed Arab Future Party is another Arab party, one that claims it could help to better represent Arabs’ needs in the region. The party is headed by Mohammed Khaled Shaker, the former spokesman for the ESF and professor of international law.
The party’s platform— published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights—promises to “end the miserable conditions that Arabs live under in the East Euphrates,” and describes the region as a “reservoir of human potential and experience” that can be utilized better.
The Eastern Euphrates refers to the area Deir e-Zor east of the Euprhates.
The party describes the East Euphrates region as having become infected with “chauvinistic” rhetoric, an indirect reference to Kurdish nationalism, something they claim will lead to “a return to the cycle of violence and terrorism.”
The party’s head, Mohammed Shaker, told Syria Direct that the party aims to end the neglect of the Arab population and the practice of “keeping the Arab population in refugee camps and leaving their children without schooling, something which has persisted for the last seven years.”
“The priority of the party is to address people’s needs, to provide services and to promote humanitarian development.”
He also called for a policy of “decentralization,” something that the party had in common with the Autonomous Administration, who has been advocating for a federal system of governance in Syria since 2016.