2 SDF killed in clashes with armed tribes in eastern Syria: commander
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Two members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were killed in clashes with armed tribal men in Syria’s eastern province of Deir ez-Zor after an Arab tribal leader was assassinated by unknown gunmen, exacerbating ethnic tensions in the region, according to a top commander of the Kurdish-led force.
The towns of Ziban, al-Shuhail, and al-Huwaij in eastern Deir ez-Zor have seen days of unrest after an Arab tribal leader, Sheikh Mutsher Hamud Jeidan al-Hifl, was killed by unknown gunmen. Security is a problem for the region that is under SDF control, but borders regime areas and is a hotspot of Islamic State (ISIS) activity.
Locals and members of the Agaidat tribe, of which the Sheikh was a prominent leader, protested his death on Tuesday. The demonstrations began peaceful but turned violent as they were joined by people carrying weapons and clashed with the SDF.
A top SDF commander in the province told Rudaw English on Thursday that two members of their force were killed. The commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explained that the armed people who engaged with the SDF were not civilians or protesters but “saboteurs.”
An SDF vehicle was blown up as well, Ahmad Abu Khawla, commander of the SDF-linked Deir ez-Zor Military Council told SDF-affiliated Hawar News Agency (ANHA).
Tensions between the Arab population of Deir ez-Zor and the Kurdish-dominated civilian and military leaders have simmered for months, but rarely turn violent.
The Sheikh was with another leader of the Agaidat tribe in Deir ez-Zor, Sheikh Ibrahim Khalil Jeidan al-Hifl, when they were attacked in al-Huwaij on August 2. The Sheikh was killed and his companion was injured. Their driver was also killed.
The SDF condemned the incident as a “terrorist” attack and blamed ISIS. In recent raids, the SDF arrested seven people suspected of being behind a number of attacks and kidnappings in the province. Conflict monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said six “civilians” were among those arrested by the SDF in al-Shuhail, “including a family of five people.”
A military delegation of the SDF, Kurdish security (Asayesh), and the Global Coalition against ISIS visited the deceased Sheikh’s family, the Rojava Information Center (RIC), a local observatory group, reported on Thursday that SDF, citing an unnamed source who was present at the meeting.
“SDF & Coalition said they would try their hardest to catch the killer, and [the tribe] agreed to this … The Aqadat [Agaidat] tribe’s people have agreed to stand off for a month. If the killer still isn’t found, maybe they will start protesting again,” said the source.
US representatives also met with a group of tribal leaders and dignitaries from Deir ez-Zor, according to the Observatory.
The US Embassy in Damascus, closed since the Syrian uprising in 2011, condemned the assassination of the tribal leader: “The United States condemns the attack on Sheikh Mutsher Hamud Jeidan al-Hifl and Sheikh Ibrahim Khalil Jeidan al-Hifl, two prominent members of the Agaidat tribe. We offer our sincerest condolences to the Agaidat tribe and the family of Sheikh Mutsher, who was killed in the attack, as well as to the family of his driver who was also killed. We hope that Sheikh Ibrahim makes a speedy recovery and that the perpetrators are brought to justice.”
The civilian administration of Rojava, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), said the Sheikh was killed to stir up tensions between Kurds and Arabs. It was a “cowardly terrorist act that targets the lives of Syrians to achieve malicious goals and agendas to create discord between the components and accelerate some entities hostile to the project of administration,” read an NES statement.
SDF officials, commanders, and media have accused the Syrian regime, Russians, and Turkish-backed groups of encouraging unrest in the oil-rich province and trying to create disunity between Kurds and Arabs.
SDF lacks equality between Kurds, Arabs: Pentagon
A new Pentagon report said that most Arabs in SDF-held areas give the Kurdish-led force “passive support” as a “preferred alternative to ISIS or the Syrian regime,” but that power-sharing between Kurds and Arabs “remains imbalanced.”
The SDF and its civilian wing the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) have “made limited efforts to incorporate Arab military and civil leaders into their ranks,” stated the report summarizing Coalition operations between April and June, 2020.
“[L]ocal Arabs occupy positions on SDF and SDC-associated military and civilian institutions, but they lack equal influence and feel excluded from military and political decision-making processes,” the reported added, highlighting the ethnic imbalance in Deir ez-Zor province.
Worsening economic conditions, increased ISIS activity, and uncertainty over the Coalition’s mission are contributing to falling popular support for the SDF, according to the Pentagon.
Kurdish leaders have made public outreach to Arab communities, hosting a clan forum last year and meetings with tribal leaders.
Adnan Afrini, SDF commander in Deir ez-Zor declined to comment on the Pentagon report.