Institute for the Study of War
Major tribal leaders in eastern Syria may break away from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which would severely jeopardize the anti-ISIS mission by fracturing the US partner force in Syria. Leaders of the largest Arab tribal confederation in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zour Province have demanded that the SDF yield administrative control of that province to local tribal leadership before September 11, 2020. Tribal animosity toward the SDF has been building since mid-2019 due to the combined pressures of overlapping ISIS and pro-regime insurgencies as well as the SDF’s weak and under-resourced governance. The continued presence of SDF and coalition forces in Deir ez-Zour could become untenable if the SDF fails to find a compromise with increasingly fractured tribal elements.
A major tribal powerbroker in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zour Province issued the United States a 30-day ultimatum demanding the transfer of administrative control in SDF-held areas in Deir ez-Zour to “the region’s tribes” by September 11. An unidentified sheikh from the Aqidat tribal confederation delivered the ultimatum in the name of the tribe’s leader, Sheikh Ibrahim al Hifl, at the conclusion of a conference of thousands of Aqidat tribal members in the village of Dhiban, southeast of al Busayrah, on August 11. The statement does not demand a transfer of military control to the tribes, indicating the new tribal governing entity demanded by the tribes would continue to accept the presence of SDF military forces in the province. The ultimatum implies but does not specify that the Aqidat tribesmen present at the conference will reject the SDF entirely and declare independence if the demand is not met. The ultimatum is the harshest rebuke of the SDF to date and represents a breaking point in its relationship with the Aqidat, the largest Arab tribal confederation in Deir ez-Zour.
Tensions between tribal leaders and the SDF have been rising in Deir ez-Zour since the final liberation of the province from ISIS in March 2019 due to the combined pressures of an ISIS resurgence, a similar but lower level campaign of guerilla attacks by pro-regime actors, and the SDF’s limited capacity to meet the substantial administrative and security requirements to rehabilitate and govern liberated communities. The SDF has attempted to grant concessions but has been consistently unable to prevent further deterioration in the security situation and has remained unwilling to transfer administrative authority to tribal leadership. The SDF administers the province through the Deir ez-Zour Civil Council. The council is chaired by two local Arab leaders who have limited decision-making authority and rely on the SDF and the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES), the SDF-supported Kurdish-led government, for security assistance and funding. The SDF organizes local security through the Deir ez-Zour Military Council, which is subordinate to the SDF and led by Ahmad Abu Khawla of the Aqidat tribe’s Bakir clan. The Deir ez-Zour Military Council has participated in counter-ISIS operations in the province alongside Arab, Kurdish, and other minority SDF units from other provinces since 2016. In 2020, the SDF’s mainly-Kurdish anti-terror forces, which depend on the support of local tribal partners, participated in joint counter-ISIS operations with US forces. The SDF-led, -armed, and -funded Provincial Security Forces and Internal Security Forces that recruit from the local Arab population also police Deir ez-Zour.
ISIS and pro-regime actors are waging separate but overlapping insurgent campaigns to drive tribal resentment toward the SDF in order to exploit the resulting vacuum. ISIS has conducted a low-scale insurgency across Deir ez-Zour Province since mid-2017. ISIS has carried out a campaign of executions and kidnappings targeting local tribal elders and pro-SDF officials intended to exploit and widen the seam between the SDF and the liberated population. ISIS ramped up this campaign after it lost its last physical zone of control in Baghuz near the Iraqi border in March 2019 and shifted its focus to the Euphrates River Valley, where the Aqidat tribe is now threatening to withdraw support from the SDF. Meanwhile, pro-regime forces have sought to accelerate and extend the impact of ISIS’s campaign by conducting their own insurgent attacks, including assassinations since at least mid-2018. The regime does not take responsibility for pro-regime insurgent attacks, creating uncertainty regarding the scale of ISIS’s own campaign.
The regime and its backers are actively recruiting tribal members to join their militias while soliciting defections from the SDF. Pro-regime forces have also recruited “scores” of the Baqara tribe in Deir ez-Zour and Aleppo to join the Iran-backed Liwa al Baqir militia in opposition to the SDF. Liwa al Baqir declared jihad against US forces in Syria in April 2018. The regime has had little success securing defections from the SDF despite Russian attempts to support this effort. Pro-regime forces met with representatives of the Jabbour tribe in Tell Brak, Hasakah, to organize a pro-regime “Syrian Tribal Mobilization” militia on October 26, 2019. The Aqidat and Baqara tribes of Deir ez-Zour refused this invitation, and the delegates in attendance did not ultimately establish a new tribal militia.
Arab tribes began conducting mass protests against the SDF for its failure to govern liberated areas in May 2019. This resistance marked a significant deterioration in the relationship between these populations and the SDF and indicated at least partial success of efforts by ISIS and the regime to provoke such unrest. Peaceful protestors across Deir ez-Zour, Hasakah, and Raqqa provinces condemned high fuel prices and the SDF’s failure to provide basic services. Rising security requirements due to ISIS and pro-regime attacks further limited the SDF’s ability to address these basic governance issues. Increasingly sweeping joint raids by US forces and the SDF against ISIS became another source of tribal resentment, accelerating the deterioration of SDF-tribal relations in Deir ez-Zour even as they disrupted some ISIS operations. Tribal leaders began to claim that the SDF’s Kurdish leadership was unfairly targeting Arab communities as retribution against ISIS. Other complaints included accusing the SDF of torturing prisoners and forcibly conscripting children.
This tension approached a breaking point in July 2020. As the ISIS and pro-regime attack campaigns continued to worsen security conditions and impose casualties on key tribes, tribal leaders broadened their demands to include improved security. However, the ensuing SDF counterinsurgent operation aimed at fulfilling this demand triggered further accusations of SDF overreach and did not significantly improve security. The SDF remained unable to provide the tribes with the level of security they demanded without conducting the kinds of raids the tribes oppose. Various tribal elements have responded differently to this fundamental challenge, in some cases demanding autonomy from the SDF to secure their areas with direct coalition support and contemplating new arrangements with the regime in others.
Source: Institute for the Study of War