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Syria's "oil region" mutinies against the Kurds
Deir al-Zor is in the throes of a clan war that could drag in the United States, Russia, and Iran.
Arab clans have launched an uprising against the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the southeastern province of Deir al-Zor, provoked by the arrest of a local SDF commander. Dozens of people are reported dead.
Deir al-Zor is a poor, rural area that has become the center of international tensions since the Islamic State made its last stand there in 2019. Former U.S. president Donald Trump declared that he wanted to keep U.S. forces in Deir al-Zor to “take the oil.” The region has witnessed combat, sometimes quite brutal, involving Russian, Iranian, and American troops.
The latest fighting was kicked off by a local issue: the tensions between the SDF leadership and the province’s powerful clans. However, U.S. policy helped pave the path to conflict, by pushing the reluctant SDF to take control of the region. Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government may be exploiting the tensions for their own goals, as well, although their exact role is still unknown.
On top of everything happening in Deir al-Zor, the Syrian government is currently facing protests in the region of Sweida, which was long considered a stronghold of pro-government support.
Earlier this summer, SDF units in Deir al-Zor had mutinied over fears they were going to be replaced with the Shammar, a rival Arab clan from outside the province. On August 28, the SDF leadership attempted to arrest Ahmad “Abu Khawla” al-Khubayl, the commander of SDF troops in Deir al-Zor. In response, Abu Khawla’s forces mutinied again, and local clan leaders declared their support for the uprising.
According to an article by Charles Lister, an expert on the Syrian opposition, Abu Khawla was an opportunist who served all sides of the Syrian civil war: first as the leader of a carjacking gang, then as a pro-government collaborator, then as a fighter for the opposition (and possibly the Islamic State).
Abu Khawla was “co-opted” by the U.S. military during the campaign against the Islamic State in 2016. Lister speculates that Washington pushed the SDF to recruit Abu Khawla “due to his deep ties within the al-Bakir tribe, from which ISIS had recruited a great many fighters.”
The SDF had been created in 2015 as a coalition between Kurdish leftist rebels, Assyrian Christian militias, and Arab guerrillas. The United States had wanted to support Kobani, a Kurdish town besieged by the Islamic State, but faced objections from Turkey, which saw the Kurdish rebels as a security threat. And so the U.S. military pushed the Kurds to fight as part of an umbrella organization that included other U.S. partners.
By late 2018, the SDF faced a crossroads. SDF troops had successfully driven the Islamic State out of its capital of Raqqa. The Kurdish leadership wanted to consolidate their gains, especially because Turkey presented an increasingly menacing threat. However, the United States wanted the SDF to expand into Deir al-Zor to pursue the Islamic State remnants there.
Finishing off the Islamic State was one of Washington’s motives. The strategic value of Deir al-Zor was another. The Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, valued the province for its oil resources and land border with Iraq. By taking Deir al-Zor first, the SDF could ensure that U.S. forces rather than Russians or Iranians had access.
The SDF was quite reluctant to shed blood for Deir al-Zor, and did not trust the militias that the United States presented as local partners. Although the province had suffered immensely resisting the Syrian government and the Islamic State, both factions had many loyalists and collaborators there as well.
“I got the feeling that the clans from [Deir al-Zor] weren’t trusted,” says Brace Belden, an American who volunteered to fight in the SDF. “Some of their leaders had switched sides multiple times.”
It’s worth noting that these are not “Kurdish versus Arab” issues. The SDF had to overcome plenty of resistance within Kurdish communities, and found many willing collaborators within Arab communities. The issue with Deir al-Zor was its particularly well-entrenched clan system, and the history of those clans’ conduct during the war.
Tensions between the SDF and the U.S. military erupted publicly in early 2018, when Turkey invaded the Syrian Kurdish district of Afrin. SDF commander Omar al-Idlibi said that he “took the difficult decision to pull our forces out of [Deir al-Zor] province and battlefronts against [the Islamic State] to head to the Afrin battle,” but U.S. General Jim Mattis called the fight for Afrin a “distraction.”
At the same time, Russia was eyeing Deir al-Zor’s oil fields, some of which were now under SDF control. Wagner Group mercenaries attempted to seize the Conoco oil field from the SDF in February 2018, leading to a battle that killed hundreds of fighters.
The SDF continued fighting the Islamic State in Deir al-Zor, capturing its last territories in March 2019. However, SDF control over Deir al-Zor was always tenuous. Islamic State dead-enders and Iranian intelligence operatives seemed to operate freely, while SDF officials could not move around safely at night. Al-Hol, a prison camp for suspected Islamic State supporters, became an ungoverned chaos zone.
Conflicts broke out between the SDF’s Kurdish leadership, the SDF’s local partners, and other Deir Al-Zor communities. Some local grievances were, of course, about “Kurdish Marxists” lording over Arabs and threatening local “traditions.” (The local elites seemed to be especially rankled by the SDF’s feminist policy of having one man and one woman share each leadership position.) Oil revenues were also a point of contention. Deir al-Zor’s clans understandably protested against the SDF profiting from their oil reserves while the region remained poor.
But much of the tension arose from the U.S.-backed Arab figures appointed to govern Deir al-Zor on the SDF’s behalf. Abu Khawla seemed to use the SDF as a vehicle to increase his power within the clan system. He allegedly responded to protests by the rival Baqqara clan with murder and torture. Abu Khawla was even accused of assassinating — or allowing the assassination of — another SDF commander who rivaled his authority, the journalist Shelley Kittelson reported.
Turkey’s threats against the SDF continued to escalate. The Trump administration considered handing off SDF territory to Turkey and peeling off the Arab component of the SDF to continue fighting Iran and Russia in Deir al-Zor.
The Trump administration actually convinced the SDF to dismantle its fortifications along the Turkish border in August 2019, promising to create a “security mechanism” that would hold off a Turkish invasion. Then, the administration green-lit a Turkish invasion of Syria in October 2019. (At the time, Trump wrote on Twitter that “it is time for the Kurds to start heading to the Oil Region,” likely a garbled version of the plan to preserve the SDF in Deir al-Zor.) However, the strong pro-Kurdish reaction from Congress — and the failure of SDF to fall apart as predicted — forced Washington to reverse course.
Things muddled along as before, with a few changes. Turkey continued to occupy Afrin, as well as the thin strip along the border it captured during the October 2019 operation. The SDF welcomed Russian troops into some of its territory as an insurance policy against another U.S. bait-and-switch. Later, Iran identified Syria as the soft underbelly of the regional U.S. presence and began harassing U.S. bases in places like Deir al-Zor.
Conditions for ordinary people continued to deteriorate. Although SDF territory did not face the mass government bombardment that other rebel-held areas in Syria did, it does still suffer from the effects of wartime shortages, financial sanctions, and a Turkish-led campaign of blockades and drone strikes. Deir al-Zor, a rural periphery where SDF rule is especially chaotic, bears the brunt of the suffering.
SDF leaders and outside experts have been warning for years that northeast Syria is on the brink of a social collapse. Deir al-Zor was the weakest link in the chain, and Abu Khawla was one of the greatest sources of tension. Jailing Abu Khawla was supposed to have averted a coming disaster. Instead, his arrest appears to have been the trigger for that very crisis.
The SDF has responded to the mutiny with a full-scale military occupation of Deir al-Zor, including curfews, bombardment, sniper attacks, and even alleged reprisal killings. Of course, reports of SDF brutality have only provoked further uprisings. The rebellion seems to have spread across Deir al-Zor far beyond Abu Khawla’s base of support.
The mutineers’ endgame is unclear. Reviving the Islamic State seems to be a non-starter, and the Syrian government is similarly despised in the province. Turkey cannot take over Deir al-Zor without cutting a path across the full width of SDF territory, and another full-scale Turkish invasion of Syria does not seem to be in the cards. Perhaps the most realistic goal would be a separate rebel statelet in Deir al-Zor under U.S. protection, just as the Trump administration considered creating.
Of course, the rebellion could metastasize into something much bigger. What began as a fight involving specific clans from Deir al-Zor could become a general Kurdish-Arab conflict. In that case, the Syrian government and outside powers would have an opportunity to struggle for control over the power vacuum.
Contradictory rumors have swirled that Russia and Iran are already involved in the violence. Elham Ahmed, president of the SDF’s civilian branch, has accused the Syrian government and Iran of fomenting the mutiny. On the other hand, Syrian Arab opposition activists have accused Russia and the Syrian government of backing the SDF’s crackdown. Neither side has given evidence for these claims.
To make matters more complicated, Turkish-backed guerrillas attacked the SDF elsewhere in Syria after the Deir al-Zor mutiny began, and Russia bombed those guerrillas’ positions. Russia and Iran may want the SDF weakened in Deir al-Zor, but do not want to see Turkey fill the vacuum.
That mirrors U.S. goals in a way. Washington wants the SDF to be strong enough to deny territory to its enemies, but still keeps it weak enough that it relies on U.S. support. For example, the Trump administration tried to prevent the SDF from dealing with Russia or the Syrian government before Turkey’s October 2019 invasion.
The SDF prefers U.S. protection, because the United States is less immediately threatening than Russia or Iran. The Syrian government that Russia and Iran back is quite vindictive and has long tried to crush any Kurdish aspirations to self-rule. Russia also allowed Turkey to invade Afrin as a bargaining chip, an injury Syrian Kurds will not be quick to forget. The uprising in Deir al-Zor, however, shows how U.S. patronage and the demands it comes with can also poison the revolution in the long run.
All this competition comes on the backs of ordinary Syrians, whether residents of Deir al-Zor in the path of the violence or people across Syria who suffer from continuing to live on a war footing. Twelve years after the first Syrian uprising, Syria should be moving towards a just peace and reconstruction. Instead, the embers of war and oppression continue to smolder, setting fires throughout the country.
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